July 7, 1948 |
Stephen Ratcliffe (born July 7, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts) is a contemporary U.S. poet and critic who has published numerous books of poetry and three books of criticism. He lives in Bolinas, CA and is the publisher of Avenue B Press. Formerly the director of the Creative Writing program at Mills College in Oakland, CA where he has been an instructor for more than 25 years, Ratcliffe continues to teach Creative Writing (poetry) and Literature (poetry, Shakespeare) courses there.
Not explicitly attached to any specific poetry “movement” or “school”, Ratcliffe has “collected influences from all (or many) different poetries". The focus of much of Ratcliffe’s recent work from the past decade is on the "long poem / book" written in consecutive days, ‘rooted’/ ‘grounded’ in the place where he lives and does his work: Bolinas.
Ratcliffe’s creative output is prodigious and much of it (especially his more recent work) remains unpublished in traditional formats. However, with the increased viability of blogs and digital publishing sites, Ratcliffe's work has morphed along with a shifting audience into the "age of the internet": by the end of the first decade of this new century, he will have published three major book projects in digital formats.
|“||“with the internet everyone knows what’s going on even if they can’t see/hear it"||”|
Ratcliffe acknowledges this shift and its effect as problematic, both for his writing and on the reader's consciousness. Stating what seems at first thought obvious or self-evident turns out to have lasting implications on the fate of poetry in an uncertain future. It raises profound questions for the particular epistemological situation which is that of being a "reader", a unique situation that Ratcliffe refers to as (and names) "listening to reading".
During a career spanning four decades, Ratcliffe has developed a singular writing practice, one in which he insistently and tirelessly makes any particular or given source text/influence his own through a rigorous commitment to documentation, observation, recording, routine, appropriation and constraint.
|“||the relation between patterns in the three-dimensional, physical world ‘out there’ and the two-dimensional, physical world of the poem on the page... . And that’s part of what I’m trying to get at here, figure out here: what is that relation between what’s ‘going on’ in the world (‘there’) and on the page (‘here’)?||”|
But more than that, it’s a way of being in the moment, making writing part of that moment, word and event becoming synchronous, writing as ‘contemplative practice,’ as Norman Fischer has put it, which I like, and like to think of, as a way that might describe what I’m doing in my work. . . .
|Stephen Ratcliffe in 2009|
Life and work
Ratcliffe moved to the San Francisco Bay area when he was 4 and has lived in Bolinas, CA since 1973 where he has, over the years, developed associations among a circuit of artists, writers, and poets living and working there and in the surrounding area.
Stephen Ratcliffe's "Two Hejinian Talks" are a model of careful reading that gives play to the multiple associations allowed for by such shifting frames of reference. We don't usually read this way, but his analysis accounts for the sense of richness we have in reading Lyn Hejinian, even if we do not follow all the suggestions
By the time Ratcliffe arrived in Bolinas during the early 1970s, he was already moving on in the graduate program at University of California at Berkeley and would soon be commuting to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in ‘74-’75. During this time-span from the late 1960’s to the completion of his doctoral dissertation in 1978 (what has been referred to as his “Campion project”), Ratcliffe had married and become a father.
The focus of Ratcliffe’s early academic career was on Renaissance poetry so that by all appearances he was becoming a scholar of the classics and the canon. However, Ratcliffe has pointed to his work on Thomas Campion during this time period as a defining (if not the defining) event in his artistic development and poetic practice up to this point:
|“||"So even in this early work [...] I was putting together things I see & hear with things I read [...] ‘scholar’/poet for a long time now — someone who reads and who makes use of that reading in his work."||”|
Formally, with the completion of Ratcliffe's work on his dissertation, the ground was cleared for a new phase in his career and with it a renewed focus on his own writing. By the early 1980s, Ratcliffe had begun to read and ‘learn’ about (and from) the so-called Language poets after his friend Bill Berkson, a fellow poet from Bolinas, gave Ratcliffe his set of original L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazines. As Ratcliffe later observed:
|“||"what a mind-opening experience that was for me. What a welcome change, I mean, not just from the world of Renaissance poetry… but from the dry world of academe that I’d been more or less part of, but also rather completely on the fringe of, for the last six or seven years at least since moving to Bolinas. And all of a sudden I found myself finished with Berkeley and looking at whole new possibilities, in poetry I mean — a happy coincidence for me as it turned out since, at that point, I was completely ready to take up my own writing again… all of it undertaken while standing on the ground of all I had learned about poetry from working on Campion."||”|
As was hinted at above, the importance of Bolinas, CA to Ratcliffe’s endeavors cannot be underestimated. The intersection of Bolinas with its artists, friends, and compatriots is notable, even for those unfamiliar with the various poetry movements, currents, and schools. Fast mapping the influence of this particular community onto the entire landscape of recent U. S. poetry is not entirely presumptuous, for as poet Alice Notley, discussing 'space' in the work of Joanne Kyger, points out:
|“||“Any small town like Bolinas…as well mirrors the nation, so to keep track of one is to keep track of both.”||”|
In a brief introductory note to a selection of interviews, Robert Creeley remembers, with fondness and appreciation, what Bolinas meant to his vocation:
|“||“We moved to Bolinas, California in the early fall of 1970, a much needed shift from our increasing dilemmas of habit. Nothing finally changed, but the completely transforming beauty of this edge of the west coast with its bluffs looking out to the Pacific was a beginning if any could be. The town had gathered an exceptional number of poets, Joanne Kyger, Tom Clark, Aram Saroyan, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge, David Meltzer, and Philip Whalen, among others…I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a more intimate and approving community than was the Bolinas of that moment.”||”|
Poetics and recent work
When poet and critic Susan Stewart, in a recent work of criticism, discusses the connections between Renaissance poets, music, and temporality she may well have invoked the trajectory of Ratcliffe's own poetic practice spanning nearly four decades now:
|“||“[w]hen Renaissance poets write of their “numbers” and “measures,” they remind us of the connection between poetry and music…but they also recall the ways in which poems are constructed models of time. Such temporality unfolds on many levels at once… “being in number” is thus a concept that is central to the place where theories of time and practices of poiesis meet.”||”|
Ratcliffe recognizes that his own particular commitment to writing has, over the years, displayed itself as something which works "serially":
|“||I’ve been working "serially" for a long time now...That’s one of the things I’ve begun to realize, that whereas I thought the work in HUMAN / NATURE and Remarks on Color / Sound was about the physical ("real") world in relation to what we ‘make of it’ in our perception & thinking/feeling, I see now that it’s also ABOUT time, time passing in fact --- one moment at a time, one day at a time, throughout a lifetime in fact, while we’re ‘here’ as such. So the physical takes place in & by means of the temporal – hence "temporality" (maybe I will call the work I’m doing now Temporality, which can begin after Remarks on Color [...] which is about when I started to read the essay called “Temporality” (by Maurice Merleau-Ponty) in the first place -- who knows?).||”|
Ratcliffe's writing from the past decade, beginning with 2000's Listening to Reading and stretching towards his most recent (and ongoing) Temporality project, becomes the insistent 'capture' of what, following on Merleau-Ponty, it could mean for us to be "meeting time on the way to subjectivity".
From this perspective (hardly the only one available), Ratcliffe's work not only addresses (tacitly) the now familiar concept of the "postmodern" 'crisis of the subject', but continues to invest itself, with increasing compactness and stability, in themes and obsessions he has delineated throughout his career, vocation, and a life devoted to "making" or poiesis. It is an investment where Ratcliffe can actually perform
|“||"how experience in the three-dimensional world is, i.e., can be, ‘translated’/’transcribed’ to the two-dimensional page, whether in painting or writing."||”|
Such an intense avowal implicates Ratcliffe's project within a timeline moving forward from the Renaissance poets to Stéphane Mallarmé and Henry James, or moving backward in time from Leslie Scalapino to the Language poets and Gertrude Stein. Along the way, in either direction, Ratcliffe may take instruction from practices as widely divergent as the radicalized "quietude" of Yvor Winters, or the aleatoric music and chance procedures of John Cage. (see also: Aleatoricism)
"...[to] 'experience’ acoustically, something of the physics of the work, how it ‘works’ in that larger ‘shape’ of poems going on and on, one after another. . . Perhaps that subjectivity is what draws me to [Ratcliffe's] work..."
Thinking back over this trajectory we can note that amidst this creative flux, Ratcliffe never strayed far from the themes of "music" and "being in number" discovered, perhaps, in his initial "Campion project", and nor has he abandoned the touchstone that is Mallarmé, whose work he appropriated mid-career, culminating with 1998's Mallarmé: Poem in Prose. Ratcliffe's discussions of his writing processes, both in his interviews and essays, continue to acknowledge, along with Mallarmé, that:
|“||The materiality of page, ink, paragraph, and spacing is often just as important as the logic of syntax, figure, and sense||”|
- Campion: On Song (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)
- Listening to Reading (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000)
- Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet (Denver, CO: Counterpath Press, 2010)
- New York Notes (Tombouctou Books, 1983)
- Distance (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 1986)
- Mobile/Mobile (Los Angeles, CA: Echo Park Press, 1987)
- [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG (Oakland, CA: O Books, 1989)
- Sonnets (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1989)
- Talking in Tranquility: Interviews with Ted Berrigan (edited by Ratcliffe & Leslie Scalapino). (Bolinas/Oakland, CA: Avenue B / O Books, 1991)
- spaces in the light said to be where one/ comes from (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1992)
- Sculpture (Littoral Books, 1996)
- Mallarmé: Poem in Prose (Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Review Publications, 1998)
- Idea's Mirror (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets, 1999)
- Conversation (Plein Air Editions) – forthcoming
note: the following works are on-going projects designated by Ratcliffe as trilogy / tryptych(s). The dates in [brackets] indicate the time period during which the work was written. For example [2.9.98. - 5.28.99.] indicates February 9, 1998 - May 28, 1999
- Triptych/Trilogy ~ each book is 474 pages/days :
- Triptych/Trilogy ~ each book is 1,000 pages/days:
- HUMAN / NATURE (Ubu editions, 2007) [10.19.02. – 7.14.05.] – #26 in the “Publishing the Unpublishable” series available complete and on-line here
- Remarks on Color / Sound (Eclipse, 2010) [7.15.05. – 4.9.08.] – available complete and on-line here
- Temporality [4.10.08. – 1.4.11] – an ongoing project appearing daily here as a blog text: Temporality, presumably up through its 1,000th day. "Temporality" is continuing on Ratcliffe's blog past that day [1.4.11] (January 4, 2011). Perhaps a new triptych has been started.
Notes and references
- Stephen Ratcliffe / Jeffrey Schrader: Interview 7.19.08. Note: this interview is appearing in Jacket2, a remodeled version of Jacket (magazine), an on-line literary periodical
- "Bio Notes and Acknowledgements" in Young, Stephanie, editor. Bay Poetics, Cambridge, MA: Faux Press, 2006; p 493
- at http://www.ubu.com/ubu/unpub/Unpub_025_Ratcliffe_Cloud.pdf
- in his interview, both Schrader and Ratcliffe acknowledge that working as a publisher and editor in the world of small press publication is but another facet of devotion to a practice that would “present and channel yourself and others […] this is the story behind Avenue B”
- Waldrop, Rosmarie. Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005; p.101
- Ron Silliman refers to Ratcliffe as one of poet Robert Grenier's "Generation compatriots"; from Silliman, Ron. In The American Tree. Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, reprint ed., 2002; p. 597
- Notley, Alice. Coming After: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005; p.22
- Creeley, Robert. Tales out of School: Selected Interviews. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993; p. 101
- Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002; p. 227
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London & New York: Routledge Classics, 2002; p. 476
- the jacket cover of Ratcliffe's 1992 publication spaces in the light said to be where one/ comes from features Cage's engraving "Changes and Disappearances, #35"
- from "Translator's Note" in Mallarmé, Stéphane. Divigations, translated by Barbara Johnson. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007; p. 299
- dissertation at Berkeley
- commenting on REAL, Ratcliffe compares and contrasts this work with Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal writing in her own “real time”, a kind of practice similar and different from Ratcliffe’s own (D. Wordsworth’s journal was subsequently published as Grasmere Journals). Says Ratcliffe on Wordsworth’s practice:
“ writing that transcribes actual things/actions/events in the world as they were, or seemed to be in that present moment of seeing/noting them. The writing in REAL tries to do something of this 'translation' of world into words, not as Dorothy Wordsworth did (whatever she did!) because I'm trying to give a 'shape' to things (the lines) on the page (among other things), but I'm interested to think of her work at this point, having written REAL. ”
- Publisher’s Ratcliffe Page from the publisher of Ratcliffe’s most recent book of criticism: ‘’Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet’’
- Audio performances by Ratcliffe includes a reading of HUMAN/NATURE
- Ratcliffe Author Page @ PENNSound
- poems from Temporality
- poems from CLOUD / RIDGE
- CLOUD / RIDGE The complete text of Ratcliffe’s book, composed from July 2, 2001 through October 18, 2002. Part of Ubuweb’s series ‘’Publishing the Unpublishable’’ – 025: ubu editions www.ubu.com
- HUMAN / NATURE The complete text of Ratcliffe’s book, composed from October 19, 2002 through July 14, 2005. Part of Ubuweb’s series ‘’Publishing the Unpublishable’’ – 026: ubu editions www.ubu.com
- Ratcliffe Author Page @durationpress.com this page has a link to a selection of poems from his 2002 collection ‘’Portraits & Repetitions’’
- Ratcliffe Homepage @ EPC – Electronic Poetry Center