by Terese Svoboda
Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet
Lola Ridge was born in Dublin in 1873, and emigrated to the U.S. via Australia and New Zealand, in 1908. Her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, celebrated Jewish immigrants and women on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where she worked on arrival.
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.
Proclaimed one of the best books of the year by anthologist Louis Untermeyer, it was followed by Sun-up and Other Poems in 1920. The most accessible of her work, the book's title poem reveals the mother's despair in Ireland, after her husband has left her and her father died:
...mama's eyes stare out of the pillow
as though she had gone away
and the night had come in her place
as it comes in empty rooms . . .
you can't bear it--
the night threshing about
and lashing its tail on its sides
as bold as a wolf that isn't afraid--
and you scream at her face, that is white as a stone on a
and pull it around to the light
till the night draws backward . . .
But primarily this poem is about a bad little girl adjusting to life as an immigrant to Australasia. Janie, in the following poem, is her much abused doll.
I beat Janie
and beat her…
but still she smiled…
so I scratched her between the eyes with a pin.
Now she doesn't love me anymore…
she scowls… and scowls…
though I've begged her to forgive me
and poured sugar in the hole at the back of her head.
(Sun-up. IV excerpt “Betty” 6)
The title of my biography Anything That Burns You is that answer that Ridge gave to an interviewer about the proper subjects for the writing of poetry. She was involved in leftist politics from the poems she published before she was 20 in New Zealand to the poems found in her diary after her death. Arrested with Edna St. Vincent Millay after protesting the execution of the immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, she was also assaulted by the horsemen guarding the prison. Katherine Ann Porter remembers:
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone,
a good distance into the empty square, and when
the police came down at her and the horse’s hooves
beat over her head, she did not move, but stood
with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The
charge was repeated again and again, but she was
not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror,
suddenly recognizing her, “That’s Lola Ridge!”
The author of three more books of poetry, Red Flag, Firehead, and Dance of Fire, she wrote a moving poem about the Irish unionist James Larkin and a lamentation of her absence in Ireland during the Easter Rising. Having become famous during the public's interest in women's poetry and politics as a subject, she died at its nadir, in 1941, so broke she had no money for underwear. The New Critics, the McCarthy era, and the suppression of women's voices led to her disappearance from literary history. A great friend of Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, a salonniere who pushed American modernism forward, the editor of two important modernist magazines, Others and Broom, Ridge was hailed as one of the most important poets of her time in her New York Times obituary. In 2014, former poet laureate Robert Hass published Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology, prompting Publisher’s Weekly to note: “even sophisticates can still make discoveries here, among them Lola Ridge."