A Walker Among the Throng

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Though Lola Ridge’s reputation has diminished through circumstance and neglect, her legacy remains significant. Her work, unquestionably, constitutes a largely neglected leftist, alternative version of modernism ... The history of American women writers is incomplete without her. Her feminism was far ahead of its time in literary circles – we have to wait for Adrienne Rich to appear before we find a female consciousness so alive to its native importance and its historical suppression.

Article from Lola Ridge: Collected Early Poems (edited by Daniel Tobin)

Rose Emily Ridge was born on December 12, 1873 in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, Ireland to Joseph Henry Ridge, a medical student, and Emma Ridge, née Reilly. Only a few months separate her birth from the births of Robert Frost and Gertrude Stein: the first, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets of place, and the second the modernist mater familias of post-modern displacement – aesthetic, metaphysical, and otherwise: ‘There is no there, there.’ There was nothing simply aesthetic or theoretical about Ridge’s own experience of displacement, and her sense of place was far from the deceptively unstudied woods of Frost’s New England.

Ridge manages to fill her portraits of immigrant lives with the empathy of real human feeling. She is a walker among the throng, a female fellow immigrant flâneur

After her father died when she was only three, she emigrated with her mother from Ireland first to Australia then to New Zealand where, in 1880, her mother married again, this time to Donald McFarlane, a miner who had himself emigrated from Scotland more than a decade before. It was here, in Hokitika, New Zealand, that the girl known variously as Rose, Rosa, Rosalie, Delores, and Lola grew up in what she described as a three-room shack, among immigrants, native peoples and Chinese workers of a populace we would now call multicultural. Ridge evokes something of her early life’s world in various poems of her first unpublished book, Verses (1905).

From the moment of her decision to pursue a new life, Lola Ridge embodied the idea of what we now would call the transnational artist. In her case, this meant separating herself from almost every trace of her previous life, including her son, other than when glimpses appear in her first three books. From California Ridge quickly gravitated to New York, arriving there in 1908 – even then a maelstrom of immigrant ‘multiculturalism’ and a preeminent locus of the new century’s conglomeration of wealth and poverty, forces of established power and of the avant-garde.

Her feminism was far ahead of its time

The major poem in Ridge’s first volume is the title poem, ‘The Ghetto’. In its nine numbered sections Ridge depicts in intimate detail the world of the Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side. Where Eliot looks upon the modern cityscape with considerable distrust – the cities of The Waste Land are ‘unreal’ breeding grounds of human impurity and delusion – and Pound makes an aesthetic idol of the past, Ridge manages to fill her portraits of immigrant lives with the empathy of real human feeling. She is a walker among the throng, a female fellow immigrant flâneur as Nancy Berke convincingly argues. Though T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ begins famously with an invitation to walk – ‘Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patent etherized upon a table’ – Prufrock’s appeal quickly slips from promise to an image of dis-ease, cultural, psychic and spiritual. Here, in contrast, is the opening of  ‘The Ghetto’:

             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 …

***

Lola Ridge delights in the detail of city life: the splashes of colour, the alien smells, the architecture of poor streets. Her evocation of the people she observes is often as haunting as Reznikoff
— Elaine Feinstein

Though Lola Ridge’s reputation has diminished through circumstance and neglect, her legacy remains significant. Her work, unquestionably, constitutes a largely neglected leftist, alternative version of modernism. Also, during her time Ridge was a crucial figure in ‘a network of women authors who sought to grapple with major social issues’ in their art – she was, in fact, a profoundly sustaining presence to writers like Evelyn Scott and Kay Boyle. The history of American women writers is incomplete without her. Her feminism was far ahead of its time in literary circles – Bogan, Rukeyser and Bishop are profoundly important figures but we have to wait for Adrienne Rich to appear before we find a female consciousness so alive to its native importance and its historical suppression.

It is characteristic of literary history to be forgetful of writers who fall outside of its expected patterns. Lola Ridge – poet, anarchist and passionate feminist – should by rights be a name to set next to, though in contrast to, her modernist contemporaries, Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore ... It is high time Lola Ridge was recognized by thousands of women who are triumphantly following in her footsteps today, most of them without even knowing of this interesting, in some ways tragic precursor to whose life and work we all should feel gratefully indebted.
— Anne Stevenson

Lola Ridge: Collected Early Poems (ed. Daniel Tobin) is published in March 2017 and is available to pre-order at the special introductory price of £16.99. 

Daniel Tobin's honours include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and a Robert Penn Warren Award. He has edited the The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Tobin teaches at Emerson College, Boston.