Lola Ridge (1873–1941) ranked during her lifetime among major American poets, winning, for example, the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award twice, in 1934 and 1935. In her instructive and insightful biography, Terese Svoboda explains that the prize is “still given to an American poet every year, ‘selected with reference to his or her genius and need, by a jury of three poets—one appointed by the president of Radcliffe (now Harvard), one by the president of the University of California at Berkeley, and one by the Poetry Society of America’s board of governors.’ ” Ridge received rave reviews throughout her career, beginning with The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918), which established her reputation as a poet exploring the gritty environs of New York’s Lower East Side, where she also perfected her persona as a half-starved, tubercular figure virtually refining herself out of existence.
The self-dramatizing poet was both deadly serious and extraordinarily selfish.
Svoboda understands the value this poet derived from sickness:
She didn’t have to answer letters or come to the door or entertain when she was ill, allowing her more time to concentrate on her poetry. The archetypal T.B. sufferer was believed to suffer some passionate feeling that caused the illness and which she must express—often love, but also possibly political or moral beliefs. Having an illness similar to T.B. enabled Ridge to speak out. It was also a useful tool in asserting her gentility and rectifying her inferior social status—all that bed rest implied wealth.
Ridge seemed to be perpetually dying for her art while making an art of dying—but drawing out her exit in scenes worthy of Camille.
The self-dramatizing poet was both deadly serious and extraordinarily selfish. What saves her from the tiresome antics of the poseur, however, is her self-critical letters, which Svoboda quotes to great effect. Even as Ridge passionately suffered for her art, she confessed to her patient and ever-supportive second husband that she had abused his kindness and generosity. But she could not help herself, she admitted. She seemed destined to travel the world, including the Middle East, in search of material beyond herself, producing Firehead (1929), a work about the Crucifixion and her fourth book, which Svoboda calls a “smashing success.” The first edition sold out quickly. The sociable Ridge’s own suffering seemed positively necessary to her productivity. As Svoboda reports:
All that party-giving took a lot of stamina! Ridge also boasted at various times that she had written 127 lines before lunch, 400 as a prelude, 900 lines in bed—and she completed the 218-page Firehead after only six weeks at Yaddo while complaining in nearly every letter about severe illness.
Like any biographer, Svoboda searches out the connections between her subject’s life and work, postulating, for example, that the mother of Jesus is in part a projection of Ridge’s own regret over abandoning her only child, Keith:
To his small frantic lips, the one
Deep need of his that I could ever fill
And wrapped him in a finer linen than I wore
But that was all
Ridge wrote very little about her son, although judging by a reference in a letter the novelist Evelyn Scott sent to the poet, Ridge did miss Keith, even if she lost contact with him and did not even know where he lived. At points like this, however, the biographer does not comment on the lines themselves, with their stark, brutal honesty, perhaps supposing the reader can do that just as well.
Although Ridge wrote reams of poetry in support of the communist cause, such as in Red Flag (1927), Svoboda shows that in fact the poet was quite skeptical about the Russian revolution and much else on the Left. Ridge’s letters express her sense that the logical outcome of communism might be tyranny. At the same time, she never publicly disavowed revolutionary politics, although she broke with her mentor, Emma Goldman. Ridge was known for her protests against the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. She endeared herself to the Left when, during a demonstration, she threw herself under a rearing horse. Unlike the suffragette Emily Davison, who died after deliberately running in front of the king’s horse at Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913—becoming a martyr to the votes for women campaign—Ridge was saved at the last moment by a bystander who dragged her off. That desperate act endowed Ridge with an aura and authority no other woman poet of her generation could match. Svoboda does not mention Davison, so there is no telling if Ridge was inspired by such sacrifice. The biographer does note, though, that Ridge showed no special interest in feminism, and that, like other women writers of her generation, she wanted to compete with men on their level, asking no favors and demanding no special consideration.
The ascetic Ridge, weighing at times no more than seventy pounds, looked and acted the part of a saint—first refusing financial assistance when she could not support herself, and then accepting and even soliciting such help when, apparently, her plight had become known to just about everyone who cared about the predicament of impecunious poets. Svoboda does not explain Ridge’s volte-face, presumably because evidence is lacking. Could it be that once having established her bone fides as an independent woman, Ridge felt entitled to have that independence supported?
The ascetic Ridge looked and acted the part of a saint.
Ridge realized that she could be a pill, and unlike other high modernists, she did not act as though she had accomplished her work all by herself. As Svoboda shows, Ridge’s second husband, David Lawson, in effect played the loyal wife, supplying the poet not only with money and all sorts of supplies, but also with the drug Gynergen, which induced what the biographer calls Ridge’s “druggy intensity,” without which she could not seem to write. The couple infrequently lived together, although Ridge was always promising extended reunions. Lawson rarely lost his temper. A Village radical, he apparently shared none of the male chauvinism rife among his contemporaries. Why this was so, Svoboda does not say. At any rate, Ridge knew quite well that without Lawson she would have been lost. It grieved her when she pursued an affair—
although she would not give her lover up. Even then Lawson did not forsake her. “I cannot forgive myself for my stupid self-absorption,” she wrote to her husband.
After 1935, Ridge wrote fitfully and produced no more books. Svoboda relies on the scholars William Drake and Cary Nelson to help explain why this poet fell out of fashion, out of anthologies, and, until recently, out of the American canon. John Crowe Ransom and other male modernists classified women as unintellectual creatures of feeling. In The First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915–1945, Drake concludes, “So thorough was the denigration of the women poets who flourished between 1915 and 1945 that their continuity with a later generation of women poets has effectively been destroyed.” Excellent reviews are not enough. One needs someone like Ezra Pound, who took Eliot in hand and promoted him. Ridge had no such impresario. Svoboda, quoting Nelson, finds Ridge simply dropped out of the running, so to speak: “We tend to ignore evidence that promotion by oneself or others plays a role in building careers, preferring to assume it is the best poets, not necessarily those who are the most ambitious or most widely publicized, who retain long-term visibility.”
A Ridge revival may be at hand, however. Five years ago in Slate, Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, urged readers to “appreciate the magnitude and freshness of her enterprise: to make poetry out of the actual city.” He put her in the company of William Blake, also noting that much of her urban outlook preceded Hart Crane’s achievement. Virtually all of her work is now available in paperback and ebook.
Terese Svoboda’s biography just begins the process of doing justice to the woman and her work. The best biographies are often reclamation projects, fired by the biographer’s passion to undo the wrong done her subject, or to restore the reputation of a writer neglected for too long. Svoboda champions Ridge’s work, but the biography is also discriminating, identifying the poet’s lapses as well as her triumphs. What more can you ask of a narrative that is at once compelling and comprehensive?