Tuesday, January 21, 2003

There are many instances of poets who do excellent work over a number of years & receive far too little credit for their labors. One poet who has been doing really eye & ear opening work for decades but who has yet to receive the giant festschrift & celebration that his writing deserves is Stephen Ratcliffe. He has been publishing books of poetry since 1983, 18 by my count, as well as a pair of critical volumes. There is no web page devoted to his work at the Electronic Poetry Center & Ratcliffe’s latest collection of poetry, SOUND / (system) isn’t even listed on the Green Integer web site, although it has a 2002 publication date & has been around for awhile.

SOUND / (system) consists of 240 sonnets, or, perhaps, as Tom Raworth would put it, 14-line poems, composed either very quickly – the book jacket gives a time span of just eight months – or fairly slowly – the dating after the final poem suggests a period of seven years seven months.* Each poem has a single word title & in fact several of them share titles – at one point there is a run of four consecutive poems entitled “Mouth.” As a whole, the project, we are told,

employed the letters of Henry James as a source in order to explore the poetics of narrative, sound as thought and the shape of words as meaning.

I’m not convinced that a reader needs necessarily to know (& certainly doesn’t have to like) James in order to read these poems. Ratcliffe has used source texts before, but always comes up with a work entirely his own.**

What moves me most about these poems is the complexity & deep beauty of their lines. Ratcliffe writes very close to the word & phoneme –by no coincidence, he has written one of the most insightful & useful pieces on Bob Grenier’s poetry – and this level of attention pays off again & again. Consider “Reverse”:

the position of the body
going on” (think)
to the heart
dedicated to “feeling”
a situation, the man who is anxious
from the standpoint of things
in relation to reading
a certain novel
(amounts) named by the woman
in confidence, complex
meaning her mind
about to ask (comparative)
what is touching
its failure to “decline”

So many of the lines here go in multiple directions or are filled with stops & pauses that those that do proceed straight through are palpable, their own radically separate music. Thus lines six through eight speed the text up – not unlike Raworth’s work for this small instant – only to slow it back down dramatically with the parenthetical “(amounts).” At one level, the poem proceeds through parts of the body, heart to head. Yet at another, the word “(think)” in the second line leads directly to “mind” in the eleventh. The poem is, at once, both very simple & extraordinarily complex – and manages to hold these twin possibilities not as a contradiction or conflict.

There is a lateral logic, line to line & sometimes within lines, both here & throughout much of Ratcliffe’s work. It’s a logic that reflects a Projectivist heritage, though more one of Projectivist prose – Creeley’s short fiction, for example, or the work of Douglas Woolf – as well as the writing, also often in prose forms, of Leslie Scalapino. It’s impossible, I think, to separate this logic from the close attention, point to point, that characterizes these poems – it’s not just that these two aspects of SOUND / (system)  fit one another well, but that each demands & generates the other.

I find myself reading many of these poems over & over, wanting to savor their processes, to internalize what Ratcliffe is doing. The use of the terms in parentheses above, for example, is quite interesting & happens to balance exactly with the number of words set off by quotation marks. It looks casual, almost incidental, but then you realize how the use of a comma to pause the language mid-line itself is balanced, once in the first half of the poem, once in the second. What you have is a text that is far more carefully crafted than anything the new formalists propose for the poem – think of that cringer by Sophie Hannah in yesterday’s blog.

I only have one qualm here. I find that with these poems it is easy for me to fall into a habit I have of either forgetting to read the titles, or remembering to do so only after I’ve read the body of the piece. The text seems so tightly woven that something as distant as a title feels extraneous – and this impression is probably underscored by having multiple poems share the same title. I think that this ultimately has more to do with my own issues with regards to titles*** than it does to Ratcliffe’s poetry. Yet at the same time, this reaction makes me realize that if there is a necessity for these poems to have these specific titles, I haven’t figured it out.

* I’m inclined to believe the latter. The publication is not without its errors: for example, mispagination in the table of contents.

** A good point of contrast might be the way John Cage uses the work of James Joyce. Reading Cage always returns me back to the source texts & has the feel of a degraded literary tourism. Ratcliffe’s work leads you absolutely into the writing itself. The source material is at most an “interesting fact,” for what you are reading is Ratcliffe writing, not some blurred version of a deferred original.

*** One reason to write long poems is to minimize the number of titles you have to write. & the absence of any need for a title is one feature I very much appreciate about the blog form as well.