Lola Ridge's Verses
(unpublished manuscript, 1905) 
by Catherine Daly
Lola Ridge’s first book was published when she was 41; she emigrated to the United States from Australia as a divorced woman, and routinely cut as much as ten years off her age. She lived in the U.S. for over a decade before a major publisher released her volume, The Ghetto And Other Poems. What did Ridge do earlier in life? What kind of influences did she experience? When did she begin to write?
Leaving her first husband and New Zealand, Ridge traveled to Sydney, Australia, where she began art studies with Julian Ashton, a painter and forebear of the Julian Ashton who would ultimately rename his school the Julian Ashton School. She is said to have supported herself as an artist’s model and illustrator. About this time, she must have begun writing poems under the nickname “Lola.” She completed a 93-page manuscript which she gave to Alfred George Stephens, a prominent editor and promoter of Australian literature who ran “The Red Page” of the popular newspaper, The Bulletin.  Under the aegis of The Bulletin, he also published poetry collections and is known for publishing the first volumes of many fine Australian poets.  Among the books Stephens published were three by bush poet and lyric poet John Shaw Neilson, the poet who wrote the manuscript stored at the Mitchell Library with Lola Ridge’s Verses.  A.G. Stephens’ papers are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. While the poems in Ridge’s manuscript may have been published in Australian journals, newspapers, or in chapbook form, I have found none. Ridge left Australia for San Francisco in 1907, two or three years after the completion of this manuscript.
The poems in Verses are long verses, poems written using iambic pentameter arrayed in a survey of stanza lengths and rhyme schemes. One reason the apprentice prosody in this manuscript is important to read is that the first three books Ridge published in New York (starting some fifteen years after she wrote Verses) are mostly free verse. With the sonnets in Red Flag, her third book, she returned to rhyme and meter. She followed that book with a book-length poem, Firehead, and a sonnet sequence in Dance of Fire, her last book. Ridge’s return to traditional form was partly a response to Arthur Kreymborg, who encouraged a generation of politically active poets to write miserable ballads and sappy sonnets. It was also a return to her poetical roots.
There is a loose category of Australian poetry which is not very familiar to me, but seems necessary to consider when thinking about Verses, that of bush poetry. Bush poetry is not like American cowboy poetry, although some contemporary bush poetry is like contemporary American cowboy poetry, with its humor, doggerel, and slang. Bush poetry readership and poets are obviously not only people with a particular job description or people in a particular region; bush poetry might be usefully, if problematically, termed working class pastoral. It is limited to people who write about a particular ecology and economy. Bush poetry might be compared to western American poetry from the 1880s into the 1930s which focussed on the deserts, grasslands, and prairies. That earnest Lola Ridge, writing in Sydney, born in Dublin, raised in the gold fields of New Zealand, would be writing something that participates in the tradition of bush poetry is a little surprising. She carried many of the traditions of bush poetry to a New Zealand landscape, which is to say, out of the bush, by mentioning Lake Kanieri, New Zealand, and Tuhua, a volcanic island off the coast of New Zealand. Like John Shaw Neilson, Ridge writes a lyric bush poetry. It is perhaps significant that her manuscript should be housed with John Shaw Neilson, who brought to bush poetry some of the first influences of modernism.
Another little surprise awaiting the reader of Verses is the way in which the poetry, and older bush poetry, compares and contrasts to the feminized genteel poetry written in America at this time. Genteel poetry largely addresses or approaches a set of subjects which include death, particularly the death of children, aspects of family religious belief under female control, and female domestic culture as opposed to domestic work. Some of the best genteel poetry of the American West is Helen Hunt Jackson’s writing on plants. Some of the best older bush poetry also realistically depicts nature, forming a natural symbolism. Ridge feminizes the bush as she struggles to find a female lyric voice.
The first section of Verses, entitled “Voices of the Bush,” begins with the mood-setting “Under-Song.” In 1918, she would include a heavily revised version of this poem in her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems. The original ending couplet, “The meaning of the song / He faintly hears,” contains the only gendered pronoun in the early draft of the poem, indicating that the reader and interpreter of the bush’s song is male, while the singer of the song, described in the opening couplet, “The mystical, the strong / Deep throated Bush” is the author, Ridge. The second poem in the early manuscript, “At Sun-Down,” begins, “The bush is leaning like a tired child, / Her dear head nestling on the breast of night,” indicating that all parts of nature are female. The bush remains female in the rest of the poems. In the overtly erotic “The Bush,” Ridge begins, “The gay winds fondle with the maiden Bush”: the winds and day are male, but everything earth-bound remains female. While this may seem to be obvious mythography, it is neither a bush poetry or genteel poetry commonplace. Additionally, Ridge was a divorced “New Woman” artist and writer, neither the active wife of a miner nor a mother at home. She would go on, in New York, to be active in such feminist projects as Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review. She would also continue to feminize the earth and sea, and maintain the maleness of the wind.
The second section of Verses, entitled “Songs of the Sluicers,” is based on Ridge’s experiences in the gold fields of New Zealand. Later in her career, she will drop the rhyme in her longer poems. Description such as, “the red light from the lant’rns / Lit the faces round the shaft,” will remain. The dialog will go, but Ridge will remain interested in telling slang, unfortunate dialect, and their evil twin, poeticized or heightened language. Toward the end of Verses there are poems which are like bush poetry, humorous rhyming doggerel in slang, but set in the gold fields, not in the bush: “Helblatavesky’s Cow,” which references Madame Blavatsky in its final reference to a golden calf, contains silly puns and slang. Mining, the causes of miners, and marked descriptions of mining equipment and metals continues throughout Ridge’s work. Her half realist-half lyric description of miners and mining begins in Verses. Writing about gold mining allows Ridge to combine her search for real and emotionally moving political actions with her lyricism of light. The labor union organizations and strikes Ridge experienced when first coming to America were miners’ unions and coal and copper mining strikes. Her later writing about mining allows her to write from memory as well as prophetically.
An additional aspect of this unpublished text is that it contains two versions of two poems, “The Flame Flower” and “Song of the Earth [Spirit].” The text is consecutively numbered, including the revisions, but there are markings in the text which indicate them, such as “see page 44.” These revisions are “signed” in typescript “Lola Ridge,” and after the last of them, the second draft of “Song of the Earth,” entitled “Song of the Earth Sprit,” is the note, “I revised these pieces last night & as they seem to sound better am sending you the copy.” The revisions are not major. For example, “The Flame Flower” is in a male voice. A line is revised, “Well men are lust driven fools.” to “We men are desire driven fools!”
Many of the poems toward the revisions and the center of the manuscript, either in the right margin, at the end, or in a stanza break towards the bottom of the page, bear the annotations “Royal 42th / ‘H.M. Greville,’” “Super Royal 52th / ‘H.M. Greville,’” or “Imperial 78th / ‘H.M. Greville.’” These seem to be addresses of British Army units stationed in Sydney harbor. For example, the Royal 42th is The Black Watch of Scottish Highlanders. I don’t know Ridge’s relationship to the H.M. Greville, and cannot find a record of a ship with that name. British army units at that time did act as gold escorts.
Verses by Lola Ridge remains a hard-to-find text which will not enter the public domain in the U.S. until 2011, and will not enter the public domain in Australia until Australian copyright laws change. Yet the poems and annotations reveal a great deal about Ridge’s development as a poet, her travels and living situation, and early reception history. She was a poet of considerable dedication, writing a long manuscript using a variety of stanza forms and poetic techniques. These poems are not occasional verse or a mere sampler, but represent an attempt to feminize and even eroticize nature in poetry, to bring the situations she experienced in the gold fields of New Zealand to Australia, and to write in a female voice as well as a male voice. The poems show her attacking the problems of writing poems as a heterosexual woman, such as the problems of voice when describing nature as a woman in lyric and in narrative poetry. She was a poet of sufficient stature in Australia that she was able to submit an entire volume of poems to the leading poetry editor of the time and place.
 Verses, unpublished manuscript in the Alfred George Stephens papers (bound together with a manuscript by John Shaw Neilson), Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Australia. See http://www.slnsw.gov.au. Further inquiries may be made to the Curator of Manuscripts by fax (+61 2 9273 1248) or email ([email protected]).
 Biographical Note and Index to the Archive of the AG Stephens papers at Mitchell Library. See http://findaid.library.uwa.edu.au/dynaweb/findaid/stephens3/@Generic__BookView
 I do not know which manuscript of John Shaw Neilson is in the box with Verses. The contents entry reads, in part: Box MLMSS 4937/10 John Neilson, n.d.; John Shaw Neilson, ca. 1919; Lola Ridge, 1905. Typescript with MS. corrections and annotations. The three books by John Shaw Neilson published by AG Stephens are Heart of Spring (1919); Ballads and Lyrical Poems (1923); New Poems (1927). Poems are also available at the following John Shaw Neilson site: http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/neilsonjs/neilsonjs.html
 Verses has no table of contents, but rather an alphabetized index of titles.
Bio: Catherine Daly lives in Los Angeles. Tupelo Press will publish her first book, Locket, in 2003; another manuscript, Heresy, was a finalist in the 2002 National Poetry Series competition. She is at work on two collections of criticism: of contemporary experimental poetry written by women and of early modernist poetry written by women.