Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet

by Terese Svoboda


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781936182961
Publisher: Schaffner Press, Inc.
Publication date: 02/15/2016
Pages: 568
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Terese Svoboda is an American poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, librettist, translator, biographer, critic, and videomaker. She is the author of five collections of poetry, five novels, a novella and stories, a memoir, and a book of translation. Her essays, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including the New Yorker, Paris Review, the Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, the Atlantic, Poetry, Times Literary Supplement, Yale Review, Slate, and the New York Times. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship and the Money for Women Barbara Deming Memorial Prize, and she currently teaches fiction at the Center for Fiction in New York City. She lives in New York City.

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Anything That Burns You

A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet

By Terese Svoboda

Schaffner Press

Copyright © 2016 Terese Svoboda
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936182-99-2


"One of Them"

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!"

In 1927 Lola Ridge was known to a huge public as the author of The Ghetto and Other Poems, a book that portrayed the immigrant as human, struggling, but with hopes for the future. Sacco and Vanzetti were two such immigrants, about to be executed for crimes they most likely did not commit. Ridge too was an immigrant, having traveled across the Pacific from New Zealand. Her presence at the demonstration was announced in advance on the front page of major newspapers as an important witness to the event. She was also an anarchist when anarchy was a political possibility, especially among intellectuals and artists — and immigrants, those who had left their home country to pursue the dream of freedom in the country that promised it.

Sacco and Vanzetti were also anarchists. That alone made them suspect — and not without cause, being themselves not the leftwing radicals of Ridge's circle, poets and painters and critics and philanthropists who picketed with her, but gun-toting subversives looking for trouble. Did they commit the crimes they were convicted for? All their trial revealed was a blatant disregard for civil liberties by the police, and a corrupt judicial system. The presiding judge called Sacco and Vanzetti "Bolsheviki" in public, and announced to the world that he would "get them good and proper." Even after another criminal confessed to the charges, he would not consent to a retrial. Leaders all over the world found the situation appalling. Nobel Prize-winner Anatole France, who had spoken out during the Dreyfus case in Europe, wrote in his "Appeal to the American People": "The death of Sacco and Vanzetti will make martyrs of them and cover you with shame. You are a great people. You ought to be a just people." After the immigrants' execution10,000 mourners attended their funeral, and film footage of the event was considered so powerful that it was destroyed.

Ridge was an outsider capitalizing on her accent, her sex — female poets were ascendant just then — and her looks. Anorexic and Virginia Woolf-ethereal but without the upper class snobbery, she worked as a model when she first arrived in the U.S. Tiny, yet always described as tall, she stood up to the rearing horse, baiting him to turn her into another martyr. "All in the one beating moment, there, awaiting the falling/Cataract of the hooves," she wrote, describing the confrontation in her last book, Dance of Fire.

Would we remember Ridge now if she had died under that horse? Ridge dead would have emphasized the seriousness of the situation — but the situation was already serious, people all over the world were demonstrating. Sacco and Vanzetti would, most likely, have been executed anyway. The obligation of the artist, and especially the artist-celebrity, is to witness and record — like a journalist, yes — but also to express their feelings about what they see. Such a highly-charged public event had emotional repercussions with huge numbers of people. Perhaps Ridge recognized that by living to write more poems, she might lessen the number of executions — but she did not step back. Did the poems she wrote in the aftermath relieve the submerged guilt, anguish and frustration of the public? Were the poems, in other words, counter-revolutionary? Poetry — the opiate of the people? Or does poetry do nothing, as the New Critics would have it? Perhaps it does the opposite, and keeps the issue alive. A few years after Sacco and Vanzetti's execution, a poem of Ridge's was duplicated by the thousands to remind people of the unjust incarceration of the labor activist Tom Mooney. He went free a few years later.

Ridge was not just a poet of activism. She was one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and in particular, women's lives in New York City, and the title poem of her second book, Sun-up and Other Poems, is a striking modernist depiction of child's interior life. Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry, and William Rose, founder of the Saturday Review of Literature, called Ridge a genius. Four years before Eliot's bleak and anti-Semitic "The Waste Land," her equally long poem "The Ghetto" celebrated the "otherness" of the Jewish Lower East Side and prophesied the multiethnic world of the 21st century. "An early, great chronicler of New York life," wrote former poet laureate Robert Pinsky in a Slate column about Ridge in 2011. She embraced her subject along Whitmanian lines, yet here's a small bomb of a poem likened, at the time, to the poetry of H.D. and Emily Dickinson, that remains a model of Imagist engagement with the world:

    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.(Ghetto.43)

Ridge also presided over Thursday afternoon salons filled with modernist hotshots: This was in the early 1920s, while Ridge wasthe editor of the influential Others and later, Broom magazine. Eating slices of Ridge's cake and drinking whatever Prohibition would allow (and not), William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon hatched plans for their magazine Contact, 20-year-old Hart Crane flirted with everyone in sight, Marianne Moore read early drafts of her own work, and Mayakovsky stomped on her coffee table.

In 1919 Ridge gave a speech in Chicago entitled "Women and the Creative Will" about how sexually constructed gender roles hinder female development — ten years before Virginia Woolf wrote "A Room of One's Own." "Woman is not and never has been man's natural inferior," Ridge announced. Although she wrote little personal poetry, Ridge advocated individual liberty. She supported not only the rights of women, but laborers, blacks, Jews and immigrants, and homosexuals. She wrote about lynching, execution, race riots, and imprisonment. As a rebellious lefty, she interacted closely with the most radical women of her era, from editing Margaret Sanger's magazine on birth control in 1918, to reciting her own poems at Emma Goldman's deportation dinner. Eventually she was arrested during the demonstration against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and hauled off with Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1936, watching a parade in Mexico City, she raised her fist in solidarity with the marching Communists.

Despite the praise she received in her obituary in 1941, which described her as one of the leading poets of America, few have heard of her today. She died at the nadir of leftist politics, just as the U.S. was entering World War II. By then Eliot and Pound had very effectively equated "elitism" with "good" in poetry. Surely the 60s generation that rediscovered feminism and anarchy would have resurrected her. Not quite. Although her work appears in two important anthologies of the period, and her life as an anarchist should have had great appeal to the revolutionary spirit of the time, her poetry has not been revived. For the last forty years, her executor has promised a biography and a collected works while obstructing access to Ridge's papers, which has contributed much to Ridge's relative obscurity and neglect. Feminist critic Louise Bernikow singled out the works of Lola Ridge and Genevieve Taggard as twice-neglected because they were women and radicals, part of "the buried history within the buried history." Although poetry has always addressed society's problems and recorded its cultural and political history — whatever its formal precepts — society has not always wanted to hear about them. What has been lost by these omissions is the radical and political tradition in twentieth century American poetry, and the idea that such subjects were even appropriate for poetry. An entire generation and tradition of American poetry has essentially been amputated from literary consciousness. Today the same neo-fascist threat that Ridge experienced in the earliest years of the century appeals to Americans and Europeans now in search of order and conformity. An increasing disparity between rich and poor, revived racist agendas, a re-definition of torture, seemingly ineradicable war, violence toward immigrants, and most disturbing, a discounting of art and culture are now seen as a necessary part of society. The truncated branch of poetry that Ridge represents should remind readers that the discourse of today does not have to take the form that it does, and that many self-evident truths are actually hysterical responses to change or threats to privilege. Poets should have a continuing presence in dissent from those "truths." "I write about something that I feel intensely," Ridge told an interviewer, "how can you help writing about something you feel intensely?" The freedom she exercised came at a time when the Russians were in revolution — and a urinal was put on a pedestal by the Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, not Duchamp. Politics art free expression women = fire, Ridge's favorite image. In 2014, former poet laureate Robert Hass published her work in Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology, prompting Publisher's Weekly to note: "even sophisticates can still make discoveries here, among them Lola Ridge." Perhaps Ridge's time has come at last.

Born in Ireland, Ridge asserted that she was "a descendant on my mother's side of a very old Irish race of Princes." As unlikely as it seems, a distant contemporary relative produced a document that traced Ridge's lineage in a direct line from Hemon, king of Ireland and Scota, the daughter of the King of Egypt, and descent from the last prince of Briefney. The report was extracted from 70 pages of genealogical detail dictated by Ridge's grandfather, John Reilly, with six critical pages verified by the Biographical Society of Ireland.

I, John Reilly, a retired officer collector of Customs in Her Majesty's service, and eldest son of John Lazarus Reilly, claim to be the Representative Head of the Reilly family in the 8 generation, lineally descended through the elder branch from Edmond who died in 1601, being the last reigning prince of Eastern Briefney

Ridge's branch of the family lived in Loughrea, in the county of Galway. Built around the mile-wide Loughrea Lake that was fed by seven springs, in 1846 the market town had 5,000 inhabitants living among the remains of a castle, a garrison, a nunnery, a monastery, and a lovely promenade, two branch banks, an extensive and long-established brewery, two tanneries, six corn mills, and three hotels. Ridge's paternal grandfather, Joseph H. Ridge, worked as an attorney in Loughrea and in North Dublin where he and Ridge's maternal grandfather would move before 1867. Perhaps like many who had means, they fled to Dublin to avoid the worst of the famine that reduced County Galway's population by nearly a third, decimation that included boatloads of orphan girls sent off to Australia. Ridge's maternal grandmother, Maria Ormsby Reilly, died in 1868. She left behind Emma, Ridge's mother, the second to youngest, with five more sisters and three brothers.

By 1869, the widower John Reilly had retired to St. James Terrace, Dolphin's Barn in Dublin, an area known as The Back of the Pipes, the location of a waterworks for the River Poddle for 400 years. James Joyce knew the place well, mentioning it eight times in Ulysses, most immortally in Molly Bloom's soliloquy: "then I wrote the night he kissed my heart at Dolphins Barn I couldn't describe." Two Dolphins Barn is where Bloom lives — the house right next to the Reillys'. The Back of the Pipes was a popular place for courting couples, and featured a "stone sofa" at St. James Walk. Perhaps the Victorians were desperate for a place to get away to do their courting: later and fewer marriages were a marked characteristic of Irish society of the time. John Reilly's eldest daughter, Maria, married an attorney when she was 28, and Emma may have been in her early thirties when she wed medical student Joseph Henry Ridge in 1871, presumably the son of the same-named attorney who had lived in Loughrea, where they were raised. Born two years later, on December 12, 1873, Lola Ridge was wanted and cherished as an only child tends to be, and that love was reciprocated.

    Your love was like moonlight
    turning harsh things to beauty,
    so that little wry souls
    reflecting each other obliquely
    as in cracked mirrors ...
    beheld in your luminous spirit
    their own reflection,
    transfigured as in a shining stream,
    and loved you for what they are not. (Sun-Up"
    Mother" 69.)

Ridge's parents separated in Dublin when she was only a year old. Perhaps Joseph Henry Ridge had inherited his namesake's tendency to get into trouble. An 1828 newspaper ran an account of a duel held between a Mr. Skerrett and the solicitor Mr. Ridge, who had asked questions of Skerret's father in court that his son considered unnecessary. After the shots were fired, the two parties agreed that horsewhipping Mr. Ridge at the Loughrea racecourse the next day would be an amicable solution. Whatever the problem between Ridge's mother and father, divorce was anathema in Catholic Ireland, and was not recognized as a legal remedy until 1996. Emma was living with her father when Lola was born. Most likely Joseph left or was evicted. The few letters known to exist are not hostile but suggest that "fate" is all that keeps them apart. But then Ridge's grandfather died.

Grandpa, grandpa ...
(Light all about you ...
ginger ... pouring out of green jars ...)
You don't believe he has gone away and left his great
coat ...
so you pretend ... you see his face up in the ceiling.
When you clap your hands and cry, grandpa, grandpa,
Celia crosses herself. (Sun-up I "Celia" 4.)

As customs collector, Ridge's grandfather must have afforded the services of at least one servant. Sarah Kinsella made an X on Ridge's birth certificate beside her address, 28 Cole Alley, a less than desirable street "with 915 persons who sleep in 294 beds, including 170 wads of straw." In Sun-Up and Other Poems, Celia is the servant who comforts her mother in a moment of extreme distress.

    ... 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 grave
    and pull it around to the light,
    till the night draws backward ...

    * * *

    Celia tucks the quilt about her feet,
    but I run for my little red cloak
    because red is hot like fire. (Sun-up I "Celia"

The mother seems inconsolable. What could a separated woman do to make money in Ireland? The nunnery was out. Prostitution? Apparently joining the household of one of her siblings in Dublin was less appealing than emigration halfway around the world, but perhaps her father left her enough money for overseas passage. Emma's oldest sister Maria, "Mysie," had already sailed for Australia around 1876, with a second husband, Richard Alfred Penfold, "Fred." The three Penfolds in the New South Wales Directory in 1867 suggest the possibility that they would have had at least his family to greet them, and on Mysie's side, the Reilly family documents show an uncle William emigrating earlier to Australia, and a Reilly cousin. In 1877 Emma and 4-year-old Lola followed Mysie and Fred, boarding the Duchess of Edinburgh that arrived in Australia August 4, 1877.


Excerpted from Anything That Burns You by Terese Svoboda. Copyright © 2016 Terese Svoboda. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

I Dublin, Sydney, Hokitika, Sydney, San Francisco, 1873-1907 1

Chapter 1 "One of Them" 3

Chapter 2 Ambition in New Zealand 17

Chapter 3 "The Smoking Fuse" 27

Chapter 4 The Arts in Australia 33

Chapter 5 Beyond Sydney 44

Chapter 6 Last Links with Australasia 49

Chapter 7 "Not Without Fame in Her Own Land" 54

II New York City and Beyond, 1908-1917 60

Chapter 8 "Our Gifted Rebel Poet" 63

Chapter 9 David Lawson and the Ferrer Center 73

Chapter 10 "Small Towns Crawling Out of Their Green Shirts" 87

III Modernism in New York, 1918-1928 95

Chapter 11 The Ghetto and Other Poems 97

Chapter 12 "Sex Permeates Everything" 115

Chapter 13 Others and Its Editors 121

Chapter 14 Soirées for Others 128

Chapter 15 "Woman and the Creative Will" 137

Chapter 16 Red Summer 147

Chapter 17 "We Who Touched Liberty" 153

Chapter 18 Sun-up and Other Poems 158

Chapter 19 Sunrise Turn and Ridge's Broom 170

Chapter 20 Broom's Parties and the Making of an American Idiom 179

Chapter 21 Broom's Demise 189

Chapter 22 Finding the Means: Marie Garland and Louise Adams Floyd 209

Chapter 23 Politics and Red Flag 218

Chapter 24 "Brunhilda of the Sick Bed" 227

Chapter 25 Sacco and Vanzetti 238

IV Yaddo, Firehead, Baghdad, Dance of Fire, Taos, 1929-35 245

Chapter 26 Yaddo and the Writing of Firehead 247

Chapter 27 Firehead's Success 256

Chapter 28 Return to Yaddo: Taggard and Copland 268

Chapter 29 Europe on Patronage 274

Chapter 30 Babylon and Back 282

Chapter 31 The Radical Left in the 1930s 292

Chapter 32 Shelley Awards, a Poets Guild Prize, and a Guggenheim 298

Chapter 33 Dance of Fire from New Mexico 305

Chapter 34 Poetry in the Southwest 316

V Mexico, California, New York City, 1935-1941 325

Chapter 35 Mexico and Romance 327

Chapter 36 Retreat from Mexico 339

Chapter 37 Anti-Woman, Anti-Experiment, Anti-Radical 349

Chapter 38 "The Fire of the World is Running Through Me" 354

Chapter 39 Legacy: Fire and Smoke 368

Author's note 381

Bibliography 385

Endnotes 435

Index 531

Acknowledgments 549

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Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
B_Morrison More than 1 year ago
A central figure in Modernist poetry, Lola Ridge seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney. This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.