Sun-up, by Lola Ridge. B. W. Huebsch.
The words of Lola Ridge are thrust into the turmoil of today's city like darting flames—they are a curse and a cry of revolt.
Emily Dickinson meant poetical solitude; she meant thinking solitude of a poetic kind, Chinese daintiness at times. Adelaide Crapsey meant sadness, sweet sadness; sometimes rebellion too, but a sweet sad rebellion. Amy Lowell means voluminous and disorderly culture, wordiness, exaggeration; which words may all go under a heading that would comprehend the case of most women artists—weakness. But as for Lola Ridge, to fit her case no diminutive adjective could serve. It is not a case of sweetness, nor of any of those qualities which, up to date, have been said to pertain to women writers. She is a poet, that's all.
Talk of propaganda here! I wish every poet had something as strong and virile to uphold. It is not a matter of politics, it's a matter of such damning hatred and love as would turn a modern city to ashes. Virile?—it may be an insult to use that adjective, since Lola Ridge has begun an era in which for a woman to be virile, i. e., masculine, might mean to be weaker.
I think she is one of the most beautiful signs we have of woman's emancipation and independence. Let her be a socialist: this rebellion of hers is pure beauty; it is sanctified; it is nothing less than burning human blood; it is no longer that particular fact of the revolt against actual social conditions, which is, unfortunately, what affects today's socialists and anarchists: it is an eternal thing, the thing that caused Promethpus to be bound; it's the fire of heaven burning in this wonderful woman's blood.
Her words are so intensely vivid, they are so palpable, so physically tangible, that they whip or stab—they hurt: there is a ghastliness here caused by an excess of pain and sorrow. And it is her integrity of impulse and emotion that makes her shun more elaborate rhythm forms for a perfectly simple and equal one; although her rhythmical sense is richer than that of certain poets, who discover forms as one finds mushrooms after a rain.
Sun-up is a rhythmical story of the fantastic realism of a child. She too is a singer of delicacies—she too utters sweet words, or sweet sad words. The poet of Sun-up is a child in all its sweetness, besides being a child in all the fulness of its sometimes quaint, sometimes ironic, sometimes portentous magic:
He will scream into the sky
And sparks will fly out of him.
He will burn and burn—
And his blazing hair
Shall light up the world.
It is a woman suffering, but with no subdued sorrow— with the snarl of a lioness rather. It is a lioness flinging herself madly against the walls of the ugly city.
Lola Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland, leaving there in infancy and spending her childhood in Sydney, Australia. After living some years in New Zealand, she returned to Australia to study art. In 1907, she came to the United States, supporting herself for three years by writing fiction for the popular magazines. She stopped this work only, as she says, " because I found I would have to do so if I wished to survive as an artist." For several years she earned her living in a variety of ways—as organizer for an educational movement, as advertisement writer, as illustrator, artist's model, factory-worker, etc. In 1918, The New Republic published her long poem The Ghetto and Miss Ridge, until then totally unknown, became the " discovery " of the year.
Her volume The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) contains one poem that is brilliant, several that are powerful and none that is mediocre. Her title-poem is its pinnacle; in it Miss Ridge touches strange heights. It is essentially a poem of the city, of its sodden brutalities, its sudden beauties. Swift figures shine from these lines, like barbaric colors leaping out of darkness; images that are surprising but never strained glow with a condensed clarity. In her other poems—especially in "The Song of Iron," "Faces" and "Frank Little at Calvary "—the same dignity is maintained, though with less magic.
Sun-Up (1920) is less integrated, more frankly experimental. But the same vibrancy and restrained power that distinguished her preceding book are manifest here. Her delineations are sensitive and subtle; she accomplishes the maximum in effects with a minimum of effort.
PASSAGES FROM " THE GHETTO "
Old Sodos no longer makes saddles.
He has forgotten how . . .
Time spins like a crazy dial in his brain,
And night by night
I see the love-gesture of his arm
In its green-greasy coat-sleeve
Circling the Book,
And the candles gleaming starkly
On the blotched-paper whiteness of his face,
Like a miswritten psalm . . .
Night by night
I hear his lifted praise,
Like a broken whinnying
Before the Lord's shut gate.
Lights go out
And the stark trunks of the factories
Melt into the drawn darkness,
Sheathing like a seamless garment.
And mothers take home their babies,
Waxen and delicately curled,
Like little potted flowers closed under the stars.
Lights go out . . .
And colors rush together,
Fusing and floating away.
Pale worn gold like the settings of old jewels . .
Mauve, exquisite, tremulous, and luminous purples,
And burning spires in aureoles of light
Like shimmering auras.
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.
A sallow dawn is in the sky
As I enter my little green room.
Without, the frail moon,
Worn to a silvery tissue,
Throws a faint glamour on the roofs,
And down the shadowy spires
Lights tip-toe out . . .
Softly as when lovers close street doors.
Out of the Battery
A little wind
Stirs idly—as an arm
Trails over a boat's side in dalliance—
Rippling the smooth dead surface of the heat,
And Hester street,
Like a forlorn woman over-borne
By many babies at her teats,
Turns on her trampled bed to meet the day.
Do you remember
Dripping thick sweet light
Where Canal Street saunters off by herself
among quiet trees ?
And the faint decayed patchouli—
Fragrance of New Orleans . . .
Like a dead tube rose
Upheld in the warm air ...
WIND IN THE ALLEYS
Wind, rising in the alleys,
My spirit lifts in you like a banner
streaming free of hot walls.
You are full of unshaped dreams . .
You are laden with beginnings . . .
There is hope in you . . . not sweet
acrid as blood in the mouth.
Come into my tossing dust
Scattering the peace of old deaths,
Wind rising out of the alleys
Carrying stuff of flame.
The Literary Abbozzo: Lola Ridge
THE Italians use the word abbozzo—meaning a sketch or unfinished work—not only in reference to drawing or painting but also as a sculptural term. The group of unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo in Florence, for example, takes this name; they are called simply abbozzi. The stone is still rough—the conception has only just begun to appear; it has not yet wholly or freely emerged. There is an impressiveness in the way in which the powerful figures seem struggling with the rock for release. And it is no wonder that Rodin and others have seen in this particular stage of a piece of sculpture a hint for a new method based on the clear enough aesthetic value of what might be called the provocatively incomplete.
Unfortunately, in literature as in sculpture, the vogue of the incomplete has become too general, and has in consequence attracted many who are without a clear understanding of its principles. Two misconceptions regarding it are particularly common: one, that it is relatively formless, and therefore easier than a method more precise; the other, that it is a universal style, applicable to any one of the whole gamut of themes. Neither of these notions, of course, is true. The literary abbozzo—or to be more precise, the poetic abbozzo —demands a high degree of skill, a very sure instinct. And it should be equally apparent that it is properly applicable to what is relatively only a small number of moods or themes—among which one might place conspicuously the dithy- rambic and the enumerative. These are moods which irregularity will often save from monotony. Whitman's catalogues would be even worse than they are had they been written as conscientiously in heroic couplets. The same is perhaps true of the dithyrambs of Ossian. Both poets to have been successful in a more skilfully elaborate style would have been compelled to delete a great deal . . . which would no doubt have been an improvement.
This makes 6ne a little suspicious of the abbozzo: is it possible that we overrate it a trifle? Might we not safely suggest to those artists whom we suspect of greatness, or even of very great skill merely, that their employment of the abbozzo should be chiefly as relaxation? But they will hardly need to be told. The provocatively incomplete—which is to be sharply distinguished from the merely truncated or slovenly—has its charm, its beautiful suggestiveness; but in proportion as the artist is powerful he will find the abbozzo insufficient, he will want to substitute for this charm, this delicate hover, a beauty and strength more palpable. The charm which inheres in the implied rather than the explicit he knows how to retain—he will retain it in the dim counterpoint of thought itself.
The poems of Miss Lola Ridge raise all these issues sharply, no less because the author has richness and originality of sensibility, and at times brilliance of idea, than because she follows this now too common vogue Here is a vivid personality, even a powerful one, clearly aware of the peculiar experience which is its own—a not too frequent gift. It rejoices in the streaming and garishly lighted multiplicity of the city: it turns eagerly toward the semi-tropical fecundity of the meaner streets and tenement districts. Here it is the human item that most attracts Miss Ridge— Jews, for the most part, seen darkly and warmly against a background of social consciousness, of rebelliousness even. She arranges her figures for us with a muscular force which seems masculine; it is singular to come upon a book written by a woman in which vigour is so clearly a more natural quality than grace. This is sometimes merely strident, it is true. When she compares Time to a paralytic, "A mildewed hulk above the nations squatting," one fails to respond. Nor is one moved precisely as Miss Ridge might hope when she tells us of a wind which "noses among them like a skunk that roots about the heart." It is apparent from the frequency with which such falsities occur—particularly in the section called "Labour"—that Miss Ridge is a trifle obsessed with the concern of being powerful: she forgets that the harsh is only harsh when used sparingly, the loud only loud when it emerges from the quiet. She is uncertain enough of herself to deal in harshnesses wholesale and to scream them.
But with due allowances made for these extravagances—the extravagances of the brilliant but somewhat too abounding amateur—one must pay one's respects to Miss Ridge for her very frequent verbal felicities, for her images brightly lighted, for a few shorter poems which are clusters of glittering phrases, and for the human richness of one longer poem, "The Ghetto," in which the vigorous and the tender are admirably fused. Here Miss Ridge's reactions are fullest and truest. Here she is under no compulsion to be strident. And it is precisely because here she is relatively most successful that one is most awkwardly conscious of the defects inherent in the whole method for which Miss Ridge stands. This is a use of the "provocatively incomplete"-— as concerns form—in which, unfortunately, the provocative has been left out. If we consider again, for a moment, Michelangelo's abbozzi, we become aware how slightly, by comparison, Miss Ridge's figures have begun to emerge. Have they emerged enough to suggest the clear overtone of the thing completed? The charm of the incomplete is of course in its positing of a norm which it suggests, approaches, retreats from, or at points actually touches. The ghost of completeness alternately shines and dims. But for Miss Ridge these subtleties of form do not come forward. She is content to use for the most part a direct prose, with only seldom an interpellation of the metrical, and the metrical of a not particularly skilful sort. The latent harmonies are never evoked.
One hesitates to make suggestions. Miss Ridge might have to sacrifice too much vigour and richness to obtain a greater beauty of form: the effort might prove her undoing. By the degree of her success or failure in this undertaking, however, she would become aware of her real capacities as an artist. Or is she wise enough to know beforehand that the effort would be fruitless, and that she has already reached what is for her the right pitch? That would be a confession but it would leave us, even so, a wide margin for gratitude.