In 1927, Lola Ridge was known widely in the United States for The Ghetto and Other Poems; the powerful poems in this collection vividly captured the experience of immigrants in the United States. Nearly ninety years later, Ridge is virtually unknown. Her work largely excluded from anthologies, not engaged by contemporary critics, forgotten. This condition is especially ironic at this particular historical moment because Ridge is the kind of poet that should be inspiring new generations of poets, writers, and editors: she embraced radical politics, particularly anarchism; wrote beautiful poems; edited influential magazines; and traveled extensively. She is a model for poets today inspired by contemporary social movements addressing racial justice, economic inequality, and an array of sexual freedom issues. Instead, Ridge remains largely outside contemporary conversations. Terese Svoboda challenges Ridge’s invisibility today.
In a sweeping new biography, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, Svoboda breathes new life into Lola Ridge. Anything That Burns You narrates Ridge’s life, exploring its twists and turns around the globe. Svoboda deftly places Ridge in the context of modernism, challenging narratives of modernism that transcend or elide politics. Finally, Svodoba identifies Ridge’s editorial contributions, analyzes her poems, and generally makes her work more visible—and compelling—to contemporary readers.
Ridge is a quintessential transnational figure of the late 1800s and 1900s. Born in Ireland in 1873, Ridge and her mother immigrated to Australia; then, less than a decade later, they moved to New Zealand. As a young woman, Ridge immigrated to the United States first settling in San Francisco then in New York. Throughout her life she traveled the globe; Baghdad, Damascus, and Mexico City were all Ridge weigh stations. Her travels shaped her creative production—and her political vision.
Anything That Burns You draws liberally from Ridge’s poems providing an excellent overview of her work. Ridge published five books. Two are out of copyright, The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) and Sun-Up and Other Poems (1920); both are available as free ebooks through Project Gutenberg as a result of the labor and editorial work of Catherine Daly. The other three, Red Flag (1927), Firehead (1929), and Dance of Fire (1935), are more difficult to find though occasionally available. Svoboda, herself a formidable poet (she has published five poetry collections), novelist (five published), essayist, and intellectual, provides numerous close readings of Ridge’s poems combined with extensive review of the critical appraisals of the work when it was published. Svoboda’s careful readings of the poems reward readers with insight into the poems and the life of the poet.
While Svoboda can dive deeply into a single poem, she also writes capaciously about the times, explaining the significance of various historical events and detailing lives of friends and associates of Ridge, including Emma Goldman, Margaret Anderson, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Waldo Frank, and many others. Svodoba’s map of modernism gestures to the now canonical Pound and H.D., but reshapes the currently accepted canon through her exploration of Ridge and other modern writers of the period.
Svoboda writes extensively about Ridge’s editorial work with Broom, The story of Broom is fascinating itself; in the biography, it serves two functions. First, Ridge’s work as an editor both of Broom and as a contributing editor to New Masses highlights the significance of this work in shaping Ridge’s life and writing. By attending to Ridge’s involvement in literary culture at the time, Svoboda excavates the literary ecosystem in which Ridge thrived. Broom and Ridge’s editorial work also makes visible the different means of support for Ridge as a poet. She was born into poverty—and died in poverty. Throughout her life economic support came in a variety of ways, including labor, editing, patronage, and marriage. Wherever possible, Svoboda explains where and how Ridge had money to live her life; vital information for people today concerned about how society broadly supports creative production.
Anything That Burns You provides an intimate view from a poet of another poet’s life. I call this form of writing, poetagraphy. Poetagraphy, literally the writing of the lives of poets, is an underutilized but vitally necessary creative discipline. Women poets in particular are not considered enough in sustained biography projects. Poetagraphy, at its best, explores compelling questions to poets and lovers of poetry: how do we understand the lives of poets? How is creative production encouraged and sustained over a lifetime? How is creative production squelched? How can we translate the lives of poets to non-poets and biography readers? What do the lives of poets tell readers about creative production particularly and culture broadly? Svoboda grapples with all of these questions in Anything That Burns You. Anything That Burns You joins biographies like Genevieve Taggard’s biography of Emily Dickinson, Anne Stevenson’s biography of Sylvia Plath, and Barbara Guest’s biography of H.D., even Susan Howe’s extraordinarily innovative biography of Emily Dickinson. Each of these biographies makes visible the life of a poet to a new generation of readers and transforms understandings of the poet’s work. When poets themselves approach the challenge of poetagraphy, the results are extraordinary—both for the poet author and for the poet subject. Poets bring vital sensitivity and rigorous inquiry to poetagraphy. Writing poetagraphy— dedicating time and energy to sustained investigation of another poet’s work—often enhances a poet’s own creative work.
Anything That Burns You examines the full life of Lola Ridge as a creative producer; it is a gift to poetry and poetagraphy. Svoboda invites readers to reengage Lola Ridge as a meaningful poet in today’s milieu. As a poet, Ridge engages politics and expresses the lives of working people with passion and conviction. As a poetagrapher, Svoboda tells Ridge’s life story with equal passion and conviction as well as grace and style. Anything That Burns You is a poetagraphy to celebrate.