Radical Modernist Lola Ridge Celebrated The Ghetto

Portrait of Lola Ridge from 1927

Lola Ridge, 1927

The November 1918 issue of the New Republic announced that The Ghetto and Other Poems by Lola Ridge (1873-1941) was “beyond doubt the most vivid and sensitive and lovely embodiment that exists in American literature of that many-sided transplantation of Jewish city-dwellers which vulgarity dismisses with a laugh or a jeer.” Future U.S. Poet Laureate Louis Untermeyer declared it the discovery of the year. Instead of portraying Jews as victims or as subhuman, “snarling a weird Yiddish,” as Henry James had described them, or the Jew squatting on the windowsill in Eliot’s “Gerontion,” or beneath the rats in his “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” Ridge—not a Jew – found the possibility of renewal in their difficult lives.

Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat (Ghetto, 11.)

Ridge read excerpts years later to a captive audience at a sanatorium where she was recuperating from an illness. “The girls had lived in the ghetto and were hurt and [had] tears behind their eyes because they were reminded of something they wished above all to forget.” During a 1927 demonstration against the execution of immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, she was nearly trampled by a police horse; she witnessed her friend Emma Goldman’s deportation back to Russia; and in all her books, she wrote movingly of immigrant imprisonment, labor issues, and lynchings, including that of wrongly convicted Leo Frank. She would find the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic fever rising in America a hundred years later very familiar.

Unlike Emma Lazarus, a comfortable middle-class Jew whose ancestors emigrated during the colonial period, whose “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is engraved on the Statue of Liberty, Irish-born Lola Ridge knew the miseries and disappointments of the immigrants personally, having fled New Zealand with very few resources. She had left behind a childhood spent with a raving-mad stepfather, a gold-mining husband who threatened to kill her, a dead infant and a recently deceased mother. She moved most probably into a 5 x 7 room in a fifth-floor walkup on Hester Street.

Cool, inaccessible air
Is floating in velvety blackness shot with steel-blue lights,
But no breath stirs the heat
Leaning its ponderous bulk upon the Ghetto
And most on Hester Street…

The heat…
Nosing in the body’s overflow,
Like a beast pressing its great steaming belly close,
Covering all avenues of air…(Ghetto, 8.)

Although The Ghetto and Other Poems was her first book, she was no neophyte. She had already published twenty-three poems in the Bulletin, the most prominent literary magazine in Australia, and another fifteen poems in leading New Zealand newspapers. She bridged her emigration by republishing work in San Francisco’s Overlook. In New York by 1908, she became Emma Goldman’s confidante and Mother Earth published more poems. By then Ridge had become the chief organizer of anarchists at the Ferrer Center in Manhattan, a task which honed her progressive New Zealand radicalism into a love of Kropotkin-style anarchy. She heard passionate speeches by the most prominent free-thinkers and immigrants in the country and organized classes in everything from Esperanto to music appreciation. When describing what America had to offer the immigrant, Ridge wrote: “On my board are bitter apples/And honey served on thorns.” She felt very deeply about the stinting of its promised freedom. Later, when asked by an English interviewer what were the proper subjects for poetry, she replied: “Anything that burns you.” To facilitate this, she transformed her poetry from “Waltzing Matilda”-style ballads to the free verse modernism of The Ghetto. She also prioritized the female. The nine-part title poem situates the ghetto within the “cramped ova” of the female body.

The street crawls undulant,
Like a river addled
With its hot tide of flesh
That ever thickens.
Heavy surges of flesh
Break over the pavements,
Clavering like a surf–
Flesh of this abiding
Brood of those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt…
And turned their cakes upon the hot dry stones
(Ghetto, 9.)

This was not the first time artists had used the ghetto as a subject. Jacob Riis’s bestselling book of photographs, How the Other Half Lives, had been in circulation for a decade, and silent movies like Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) were popular. Israel Zangwill’s 1909 play The Melting Pot, based on his novel The Children of the Ghetto, earned accolades from former president Theodore Roosevelt, who leaned out of his box to shout, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.” Morris Rosenfeld, the “pants presser poet,” published Songs from the Ghetto in a Yiddish/English edition in 1898. Maudlin and Victorian in style, the book showed the reality of life in the sweatshop at the turn of the century as the inverse of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “My self is destroyed, I become a machine.” Ridge owned Hutchins Hapgood’s novel, The Spirit of the Ghetto, which was “an attempt made by a ‘Gentile’ to report sympathetically on the character, lives and pursuits of certain east-side Jews with whom he has been in relations of considerable intimacy.” The book is a series of prose sociological portraits that ends with Levitzky, an anarchist and young poet, declaring:

“I have written a poem on liberty which I intend to read at the meeting. Do you wish to hear it?” He drew a manuscript from his pocket and read enthusiastically a poem in which a turbulent love for man and nature, for social equality and foaming cataracts was expressed in rich imagery.

This well describes Ridge’s book.

The son of a rabbi, publisher B.W. Huebsch (1876-1974) would have been interested in her subject matter, and he was known only to choose work that “appealed personally” to him. He had already published Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Francis Hackett, reviewer and editor at the New Republic and a journalist who wrote on the subordination of women and immigrants, made the connection to Huebsch for Ridge.

One, red-bearded, rearing
A welter of maimed face bashed in from some old wound,
Garbles Max Stirner.
His words knock each other like little wooden blocks.
No one heeds him,
And a lank boy with hair over his eyes
Pounds upon the table.
–He is chairman. (Ghetto, 23-24.)

Ridge worked hard to discover what she considered the American voice. While Eurocentric Ezra Pound wrote “A Pact” with Whitman, and declared him “the best America has produced,” she retained Whitman’s headlong and expansive line, sharing with him the second wave of immigration that engulfed New York decades after he witnessed the first. She also particularized the multitudes that Whitman “contained.”

They are covering up the pushcarts…
Now all have gone save an old man with mirrors–
Little oval mirrors like tiny pools.
He shuffles up a darkened street
And the moon burnishes his mirrors till they shine like phosphorus…
The moon like a skull,
Staring out of eyeless sockets at the old men trundling home the pushcarts.
(Ghetto, 27-28.)

The persona driving the poem rooms with a Jewish family, the Sodos, on the fifth floor of a tenement. The father, an old saddlemaker, dovens: “I hear his lifted praise,/Like a broken whinnying/Before the Lord’s shut gate.” His young wife is making a new and more secular life for herself without wearing the traditional wig. The daughter, Sadie, a pieceworker, twice injured to the bone by her sewing machine, reads radical politics by night and entertains a Gentile lover. Two young women live above them, Sarah whose “mind is hard and brilliant and cutting”—an idealist who works in a pants factory, and Anna with “the appeal of a folk-song.” Across the courtyard, a parrot screams “Vorwaerts…Vorwaerts,” German and Yiddish for “forward,” also the name of the most popular radical newspaper in Europe. Headquarters for the American Yiddish newspaper, “The Forward,” was located only a few blocks from Hester Street. And forward went immigrant life, as depicted by the speaker of The Ghetto‘s title poem, a parade of buying and selling, courting and marrying, and children adapting to their new lives:

The sturdy Ghetto children
March by the parade,
Waving their toy flags.
Prancing to the bugles,
Lusty, unafraid
But I see a white frock
And eyes like hooded lights
Out of the shadow of pogroms
Watching. . . watching. . . (Ghetto, 15.)

Ridge soon presided over Thursday afternoon salons filled with modernist hotshots. This was in the early 1920s, while Ridge was 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.

A year after the publication of The Ghetto and Other Poems, Ridge gave a speech in Chicago called “Woman 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.” She worked on an expanded version for years until Viking, her publisher, told her it wouldn’t sell. The four books of poetry that followed contain poems in free verse, as well as formal poems praised by New Yorker editor Louise Bogan. At Ridge’s death in 1941, the New York Times celebrated her as “one of the most important poets in America” but she disappeared from literary discourse, due to the anti-radical, anti-feminist, and anti-experimental nature of WWII, and McCarthy’s decade that followed. By then Eliot and Pound had very effectively blanched the real world out of poetry, equating good with elitist. In the 1970s, feminist critic Louise Bernikow singled out her work and that of Genevieve Taggard as “the buried history within the buried history,” twice-neglected because they were women and radicals. “An early, great chronicler of New York life,” wrote Robert Pinsky in a Slate column about Ridge in 2011. Robert Hass included her work in Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology published in 2014. Today, the same neo-fascist threat that Ridge experienced in the earliest years of the century now appeals to Americans and Europeans in search of order and conformity. As a result, violence toward Jews and immigrants and the discounting of arts and culture are once again prevalent. Commemorating the centenary of The Ghetto and Other Poems reminds readers that waves of repression occur in literary history as well as world history, and that they can still be answered by poetry that reaches for the human soul rather than the political point.

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.)

Cover of Anything that Burns by Teresa Svoboda

Image courtesy of the author


Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet has just come out in paper. Terese Svoboda‘s 18th book, Great American Desert, a book of stories, will be published next year.


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