Renee AngleLola Ridge's The Ghetto and Other Poems

by Renee Angle


Lola Ridge’s The Ghetto and Other Poems, for which she won critical acclaim in 1918, remains largely forgotten save the scanty criticism available at Cary Nelson’s MAPS website and Nancy Berke’s book, Women on the Left. These poems, out of print but now available through Al Filreis’ English 88 site as well as through Project Gutenberg, reveal a space where the beautiful meets the grotesque — describing poverty with a plush, Casino-like landscape yet not devoid of the decay and decrepit surfaces within. The first poem in the collection, which appears just before “The Ghetto,” her long title poem, addresses the American people directly, inviting them to share “…bitter apples / And honey served on thorns.” This dichotomy between nourishment and the distasteful nature inherent in partaking of such nourishment prefigures for the entire volume, which repeatedly confronts the city, the laborer, and the immigrant to reveal a complex portrait contingent upon degrees of individuality and community.

In “The Ghetto,” Ridge presents a neighborhood of leftovers lit by “…the waste light of stars, /.” Whitmanian in her address, it is the leftovers that Ridge considers most carefully — waste becomes fertilizer for her language and her narrative: a house full of immigrants living on Hester Street. Alongside the trash of the ghetto — “…colors decomposing, / Faded like old hair— ” exist the rich images of, “Coral beads, blue beads, / Beads of pearl and amber, / Gewgaws, beauty pins— /Bijoutry for chits —.”  As the poem progresses, it becomes apparent the ghetto is a place that is compromised in terms of space and time: time for work and space to live. Of time to work, the speaker notes the character Sadie, “It is droll that she should work in a pants factory. / — Yet where else…” And of space to live, the speaker describes, “…the little babies — / Shiny black-eyed babies — (half a million pink toes / Wriggling altogether.)” The longish lines and dense metaphor portray a speaker who at times is overwhelmed by her surroundings but also comforted by the density of the crowds, “…Bulging like a crazy quilt / Stretched on a line.”

Three separate sections, the first of which is entitled “Manhattan Lights,” follow “The Ghetto.” This section also works to explore the definitions of a city presenting the almost imperceptible circles and arcs in the landscape of Broadway that begins to convey a larger cycle, a rhythm of people surging with and against New York City. This cycle is the dissipation of poverty into affluence and affluence into poverty and is evident in the way she describes the dime store, “Diaphanous gold, / Veiling the Woolworth, argently /.”

Ridge’s imagery and metaphor often suggest simultaneity of events: the overlapping rhythms of the city and its people, a community’s values at the site of exchange. However, these images coupled with vibrant verbs like, “billowing, bursting, glistening, spraying, dangling” sometimes produce redundant rhythms and sentence constructions. These chants are contrasted by spare and unexpected phrases. Lines like “A little old woman, / With a wig of smooth black hair / Gummed about her shrunken brows, /”offset the heavy verb catalogs by providing a contrasting rhythm, diction, and tone.

The penultimate section of the book, “Labor,” juxtaposes the imagery of manual labor — “Clangor of iron smashing on iron, /” — against that of religion. In the short poem entitled, “Spires,” the speaker calls into question whether Christ or merely a building is being resurrected: “Aborting their own dreams / Till the dream of you arose — / Beautiful, swaddled in stone— /.”  Several other poems in this section weigh labor and religion against each other in order to redefine that which the individual and the community is willing and able to worship. These poems struggle with the symbolism of a tradition, a heritage left behind, and the necessity to rework that tradition in a new context in order to survive. The section also explores new technology in the face of nature’s cycles and the impact of this technology on man harkening to Langston Hughes’ famous dream deferred.

The last section,  “Accidentals,” is comprised of songs, toasts, and hopes for the land of Palestine, the tower of Babel, to America, to the worker, and to the work. Poems in this section consist of some of the most abstract titles in the book, “Dreams,” “A Memory,” “Fire.” Whereas in the previous sections of the book Ridge’s language focuses on tightly wound metaphor, here her poems take up more formal constructions including rhyme scheme. Ridge evokes Greek mythology, compares Cleopatra to a fat woman, and reinvents the nursery rhymes “Jack and Jill” and “Rock a Bye Baby” in a modern context. Ridge’s recycled repertoire of nursery rhymes demonstrate perhaps in the most concrete terms of the section, the speaker’s hope wound around youth, feminine knowledge, inquiry, creation, and revision.

This book becomes a knitting together of several poetic, political, and spiritual cosmologies to make a new space for the voice of the disenfranchised. Ridge’s ability to make the dividing line between the beautiful and the rank less perceptible by varying degrees is the book’s strength, and is the reason she is able to refigure the topics she tackles as well as her own poetics.  Nancy Berke’s assessment of Ridge describes a poet who, “was either bitterly disparaged or lavishly praised by her contemporaries for using poetry for public advocacy” (35).  Indeed, it is evident here that The Ghetto and Other Poems is both art and advocacy and neither. Rather, it is a book that is wedged between these two categories historically seen as polar opposites. While worthy of praise and recognition, it is no wonder a book of this caliber has been lost in the recesses of Modernism. For it is the antithesis of l’art pour l’art that this book seeks, calls into question, and ultimately defies.


Works Cited

Berke, Nancy. Women Poets on the Left: Lola Ridge, Genevieve Taggard, Margaret Walker.  UP of Florida, 2001.

Bio: Renee Angle is from Phoenix, Arizona, where she studied music performance at Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at George Mason University and is the poetry editor of So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art.

readings index

table of contents