EXCHANGE ON STEPHEN RATCLIFFE’S POETRY AND THINKING, PART II

Halden-Sullivan:  In the music of naming, the unity of sound and shape, the simultaneity of diverse aspects of thinking, and the parity of all things—a sense of humans cast among the thingliness of the world without asserting privilege—I hear projective echoes in your work of Charles Olson.  What poetic lineage might you construct for yourself—what poets moved you to such phenomenological endeavors?

Ratcliffe:  Hello again Judith, and thanks for this sense of my work and the question of what lies behind it, where it might come from, its “echoes” and “lineage.”  You mention Olson, certainly a figure encountered early on along with others even before that.  When I first started out to address your question I thought yes, he’s there, but what next. I realized that the lineage was made up of a complex web of many intersecting and not intersecting persons, all of whom have variously played a part in my work. So what I thought would be a simple answer (names: A, B, C, D) has turned into this narrative of where I’ve been and what I’ve done in my writing.

In the beginning was the word (“Ezra Pound”), handwritten on a small piece of paper by one of my senior year English teachers (Marshall Umpleby tall and thin, Robert Palazzi short and a bit round) at Burlingame High School, other names written on other pieces of paper given to other kids in the class.  The assignment must have been to do a report on a writer, and we all took a field trip up to the city to some kind of warehouse with lots of books on the shelves and we all got to pick one out.  (I used to think it was City Lights but no, looking inside the book again just now I find a small receipt tucked between pages 145-146: “FOLLETT’S BOOK STORE, 14 Feb 66, “[$] 1.98.) I found a hard cover copy Charles Norman’s biography Ezra Pound (Macmillan, 1960) with the image of Pound’s face from Lustra on the cover, which I read and still have, one of my treasures —

And on the very first page I met not only Pound but Williams, writing in this letter to his mother –

“Dear Mama, The reasons I didn’t write last Sunday was because I was out of town. My friend Pound invited me to spend Saturday and Sunday with him, so on Friday I wrote to you and then set off on my trip.”

Pound was eighteen and a half at that time and here I was, just seventeen and completely taken with the story of Pound’s life, the man whose face looks out from the cover of that book (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lustra).  “Before meeting Pound is like B.C. and A.D.” as Norman says Williams phrased it.  There I too met H.D. (also in the first chapter, “gay blue eyes . . . a long jaw . . .[having] that which is found in wild animals at times, a breathless impatience,” as Williams described it). Marianne Moore, Harriet Monroe, Eliot, Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce, Zukofsky and the rest; A Lume Spento (New Directions, 1965), Personae (New Directions, 1971), The ABC of Reading (New Directions, 1960), The Cantos; (New Directions, 1948); London, Paris, Rapallo, St. Elizabeths Hospital.  A whole world opened up, one whose threads I began, and still continue, to follow (Pound and his world would later and further be opened in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era [U.C. Press, 1971],  inscription in my copy reading “Stephen Ratcliffe / 7.76 / Bolinas”). Another first step that same spring led to the library at U.C. Berkeley, where my best friend Eric Westly and I went to listen to the 1958 Caedmon Records of Pound reading from his work: “Cantico del sol” (“The thought of what America would be like / If the classics had a wide circulation . . . / Oh well! / It troubles my sleep,” Cantos 1 (“And then went down to the ship,/ Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea“) and 45 (“With usura hath no man a house of good stone / each block cut smooth and well fitting”) and the rest – can still hear that voice in my head, even now, as I write this. 

Looking back through my papers at things written during those early years I can hear echoes, see footprints of the poets whose work I had begun to read.  Shaped and sprawling typographic poems in high school in the manner of cummings –

Home-spun plain speaking poems in the manner of Frost  – one poem titled “Stopping on the Hills in the Quarter-Moonlight” begins “Walking alone / Beneath twisted green limbs / Above an old winding path / Rising and descending / In the quarter-moonlight, / I see the city lights /Alive in the low distance.”  Short-lined teenage lyric love poems in the manner of early Pound – “The sight of my love / is dawn rise / lighting the sky / She comes from the water / smiling and / dripping wet / My eyes watch as she looks away . . . I will tell her of my love / and send beautiful gifts to her          red wine and a cooing pigeon / I will fight the other young men / until I alone can claim her / Then I may justly go to her bed.” followed later by a typed transcription of Pound’s “LA FRAISNE.”  A 4-page single spaced long-lined meditation begun on a family trip driving up along the Big Sur coast titled “Along the Way,” which seems to echo Eliot’s Four Quartets (Faber and Faber, nd) – “Narrow is the road we follow / As it takes its twisted course / Along the cliffs, above / The sea, below / The Fog enshrouded sky. . . . In this moment of timelessness / Past becomes present and present nepenthe. / The mystery flowers / With blossoms of knowledge /        Nothing is Entity. . . .  And the sea, le vieux sujet des poètes: / Hero and villain, mother and tempest, friend and foe. / But always – always the sea . . . .”  Youthful attempts at trying to write poems, having decided by then that I wanted to be a poet.  I used to sit outside on the grass under a tree at lunch time at Burlingame High talking with my friends about Pound and Eliot and the other poets we were reading; had already gone to see Bob Dylan playing on the gym floor at the College of San Mateo after having heard Another Side of Bob Dylan; going on to edit a literary magazine at the end of my senior year publishing our own work. 

Going up to Reed College in the fall of 1966 (my first year there) I found a hardcover copy of The Cantos in the bookstore and started reading it.  And later that semester, or maybe it was in the spring, Gary Snyder came to read at Reed – like the return of the hero, standing room only in the Chapel, everyone was reading The Back Country (New Directions,1968) at that time, at least I was.  Just after the end of that spring semester, Ginsberg also came to read at Reed; I missed it, having gone home after that event, but we all knew who he was (it was 1967 after all, the Summer of Love was about to happen) and as I heard later he ended up sleeping in my dorm room.  That summer, having joined the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, I shipped out on two trips to the Far East on the S.S. President Roosevelt (San Francisco, Honolulu, Yokohama, Hong Kong, Manila and back again through all those ports), following in Snyder’s seafaring footsteps and reading Joyce’s Ulysses (Random House, 1961) along the way.  And the next summer, having joined the climbing club at Reed and climbing Mt. Hood and Three-Fingered Jack in Oregon (again following Snyder’s footsteps it seems), I hitchhiked to the Grand Tetons and climbed the Grand itself, keeping a small green notebook in my backpack and thinking of Eliot’s line in The Wasteland (“In the mountains, there you feel free,” Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934). And in the summer of 1969 sailing from Long Beach to Hawaii in the Trans Pacific ocean race (two weeks across, three weeks there fixing up the boat to return, three weeks back to San Francisco), and in the fall writing 40 pages of a prose work called “TransPacific” (epigraph: “When you are still you will find the earth is infinitely loud”), influenced as I now see by N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain (University of New Mexico Press, 1969), who had studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford and with whom I was then taking a class at Berkeley, followed the next spring by a long-lined poem called “On the Yacht Valkyrie II,” echoing Winters’ “The Slow Pacific Swell,” whose work I had by then begun to read.

During my three semesters at Reed I took the required Humanities class (starting with The Iliad and going up to the Romantic poets) and Greek with Frederic Peachy, who had done the Greek translations in the Annotated Index to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (U.C. Press, 1959.).  Dropping out of Reed after that third semester, I began to write “The Book of Ping,” a 25-page prose echo of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Viking, 1964) – one epigraph from Blake whom we had read that semester in the Humanities class (“I look through the eye, not with it”) and another from Buber whom I had picked up on my own (“It has no density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held. . . .”), which begins:

Dawn came and he awoke.

Dawn came and I awoke. The big sun always came up red and then yellow over the hill and into the blue sky, but daddy said that really the world went around the sun; around and around.  Some of the stars also went around the sun.

            Star light, star bright,

            First star I see tonight

Daddy said that was the evening star Venus. But mommy had a picture by her bed of a fat lady called Venus too. Fat Venus who didn’t have any clothes on; sometimes that seemed funny, but mommy said it was beautiful.

and broken off with a Stephen Dedalus-like villanelle that begins

Must I now strive to touch the skies,

Confront the wiles of Hecate?

The time has come that I be wise.

By the time I got to Berkeley in the spring of 1968 all sorts of other doors began to open up.  I took almost nothing but English classes, the four surveys, Shakespeare’s plays with Janet Adelman, Understanding Poetry with Josephine Miles (Wyatt’s opening lines in her anthology The Ways of the Poem (Prentice Hall, 1961) continue to sound in the mind –

Forget not yet the tried intent

Of such a truth as I have meant;

The great travail so gladly met

                Forget not yet.),

Modern American Poetry with James Breslin, Contemporary Poetry with Richard Tillinghast, Independent Studies with Raymond Oliver (who had also once studied with Winters at Stanford and whose book on Medieval English lyrics, Poems Without Names (U.C. Press, 1970), presented me with another unknown world of poetry as well as how one might think and write about it) and others; followed in the graduate program by more classes with Bundy (a close reading paper on Horace’s Ode I.9, “Vides ut alta set nive candidum” – whose rhythms and sense of word placement are echoed in “Waterfall,” a poem I wrote at this time which begins

Over glacial smooth granite

the current sweeps

as it must, swift

in the white rush of winter

– and another on Winters’ “A Summer Commentary”), Oliver again (a paper on Ben Jonson called “Language as Discovery: the Plain Style”), Stephen Greenblatt (a short paper on editorial considerations in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 followed by a long paper on Wyatt called “‘Poetic Voice’ and the English Lyric, 1500-1600” with epigraphs from Ben Jonson, Cunningham and Olson), Tom Parkinson (a paper on Olson called “a PROJECTIVE poetics / (AND) / a review of / (MAXIMUS IV, V, VI”) and others. There was also a Comp. Lit. class with Momaday and another with Elroy Bundy, noted professor in the Classics Department who had written monographs on Pindar’s Odes and credited Winters with saving his life from the depths of alcohol.  We used to go to his house for those classes which met one night a week, spent hours talking about poems by poets in the Winters canon (Edgar Bowers’ “The Astronomers of Mont Blanc,” Louise Bogan’s “Simple Autumnal,” J.V. Cunningham’s chiseled epigram “On Doctor Drink,” Paul Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin,” along with poems by Bundy himself, whose language and syntax was as dense in English as Pindar’s must have been in Greek). Looking up words in the OED, Eric Partridge’s Origins (Macmillan, 1958, my copy of which had been in my parents’ library when I was growing up) and other books stacked on the floor beside Bundy’s chair, it was here that I began to learn about the possibilities of “close reading,” how the relations between words in poems work – words moving horizontally (across the line) and vertically (up and down through the poem), carrying with them their etymological roots whether we know it or not.  And though I didn’t take any Creative Writing courses, I did take a translation workshop in the spring of 1970 taught by Peter Whigham, who had worked with Pound in Italy and had translated the 1966 Penguin edition of Catullus, turning that Latin into wonderfully lively short-lined free verse English poems.  I began that class by translating some of the short lyric poems of Joachim du Bellay’s Jeux Divers Rustiques (which later appeared as part of my second little book of poems, Rustic Diversions, (Echo Park Press, 1988; see lines in “Exchange” part 1), went on to translate Mallarmé’s “L’Aprés-Midi d’un faune,” which won the Emily Chamberlain Cook Poetry Prize and later became my first published poem (Translation 108, the class magazine, then Hyperion, 1971).  And that fall, having taken the Latin Workshop in the summer before starting into the graduate program, I translated one of Propertius’s elegies (Book IV, vii, “Sunt aliquid Manes,” inspired no doubt by Pound’s “Homage”), and went on a few years later to translate some of Campion’s Latin epigrams, a dozen of which were later published in Poetry (130.2).

Thomas Campion’s songs, as it turned out – the words plus the music, Campion being only poet of the English Renaissance to write both words and music – became the subject of the thesis I would go on to write.  Not all of his songs in fact, just one, “Now winter nights enlarge” (The Third Booke of Ayres, 12) –

Well-known in his own lifetime but forgotten until his songs (words only) were rediscovered in Bullen’s Lyrics from the Song-Books of the Elizabethan Age (1887), Campion now takes his place in the pantheon of English poets. I was led to him by the poets I had been reading who knew about him.  Pound for one, who as London editor for Little Review had pointed to Campion in a 1917 letter to Margaret Anderson:

And I desire also to resurrect the art of the lyric, I mean words to be sung, for Yeats’ only wail and submit to keening and chaunt (with a u) and Swinburne’s only rhapsodify.  And with few exceptions (a few in Browning) there is scarcely anything since the time of Waller and Campion. And a mere imitation of them won’t do. (Norman 202)

and may have had Campion in the back of his mind when he wrote that “poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music” (ABC of Reading 14).  Eliot had also mentioned Campion, calling him “except for Shakespeare . . . the most accomplished master of rhymed lyric of his time”  (“The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” 1933).  Zukofsky, talking about “the component of  sound in poetry, as conveyed by rendition, comprises sound that is . . . Sung (to a melody, i.e. a musical phrase or idea. Some of the best examples in English are Campion’s poems . . . .” (Prepositions 1950).  Creeley too, in his 1954 review of Williams’s Selected Essays, in speaking about Williams’s “On Measure – Statement for Cid Corman” had pointed to Campion:

Thomas Campion, who was both musician and poet, and who also said he paid no attention to any ‘measure.’ He gave his attention to the words and the rhythms, which they carried in them, to be related there as they occurred. This is very clear, of course, reading any of his poems (The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley, U.C. Press, 1989).

He then quotes the words of one of Campion’s poems, “Kinde are her answeres” and goes on to compare it to the measure in Williams’ poem “The World Narrowed to a Point,” which he says “involves us in that same character of variation which makes Campion himself such a delight” (Selected Essays, U.C. Press, 1989, 36-37). Winters had also singled out Campion for praise in Forms of Discovery (Alan Swallow, 1966), which I had been reading since 1969 (the time of my first class with Bundy), noting how in “Now winter nights enlarge”

The first two lines, if considered literally, make a simple statement about the increased length of the winter nights; but the first stop at the end of the first lines gives us the momentary illusion of a spatial image, as if the nights were expanding visibly (38).

And finally Auden, in his edition of Selected Songs of Thomas Campion (David Godine, 1973) calling him “the greatest master in English poetry of what the French symbolist poets called la poésie pure” (11).

In part because of his reputation, but also because no one had said much about him other than that he was a great poet because he wrote both words and music (as he himself said in the Preface to Two Bookes of Ayres: “In these English Ayres, I have chiefely aymed to couple my Words and Notes lovingly together, which will be much for him to doe that hath not power over both”), I set out to answer the question “What’s so good about Thomas Campion?” I also thought it would be useful to me as a poet to see what exactly Campion did that made him so good.  Stephen Booth, who I’d never taken a class from but had been on the committee for the PhD orals exam (which I almost failed, fumbling my answer to a softball question about Satan’s role in Book IV of Paradise Lost), guided me through the work of the thesis. His book An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969) and edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets  (Yale, 1977) presented me with models of the kind of close reading I would go on to do with Campion. Living in Bolinas at that point, I would send Booth notes and drafts and eventually chapters of what I had written and he would send them back to me, covered with marginal notes along with pages of numbered notes as well. At the end of nine months my labor had produced a thesis (“’Well-Tun’d Words’: The Aesthetics of Song Demonstrated in the Work of Thomas Campion”), which was published not long thereafter as Campion: On Song (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).

The book points out and describes what is obvious (but also hardly if ever noticed), insisting on the obvious and on its aesthetic vitality (unnoticed effects being more effective than noticed ones). It talks in detail about the words and music of “Now winter nights enlarge” – the syntax and substance of its words, the phonetic structure of its words, its music, and the rhythms of its words and music together. There is also a long appendix that gives examples of the kinds of things I talk about in that one song which take place throughout Campion’s songs – things like inexact formal end rhymes (“love” / “move”), disyllabic end rhymes (“easely broke” / “sturdy Oke”), and rhyming and rhyme-like relationships at the beginnings of formally end-rhymed lines (“No drum” / “Unless”).  It also talks about the presence of what I call “the principle of rhyme” in Campion’s songs – how what makes that one song so good is its multiplicity of parts and patterns whose simultaneous likeness and unlikeness pull them simultaneously together and apart. To take one simple example, as I say in the book

The words “cat” and “rat” rhyme phonetically as three-letter monosyllables that share the same at sound; they also rhyme ideationally, as mutually antagonistic members of a shared domestic relationship.  Pulling together and pushing apart, attracted and opposed at the same time, the words correspond and are unified as components in a dynamic, multi-faceted rhyme: they do both what “cat” and “hat” do and what “cat” and “dog” do.”

So also in “Now winter nights enlarge,” which is the unification of two detachable identities, made in two different kinds of raw material, words and music.  And so also in Campion’s words by themselves: syntactic structures arranged in lines and in relation to ideas; the sounds of letters in syllables and words also arranged in lines and across lines also in relation to (and interaction with) one another; the rhythms of words moving across the line and from one line to the next; the sounds of words when they are sung in relation to the notes to which they are set. Campion tuned my attention to all this and more, and what I saw and heard in that one song has stayed with me and continues to be an informing presence in my work.

By the time I finished the Campion project I had been living in Bolinas for five years.  I had a wife and a three year old daughter.  I was ready for something else, and that something came from Bill Berkson.  We had become close friends by then, having met through our wives, the first poet I got to know in Bolinas (though I had seen Creeley driving around in his old VW, we didn’t meet until years later, after he had moved away from Bolinas).  At some point Bill gave me a set of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E pamphlets, which opened up a lot of doors, a whole new world for me. I started reading the writers therein, Charles Bernstein for one, whose Content’s Dream (Sun and Moon, 1986) showed how one could write outside the box of academic literary criticism – others being Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books, 1985) and Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence (Roof Books, 1987), all of which helped to inspire the essays I put together in Listening to Reading (SUNY Press, 2000) – and Tjanting (The Figures, 1981), which I carried in my backpack on a long trip through Europe in 1982 and which showed me the possibility of writing a long procedural work composed of details from one’s daily life.  Bill also introduced me to his world of New York – paintings by Kline and Guston on his wall, shelves of jazz albums I hadn’t known before.  And introduced me to his friends as well – Clark Coolidge, Rudy Burckardt and Yvonne Jacquette, who visited here in Bolinas and in whose loft I stayed for the summer of 1985 when I went to New York to an NEH Summer Institute at NYU, meeting among others there Hugh Kenner, hero author of The Pound Era. When I went to New York the first time (1982), Bill made a list of people to see and things to do: Ron Padgett’s phone number and address, George Schneeman’s too; how to take the L train uptown from where I was staying at 3rd and B to the Metropolitan and MOMA and Frick and what to see there. That trip led to my first book of poems, New York Notes, published by Michael Wolfe’s Tombouctou Books in 1983.

Bill also gave me the idea for a project (“write a poem using a fixed vocabulary,” one of Bernadette Mayer’s now famous but unknown then to me “Experiments”) which became the book Distance (Avenue B, 1986), a series of one hundred prose poems originally called Random House, all of its words coming out of The Random House Dictionary. Having sent the manuscript to several presses whose editors I thought might be interested (they were but couldn’t do it – too backed up, no money, going out of business) I decided to start my own press to publish it, thinking of Whitman among others, who had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The book Random House was by then called Distance, a friend having suggested that Random House the company might object to my use of their name (he was right, when I wrote to ask they were quick to reply: Random House was a trademark their team of lawyers would make sure to protect). Eleven other Avenue B books followed Distance, one a year at first, by writers whose work informed my sense of what is possible in writing: Maxine Chernoff’s Japan (1987), twenty-six poems, one for each letter of the alphabet; Ron Padgett’s Among the Blacks (1988), Padgett’s translation of Raymond Roussel’s story Parmi les noir together with his memoir of growing up in the racist environment of Tulsa; Jackson Mac Low’s Words nd Ends from Ez (1989), a rewriting of Pound’s Cantos using what he called his “diastic chance selection method”; Michael Davidson’s Post Hoc (1990), a linked sequence of poems that investigates the specious logic by which an event appears to be caused by a previous event (“Post hoc ergo propter hoc”); Ted Berrigan’s Talking in Tranquility (1991, published together with Leslie Scalapino’s O Books), a collection of nine interviews (several in which he talks about The Sonnets [United Artists, 1982], one with Tom Clark, who lived in Bolinas when I moved there and with whom I began an extensive correspondence in the years before he died) and a long conversation with Clark Coolidge; Elizabeth Willis’s Second Law (1993), a terse and precise series of linked linguistic structures that explores what takes place between perception and the surface(s) perceived; and Clark Coolidge’s Registers / People In All (1994), fifty sections of three-line fast-forward chords driving to explore how sheets of sound can be made to echo. The making of all these books was a labor of love (as well as an education in itself), the books themselves inspiring and in various unconscious ways echoed in my own. 

Finally also these other writers who have shown me the way (as in what might be possible) – Heroes and Elders and The Company as Creeley would say, many of whom I wrote about in Listening to Reading:

Gertrude Stein, whose attention to the materiality of words as physical and acoustic objects (actual things) in Tender Buttons and the portraits of Matisse and Picasso and Lectures like “Composition as Explanation” and “Portraits and Repetition,” which became the title of my first 474-page book Portraits & Repetition (The Post-Apollo Press, 2002), collected in Writings and Lectures 1909–1945 (Penguin, 1971) continue to show how, as Ulla Dydo says, “to ‘see  clear’ and say what [one] sees in the immediate world” (A Stein Reader , Northwestern UP, 1993, 151), the sound of her reading voice in the 1935 Caedmon recordings still leaving an indelible mark in one’s ear. 

And Louis Zukofsky, whose essays collected in Prepositions (U.C. Press, 1981) make precisely clear the relation between sound and sense in a poem – “The components of the poetic object continued: the sound and pitch emphasis of a word are never apart from its meaning” (“An Objective”) and “Words – consisting of syllables, in turn made up of phones that are denoted by letters that were once graphic symbols or pictures” (“A Statement for Poetry”), and whose sound translations of Catullus and the long poem A (U.C. Press, 1978) demonstrate these principles put into action.

And John Cage, whose shaped- and scored-on-the-page “Lecture on Nothing” and “Lecture on Something” in Silence (Wesleyan UP, 1961) are examples of how music and poetry can be made to intersect, and whose chance methods of composition generated in works like Themes & Variations (Station Hill, 1982), “mesostics on the names of fifteen men who have been important to me in my life and work” as he writes which I heard him give a timed one hour reading of New York, give one the sense of how writing can be based on other previous writing.

And Jackson Mac Low, whose procedural methods of writing through (re-reading, re-enacting) a previously written source text such as Pound’s Cantos likewise opened up the possibility that writing can echo writing, come out of not only one’s experience of the world but also other writing as well (the world of words).

And Susan Howe, whose “writing ghost writing” by means of collage, assemblage, the reconfigurations of others’ words and lines in books like Articulations of Sound Forms in Time (Awede Press, 1987) and a bibliography of the king’s book or, eikon basilike (paradigm press, 1989), which asks “What is a pure text invented by an author? Is such a conception possible?” suggests that all texts are “heirs” – echoes, sound(ed) reenactments of previous texts, to which in reading we listen.

And Larry Eigner, whose “invention” of shaped space on the two-dimensional page (typed with only right index finger and thumb on his old Royal manual typewriter) registers a world of perception and thought taking place in the more than 3,000 numbered and dated poems written over a span of more than 40 years and at last published in the original typeface as The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner (Stanford University Press, 2010) presents the possibility of poems as physical events, bodies whose parts (typed) “count”: as lines recording (imagining) perceptions, divisions between lines the passage of time.

And Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, whose books of  long-lined poems written clear across the horizontal page (Empathy, Station Hill Press,1989; Sphericity, Kelsey Street Press, 1993; Four Year Old Girl; Kelsey Street, 1998; and others) suggest how the long line could be made as a new kind of visual shape on the page bringing with it a new kind of acoustic sound in the air: where it is going in the time it takes to get there being the sound it makes, in words that make the world in its own sound (shape) as thought.

And Barbara Guest, especially late poems in Quill,   Solitary   Apparition (Post-Apollo, 1996), Symbiosis (Kelsey Street, 2000), Miniatures (Wesleyan UP, 2000) and The Red Gaze (Wesleyan, 2005), which she was writing and sending me poems from during the time we began our correspondence (nearly 190 email and USP letters between November 1993 and December 1994) forthcoming this year as Barbara Guest : Stephen Ratcliffe : Letters from Chax Press, focus attention on the vibrating resonance of each word in the line placed in the white space of the page; and also the essays collected in Forces of Imagination (Kelsey Street, 2003), which became for me another instance of how a poet could write inspired criticism, what Ashbery called “a kind of prose that is itself on the verge of being poetry.”

And Lyn Hejinian, whose books like Writing is an Aid to Memory (The Figures, 1978) and My Life (Burning Deck, 1980; Sun & Moon, 1987) are records of the mind at work as it sifts through memory and perception, echoing what it thinks; and whose essays in The Language of Inquiry (U.C. Press, 2000), especially “The Rejection of Closure” and “Two Stein Talks,” were to me both eye- and mind-opening investigations of things I was myself thinking about and examples of how one might write about writing (i.e., poetics).

And Leslie Scalapino, friend and inspired presence, the sound of her voice going on in everything she wrote – from the earliest North Point Press books (considering how exaggerated music is (1982), that they were at the beach (1985), and way (1988),  to the essays collected in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold Potes & Poets, 1989; Litmus Press, 2011) to the plays (Flow – Winged Crocodile & A Pair/Actions Are Erased/Appear, Chax, 2010) to the last works (The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, The Post-Apollo Press, 2010) and The Animal is in the World like Water in Water, Compline, 2013) – continuing to be heard in everything I write.

And Joanne Kyger, friend and neighbor in Bolinas, whose commitment to the breath line and shape of the poem on the page, and whose attention to detail of local place (her backyard, the watershed, the Pacific Rim) and moments of daily life as well as events in the world beyond one’s immediate perception, continues as a presence in my own sense of what a poem might look like on the page and how the daily writing of it might take place.

And Robert Grenier, also friend and neighbor in Bolinas, whose hand-drawn (“scrawled”) poems in four-colors of ink (red, green, blue, black) call one’s attention to the fact of letters in space, and to the shape of letters and the sound they make, and to the arrangement of words in lines and across lines on the page, not only document and testify to the present phenomena of things going on around him during the time of writing them down, but also make those letters and words become those things they refer to, talk about, literally “picture.” (Bob and I recorded  sixteen “conversations” about all such things between 2001 and 2010, all of which are available at PennSound (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ratcliffe-Grenier.php).

Halden-Sullivan:   There is a patterned, procedural—even highly determined–character to your current verse in terms of periods of time for composition and shape.  In  SOUND / (system) (Green Integer 2002), you prepared a 14-line poem per day for the period of 1 June 1991 through 31 January 1992—meditations upon language, knowing, and sound in response to Henry James’s letters.  In Real (2007), you offered, as I noted, 474 days of poems, each 17 lines written in a double-spaced block.  Volumes I and II of sound wave in channel (BlazeVOX 2018) offer 1,000 days of poems, each text nine lines in length, opening with a three-line evocation of the same ridge and channel, followed by four lines (two couplets) of reflection, such as:

say to be in present, not
far removed from it

but has lost contact, not
with but how, “real”
 . . . .  (5.15)

and moving to day 5.16:

human look, figure set up
that being that has

them, makes sure as depth,
perhaps say is this
. . . .

–and closing with two-line accounts of the ridge and the waves breaking in the nearby channel in that day’s closing moment.  Please discuss the discipline and consistent efforts demanded by such a daily regimen of careful attention, in particular, for example, your process for manifesting Temporality, your collection of poems currently unfolding on-line.  How much revision do you permit yourself, given your commitment to showing thinking situated in time and space?   What guides your choices—that have varied throughout your anthologies—of line lengths, number of lines, and the overall appearance and sounds of utterances on the page? 

Ratcliffe:  Yes thanks for this Judith, the “patterned, procedural – even highly determined” nature of all this work.  The writing of daily poems going back through the now six completed 1,000-page books (the current one, called m o m e n t, still going on, page 674 today), and before that the three 474-page books, and before those Painting, and Idea’s Mirror and Conversation Scupture and SOUND / (system) and Selected Letters and Mallarmé: poem in prose and Present Tense and spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from and Present Tense, going back to the early 1980s or so, all of which I’ve talked about in Part 1 of our EXCHANGE.  So what began sort of by chance with Present Tense say (scribbling notes on yellow pages and in notebooks during the day, transcribing them that night for a year, after which I typed them up) became as time went by more of a disciplined “practice,” what I do today and have been doing for years now – writing the poem by hand in a notebook every morning and then typing it on the computer (getting the visual shape of the poem on the page “right,” each poem in the book having the same shape – same number of lines, same lengths of corresponding lines from one poem to the next), then as you say here posting it on the website Temporality (http://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/) which I started on May 1, 2009 (4,287 poems to date, together with photographs beginning on June 1, 2011).  

The first poems I put up on the website Temporality were those I was writing at that time, which eventually became the third 1,000-page book, also called Temporality, written between April 10, 2008 and January 4, 2011. The poems in the previous two 1,000 page books (HUMAN / NATURE and Remarks on Color / Sound) did not appear there; all of the other books (c o n t i n u u m, sound of wave in channel, w i n d o w, and now m o m e n t) have; and all of the six completed books are also now available at Editions Eclipse (http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/HUMAN/human.html).  And so as you see each poem goes from the hand-written draft in notebook to the typed finished poem being posted on Temporality in one day (mostly one morning), no other “revision” taking place – until that is it has come time to publish the whole book, either as part of Editions Eclipse or, in the case of sound of wave in channel (BlazeVOX [books], 2018) as a printed book (more of those to follow one day, I hope). I think of the process of writing these daily poems as something like a practice, “composition as meditation,” as Stein (almost but not quite) said.  It takes some discipline of course, just to do it every day, but once one started with it (gets into the habit, so to speak) it becomes a kind of second nature – something you wouldn’t want not to do, a good way to start the day (just like, for me, getting into the water for a surf or paddle every morning, after which whatever else happens can follow).  So the writing of the poem takes place first thing in the morning, waking up to it and getting it done, although for me the background work for writing the poem (seeing and listening/hearing and reading and writing things down in a notebook) goes on during the day and into the evening.

When I write these long durational works, by the time I get toward the end I find that I’ve really figured out what I’m doing.  It seems to take a long time to get it, because each book invents a new form – number of lines, shape on the page, what’s going on.  The day to day materials of things seen and heard and read continue from one book to the next, but the poems themselves, the object on the page, has changed. When I start in to each new book I don’t quite know what I’m doing, but somewhere along the way I realize that I’ve figured it out, how to do it – how, as Creeley might have said, to put the “content” (words) into the “form” (visual-shape-on-the-page, determined in all of these works by Courier, the equivalent spacing typewriter font):  that is, as I was saying in Part 1 of this EXCHANGE, the 5 couplets of Portraits & Repetition (first line three spaces longer than the second); the 17 lines of each prose-looking poem (line breaks intended) of REAL; the 14 (sonnet-like) lines variously indented and divided into five stanzas of CLOUD / RIDGE; and, following these 474-page books,  the 10 lines variously indented and divided into four stanzas of HUMAN / NATURE; the 9 lines divided into four stanzas (3, 2, 2, 2; the two middle stanzas indented) of Remarks on Color / Sound; the 9 lines again divided into four stanzas (3, 2, 2, 2; the two middle stanzas again indented; first lines of each the same length, second lines of each also the same length, but shorter) of Temporality); the 9 lines again divided into four stanzas (the two middle pairs of lines again indented, the first line of each pair the same length and the second also the same length but shorter; the lines in the first and last stanzas all the same length) of c o n t i n u u m; the 9 lines again divided into four stanzas (the first three and last two lines the same length, the two middle pairs of lines indented, the first lines of those couplets each five spaces longer than the second lines) of sound of wave in channel; the 8 lines divided into four stanzas (each line the same exact length) of w i n d o w; and finally in the current still-ongoing work, the 8 lines separated by double spaces (each line exactly the same length) of m o m e n t.

In these long durational works that unfold piece by piece, day by day over an extended period of time, time passes and work takes place; one can’t see the whole thing, or hold it all in the mind – it’s incremental.  And the work that takes place over this extended period of time is about time, about the passing of time and what takes place in it – the duration is indeed the message, to paraphrase McLuhan; the time of the writing and the time passing in the writing are the same, to paraphrase Stein.  In other words, these works are an exploration of the continuous present, as Stein also called it.  And just as it takes a long time to write them it would also take a long time to read them – if one were inclined to do so, which doesn’t seem likely, at least not in one sitting.  One way to read them would be one page at a time (one page a day say, like a calendar, the way I wrote them); or maybe a month of pages at a time (again like a calendar, the time it took to write them, 30 days or so, reduced to the time it takes to read them, maybe 15 minutes?).  And by extension, if one were to read all 1,000 pages together at once, the time it took to write them (one thousand days) would be reduced to a matter of hours.  But again, although I have done several long, 14-hour readings of a number of these works (more on that later), no one I imagine would set out to do that.  And if one were to set out to read the whole book, it would not be possible to hold any part of it in the mind, at least for very long: the 1,000 page text is in some ways an unreadable text (and also, it seems these days, unprintable).

A final word about duration, that is, the numbers of pages and poems in these books.  As I said in Part I of this EXCHANGE, the counting of poems/pages has played a part in many of my books: 100 pages in Distance, the 365 pages of the original text of Present Tense; the 154 poems in [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG; the 88 poems/pages (like keys on a piano) of spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from; the 100 poems in Mallarmé: poem in prose; the 240 poems in SOUND / (system); the 144 (twelve squared) 12-line poems in Idea’s Mirror; the 81 (nine squared) 9-line poems in Painting; and all these followed by the three 474-page books, beginning with Portraits & Repetition.  At a certain point in writing that book I found myself thinking “this is getting too long, who will publish it, I’ve got to stop.  And so at page 474 I stopped, thinking that was a pretty good number – something like 747 (the jet), also a palindrome.  And then after awhile I started up again, thinking I could write another 474-page book (which became REAL) and then another after that (which became CLOUD / RIDGE).  And then I thought, why not something longer, maybe a thousand pages would be possible, thinking of Stein’s The Making of Americans, “A book one thousand pages long, and I worked over it three years,” as she says in “The Gradual Making of The Making of Americans,”(Writings and Lectures, 91), which in the Dalkey Archive 1995 edition logs in at 925 pages.

Halden-Sullivan:  In Temporality, you incorporate your original photography.  Why did you choose to include this type of visual mode alongside your language?  Was this photographic inclusion a tribute to the poesia visiva of the late Leslie Scalapino?

Ratcliffe:  Yes, the photos!  I’ve been taking pictures for more than 50 years, ever since I got my first camera in Yokohama when I shipped out on the S.S. President Roosevelt in 1968.  When I began posting the poems in c o n t i n u u m (as the book which began on January  5,  2011, the day after Temporality ended, on the website Temporality), I didn’t include photographs with them.  The first photo appears on June 1, 2011, the view looking out at the Bolinas ridge taken from my back door:  “grey white cloud against top of shadowed / ridge” as that poem begins (https://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/2011/06/61.html). As time went on, I began to see that there was a kind of triangulation going on:  the word-image of the poem, the wordless image of photograph, the world out there itself – all of these related, none of them quite the same.  The space of things/actions/events in the world appearing in the space of letters/words/lines on the page (the first three and last two lines of which “describe” what is seen (and heard) out there in the world), likewise also appearing in the photograph (of ridge, sky, tree) as the wordless image of that world.  The words and photographs positioned on the two-dimensional page pointing toward that world – recording, documenting, testifying to, realizing, celebrating, invoking, enacting what’s out there in the world.  As if the words could bring those things/actions/events into existence, make them BE (themselves).  Words making the things I look at/hear “look like themselves,” as Stein once said, and also sound like themselves (“sound of wave in channel” repeated, insisted upon again and again, the sound of the words in the poem becoming the sound of waves in the channel.

By the time I got to the end of the next book, sound of wave in channel, the wordless image in the photograph looking out at the ridge again showing what the opening lines in the poem shows in words (https://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/2016/06/626.html / “light coming into fog against invisible / ridge”), I had decided that it was time to change photographs as well as the form/shape of the poem – a bit of a crisis at the time!  But in the next few days I had fixed upon a new shape for the poems that became the new book, w i n d o w, and a new “view” for the photographs to go with them – here the first line (“ridge in window opposite unmade yellow and blue bed”) along with the picture’s wordless image (https://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/2016/06/627.html).  Those window photos have continued into the current work, m o m e n t, the minimalist image of square window framed by black walls of my bedroom views when I wake up each morning somehow seeming to fit square shape and clipped language of the work, as here (I hope) in today’s poem https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/5356039418422135632/5407054536443493364?hl=en.

Finally, I didn’t have Leslie Scalapino in mind when I began to put the photographs together with the poems, but certainly love those books – Crowd and not evening or light (O Books and Sun & Moon, 1992; O Books, 2010) and The Tango (Granary Books, 2001).  I’m not sure what prompted me to include the photo with the poem part way into the writing of c o n t i n u u m (from January 1 to May 31, 2011 only words posted on Temporality ; from June 1 to end on September 30, 2013words plus photographs [https://stephenratcliffe.blogspot.com/2011/06/61.html] and thereafter poems-plus-photos of ridge clear through the writing of sound of wave in channel.  Altogether I’ve posted some 1,824 photos of the ridge and nearly 1,700 photos of the window together with the poems from those days in parts or all four books.  The photos present two different views of the same thing (the ridge below the sky across the field); the ones looking through the upstairs bedroom window framed by the blackness of its walls are like looking at the ridge through the wrong end of a telescope.  They are also part of the nearly 140,000 photos I’ve taken since 2011 (according to my iPhotos), some of which I continue to post on my Facebook and Instagram pages every day, in case anyone would like to take a look.  I could say more about all of this but it’s probably time to stop.

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