Thursday, December 12, 2013

ADVENT 12/12: Terese Svoboda on Lola Ridge

Woman and the Creative Will


Terese Svoboda


Anarchist feminist modernist poet Lola Ridge gave a speech in 1919 called “Woman and the Creative Will.” William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken (remember the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow?” That's him, our first poet laureate) and a fop named Alfred Kreymborg who was great at putting together little magazines when little magazines were so hot they put them at the front of bookstores—the three of them and Ridge hung around Chicago for a week making speeches. Williams also seduced the assistant at Poetry magazine that weekend and consolidated his notion of the poet's role in the world, the two experiences somewhat congruent. Sex is important. Ridge's speech is about how bisexuality reigns in creativity. It's ten years before Woolf thinks up “A Room of Her Own.” 

Genius, then, is composed of the male and female principles of mental order and intuition vitalized by spiritual energy...And a work of creative art requires a union of these principles, just as the act of physical creation requires them...And for this reason—the dual sexuality of genius—men and women so gifted usually show characteristics of both sexes...

Ridge was bad. She sailed to the U.S. despite her husband's threats that he'd kill her if she took their six-year-old son. It was 1907. She left behind a twelve-year marriage to the husband goldmining in New Zealand, twenty-four years formative years of two-room-shack poverty, a dead baby, a stepfather who went crazy, more rain than anywhere else in the world, get-rich-quick chaos, and drunken bohemian wannabees in Sydney, where she went to art school and snubbed her relatives. The “bad” part was that she had ambition. 

I shall try to show that woman has not only a creative will, but a very great future in creative art.

She doesn't mention what to do with a six-year-old child. Children are not mentioned in her speech, except in terms of “squandering” one's talent. As a consequence of sex, they must be overcome--by creative will. 

The day of the cave man has passed.

Sex was a big topic of the early teens in Greenwich Village where Ridge ended up after running through several aliases and hanging out with Emma Goldman. You say, a lot of people hung with Goldman. But Ridge organized—an anarchist educational center where Man Ray learned art from Robert Henri, and the middlebrow philosopher Will Durant taught school until he ran off with Ariel, his fourteen year old roller-skating student. Durant's favorite topic was sex psychology. Ridge wrote in a notebook she kept around that time: “Sex permeates everything.” 

Philosophers and critics generally—even women themselves—have affirmed the masculinity of women of genius. And in order to prove that no woman ever has been or ever could be a creative artist, they have pointed triumphantly to alleged cases of homosexuality among women artists. All the women of genius, they have said in effect, are men!

Homosexuality does not produce children. Neither does birth control. Ridge worked as an editor for Margaret Sanger and lived with a guy over a decade younger—she took ten years off her age at customs—and began her collection (now at Bryn Mawr) of seven thorough compendiums on phallic worship, including a 357 page illustrated private edition. Even discounting D.H. Lawrence, everybody equated creativity with sex. Only women had to chose between them.
    In this next quote, Ridge references the story of a mulatto slave who stole into Murillo's studio and finished the head of a Virgin--and was promptly declared a painter.

If...Murillo's mulato had been a girl...his master would not have given him his liberty and helped him develop into an artist. A girl slave who had the temerity to dream of painting a white Virgin would probably have been raped...

Before Ridge could host a salon where Marianne Moore read early drafts, eighteen-year-old Hart Crane flirted, William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon hatched plans for their magazine “Contact,” and Mayakovsky stomped on her coffee table, before she became editor of two important modernist magazines, Broom and Others, before she even met Emma Goldman or Margaret Sanger or took the boat around the Panama Canal to New York, she dropped her son off at an orphanage in L.A. Victorian constraints on women and their creativity were extreme; to be free of them required extreme measures. Mina Loy left her two children, one her lover's, the other her husband's, in Italy, returning only to deposit a third child by Arthur Craven. When the children's nanny suggested that leaving again might damage them, Loy broke all the dishes. Heiress and publisher Caresse Crosby housed her children in an icy toolshed so that Harry the poet would not have to endure their company. Olga Rudge, Pound's mistress, deposited their daughter Mary with shepherds until she was old enough to take dictation in Venice. Ridge's friend the poet Elinor Wylie told friends and strangers she'd miscarried eight times, but said nothing of the son she abandoned when he was tiny. Although Ridge gave her assistant, the poet and novelist Kay Boyle, a hundred dollars for her first abortion, Boyle had five more children, and left the first at Isadora Duncan's brother's commune in London. While Boyle typed up her poetry across the street and took dance classes, her daughter wore tunics and sandals over a London winter and was severely punished for defecation. The novelist Evelyn Scott, another friend of Ridge, had a child in the wilds of Brazil and dragged him through a menage a trois with Thomas Merton's father. D.H. Lawrence was so jealous of Frieda seeing her children that she had to wait outside their school so she could talk to them and give them presents so they would “keep herself fresh in their memories.” The dizzying yet most positive outcome was H.D.'s daughter, the result of a one-night stand with a Scottish music critic. H.D. persuaded her husband to give the baby his name. A few years later she began a lesbian relationship with Bryher, an extremely wealthy British writer who then married the drunken poet Robert MacAlmon in order to keep their relationship secret. Initially attracted to H.D., MacAlmon acted as surrogate father until Bryher divorced him for Kenneth McPherson, a nascent filmmaker and critic who was also in love with H.D. Although H.D. aborted McPherson's child, she allowed him to give his name to her daughter: Perdita,"the lost one," who claimed to have been happy because she enjoyed two mothers. She also had the attentions of an extensive staff.
    An extensive staff is important when it comes to sex and creativity. Ridge was one of the few modernists without an independent income.

Woman is not and never has been man's natural inferior.                   

Ridge could do Imagism.
Brooklyn Bridge

Pythoness body—arching
Over the night like an ecstasy—
I feel your coils tightening…
And the world’s lessening breath.
Ridge could do ballads, she could free-verse long form—her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, deemed one of the three best books of the year by Louis Untermeyer and “masculine,”--and she could write sonnets. In rebellion from the rebellion of free verse, sonneteers proliferated, including her rival, the bestselling Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay wrote them for breakfast, ten at a time, in letters to her young lover, George Dillon, who won a Pulitzer a few years later and never published again. Ridge took all of six weeks at Yaddo to write the two hundred and eighteen pages of Firehead, a dramatic monologue in iambic tetrameter that sold out its first edition on the first day. She was not to be any man's natural inferior--nor woman's, for that matter. 

It is true that very few men have penetrated the complex woman.

What Ridge wrote best about is serious. Labor issues, lynchings, hangings. Like Millay, with whom she was arrested at a demonstration against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ridge was a snob, anorexic, drug-addict, hypochondriacal mooch but she got the job done. “Nice” is the one adjective in the world that is laughable applied to any single thing I have ever written,” she wrote.
He shudders...feeling on the shaved spot
The probing wind, that stabs him to a thought
Of storm-drenched fields in a white foam of light,
And roads of his hill-town that leap to sight
Like threads of tortured silver...while the guards--
Monstrous deft dolls that move as on a string,
In wonted haste to finish with this thing,
Turn faces blanker than asphalted yards.
They heard the shriek that tore out of its sheath
But as a feeble moan...yet dared not breathe,
Who stared there at him, arching—like a tree
When the winds wrench it and the earth holds tight--
Whose soul, expanding in white agony
Had fused in flaming circuit with the night.
In Madame Bovary he showed a clever man's understanding of a very shallow woman, but the Madame Bovarys we meet in real life reverse that demonstration effectively.

Pound, hater-of-women, and Eliot, the fascist, spawned New Criticism that effectively silenced women on all but the most minor subjects for decades. In 1937 its acolyte John Crowe Ransom reduced even Millay to inconsequential, perhaps envious of the 66,000 books she sold in seven months at the height of the Depression.

Most of the gentlemen who discussed the question were really very nice about it. Once they had pressed woman gently but firmly back into her home and decided she was not, and never could be, man's intellectual rival, they were ready to love her all over again—only ever so much better!

Ridge saw her son only once more, after he was released from the orphanage at age fourteen. He became a radio operator sending messages into the void until his boat landed in Chile where he married and had three kids. "He was a little violent," said his daughter, and he killed himself a year after Ridge died, then deemed one of the best poets in America in her New York Times obit.

We must turn an even bolder front to the shadows.
But there is a shadow,
that is not the shadow of a thing...
it is a thing itself.
When you meet this shadow
you must not look at it too long...
it grows with your looking at it...
till you are all alone
with nothing around you...
but a shadow
with its eyes full of black light.

(from Sun-up, published in Sun-up and Other Poems, 1920.)



Terese Svoboda just received a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Award to help finish her biography of the anarchist feminist modernist poet, Lola Ridge. She is having fun.


  1. Fascinating — ah, those underlying ideas, to which enough attention is never paid, and all that overarching ego, which always explains a lot.

    To me, Woolf's later A Room of One's Own remains the Everest literary work regarding sexism and artistic androgyny, so glad you mentioned it.

  2. Yowzer. I'm off to search for wild Lola's work. I hope there's enough of it out there to satisfy me until your biography is available.