restricted access 2. Modernism, Leftism, and the Spirit: The Poetry of Lola Ridge
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t w o Modernism, Leftism, and the Spirit The Poetry of Lola Ridge Making a Religion of It Born Rose Emily Ridge in Dublin on December 12, 1873, the woman who would reinvent herself to become perhaps the most impassioned and certainly the most authentic of the proletarian poets of the New York modernist avant-garde emigrated with her mother as a child to New Zealand, where she would marry the manager of a gold mine at the age of twenty-one. To look ahead thirty years from the life she chose in 1895 is to gain some measure of insight into the transformation she underwent. In 1927, Alfred Kreymborg—one of the leading avantgarde poets of the day—describes her as “the frailest of humans physically and the poorest financially”; nevertheless, as Peter Quartermain remarks, she was a “woman on the spiritual barricade fighting with her pen against tyranny.”1 After her marriage to Peter Webster failed and her mother died, Lola Ridge immigrated to the United States in 1907, stayed for a brief time in California, and then settled in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. So began her life as one of the leading left-wing literary and political­ figures of the day, one of the multitudes of left-wing reformers and­ artists—among them Kay Boyle, John Dos Passos, Harold Loeb, and Emma Goldman—who moved to lower Manhattan and contributed to its hotbed of activism. Indeed, throughout the nineteenth century lower 61 62  r e ad i n g s Manhattan had filled with poor immigrants and workers supportive of leftist causes. As an activist of revolutionary fervor, over the next three decades, until her death in Brooklyn in 1941, Ridge composed some of the most politically conscious poems of her day. At the same time, her presence among New York’s avant-garde places her work within the context of such luminaries of modernist American poetry as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Hart Crane. The peripatetic literary and cultural sojourns of the Lost Generation, to whom Ridge had strong if contentious ties, also provide an evocative counterpoint to both the literary and the civic life she decided to lead, as do both the right-wing modernist programs of expatriate mandarins Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and the pure poetries of the Dadaists. From this perspective , Ridge appears to be a notable lone figure standing amid the crowds of our American literary history, at once recognizable in the aesthetic and wider cultural currents of her time, and curiously otherwise—a vivid original whose life and work embody the tumultuous confluence of forces that shaped the twentieth century. To picture Lola Ridge as a defiant and heroic loner is not to engage in a kind of romanticism that she herself would refuse to embrace. Like Yeats, but without the imaginative infrastructure of a spiritual system, Ridge had already invented an “idealized version of herself” by the time she arrived in San Francisco or at least by the time she moved to Greenwich Village.2 “Rose Emily” had become “Lola,” ten years younger than her actual age, as well as a poet, artist, and revolutionary. In this regard she reminds one of another Lola—Lola Montez, born Maria Delores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Limerick in 1824 before recreating herself as the Spanish “Spider Dancer” and nineteenth-century America’s embodiment of immodesty. Both women were Irish emigrants who were forced to rely on their own powers of self-imagination to establish places for themselves in their respective worlds; both became famous in their time; both turned to religion and embraced the plight of the poor and the outcast. Unlike Montez, however, whose beauty and sensuality were legendary , Ridge assumed the visage of a saint and ascetic. She was tall and thin, “frail enough to be blown away like a leaf ”3 according to Kay Boyle; blood-drained, her body was slowly wasted with pulmonary tuberculosis . Lola Ridge emerges as an impassioned and even saintly Modernism, Leftism, and the Spirit  63­ idealist in Katherine Anne Porter’s description of the protest on August  22, 1927, outside Boston’s Charlestown Prison, where Sacco and Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, both avowed anarchists, were to be executed for a payroll robbery and murder committed seven years earlier. Many believed them innocent and that execution would be martyrdom for their political beliefs. As the police at the protest galloped about on horseback, “bearing down” as Porter tells us “on...


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Subject Headings

  • National characteristics, Irish, in literature.
  • Irish Americans in literature.
  • American poetry -- Irish American authors -- History and criticism.
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