Discipline: Literature

Lola Ridge

Discipline: Literature
MacDowell fellowships: 1920

Born Emily Ridge in Dublin, Ireland, Lola Ridge (1873-1941) traveled with her mother to New Zealand at 13. She married at 21, and left the failed marriage and enrolled at Trinity College in Sydney, New South Wales. There she studied painting at the Academie Julienne with Rossi Ashton and began writing poetry. Unfortunately, she destroyed most of these early literary efforts, but some remain at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Ridge was a poet and champion of the working class. Politically active before socialism became fashionable among New York intellectuals, Ridge participated in protests, marches, and pickets with ferocious spirit. Her writing is vigorous and electric. Her collections include Firehead (1930), Red Flag (1927), Sun-up, and Other Poems (1920), and The Ghetto, and Other Poems (1918).

Ridge moved to San Francisco in 1907 after her mother died. As a 33-year-old divorcée, she reinvented herself as Lola Ridge, poet and painter, and described herself as being only 23. She made her literary debut in North America in the journal Overland Monthly. After leaving her mark on California’s literary scene, she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. For a while, Ridge supported herself writing advertising copy and popular fiction. She gave up this work to remain true to her increasingly radical politics and by April 1909 she had published a poem in Emma Goldman’s radical journal Mother Earth. She married fellow radical David Laws on October 22, 1919. The two lived a life of deliberate poverty in a drafty cold-water apartment, even when Ridge’s later literary success could have provided a more comfortable life. William Carlos Williams mocked her ascetic artistic lifestyle, but Ridge was earnest in her dedication to the working poor and to the new literature. For a number of years, Ridge lived and worked in relative obscurity.

In 1918 the New Republic published Ridge’s sequence of poems called “The Ghetto,” which instantly drew attention, and later that year she published this and other poems in The Ghetto, and Other Poems. Likely influenced by her own experience living on the Lower East Side, many of the 43 free-verse poems explore the life of Jewish immigrants in New York City’s ghettos. The shocking subject matter, such as the murder of a black baby by white women during the East St. Louis race riots, also made a bold impression on the literary scene. Ridge began publishing more of her poetry in journals such as the Dial, the New Republic, Poetry, and the Literary Digest.

Ridge became linked to a circle of poets involved in the journal Others, including William Carlos Williams, Alfred Kreymborg, Marianne Moore, and Waldo Frank. She worked as an associate editor of the journal until 1919, traveling to Chicago as a lecturer for The Others Lecture Bureau. Ridge held regular gatherings in her home even after Others ceased publication. In 1920 Ridge published a new book, Sun-up, and Other Poems, a collection of free-verse imagist poems. The title poem, based on Ridge’s childhood, made the greatest impression on critics. C.K. Scott commented in Freeman on the honesty of Ridge’s portrayal: “It is an authentic achievement in one of the most difficult fields of poetry—one of the few instances in which the simplicity of the child’s approach has been conveyed with conviction almost unmarred by conscious naiveté.”

Ridge became the American editor for Harold Loeb’s Broom in 1922 (which Loeb ran from Rome). As part of her pay, she received the use of a basement apartment adjacent to the office. Ridge held weekly Broom salons, at which she momentarily gave up her vow of poverty to feed tea and cakes to other writers. She also provided encouragement to writers and gathered pieces for Broom. An artist involved with the magazine, Matthew Josephson, author of Life among the Surrealists: A Memoir, felt Ridge was often frustrated by Loeb’s rejection of her recommendations. Whether or not this is true, Ridge did resign over Loeb and Matthew Josephson’s increasingly modernist, avant-garde and Dadaist choices. Idealistic and political, she found herself at odds with strict modernism.

In the following years, Ridge’s own work became stylistically conservative, often veering towards the mystical and spiritual. She remained an active social protester, and in 1927 she published Red Flag, a collection of poems celebrating the Russian Revolution.

Ridge traveled to Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, and published Dance of Fire, a less successful book. Though Ridge’s fire and light metaphors for humanity’s revolutionary spirit have occurred in previous work, her language and symbolism are more opaque in Dance of Fire. She was awarded Poetry’s Guarantor’s prize in 1935, and the next year she won the Shelley Memorial Award.

Her early fib about her age caused friends to remark on her premature ill health and delicacy. When she died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1941, even The New York Times incorrectly reported her age as 57. S.A. DeWitt established the Lola Ridge Memorial Award in Poetry in her memory. Since her death she has been neglected by biographers and anthologies, unjustly so, according to Quartermain, who defended her importance: “Unlike most American left-wing writers she had firsthand knowledge of working-class life, she was enamored of large abstractions like ‘the triumph of the working class,’ and her literary career, which moves from the romanticized realism of The Ghetto, and Other Poems to the mannered symbolism of Dance of Fire, is coherent in its predilections, in its strengths and weaknesses.”

MacDowell Fellow in literature Terese Svoboda (79, 13), was at work on her 2016 biography of Ridge, Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, during her latest MacDowell residency. In it, she writes that Ridge was a “prominent proletariat modernist poet—the New York Times said at the time of her death that she was one of the best poets in the country–but proletariat modernism as a movement was buried under the anti-liberal, anti-female, and anti-experiment sentiments of the WWII period and the McCarthyism that followed.”