Articles - October 2011

Docupoetry and archive desire

Two pages from Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press).

“I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it.” — Marianne Moore[1]

In 2000, the poet Jena Osman created a lengthy list of “docupoetry” that included poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” and William Carlos William’s Paterson, as well as many works less familiar to American readers.[2] Nowadays, such a list could be twice as long — we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms. Usually “docupoetry” designates poetry that (1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural. Clearly, such writing is part of a long tradition; without even going back to Virgil or Lucretius, one can see that the poems of Pope and Dryden had everything to do with documenting (with a very definite point of view).

But the general trend, from the Romantic era onwards, has been towards understanding poetry as an art form that expresses the current thoughts and emotions of the individual, without documenting the past experience of collectivities. As early as 1798, Frederich Schlegel writes, “Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, … [O]ne might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types.” “Romantic poetry” is, in a word, “poetry itself.”[3] In another piece, he declares that “[t]he true object of the art should be, instead of resting in externals, to lead the mind upwards into a more exalted region and a spiritual world.” Thus a poetry of externals, of historical fact, of groups rather than individuals, is a contradiction in terms for the Romantic poet.[4] Coleridge expresses a similar sentiment when he opposes “those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line” to “the end of all … Poems,” which is to make history “assume to our Understandings a circular motion — the snake with its Tail in its Mouth”[5] — that irritable reaching after facts here transmuted into the mysterious, eternal, and symbolic. The fact that none of this prevented the Romantics from writing poems about history, politics, or biography is beside the point. What is important is that this conception of poetry (and art generally) meshed quite comfortably with the domestication of Romanticism into respectable bourgeois literature in the mid-nineteenth century. As I have argued elsewhere, it is this version of poetry that remained dominant in US culture into the twentieth century.[6]

But the twentieth century also saw the emergence of both the documentary film and of what might properly be termed a documentary poetry — that is, a poem including history by including “business documents and schoolbooks,” as Marianne Moore famously put it. Much of the work of modern poets as diverse as Ezra Pound, Muriel Rukeyser, Archibald MacLeish, Williams, and Moore can be placed in the tradition of this “nonfiction” poetry. Some critics responded to the rise of documentary poetry in the 1930s by reinvoking the putative split between literary and nonliterary documents, between poetry and “reportage.” For instance, one critic in the New York Herald-Tribune books section wrote, of Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, “While it contains some brilliant journalism, and sections of it … are poetry of a high order, the sequence is … overfreighted with document.”[7] Journalism is one thing, poetry quite another; documents belong in the former, but the latter collapses under their weight. The documentary lost some of its luster (as did the left-leaning politics that motivated much of it) in the late 1940s and 1950s; as the New Criticism and academic formalism in poetry became the official styles of the day in the United States, documentary poetry was made to seem a contradiction in terms. Williams’s long poem Paterson was one of the few docupoems produced in the period.[8] In 1951, Hayden Carruth noted its frequent prose passages, particularly their content: “They are documentary — letters, newspaper clippings, medical records, and the like. … But,” he wondered, “[c]an a poem survive in the public mind which contains so much unquotable — that is, unrememberable — material?”[9] Likewise, Randall Jarrell asked, “What has been done to [the excerpts] to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”[10] Raw reality is one thing, art, quite another. Implied here is the New Critical assumption that the poem is and ought to be considered as an organic whole, with no undigested elements; moreover, all of it should be the original product of the individual imagination; and it must cohere on the page, quite apart from biography or history. Williams’s documenting of the history of Paterson has no intrinsic bearing on the poem Paterson. For it to be a Poem, according to Jarrell’s and Carruth’s account, there must be no mixing.[11] 

Things are easier for documentary poetry (not to mention film) nowadays than in the 1950s. The documentary impulse in US poetry has become more widespread, and it is difficult to find denunciations of it in print. However, when I queried well-known poets who work with documents, as well as critics who study docupoetry, the consensus was that the dichotomy of poetry versus [documents, journalism, history] persists, albeit more in speech than in writing. For instance, Mark Nowak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary, encounters it “ALWAYS in Q&A’s at readings. The question is usually phrased something like this: ‘So your work is very political, does great political work. But what about the craft of poetry? Do you care about craft?’”[12] — the assumption being that, not only is docupoetry necessarily a poetry of political advocacy, but that such work is de facto artless. Craig Santos Perez, author of the from unincorporated territory series about Guåhan/Guam, receives comments that assume an opposition between poetry writing and history writing: “you should just write a history book because people would actually read it; the poetry makes the historical narrative hard to read; the history drains the poetic energy.”[13] And so on.

From Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

Similarly, George Szirtes writes in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that “The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. … They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem”[14] — to which Phil Metres responds at the Poetry Foundation site, “The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’s idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem.”[15] Szirtes claims that Metres mischaracterized his remarks; but later in the same article, Szirtes writes:

The life that moves in poems has enormous sharpness because it has been distilled into such a state that it is no longer possible to distinguish the universal from the particular in it. The real life in poems comes at us with the sudden clear cry of particularity as any phenomenon might, but it does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography. Biography is secondary to history, and history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.[16]

As in Schlegel’s day, poetry is the pure essence of experience, not the gross dross of events (whether the event is overcooking a pot roast or participating in a civil rights march). The point of Poetry is to get us away from the world of causality — from the obduracy of the historical documents — into the brilliant, distilled ether of “mere existence.”

Poet Nada Gordon presents a more explicit denunciation of docupoetry, from a rather different angle, in “On Docu-Poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” a February 2009 post on her blog Ululations. She writes that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination,” and that she “feel[s] in it a kind of shoehorning of didactic social message into poetic forms that have no intrinsic connection to, or maybe add no value to, the often compelling and important narratives that are being conveyed in these pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into the still privileged aura of the category of ‘poetry.’” She sees a mismatch “between the flat reportage of the information and the form of verse itself, whose very lines serve as little spotlights to the lexis and the syntax.” Docupoetry necessarily entails “a kind of deadness of the already decided[,] the foregone conclusion,” Gordon writes. “[W]hen I think about what docu-poetry is not, I think of Keats [who writes with a] form so organic to the content and content so organic to the form that really there is no duality.” Verbal imagination, literary form (writ large), and “aura,” are inherent characteristics of Poetry. Mimesis, didacticism, and “the social” per se, are the proper domain of reportage (and therefore not proper to Poetry). This is because true poetry is written in forms that are “organic,” which is to say “intrinsic” to poetry, which is by definition where one finds verbal imagination, because poetry’s interest is in form. One might be forgiven for reading this line of thought as another instance of Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth — a closed circle that defines itself, and thereby lends poetry its “privileged aura.” Gordon admits that she’s “being categorical, and that’s a problem.” But the fact that a poet of Gordon’s stature would reinscribe these ideas indicates that they still have some purchase in the twenty-first century. Indeed, I suspect that she is writing what others only say or think.

While I have no doubt that Gordon was suffering from a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract as she says in the post (hence “Febrile Meditation”), I also suspect she was experiencing an even more widespread malady as well — one that afflicts us all — the one Jacques Derrida termed “archive fever” (mal d’archive).[17] For Derrida, archive fever denotes the mania to define what’s in and what’s out. “But where does the outside commence? This,” Derrida asserts, “is the question of the archive. There are undoubtedly no others” (8). The job of the archivist is not only to prevent documents from leaving the archive, but, perhaps more importantly, to keep out those that don’t belong there. This is, of course, a political decision that involves repression and destruction, even as it involves preservation. Thus the Gnostic gospels wind up in the rubbish heaps of Nag Hammadi because the keepers of the archive — the archons, those in command (in this case abbots and bishops) — deemed them outside of the canon of biblical texts, and therefore outside of the archive. Or worse, “Aryan” books are published, and “Semitic” books consigned to the flames. Archive fever is thus the arch form of “being categorical.” So for Derrida, it isn’t just a problem — it is the problem. Archive fever “verges on radical evil” — hence the double meaning of the mal of the title (20).

But how to avoid it? Is it even possible? On Derrida’s account, “archive” is a very broad category indeed, and so there are many archives; we could even say that genre is a type of archive (perhaps even the type of the archive). And Gordon nails the problem of the archive when she complains about the “oppressive kind of mawkish ‘poetry framing’” of what she considers properly nonfiction materials, on the grounds that “it just sounds like a lot of interesting information has been LEFT OUT.” For Derrida, archivization is the process of leaving out, via “the disposition of a legitimate hermeneutic authority” (3) — authority to name, classify, anthologize, teach, publish, fund — or not. Archivization in this sense produces the frame “Poetry” (over against “nonfiction” or “reportage,” for instance). Framing is all about leaving out (and in). The frame, the parergon, on Derrida’s reading, functions as a paregoric — it soothes by reassuring that everything is in its place.[18]

But how does such authority become legitimate? If poetry is a valid category because genre is a valid category, then, as Derrida asks elsewhere, “what is the genre of genre?”[19] What category does the category belong to, which gives it its authority? Alas, “the structure of the archive is spectral. It is … a trace always referring to another” — to the king, to the king’s father’s father, or to the trace of the trace of him (84). For this reason, “poetry” does not inhere in any text, nor can any text be unproblematically mimetic. It must appeal outside itself in order to “speak” — must appeal to the arke, conceived of, on the one hand, as origin (in the sense of either the spectral past or the really real thing-in-itself) or, on the other hand, as Law (and by extension, those in a position to define and maintain boundaries — whether it’s the Commerce Department, Microsoft, or The Father per se).

And it is precisely for this reason that would-be docupoets need to heed Gordon’s point about the exclusion of information. If poetry is an archive, then so too is a poem — or any text — and the writer is a kind of archivist. The familiar generic parameters that I have outlined here make this issue an especially important one for those who would include documents in poetry. Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these “business documents and schoolbooks” and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry Gordon decries — one that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.

From Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife (Essay Press) [click to enlarge].

As we know, all of us engage in forms of linguistic repression and exclusion (if one says “collector,” one does so by repressing the visually similar and not unrelated word “corrector”).[20] And some documentary poetry makes repression a priority — that is, it attempts to weed out the heterogeneous, the digressive, the transgressive and contradictory in order to tell a predetermined, linear narrative. In other words, there is, as Gordon suggests, plenty of flat, predictable, sententious, boring docupoetry (just as there is plenty of repetitive, precious, pretentious, boring “experimental” lyric).

However, I would submit that by focusing on these issues, a documentary poetry can turn the problem to account. Not only by awareness of the death drive (i.e., the suppression of the Other, not least of all within the archive itself), but also by focusing on — by enjoying — the libidinal energy that drives the poet’s researches in the first place, an energy Derrida terms “archive desire.” Archive desire is the flip side of archive fever.

“Why am I doing this?” One answer is surely that given by British historian and memoirist Carolyn Steedman: “the practice of history in its modern mode is, in one view, just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things.”[21] Derrida, in speaking of Freud’s writings — and the Freud archive — declares, “These classical and extraordinary works move away from us at great speed, in a continually accelerated fashion. They burrow into the past at a distance more and more comparable to that which separates us from archaeological digs.” (18). As a result, “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed” (68). It burrows downwards and opens outward in a million directions, ramifications, racinations. This is precisely the impulse Maria Damon finds in poet and artist Adeena Karasick’s piece “The Wall” (2000), with its “fractured, bubbly, compendiousness.”[22] Damon appreciates its “archival aliveness, its anarchival, rhizomic exuberance” (97) that is “vibrant with both regally official document and semiodetritus” (90). These phrases provide a vibrant, exuberant description of archive desire in action. Archive desire is, in effect, the burning and generative desire to chase the boundaries of the archive itself — whether to catch them or to drive them off. And those boundaries are generic, as well as thematic.[23] In other words, a self-consciously archival or documentary poetry might interrogate itself — cop to its own violence and bad faith — while at the same time owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it. Doing so may mean not simply mixing documentary writing and poetic writing, but instead rejecting the categories “documentary” and “poetry” altogether — or at least, recataloging them.

One possible guide in this process is Walter Benjamin’s innovative writing of historical traces, in such texts as “One-Way Street” and the Arcades Project. The latter, in particular, in terms of the phantasmagoric expansion of documents, observations and ideas about a particular city during a few decades, resembles a sort of nonfiction version of Ulysses, except that it is not as small. That is, the Arcades is not a codex with fixed front and back covers, but an ever-expanding, ever deepening archive that can only cease at the archivist’s death (though even beyond that point, Benjamin scholars and imitators have, in effect, continued to ramify and expand it). As Damon puts it, the Arcades “manages to be both fragmentary and exhaustive: exhaustiveness and excess here imply unfinishability.”[24] There is always another faubourg out beyond the last, always another ruin awaiting discovery below the last. And Benjamin delights in finding (and arranging) them all.

But for Benjamin, unlike Derrida, the destructiveness of archivization can be a vital, revolutionary act — and one that points up the hyperdestructive nature of modernity itself. Not only are most items about and from nineteenth-century Paris excluded from the Arcades, but those that are included are the result of a kind of violence. To write history, for Benjamin, “means to cite history. It belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object in each case is torn from its context.”[25] And, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Benjamin recontextualizes citations in a form that resembles nothing so much as a hypertext.[26] This method of presenting history is at loggerheads with traditional historical narration, which, Benjamin believes, chooses its citation or exhibit only “to reinsert the object into the [narrative] continuum, which it would create anew through empathy” (475). That is, the bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century, like its novelists, created an absorptive reading experience — one that recreated the past through empathy, continuity, and verisimilitude, thereby erasing its tracks, its interested nature. “The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the [nineteenth] century” (463). “Materialist historiography,” by contrast, “does not choose its object arbitrarily. It does not fasten on them but rather springs them loose from the order of succession” — thereby forcing the reader to confront her or his received notions about succession and order (475).

Like Derrida, Benjamin would focus on the marginalia, the footnoted event, the overlooked bit of detritus that didn’t make it into the official archive. “I shall purloin no valuables,” Benjamin famously declares. “But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (460). It is only by self-consciously making use of them, engaging in poiesis, that the historian can creatively turn the archive inside out. “The most essential parts of this work … are turned most intensively to the outside”: even a casual riffling through the Arcades will give one a sense of how determinately it is turned to the outside, even while incorporating ever more of it (456). Benjamin’s is a voracious, ex-static, and expanding archive, because “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”[27] This is the ne plus ultra of archive desire — an understanding of the receding horizon that is the boundary of the archive, followed by the desire to chase it and to drive it as far as it will go.

By the same token, the longstanding generic dichotomy between poetry and documentary is based not only on a normative conception of poetry, but also on a rather static and reductive notion of documentary. Documentary forms, ever since their rise in the twentieth century, have been accused of being too determined, didactic, manipulative, and as being premised on a rather naive form of mimesis. On this view, documentarians purport to present us with the unvarnished real — an accurate record of the object under consideration — and they are (therefore) rank propagandists. However, as critic Jeff Allred points out, by examining individual documentary texts from the 1930s, we see in fact that there were photographers, writers and filmmakers working in this form who used it not just to “present a reality out there,” but to reflect upon the form itself — to make use of the mediated nature of the document, and to cut against generic expectations.[28] This “documentary modernism” deploys “the ‘document’ as a trace of the real, a ‘resident alien’ in the house of culture whose presence in the text destabilizes relationships between reality and representation, self and other, reader and text.”[29] A text such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can produce what Allred calls, after Adam Tractenberg, “plausible fictions of the real” — precisely because it is self-conscious of its textuality and thereby relinquishes any dubious claims to be either a direct presentation of the real or even to account for a given object of inquiry. But if “creative nonfiction,” like traditional history-writing, creates a fiction of the real by drawing you in, absorbing you in the verisimilitude of the (true) story (with all the ideological implications of that process), this “documentary modernism” creates it by continuously reminding you of the fictional, constructed nature of even the most seamless or positivist narrative. This approach is familiar in the form of montage in film — that is, the use of the blatant fiction of simultaneity to represent a larger field of action than the single shot can present. Nowadays, the term “poetic documentary” is a common one in film to designate work that relates narratives based on historical particulars, while also foregrounding the filmmaker’s art and calling attention to the medium itself.

From Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

I am struck by the similarity of this type of documentary and that of much so-called documentary poetry today — if you call it poetry — and if you call it documentary.[30] There is indeed a growing body of work that manages to “spotlight lexis and syntax” in the very process of relating “compelling and important narratives” of biographical and historical events. For instance, here are some twenty-first-century additions to Osman’s list of docupoems, focusing on writing in various experimental/innovative/investigate forms:

Kazim Ali, Bright Felon
Dan Beachy-Quick, Whaler’s Dictionary
Anne Carson, Nox
Allison Cobb, Green-Wood
Stephen Collis, On the Material
Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum and The Marvellous Bones of Time
Amy England, Victory and Her Opposites
C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
Susan Howe, The Midnight (and others)
Bhanu Kapil, Humanimal
Khaled Mattawa, Tocqueville
Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary
Kathleen Ossip, The Cold War
Jena Osman, The Network
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory series
M. NourbSe Philp, Zong!
Kristin Prevallet, I, Afterlife
Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave
Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog
Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon
Tony Trigilio, Historic Diary
Rachel Zolf, Masque

Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive, and one could add to it on a weekly basis.

While all of these texts include representational modes of writing, it is difficult to read them as embodying the naive mimetic rendering of fact that critics have traditionally taken as the “other” of poetry; they go out of their way to call attention to what is included and what is excluded — what is known and what can’t be known — to the seams, gaps, and collapses between and within what the poet has discovered in the record and the poet’s response to those discoveries. Indeed, such responses can become quite nonrepresentational.[31] In these respects, much contemporary docupoetry demands a nonabsorptive reading: to the extent that it tells “the story of history,” it does so with a heavy dose of skepticism of, and creativity toward, the framing of “facts” (particularly official ones) and even narratives per se — especially those that purport to be true. Thus, precisely through exploiting the generic scandal of “documentary poetry,” this body of work produces a perspective, response, and critique that neither a personal, expressive (or purely ludic and aleatory) poetry nor a scholarly historical account could provide. In these senses, the new docupoetry diverges sharply from the institutions of “poetry” — and documentary, too. It uses verse on occasion, often verse that is very linguistically inventive and affecting. But these books don’t stick to that mode, or to any. They may be loosely structured around a particular narrative, but that narrative is interrupted and informed by others that are disparate in scale, time, topic, or style. The archive called poetry often willfully (and painfully) clashes with other archives, in these books. This is poetry in the sense in which Moore means it, in the epigraph to this essay: a noncategory category, the category that contains the cast-off material from other genres; the ever-receding archaic ground of “to make.” What do you make of it? What use can you make of it? Like Benjamin’s literary rag-picking, these “docupoems,” as poems, are always oriented towards the outside.

And I learned from reading them. That is what “to document” originally meant (in both English and Latin): to teach. Ditto for “didactic” (via Greek, this time). The uncomfortable relation between documentation and didacticism would cause the (didactic) conservators of generic integrity to consign both to the nonpoetic rag-heap, to define documentary as indoctrination. They thus narrow not only the meaning of poetry, but also the meaning and methods of teaching. On my reading, this view of both pedagogy and poetics owes more to the spirit of literary anti-leftist reactions of the 1930s to the 1950s (and its post-Reagan revenants) than it does to any inherent or transcendent indwelling nature in a particular configuration of marks on a page. To believe that genres are inherent within texts — that genres are genetic — while losing sight of their meandering historical careers, is to wander into precisely the place that the anti-didactic artistic free agent would avoid — namely, the invisible archive of ideology (or rather, ideology as invisible archive).

From Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon (City Lights) [click to enlarge].

Coda: The CNP unmanifesto.

Is documentary poetry a subgenre of, or a current within, the larger genre of poetry?

Who cares.

Or: does such writing even need to partake of “the privileged aura of ‘Poetry’” in order to work? “It’s good for what it is, but is it poetry?” could be flipped on its head: “It may or may not be poetry, but is it good for what it is?” — or, better yet, “at what it does.”

It doesn’t follow the generic conventions of creative nonfiction either. The term “lyric essay” would seem to bridge the gap between genres, but the emphasis is still on “essay” — and the term “lyric” is, for many in the poetry world, a rather freighted one. Moreover, as Rob Nixon writes, “‘lyric essay’ sounds a bit too fusty (Wordsworth meets Hazlitt) to breach the battlements of twenty-first-century technologies.”[32]

Rather than simply term these texts poetry because we can think of no other category in which to put them, I hereby unveil another generically undecidable nongenre genre: “Creative Nonpoetry.” Like creative nonfiction, creative nonpoetry defines itself over-against a genre which historically has refused its content, but which it often resembles quite a bit. Creative Nonpoetry borrows and burrows from the traditional conventions of the poetic; or mashes them up; or disclaims them altogether, by turns. It can contain verse, prose, dialogue, pictures.

Anyone who says poets should write a “poetry of witness,” or should document the Real or “the social,” is not talking about creative nonpoetry; nor is the hermetic neo-Symbolist lyricist who insists that art should have nothing to do with “events.”

Creative Nonpoetry is creative because it does not limit itself to either the poetry or the “non” — the writer (the creative nonpoet) may believe it to be “based on a true story”; the writer may take a skeptical stance towards (some of) that material — or declare an unreasoning faith in it. It is nonpoetry in the sense that it decreases the distance between writing history and poetry, while experimenting with the received forms of both (at the same time and by the same token). It lets the purists of both Poetry and Documentary off the hook, while opening up new possibilities for those of us who aren’t invested in genres for genre’s sake. It is a category for writing that does not fit into categories. It gives publishers a (New!) label to put on the back cover and bookstores a place to put strange texts.

In other words, “creative nonpoetry” is a way of describing what actually-existing poetry has become in the US, over the last twenty years or so — an indeterminate space where the histories of genres clash, combine, morph, or dissolve. A space, let us say it, of creative freedom, in which genre becomes an historical tool to employ, reject, or add to — just as “history” is understood as history writing. Indeed, it is not surprising that much of the modern writing that I have mentioned, including the Cantos, Paterson, and Maximus, diverge from the historic conventions of poetry and incorporate those of other genres. And as Carruth points out, such poems often do not attempt to turn documents into verse, but rather let them be, as inassimilable chunks of exogenous discourse. The seams show. Narrative, conceptual, and emotional connections are left to the reader to draw. The narratives don’t necessarily follow a straight line — or only one line; indeed, the lines of verse don’t always follow a straight line. Sometimes, the documents don’t even tell a story, but rather produce lyric and affective responses to the narratives from which they are drawn. These are poems that often don’t look like poems. Or, said another way, much documentary poetry is really mixed-genre (or trans-genre) writing. And this fact is entirely understandable, given the postromantic dichotomy between historical documents and poetry.

It’s not clear to me that any writer who thinks of herself or himself as “experimental” or “innovative” or “investigative” can prescriptively and deductively assume that s/he is writing in a particular genre. If the writer incorporates parts of other texts, then generic mixing and indeterminacy are inevitable. In a perfect world, we could simply stop engaging in the conversation called genre, and just write what we write. As it is, we live in a world of types — whether they purport to be literary or literal (e.g., genre, gender, gene).[33] The best way to collapse boundaries, then, is by chasing — pushing — them farther, to the point at which they become stretched so thin as to become meaningless: this moment is the “creative non” in “creative nonpoetry.” This formal stretching and blurring, rather than any particular content, is the real political promise — and pleasure — of a (non)poetics including documents.



1. From a Paris Review interview, 1961. See the Marianne Moore Reader (Viking 1961), 258.

2. See Al Filreis’s website for the list.

3. Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, in German History in Documents and Images, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch, trans. Jonathan Skolnik (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958), 37–38. Emphasis mine.

4. Source of English translation: The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Frederick von Schlegel: Comprising Letters on Christian Art, An Essay on Gothic Architecture, Remarks on the Romance-Poetry of the Middle Ages and on Shakspere [sic], On the Limits of the Beautiful, On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians, in German History in Documents and Images, trans. E. J. Millington (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 143–46.

5. Letter to Joseph Cottle, March 7, 1815. Collected Letters, ed. Earl Taylor Griggs (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1956-71), vol. 3-4, p. 545.

6. Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern US Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). In particular, see chapters 1 and 6.

7. Tim Dayton, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 119–20.

8. As Al Filreis points out in Counter-Revolution of the Word (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), other “docu-poets” of the late 1940s, such as Norman Rosten and Millen Brand, were effectively blacklisted and their work, ignored, due to their politics in the preceding decade. Because documentary was associated with left-liberal politics, the red-baiting of the period probably had a chilling effect on would-be docupoets.

9. Hayden Carruth, The Nation, August 25, 1951, repr. in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle (London: Routledge, 1980), 155–56.

10. Randall Jarrell writing in Partisan Review 18, no. 6 (November–December 1951): 698–700, repr. in Doyle, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, 239. Emphasis Jarrell’s.

11. There is, of course, more than a little professional self-interest at work amongst the first major wave of poets working in the academy. The academy, like any bureaucracy, thrives on departmentalization and compartmentalization. One must have a niche, a name, and a defined methodology, whether one is professing poetry or mechanical engineering.

12. E-mail to author, 1 June 2011.

13. E-mail to author, 31 May 2011.

14. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” Poetry 191, no. 1 (2001): 39.

15. Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy: The Poet as Journalist, Historian, Agitator,” The Poetry Foundation.

16. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” 40.

17. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Subsequent citations in text.

18. Cf. Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 3–25.

19. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 202–13.

20. The positive example of nonfiction writing that Gordon cites, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, has the advantage of being 704 pages long. Even so, one can be fairly certain that there is something about Darwin, evolution, extinction, or the nineteenth century that the book has left out. By contrast, as David Greethem recounts, “Kallimachos had used the enormous riches of the Alexandrian library to define and describe a meaningful cultural ‘everything’ for his moment and place,” in his attempt not to leave anything out. Kallimachos was thus in a Derridean ‘privileged’ position of ‘archontic power’ … [but] There are no extant copies of the Pinakes, but only citations of it and extracts from it by late writers in later compilations. Kallimachos’s ‘universal’ bibliography of ‘everything’ is reduced to the state of those ‘Extracts’ with which Melville chose to preface Moby-Dick.” And this is the nature of things: something (perforce) is always left out. David Greetham, “‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 15.

21. Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust,” The American Historical Review 106, no. 4 (October 2001). See paragraph 13.

22. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 90. Subsequent citations in text.

23. Hal Foster sees something similar in what he terms “archival [visual] art”: “This work does invite psychoanalytical projections. It can also appear manic — not unlike much archival fiction today (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers) — as well as childish. … [W]ith its nonhierarchical spatiality installation art often suggests a scatological universe, and sometimes they thematize it as such. For Freud the anal stage is one of symbolic slippage in which creative definitions and entropic indifferences struggle with one another. So it is sometimes in this art as well.” See Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (London: Whitechapel, 2006), 147–48n13.

24. Damon, Postliterary America, 215.

25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 476. Subsequent citations in text.

26. “But this very gap between expectation and fulfillment replaces sequential exposition and coherent argument with what looks like web-page design, the A file connecting just as readily with K (Dream City) or with Z (the Doll, the Automaton) as with B.” Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 32.

27. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.

28. Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

29. Ibid., 10.

30. Likewise, Perloff detects an affinity between Benjamin’s procedure in the Arcades Project and contemporary poetry generally: “[P]age after page of Benjamin’s astonishing text contains movable passages that can (and do) reappear in altered contexts; the repeated juxtapositions, cuts, links, shifts in register, framing devices, and visual markings conspire to produce a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics” (Unoriginal Genius, 43).

31. Some works emphasize the gaps as much as, or more than, the narrative — take, for instance, Susan Tichy’s use of quotations re: the Iraq War in Gallowglass or Stacy Szymaszek’s “Heart Island,” which draws on scraps of discourse from and about New York City’s potter’s field.

32. Nixon, “Literature for Real,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 2010.

33. See Jed Rasula’s provocative discussion of genre and race in “Notes on Genre,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 102–3.

Reading 'sound'

Stephen Ratcliffe reading at the Marin Headlands, May 16, 2010.

Reading sound (shape-in-air) of poem as acoustic phenomena (in air, heard by ear), one hears the syllable, word, line (and line break), stanza unit, whole poem determined by the poem’s shape on the page, its physical presence (seen by eye) as letters written/composed/transcribed on the page into words, there to be perceived by the human (reader) when the poem is read aloud (or silently, thereby entering the mind’s ear as sound only imagined).

Sound in the poem (i.e., the sound of “sound of waves in channel,” “sound of song sparrow calling from tobacco plant branch in right foreground”) is an approximation of actual ‘real’ sound in the world: is the sound of words which themselves are not exactly that sound — not the same thing as that sound — but can enact it, can be a transcription of it, as Stein suggested when she talked about “the word or words that made what I looked at look like itself” (and elsewhere, “made what I looked at be itself”).

What I want to think about here is the relation between poem on the page vs. — i.e., ‘as opposed to,’ not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than but different from, not the same as but not equal to — poem in the air, by which I mean the physical shape of letters-composed-into-words-arranged-in-lines on-the-page (what we as readers read with the eye when we read the poem on the page) vs. what I would call the ‘acoustic shape’ of those same letters-composed-into-words arranged-in-lines-on-the-page read aloud (what we as listeners hear with the ear when we hear someone else read the poem). I don’t mean to ‘privilege’ the sound of the poem in the air over its shape on the page, nor do I mean to suggest that the sound I am thinking about is (simply) speech itself, the sound of voice a talking/speaking, that “speech” that one Robert Grenier once (famously, at least to some of us) once said (wrote) “I hate.”[1] What I do want to do here is think about the physics of the poem’s sound (words in air perceived with EAR) in relation to the poem’s shape (words on page perceived with EYE) — these most obvious of ‘conditions’ — because it seems to me there’s more here than meets the eye (or ear). That is to say, we sometimes read poems on the page, and we also sometimes go to poetry readings, hear poems read aloud (most often, though not always of course, without having the poem being read aloud by the poet on the page in front of us, so that we might ‘read along with’ the poem, following his or her words on the page as he or she reads them aloud). Everyone here in this room has had, I presume, both of these experiences: the experience of reader sitting in chair reading words on page; the experience of listener, also sitting in chair, hearing words read aloud by someone else, someone who is seeing the words on the page in order to read (i.e., translate) them into the air.

So what are the differences between these two obviously different kinds of experiences of these two also obviously different ‘conditions’ of the poem — one the physical ‘shape’ (image) of its words on the page, one the acoustic ‘echo’ (sound) of those words read into the air, one of which we see with our eyes, the other of which we hear with our ears? What, to put it differently, is the difference between sound and shape in poetry (the acoustic dimension, the visual dimension), which isn’t exactly the distinction Zukofsky was making between “Upper limit music” and “Lower limit speech”? What for example is the difference between the duration of syllable, word, line, stanza, whole poem in air vs. on the page? And what exactly is it that we hear when we hear the poem read? And in what ways are the ‘things’ we hear (in the air) different from ‘things’ we see (on the page) when the poem is read silently? And why are these differences important, why do they matter?

These distinctions matter, let me simply say, because we hardly notice them: the poem on the page is so obviously not the same poem in the air — the poem we read not the same as the poem we listen to, being read — that we are likely not to pay any attention to the differences between what we see and what we hear, the physical ‘shapes’ of words on the page and the corresponding acoustic ‘shapes’ of words in the air. Unnoticed effects (in this case the visual ‘effect’ of letters shaped into words arranged on the two-dimensional page, the sound ‘effect’ of those words read out into the air) are not, however, less significant than noticed ones. Nor is the distinction between sound (poem heard when read aloud) and image (poem read when seen on page) less important to our experience of poetry than the things we normally think of as being ‘important’: what the poem ‘says’ or is ‘about’ for example, the poet’s ‘influences’ or ‘school’ or ‘themes’ or ‘biography’ or ‘reputation’ etc. What I’m asking about here is the phenomenology of the poem itself: how do we come to know it in its different incarnations (as physical/acoustic phenomena), and why does it matter to pay attention to such things.

The sound of the poem conveys, in abstract ‘terms’ (sound vibrations), what the words ‘picture’ or ‘say.’ When I say ‘picture’ or ‘say’ I mean carries into the air, across to reader’s eye, listener’s ear, transcribes into physical letters (type) on the page, a two-dimensional surface/plane. The dimension in which the poem’s sound exists, and is perceived by listener/reader, is not the same physical dimension (‘space’) as poem’s words, made up of letters (of the alphabet) written down on the page.

The poem’s sound is the echo of its shape, the physical shape of its letters shaped into words on the page. It is the shadow cast by those letters/words struck by the light of the reader’s voice (perceived by listener’s ear, thence mind). The articulation of words by the reader reading silently or aloud casts the shadow of those words upon the ear’s plane, from which ‘point’ the perception of sound takes place. Just as the shape of the poem’s letters-shaped-into-words is stamped on the reader’s eye, so the sound of those letters-shaped-into-words is stamped onto the listener’s ear: two different kinds of perception lead to mind’s perception of poem.

The poem’s words ‘picture’ ‘things’ we ‘see’ (things which need not have ‘appeared, its ‘presence’ set against the nothing of total blindness/blankness) — the image, ‘poem-as-speaking-picture’ (ut picture poesis, as Horace said): this word-picture speaks to, is imprinted on, mind’s eye, so to speak. Sound on the other hand (also a presence against ground of ‘silence’ without this poem) is not visible, can’t be seen, is (somehow mysteriously) heard and (somehow, also mysteriously) felt: it conveys the ‘secret’ life of the poem’s emotion/feeling, appeals to emotion (note Pound’s melopoeia: “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech”).

To take a few examples, let me read to you these words from Wordsworth:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur …

followed by these words from Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells …

followed by these words from Shelley:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes …

followed by these words from H.D.:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat
rend it to tatters …

You will notice that all of these are addressed to a second person, even in Wordsworth (Dorothy, who is standing there listening to William, enters the poem at line 115) — the poem as address to a listener going clear back to Homer (andra moi enepe: “sing in me muse”). You will also notice the sounds of the words I’ve just read to you: the sound of my voice reading these words, whose “sound and pitch emphasis … [are] never apart from [their] meaning” as Zukofsky put it. You will also, I believe, feel in those sounds something of the emotional ‘weight’ those words read/heard in those rhythms (those pitches sounded in those time intervals, those vibrations heard in those durations) convey. Hearing all that, what you don’t notice is what I see reading these same words on the page: their shape as letters, the white spaces (and punctuation) between them, the physical look of the physical language itself, whose presence on the page enables the potential sound encoded there to be made apparent (to the ear of the listener) when those words are read aloud by the person who reads the poem aloud, as I have just done.

Some would diagram/picture the poem’s sound as a graph of the speaking voice, rising and falling in “pitch emphasis.” I would suggest that Pollock’s drip paintings are an image of that same sound: ‘abstract,’ not a representation of any ‘thing’ we can see but a register of motion itself, the trace of a marking subject whose hand (read ‘voice’) poured the paint onto the canvas (read ‘words’ that, when read aloud, produce these sounds). Alternatively, I would think to use the shadow cast by the rock in Cézanne’s Bathers as an image of the poem’s sound: what we ‘see’/hear when light of voice hits words on the page, sound-as-shadow/echo-of-words-on-page-read-aloud: sound in this regard something like offstage action in a play, the action we hear about but don’t see performed physically by actors on the stage, things spoken about (aloud) in words only, the play’s ‘performed’ action analogous to the physical ‘action’ of words in the poem on the page.

The sound of the words in the poem is potential sound, realized as sound when the poem is read aloud. Words on the page present the reader (who reads the poem silently, as words on page) with ‘information’ as to how the poem might be read aloud, thereby releasing its sound into the air. Consider the opening ‘unit’ of Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, which reads:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

— words whose placement (in lines) on the page constitutes a syntax — knitting together/arrangement/composition of thought, perception/event in words — that exists (as event) on the page and, when read aloud, also then in the air, as sound (‘information’), that part of the poem which the physical shape of words gives (acoustic) rise to, as acoustic shape.

Words on the page are physical ‘action’ — ‘events’ made up (composed) of letters which are only part of the poem — the physical shape part, which can be perceived by the eye (and brain) but not ear. What words ‘say’ can be heard (can only be heard?) if/when the poem is read aloud, its words sounded in air.

Thus back to the question: what is the difference between words-on-page (physical objects, made of letters and spaces and marks of punctuation) and words-in-air (acoustic phenomena released into the air when words (syllables) are sounded)? And also, going from physical ‘thing-on-page’ to the nonphysical (acoustic) ‘thing-in-air,’ how does information transcribed on the page get ‘translated’ into the air — as pitch, duration, volume (loudness), voice emphasis? How exactly does poem act as musical score, its marks on paper analogous to notes in music whose instructions to the performer enable that person to play that piece?

And taking this question of performance further, how is the information of the poem on the page (which the reader perceives, with eye) different from the ‘same’ information of poem sounded in air (which the listener perceives, with ear)?

That is, what exactly does the ‘spoken’ text (words read aloud) give us (its ‘auditor’) that the ‘unspoken’ (merely read-with-eye) not give us (its ‘armchair reader’)? How can poem on page, which exists in silent ‘two-dimensional’ space out of time (like painting on wall, ‘abstract’ painting I should say, since words are abstract in the sense that they don’t actually picture the things, events, people, thoughts they refer to, as Pound would have us believe Chinese does, the character/picture of sun rising through tree branches meaning ‘EAST’) — how exactly does that physical work on the two-dimensional page enter the third dimension (air/space) as words sounded in time — the time it takes to perform it, the time it takes to hear it — and what does our experience of the poem in time (experience of poem read aloud, spoken, heard with ear) give us that the poem on the page doesn’t?

I read these words (again) on the page:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

And then this next (second) ‘unit’ below it:

silver half freezing in day
                      moon’s elation
of the outside rose, his seeing
                      on both
seeing someone else at all and the
                      half freezing
elation of the outside so that’s even
                      with one
continually over and over one/person

What I see with my eye isn’t what I hear with my ear, doesn’t register the same ‘information’ in my brain. The words seen exist outside time, in “a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank” as Charles Bernstein puts it,[2] exist ‘in potential’ (waiting for me to open book, turn the page, read them); the words read aloud take place in time, define the time of the poem by marking it out with/in those exact sounds. What has been written down, as mind’s act (“mind’s operations,” as Leslie Scalapino puts it)[3] becomes ‘realized’ (‘real’) once read (with eye) and heard (with ear).[4]

The sound of the voice reading the (silent) words arranged on the page enacts the poem’s ‘feeling’ (intangible), mind’s action in thinking such things (word events) in the first place. Sound (vibration) and pitch emphasis are not only not apart from its meaning; they get to the heart of where it (meaning) actually lies, waiting to be released (heard).

Two kinds of sound: those sounds we ‘see’ when we read the poem’s words on the page (silently) — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually hear; and those sounds we hear when we hear the poem read aloud — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually see (i.e., don’t see the letters-arranged-as-words that make those sounds ‘appear’ when the reader reads them aloud). The poem’s ‘information’ is encoded in two different (but interdependent) ‘languages’ — one (physical) performed in two dimensions, one (acoustic) performed when words lift off the page into the air; one read (as letters/words) by the eye, the other ‘read’ (as performed sounds) by the ear; one preceding the other in ‘composition’ (sound of words coming to mind before actual words written down on page), the other necessarily following ‘performance’ of the first (words written on page) as reader’s voice delivers them.

So what exactly are the differences between our experience (perception) of poem on page and poem in air? For one thing, one (the poem made up of letters made into words printed on the page) exists as I say in two dimensions, comes to us through the eyes: we see it, see its letters and words, its lines and the spaces between them, the black of printed text and white space of the page it floats on. Whereas the other exists in three dimensions, in the space of the room through which poem’s sound vibrations travel from mouth of the person who reads poem (aloud) to ear of the person who hears it so read. Thus two different ‘forms’ of same poem, or same poem ‘translated’ into two different shapes/incarnations (‘languages’), one (print) experienced with the eye, the other (sound) with the ear.

To read poem on page is to have an essentially ‘private’ experience. The line of communication goes from text-on-page through (reader’s) eye into (reader’s) mind: moves that is from the flatness of words printed on the page to an interior space inside the reader’s head (‘mind’s eye’ so to speak). To hear the poem read aloud could also be private — one person reading, one person listening — but can also, and often indeed is, ‘public’: one person reading, several people listening at the same time to the same poem read aloud. So it is (or can be) a ‘shared,’ ‘communal’ experience — ten or twelve or twenty-five of us sitting in a room as we are here, hearing someone speaking the poem. But at the same time, even though we listen to the same words being read aloud at the same reading, we each of us also hear the poem in private, in the privacy of our own head (‘mind’s ear’), so it’s also, like reading poems on page with eye, a private experience, one that takes place in the isolate space of our own heads.

But again, what is it exactly that we see or hear when we read the poem on the page, listen to it being read aloud in the air? Well, let’s see, we see shapes of words, arranged in lines, separated/punctuated by marks of punctuation. We can, if we want (or even if we don’t want; sometimes we can’t help it), slow down our experience of reading, go two steps forward and one step back, read not only horizontally (across the line) but vertically (across lines), backward and forward, reread, can start to see how the poem is ‘put together’ on the page, how its words are set next to one another, in approximate relation to each other: how these same opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, for example,

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

are ‘composed’ of multiple overlapping patterns that we hear but don’t notice consciously when we hear the poem read aloud: the sh of “shame” is echoed (twice) in “action … action” in line 2, the st of “waste” (also twice) in “lust … lust”; the ABAB order of noun/prepositional phrase/noun/prepositional phrase in line 1 (“expense of spirit … waste of shame”) reordered as an ABBA chiasmus (“lust in action … action lust”) in the next; the various u sounds (short and long) appearing in all four lines in “of,” “of,” “lust,” “action,” “action,” “lust,” “murd’rous,” “bloody,” “full,” “rude,” “cruel,” and “trust”; “in” appearing in the first two lines; “Is” the first word of lines 2 and 3; and so on. These are things we hear when we hear the poem read but don’t, as I say, actually notice that we notice, because the poem’s performance (in reading) goes by too fast for us to notice these effects consciously — at least as consciously as we do notice them, and testify to them, given the time to read the poem (slowly) on the page.

Not so with poem-in-air, poem read aloud in ‘performance’: we hear those same (shaped/physical) words but don’t actually see them: hear the sound (pitch and duration) of syllables, the o’s and ah’s of vowels preceded and followed by consonants, the glide and clash of consonants preceded and followed by vowels, the rhythm of a sequence of syllables read one after the other ‘in time’ (the time it takes a reader’s voice to read them, time the so-called ‘fourth dimension’ through which each word travels on its way to the listener’s ear). The poem’s ‘speed’ is beyond our control — we cannot slow it down or speed it up, cannot go back or leap forward, can only follow (‘keep up’) with speed of reader (reading words) as best we can. So we’re carried along at the speed of sound so to speak, the sound of someone else’s voice (not me) whose intonations don’t reverberate inside my chest, my throat, because I am silent, I am the listener hearing the words the person reading (reader) reads to me (the listener), who hears those words but doesn’t actually see them (physically, on the page), ‘sees’ them only as sound of words in air — hypnotic, casting a spell that sends me into my own daydream — the sound of reading ‘sound’ (itself) as such.





1.  Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” In The American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986), 496.

2.  Charles Bernstein, “Thelonious Monk and the Performance of Poetry,” in My Way (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 23. The full passage is worth noting: “Every reading (whether one’s own reading of a book or a / poet’s reading to an audience) is an enactment, a / sounding, an / embodiment, which is to say a / reading that takes or makes / time, that enters into / the social, material, & historical space of / our lives. To deny the performative / aspect of poetry is to repress / its most literally political dimension, which is to / say, how it / enters into the world. To deny the rhetoricity / (rhetoricalness?) / & theatricality of a poem is to idealize a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank in which evasion substitutes for the friction / of interaction.”

3.  “Remembering everything, all layers at the same time, writing is the mind’s operations per se and imitation of it at the same time”: Leslie Scalapino, “The Radical Nature of Experience,” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1999),

4. Scalapino’s remarks in the following essay, “The Cannon,” on speech in relation to thought, are also worth noting. From page 26: “In the view (such as in Anne Waldman’s statements) that (which is the real) poetry is ‘speech,’ there’s a sense of ‘speech’ (spoken is social, convention of ‘conversation’?) — that is not ‘thought’ [interior], is not ‘felt spatially / such as correspondences in the limbs.’ Tonal is considered thus as ranges of speaking voice or breath. Yet poets have been writing other tones — that are in the written text only — tones not occurring as speaking. These are ‘sounded’ silently, spatially — a separation; between ‘one’ and ‘social’? Or separation between ‘one’ and ‘correspondences in the limbs’ and night. (As if a butterfly and the butterfly motion of a swimmer.)”

Words as 'things' ('actions'/'events')

Glass bowls used in live performance of Stephen Ratcliffe's Remarks on Color / Sound, Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, May 16, 2010.

The Greek thinkers speak of σωζειν τα φαινοηενος — “to save what appears”; that means to conserve and to preserve in unconcealedness what shows itself as what shows itself and in the way it shows itself — that is against the withdrawing into concealment and distortion. He who in this fashion saves (conserves and preserves) the appearing, saves it into the unconcealed, is himself saved for the unconcealed and conserved for it.

— Heidegger, Parmenides[1]



grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed
top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch
in foreground, sound of waves in channel

      this object in this appears,
      which was arrangement

      of “flatness” comparable to
      color, “subject,” one

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

(Temporality, 982)

The words are a writing down of the ‘things’ the person is seeing looking out at them ‘out there’ (in the world). And the ‘things’ (which are ‘events’/‘actions’) are taking place in a real present of time going on, from one moment to the next to the next. … The words are not those ‘things’ (‘events’/‘actions’) per se, are ‘equivalents’ (in their own time and place, i.e., on the stage of the page) of those things (actions/‘events’) — “grey whiteness of cloud … shadowed top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch … sound of waves in channel” — going on ‘out there’ (offstage, in the world). As phenomena, those things change from one moment to the next, one day to the next, as do the words that are ‘writing’ them into the present (presence) of the page (as site or stage of such writing). And so on 12.17, “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch” becomes “grey whiteness of fog against invisible / ridge, green shapes of leaves on branch” on 12.18; and on 12.19 things change (and also do not) again, to “grey whiteness of fog against invisible ridge, sparrow perched on redwood fence.” The “clouds” and “ridge” are there in the distance, the “leaves on branch” and “sparrow … on fence” in the foreground — observer’s eye moving in such a perception of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) in world, reader’s eye from word to word also moving. The words are an uncovering of what is ‘there’ in the world, visible but also “concealed” (from us, as viewers), in Heidegger’s sense that the truth of being in the world is also concealed, and that the poem can bring things forward to disclose themselves, as presence, in the appearance of their unconcealment on the page/stage (i.e., the site of their verbal ‘action,’ which ‘shows’ us (in words) that offstage action of those things/events taking place (‘happening’) ‘out there’ (in the world).

What follows those first three lines (i.e., two indented pairs of lines also set in Courier — an ‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width; the first line in each of these couplets six spaces longer than the second; one comma in the first pair of lines, two in the second) shifts ‘things’ a bit:

this object in this appears,
which was arrangement

of “flatness” comparable to
color, “subject,” one

Does “this object” ‘point to’ what preceded it (a “sound of waves in channel”), as it seems to? Does the second “this” in the line ‘point to’ the line itself (i.e., to the prepositional phrase “in this appears”), where that “sound of waves” and, before that, the “motion of leaves on branch” and “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge” also ‘appear,’ or seem to, as unconcealed ‘things’ (’action’/‘events’) now taking place as presences in the words, as it would seem? Are such words an “arrangement” of such ‘things’ (‘action’/‘events’) as words, whose “flatness” (i.e., on the page) is somehow (by what Prospero called “this rough magic”) made (mysteriously, certainly) “comparable [like, the ‘enactment’ or ‘performance’ of] to” such ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) as it also would seem? And does “color” (in the following line) ‘point to’ (or rather, ‘name’) what these words are here ‘talking about’ as words (i.e., their material ‘focus’ or ‘subject matter,’ so to speak); and “one” (perhaps? floating there as it is at the end of the line) ‘point to’ what’s coming next, in the final couplet, as it also indeed seems to —

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

— the words in those two lines (like the words in the first three lines) again also ‘naming’/‘pointing to’/‘performing’/‘enacting’/‘being’ those actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in that (offstage) world, whose ‘appearance’ here in words discloses them, makes them present (gives them ‘presence’ here on the page/stage), brings them into what Heidegger called “unconcealedness”?

But this poem (“12.17” so called) is only one poem/page of many — its ‘title’ pointing to the day it was written, 12.17.10, 12 days ago (I’m writing this on 12.28.10 having written a new poem/page, earlier this morning, “12.28,” which looks exactly like this one: one 3-line stanza with two commas followed by two indented 2-line stanzas [one with a comma, the other with two commas] followed by a final two-line stanza with one comma) — in a work that began on April 10, 2008 (with “4.10”) and will continue to January 4, 2011 (“1.4”): 1,000 pages, written in 1,000 consecutive days (“12.17” is page 982 — a work called Temporality. And before Temporality, two previous 1,000-page works: Remarks on Color / Sound (written from July 15, 2005, to April 9, 2010), and HUMAN / NATURE (written from October 19, 2002, to July 14, 2005); and, before these, three earlier 474-page works: CLOUD / RIDGE (written from July 2, 2001, to October 18, 2002),[2] REAL[3] (from March 17, 2000, to July 1, 2001), Portraits & Repetition[4] (from February 9, 1998, to May 28, 1999) — some 4,422 pages of ‘days’ — ‘days’ written in consecutive days — all of them sort of doing the same thing; i.e., “seeing, hearing, wording,” as Norman Fischer has written, keeping track (in words) of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in the world …

Every page in each of these works has its own physical ‘shape,’ so to speak, so that when one turns the pages one sees, or seems to, the same thing: in Portraits & Repetition, five 2-line couplets, the first line always three ‘characters’ — letters, spaces, marks of punctuation — longer than the second, somewhere in every pair of lines one comma plus one word in parenthesis; and in REAL, a 17-line prose poem (or so it seems, except that the line breaks are intentional, the right margin of each page having or making a particular ‘shape’), each with five sentences and a comma in each sentence; and in CLOUD / RIDGE (its title ‘shows’ the cloud above the ridge), each page with five stanzas (with one comma in each), each right margin on every page also creating a visual ‘shape’ on the page (which ‘pictures’ the acoustic shape of its sound in the air); and in HUMAN / NATURE, four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, one in the second and fourth), ten lines on each page (each indented line ‘counted’ as part of the line before it, each one moved three spaces to the right of that preceding line); and in Remarks on Color / Sound, nine lines in four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, two in the second and fourth), the two middle/‘inner’ 2-line stanzas indented six spaces to the right of the two ‘outer’ ones, which ‘frame’ them, one with three lines and the other with two; and in Temporality, four stanzas of nine lines (the same pattern of 3, 2, 2, 2, the two ‘inside’ ones again indented six spaces to the right), two commas in the first and third stanzas, two in the second and fourth, lengths of lines somewhat shorter than in Remarks on Color / Sound, as for example in “12.17” above.

But so much for what one sees when one reads these ‘shaped’ words on a page, seeing/hearing/wording ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’). What’s the point? Why do it? Why every day? Why the same thing every day (day after day after day)? Is each day (poem/page) the same? Is any day (poem/page) better than any other? How can you know? How can someone read it — who will read it for that matter (or for that matter publish it)? How will they read it, or think about it, or ever remember it? What will it mean (to readers who read it, think about it, remember it)? And beyond questions such as these, these further questions (for writer as well as reader): what happens when you look at (or listen to) something, day after day after day, over and over again? What do you actually see, or hear? And how can you ‘say’ it (i.e., write down what it is that you see or hear)? What is the relation between the words you use and the actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) you see or hear? Is there a relation between the name of something and that thing, as Plato in the Cratylus seemed to propose: “things have names by nature”; “the name is to be like the thing”; “names rightly given are the likenesses … of the things which they name.”[5] That is to say, can there be words “that [make] whatever I [look] at look like itself … words that make what I [look] at be itself” (my italics), as Gertrude Stein writes in “Portraits and Repetition”?[6] And is it possible that those words are not, as Stein discovered, “words that [have] in them any quality of description” but rather are themselves those things — made (by naming) to “be” themselves as real/actual ‘things’ (presences) on the page that is the stage of their being (by being ‘shown’) ‘here’ (present)/(unconcealed)?

Though questions such as these might not be easily answered, they seem to be the questions raised by these long ‘serial’ works I’ve been writing these days (all these years it seems), works that go on and on and on, doing the same kinds of things again and again: noting ‘matters of fact’; turning, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the forms of things … to shapes,” giving them “a local habitation and a name”;[7] trying simply to ‘keep track’ of what’s going on from one (present) moment to the next, one day to the next — an ‘impossible task’ as it turns out— looking at, and listening to, things “without many preconceptions as to what that thing is,” as Norman Fischer again writes, wondering as Stein did in her “Portraits,”

just what one saw when one looked at anything really looked at anything. Did one see sound, and what was the relation between color and sound, did it make itself by description by a word that meant it or did it make itself by a word in itself.

And while other poets have turned their attention to writing “the long poem” (Whitman, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Olson “to name but a few”) no one (it seems) has taken it to quite such an extreme measure. Perhaps with good reason (!) for the reasons named in the preceding paragraph. But there are nonetheless some ‘contemporaries’ whose work I would point to as being somewhat in the same direction as mine: Larry Eigner, whose Collected Poems, more than 3,070 of them, in four volumes, has just been published by Stanford University Press; Ron Silliman, whose compendious The Alphabet gathers twenty-six smaller books (one for each letter of the alphabet, Albany through Zyxt) into one volume (1,062 pages); all of Leslie Scalapino’s life work — poetry, plays, fiction, and critical writings, including her just now published The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, which as Norman Fischer has said to me “is like seven novels, with every novel unfolding in every sentence”;[8] and Robert Grenier, whose poems (‘hand drawn’ in ‘notebooks’) are virtually unpublished, at least not as printed books.[9] What might one say about such ‘on-going’ (and, in Grenier’s case, impossible to publish?) work? Perhaps in the ‘glimpse’ that follows ‘here’ is the beginning of an answer to that question …

Bob Grenier, my good friend and neighbor here in Bolinas, started writing his ‘drawn poems’ in 1989, shortly after moving here. To date, he has completed some 130-plus ‘notebooks’ of these poems, each notebook measuring 8 3/4” high by 5 3/4” wide, each with 110 pages, which comes to a total of some 14,300-plus pages of ‘drawn poems’ by my count. The poems are written in four colors of ink, Faber-Castelli “uni-ball” black, blue, green, and red, impossibly expensive to print (in books) but now variously ‘available’ — both online and at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, which has sixty-four Giclée prints made from drawing poem images “from the ‘agricultural year’ 2003–2005 in Bolinas, California (rainy season to rainy season — a sort of Shepherd’s Calendar without shepherd or sheep) called 64” (see here for “rough [as Bob calls them] translations of the texts” of these poems). Here are “rough translations” of three of Grenier’s poems from “64”:

RED W [green/blue]
OOOD [blue]
[OODD (blue)]
RED [black]
WOODS [red]

AFTER [red]
NOON [black]
SUN [green]
SHINE [blue]

Note the presence of the afternoon sun shining on the wall of the house, which ‘[re]appears’ in such letters drawn in the poem that ‘says’ that light, lets it ‘come forth’ into being; how the words gather their authority from the things they name; how ‘to say’ it (what Heidegger in Early Greek Thinking calls “λεγειν,” “a letting-lie-together before which gathers and is gathered”[10]) “names the inexhaustible mystery that the speaking of language comes to pass from the unconcealment of what is present, and is determined according to the lying-before of what is present as the letting-lie-together-before.” …

APRI [red]
COT [blue]
JAM [green]
JAR [black]

Note how letters line up on the lines like jars of apricot jam on a shelf: the A and P and lower case r and dot over the i in the first line look like real jars of jam; so do the C and O in the second line; so also the J and the A and the first loop of the M in the third line, and the J and R at the end — which isn’t to say that a word-made-of-letters is ‘the same’ as what it ‘means’ – since it is utterly ‘unlike’ whatever it ‘points to’ or ‘names’ – but that it ‘corresponds to,’ or is ‘in accord with’ or ‘in the company of,’ everything else that’s going on ‘out there’; that it occurs with the thing, ‘vibrates’ together with it, which is very mysterious. … Word-conserving/preserving, “language” (Grenier writes) “like jam when it is being made, or cookies when they are being made, a gathering-of-‘ingredients’ (letters, e.g., letters into words) w[hi]ch allows what is to come into being, as ‘itself’”; after-the-fact of the occasion of the writing, what is said is conserved in ‘written form’ to be read.”[11]

And here are three more from the June 2010 notebook:

FOX W [red]
4 [black]
MORE [green]
FOX [blue]

Note the numbers: first one fox (the mother) then four more (her “kits”), then “FOX” singular (rather than plural), like the first one: 3 + 1 letters in that line ‘equal to’ Arabic numeral “4” in next line. …

A [black]
BAT [green]
A [red]
BAT [blue]

Again note the numbers (counting): first one bat then another — which disappears out of sight off the page to the left (vertical stroke of the B in the last line missing); a 1, 3, 1, 3 series of letters per line; one A in each line, two B’s and two T’s in lines 2 and 4. …

HERE [red]
I AM [black]
THERE [green]
YOU [blue]

A poem for Leslie Scalapino (who is no longer here), which echoes Creeley in Pieces[12] (also not here): “Here I / am. There / you are” — without enough space for “are” after the “you” in the last line (since Leslie also is not here). All of these poems are elegiac, in that time is passing in them (is registered in this writing of the pen moving across the page), these marks made by “this living hand” of Robert Grenier that bear witness and testify to the fact of being alive.

And here finally is one of the poems from Penn Scans:

ACROSS [blue]
THE [green]
ROAD [black]

Note how the words seem to bring forth the action: how, as Grenier writes, “Whether drawing poem texts like ‘the one about crickets’ (no. 39) accomplish (or help accomplish) whatever it is they are otherwise ‘saying’ — so that seeing/reading ‘crickets’ a reader may hear ‘crickets themselves’ (& even be able to literally go (‘by ear’) ‘across/the/road’?) — remains an animating question.” …


The examples that follow illustrate the practice described above. For more poems by Stephen Ratcliffe in this feature, click here.


From Portraits & Repetition


approach of a bird's sound before the observer sees it (out)
window on left, profile of figure standing in front of it

vertical edge beside (angle) of plane, appearance of subject
whose following perception includes the feeling inside it

sunlight in relation to thinking of the surface of the ridge
(see) adjacent to which it isn't an actual event, example

followed by object on left, the way the person's hand passes
across face in mirror leaning against the wall (imagined)

(not) like invisible action before it becomes the experience
inside thought, distance between stem in glass and viewer



Sunlit surface of an orange globe on white shelf
reflected in the window opposite it, small dark
bird crossing the pale blue of sky in vertical
window on left.  Pregnant woman in a dark blue
sweater who watches child jump naked into pool
at edge of brick plane, woman whose hair falls
across right cheek calling museum in Amsterdam
"the mother lode."  Ophelia pulling a necklace
on a string from bosom of white dress, wanting
to give it back to Hamlet who doesn't want it
back.  Silver-haired man in green sweatshirt
whose teenage boy tapes ounce of pot to his
groin before boarding plane for Mexico, gets up
each morning to a vial of insulin without which
he will die.  An inverted triangle of sunlight
slanting into canyon below top of ridge, bird
passing across low grey cloud cover above it.




upturned curve of pine branch against first grey
light in right corner, chorus of birds calling
from plane of field below it
                               woman in dark
green shirt recalling her parents not letting
her leave Beirut to see her boyfriend, locking
herself in her room all day to read Dr. Zhivago

woman in blue V-neck sweater asking “what would
Mrs. Ramsay say,” claiming she had been in love
         Mr. Tansley thinking “if only he could
be alone in his room,” noting that “he was not
going to be made a fool of by women”
circle of sun’s reflection in the motionless
grey green plane on the left, bits of white
shells scattered over sand bottom below it




golden-crowned sparrow perched on dried hemlock stalk against
grey white sky in right foreground, two red finches on feeder
across from it, sound of waves in channel
                                            man on right
noting “a streak of pure paint might give a sense of red,
its glow would be cross-hatched with green"
                                              man across
from him adding “I have limited myself to the use of black
and white, as being the most disparate colors, red the color
most opposed to both of them”
                                sunlit sandstone-colored point
against pale blue whiteness of sky in upper left corner, white
edge of blue green wave braking into foreground across from it



From Remarks on Color / Sound


silhouette of hummingbird perched on yellow and green tip
of branch against grey whiteness of cloud, golden-crowned
sparrow calling oh dear me, sound of jet passing overhead

     the eye moves from one to the next,
     measuring each one’s effect

     these perspectives, each one of us,
     cannot be simply juxtaposed

grey whiteness of cloud on horizon to the left of point,
shadowed green canyon of tree-lined ridge above channel 



1.  Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 120.

2.  CLOUD / RIDGE (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2011); CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE can also be found in the form of earlier drafts at UbuWeb here and here.

3.  Stephen Ratcliffe, REAL (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007).

4.  Ratcliffe, Portraits & Repetition (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002).

5.  Plato, “Cratylus,” in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 429, 468, 473.

6.  Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” in Writings and Lectures 1909–1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1971), 115.

7.  William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).

8.  Norman Fischer, conversation with author, December 3, 2010.

9.  Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2008); Robert Grenier, “Penn Scans Note,” “64 / Robert Grenier Drawing Poem Prints,” “‘Rough’ Translations from Drawing/Poems, 2004,” and “Notebook,” June 2010.

10.  Heidegger, “Logos (Heraclitus, Fragment B 50),” in Early Greek Thinking, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper/Collins, 1984), 64.

11.  Remarks here and elsewhere from Robert Grenier, conversations with author, January 2–3, 2011, and correspondence with author, January 2, 2011.

12.  Robert Creeley, Pieces (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969).

The view from performance

A report from the Marin Headlands

Stephen Ratcliffe and composer Edward Schocker perform Ratcliffe’s 1,000-page poem Remarks on Color / Sound on May 16, 2010, at the Marin Headlands in Northern California. Left to right: Zachary Watkins on electronics, Dylan Bolles on winds, Stephen Ratcliffe, Suki O’Kane on drum, and Edward Schocker on glass bowls.

Maybe the mountain lion droppings on the hiking trails or the rocky splash shorelines make the Marin Headlands seem remote, but geographically, this place is a cuticle on the Golden Gate Bridge’s big toe. And here you can find Headlands Center for the Arts, which hosted Remarks on Color / Sound, in which Stephen Ratcliffe and composer Edward Schocker performed Ratcliffe’s 1,000-page poem on May 16, 2010, in the Gym Studio at the Center. Bay Areans who missed the performance could use the remote location as an excuse, but certainly not the time of the performance. Locals had fourteen hours to stop by, sunrise to sunset. That’s like seven poetry readings combined.

As press for the event describes it: “The reading of the poem will accompany sound, light, movement, and sculpture in an open dialogue with the architecture of the surrounding space.” The philosophically vague “space” mentioned is a converted military complex in a recess of eucalyptus and concrete bunkers, most nooks replete with ghost stories. Remarks on Color / Sound was in the gym, where national guardsmen once played basketball while on break from protecting the coast, circa first half of the twentieth century. Ratcliffe was stationed within, at a simple wooden desk. 

The arts center is not exactly squatting in a decommissioned military base. The nonprofit is a breathing organism of Golden Gate National Park, which was incorporated in the early 1980s when local artists traded renovations for studio time and then mustered up a board of directors. It functions as a residency for local, national, and international artists, writers, and musicians, like Schocker, who worked in the gym several days a week for six months in 2010. In Remarks on Color / Sound, Ratcliffe read the 1,000 pages he wrote in 1,000 consecutive days beginning October 27, 2005, and finishing April 9, 2008. I sat through two months of the poem, at 11 a.m. and then again at 4 p.m. Knowing that the reading and music would last fourteen hours mediated my interaction as fragments not entirely lost from the shape of the whole. I was following a trace of writing from several years ago deposited into the gym. It was a crazy clock of invisible hand-me-downs cast on mountains staring at me through tall windows.

The poetry at this performance came to represent a place to enter and leave. Unless you were there at the very end, you had to leave the poetry, as opposed to the reading being announced as over. Schmoozing was at an all-time low. A fellow audience member, while in the made-from-scratch-all-organic mess hall, mentioned to me the off-putting hierarchy of a durational performance. How fourteen hours may be more intimidating than inviting, making the audience feel inadequate or left out, and as a result, noncommittal. Remarks on Color / Sound did not pander to the audience used to a time of trends known as participation. The performers took eating and resting breaks to stay afloat; some wore their pajamas. I saw Schocker at one point roaming away from the gym with a hot water kettle, the plug scraping along the ground.

Stephen Ratcliffe’s reading table.

As much as there was music and poetry coinciding, accompanying each other, a report on the event requires first some attention to Ratcliffe, the definitive star of the piece, with the most deadpan aria I’ve ever heard. This was a performance of active and accidental editing. It brought up the question of how is it as much the reader entering a long piece and leaving it as the writer selecting the best parts to read out loud. At times, there was no audience in the Gym Studio. Who was listening to this poetry then?

The audience for Ratcliffe’s work encompasses the insistent generalities of landscape being written of and the space the work is read in. Ratcliffe’s formal consistency — a daily production of poems — lives just up the coastal trail from Headlands, in a studio with a breathtaking view. Remarks on Color / Sound summoned spirits who refuse selection from a poetry of practice and then summoned spirits who denounce the conundrum of editing. Can editing be as rhythmic as waking up, as routine as taking in the scene and air immediately around you? And the relief, what’s edited out, is the time you are not inside a poem’s space? In other words, how do you edit Stephen Ratcliffe? You walk in and out.

Ratcliffe describes the form of Remarks on Color / Sound’s 1,000 poems as “ALL in the same ‘shape’ on the page, a three-line first stanza (with 2 commas), followed by two 2-line middle stanzas (the first with 1 comma, the second with 2 commas), followed by a final 2-line stanza (with 1 comma at the end of the first line).” And every poem is set in Courier font, “so there’s a physical shape to the right margin.” This sounds like a choreographer talking to a group of dancers. Ratcliffe’s form plays with notions of a performative score. And then the pages in Remarks on Color / Sound take on a conceptual sculpture, with all the pages looking similar from a few steps back. Wait: is this art or poetry? Wait, I hate that question. Let’s read the stack of 1,000 pages as the contours of a rectangular sculpture. But the consistency Ratcliffe yields does not equal or result in a reading of ambience at all. There are sharp incisions embedded here, in terms of content, especially with Ratcliffe’s criticality on his language product: “I do not visualize anything, all these landscapes are already there.”


silver circle of sunlight in grey whiteness of sky,
shadowed plane of sandstone-colored wall in lower
left foreground, sound of cars passing in street

      when eye wanders away from the edge,
      white crops the image

      in this way, horizon of possible,
      though each appearance

edge of sandstone wall against grey-white sky,
shadowed green leaves of trees across from it

Left to right: Zachary Watkins on electronics, Suki O’Kane on drums, and Stephen Ratcliffe.

It would be unfaithful to a full report not to start talking about the soundscape. Ratcliffe’s reading was embedded within the work of four musicians led by Schocker. A partial inventory of their instruments is as follows: wood flutes, enlarged glass vases, pots, rice, grills, walkie-talkies, speakers, a mixer, and a bass guitar. The musicians worked with their toy store at a rotation of fresh liberty to build accompaniments to solo breakdowns. The music’s randomness was not nearly as calculated as a Merce Cunningham score. It seemed the musicians were responding to what Ratcliffe was reading. The arrangement of the musicians on the basketball court was orbital to Stephen’s desk, but everyone seemed to be stuck in a visible earth tilt: backs were turned to each other like it was gravity’s fault, not bad manners. Perhaps these postures brought deviance to the switchboard: sometimes Ratcliffe’s words were not audible, but other times his voice was adjusted to maximum fuzz blast. I even had the feeling that the musicians were spiteful of the 1,000 poems’ calm constancy.

I’m feeling stuck on the words collaboration and interdisciplinary in describing my experience at this performance. This naming of the performance feels strained, like a tortoise and hare roleplay might, which brings up the risk of competition among mediums when they share the stage. The musicians achieved the problematics of democratizing instrumental sound with language sound by demonstrating that not all voices are equal. This echoed the experience of reading such a long work as Ratcliffe’s, how parts get lost and pieces get held onto. You’re given the illusion of control in a very large system.

Stephen announced each page with an easy-to-decode numbers scheme of month, then day. I heard no years. The date announcement is a pause where your own brood of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays latch on to the date. Personal connotations bump into Ratcliffe’s subject, the three-dimensional audiovisual from a window. A resonating moment was the line “sound of jet passing overhead,” repeated and landing on the aftermath of September 11. This is not a timeless poetry. The date of the poem makes listening to the poem uncomfortable; it is unafraid of what the fact of time does to us.

Instrumentals at the Marin Headlands reading.

Then there is the page: something of a technical necessity at a durational reading. Don’t even try to memorize this or look up at the audience to connect. The poem in Remarks on Color / Sound is located in the act of reading the 1,000 pages. I locate the poem as a region on a mind map where poems are not singular places. Which makes Ratcliffe’s poetry, in refusing a selection, insist on the performance as its wedding night. Remarks on Color / Sound becomes a sort of did you hear about this event poem as opposed to a did you hear it’s very difficult to fund the printing of a book of 1,000 pages poem. And this performance becomes a legend to drag your cursor over.

But what about the power of institutions to promote the documentation of performance art so that it lives past the sparsely attended event? We depend on documentation just as we depend on performance art to do the unusual. I don’t think that makes undocumented work a spectacle. And I don’t think it makes documentation of an event any less complicated. On September 25, 2010, the Marina Abramović Institute West in San Francisco hosted 4 Better, 4 Worse, by Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, an homage to Abramović’s 1974 performance Rhythm 0. Rhythm 0 was the piece where Abramović got a gun pointed at her head. She put the gun on a table with seventy-one other objects the public was asked to use on her.

Back to reality: at the famous performance artist’s nonprofit, the stage was a woman on an air mattress, plus anything the step-right-up audience felt like doing to her with household objects mounted on a wall nearby. A cluster of people behind two video cameras on tripods built the mirroring stage. This wall-o-documentation made me feel like a dog with an invisible fence collar zapping. Then there was the official photographer who looked like he was on the court at Madison Square Garden and then there were all the people the official photographer told me he couldn’t, or didn’t care enough to, stop from taking pictures of the performance. And this was an homage to canonically spectacular performance art, the type where you wait for blood.

This is all to say, the spectacular, or the thrill, in Remarks on Color / Sound lay in its challenge not only to the page, but also to the small space of a thirty-minute selection we tend to hear at the traditional poetry reading. Ratcliffe and Schocker have worked together before. Remarks continued “investigations into the integration/interaction of human beings and natural landscape that began in their 2008 performance, human/nature, at UC Davis,” described as “the relation between things seen/observed in the natural world and how such things might be made (transcribed/transformed) as works of written (or visual) art.”

In human/nature, Ratcliffe and Schocker underestimated the time it would take to get through the work by five hours. Ratcliffe recalls, “Sometime in the middle of the night I realized I was the only person in the room who was still awake.” And yet, how is that different than a poet’s potentially weak moment of unconnectivity with the words on the page to the people in the folding chairs at a poetry reading? Stephen Ratcliffe’s durational poetry readings are not necessarily radical but real to his work. And what would poetry readings start to look like if the formal aspects of performance started to speak this fluently to what the work wants and needs?

One thousand pages of reading at the Marin Headlands.

Only, document

Stephen Ratcliffe's REAL

Stephen Ratcliffe reads Remarks on Color / Sound at Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, May 16, 2010.

Thinking about the practice of Stephen Ratcliffe’s REAL begins with wondering about the practice and duration of reading itself. How to stay alongside — faithful to — a writing that over hundreds of pages meticulously records its daily meeting with a continuously framed and framing world. Does reading accompany the quiet imperative of this attention, its repetition and observance, or find another route? Is it a process to inhabit slowly, keeping pace a day at a time, and how would that be possible, in translating what it makes present into an elsewhere? How and where does REAL take place?

REAL is one phase of a continuous project of recording, which most recently can be seen on Ratcliffe’s blog, where the sequence Temporality is unfolding daily. Like this work, and other companion sequences, from Portraits & Repetition[1] CLOUD / RIDGE (available in its entirety on UbuWeb and also forthcoming in print fall 2011 from BlazeVOX), and from the thousand-page HUMAN / NATURE (online at Editions Eclipse, making a kind of triptych with the equally extensive Remarks on Color / Sound and Temporality, which can also be found there), to REAL[2] discovers its own material shape and organization as document. The documenting of this experienced world has extent and duration, like the living of a life, but it is also a registering of an unrolling enquiry into its abstracting translation by language and aesthetic form, via curious crossings, small and sometimes miraculous detonations of thought and reflection.

Each of these works has its own procedurally repeated shape on the page, often a framing observation of the early morning in Bolinas, California, Ratcliffe’s home: the ridge, sea, light, sounds of particular birds, occasional movement of creatures, cars, and planes, all surrounding or embedding, always in a repeated form, a fragment of reading, quotation, or moment of reflection on the practice of painting, music, film. These works are all in different ways founded on a dedicated enquiry into repetition and time, repetition understood as a Steinian ‘insistence,’ perhaps, which works to capture “that present ‘something,’” as Ratcliffe discusses in his reading of her.[3] At the same time, there is a phenomenological pitch towards the world which at times suggest a Thoreau-like trust in that point of awakening, the opening of a field of perception which is both recognisable — it is the same ridge, the seeming same palette of movement, color, sound — and yet never the same, always present to rediscovery in new perceptual vectors as encounter. In what follows I want to explore aspects of what might be seen as the choreography of this process, and then how REAL in particular (as an intimation of what I see as a noir version of this) might appear to begin to test it.

Often in the philosophical and reflective fragments — portraits? — of these epic prose-poem sequences it’s not clear who is speaking, if evidently voiced. Or where the found material might come from. Texts about the Red Army. An ekphrastic invocation of Cézanne. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Media moments, reportage: “Wolfowitz recalling ‘how terrible it was for the Poles during the uprising, three thousand killed every day, a World Trade Center every day’” (HUMAN / NATURE 11.14, 758). In all cases the sustained and meditative practice of encounter promises the surprise of continual and sensed counterpoint. Like that instance in Remarks on Color / Sound, when the “sound of owl hooing through grey whiteness of fog” gives way to another gestics:


black-capped chickadee landing on shadowed tobacco plant branch
in right foreground, quail walking across wet brick red plane
below it, sound of owl hooing through grey whiteness of fog

speaking of a melon, one uses both hands to express it
by a gesture

hoot de-onomatopoeticizes, hoo re-onomatopoeticizes,
which is ugly but moves like a tango

grey white fog across top of sandstone-colored point, oval
grey green mouth of wave breaking into foreground below it

If there is a process of stepping through this writing, it works to an acoustic rhythm, an often visible patterning of sound. Or to the sometimes awkwardness — ‘ugly’ — recursive tango of a moment of thought. You think about “the what of the line,” as Ratcliffe terms it in his wonderful Listening to Reading,[4] through multiple kinds of texture and movement, the gestics of its deterritorializations and reterritorializations. The turn of a comma. There’s a kind of ghost freight in this instance, too: hearing in the “wet brick red plane” both a Poundian imagism of the “wet, black bough” and an echo of Williams’s red wheelbarrow, perhaps. But this is a spatializing quality of a different order. The quail is in its continuous present “walking across … a plane” — an abstracted surface crossed in curious mimicry of what the eye does in walking along a line in the act of reading. I found myself wondering whether the quail was moving against, “across” the grain of that act. “Wet brick red plane” suggests both a paralleling of empirical world and its aesthetic translation, and at once its subsumption by the painterly, in which the plane is wet and brick-red, the quail in its quail-ness finding its place in other dimensions.

Attempting to describe the quiddity of the object in time is a kind of ‘anchoring,’ as Merleau-Ponty puts it in his essay “Temporality”: “I do not so much perceive objects as reckon with an environment.”[5] That environment might be understood here in geometric terms, recorded as a series of surfaces — planes — and arguably also as the inhabiting of shreds of spacetime. The natural world of a Bolinas morning is there in itself, but also the occasion for a kind of seizing. The body, “speaking of a melon,” works to capture its dimensions in both hands, but it cuts into the frame at this moment as a phrase as well as an imagined object. The conjured-up melon might seem tangible but its introduction through a montage cut has a spatial and indeterminate quality. There is no melon. No one is speaking of a melon. Or, “speaking of a melon” might seem at the same time a declaration of a universal or habitual case, as if it might become a thing, a gerund. Or again, “speaking of a melon” might be an interruption, as if a conversation has not been heard, and we are suddenly tuned in. Perhaps the melon is there. What appears to refer to the direct mimesis of an object in the world turns into a form of simple abstraction, or gives way to a multiplicity of dimensions.

What then does it mean to ‘reckon’ with an environment in this way? In his excellent blog (itself a richly continuous work), John Latta has recently discussed Thomas McGrath’s response to Williams, to the “so much depends upon” of “The Red Wheelbarrow,” McGrath preferring the late Williams where the “poems begin to sing, and they’re not so tied to objects.” As McGrath continues: “It’s a terrible presumption, you know: ‘so much.’ How much? What? — ‘depends upon’ this? A better, a far better poem, is a poem about the same time called ‘Nantucket.’ At the end of that poem he puts a key there, and that, in the whole poem, just opens like an enormous flower of possibility. What happens when you use the key in this place that seems nature morte?” McGrath’s point, as Latta describes, is that while the Objectivists moved away from the “decorative” moment of seeing in Imagism, they “left out” in his view “that objects exist in a fluid world. They have to exist with people; people put them there.” There is a sense here of the human — social — context for these positionings, the pivot of that relation suggested here by the semicolon. McGrath’s hunch about what is missing in Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” or what is barely hinted at by that “key” in “Nantucket,” might be linked, Latta argues, to “a whole unsung compendia of political and economic (human) contexts,” to what is omitted in the act of seeing.[6]

The “so much depends” in Ratcliffe’s work is evidently of a very different order of duration and attention. Sometimes it verges on meditation. Its sheer accretion arguably underlines something like this notion to the reader, the necessity of that daily assignation. Something depends on a bearing witness to. At the same time it is a kind of disassembling of that presumption — what occurs is what happens to be on that day, a series of chance crossings, like the quail wandering across the plane. Each day opens onto the flow of a continuous present; things are on the move, becoming. The intense phenomenological extension into the world this writing captures might suggest philosophical routes to the understanding of what it means to be “outside oneself and open to the world,” that condition of “ek-stase,” understood through Merleau-Ponty,[7] or indeed through Heidegger, who is clearly in mind in the pages of REAL in the notions of presencing (4.30) and unconcealment (3.17). But what would it mean to think this writing in terms of what is unsung in this encounter? What happens in its placing of objects, events, sensations? In other words, how might the real in REAL be grasped?

REAL was written daily from March 2000 to July 2001, and each of the 474 pages registers the date, followed by a prose poem that uses certain constraints: seventeen lines, divided into five sentences, each of which pivots on a comma. The font is Courier, the shape plastic on the page. A set of observations moves through familiar and repeated planes and thresholds: descriptions of weather, birds and flowers, and the landscape and ocean; recurrent observations of men (“long-haired man,” “man in black wetsuit”), women (“woman in fuchsia dress,” “woman in red jacket yelling Fidel to black and white pit bull”), and children talking and interacting; the presence of material and scenes (other cities, sidewalks, interiors) which may be televisual or movie images or some other incursion of memory or off-stage percept made present; the surfacing of images, directly quoted words or phrases, colors, objects, and unanchored ‘missing’ perceptions. If REAL works the same Bolinas horizon as its companion sequences, it also moves into another temporal tectonics, it would seem: identifying in its repetitions and namings the material presence of events that have not yet taken place, emotions that would have happened but did not, things that occur, like the sound of water, outside the frame. It is more peopled and mediated than Ratcliffe’s other works, at times resembling (for me) watching the choreography of Pina Bausch.

The material in REAL works a rigorous counterpoint on the comma in each line. At the same time as the poems extend into a phenomenological world outside themselves through their everyday deixis, they encounter that activity in fragments of philosophical thought, intimate instances of artistic making. I’ve taken one sentence from each dated entry:


                              Machiavelli’s Prince
stating “the main who neglects the real to study
the ideal” will accomplish his ruin, real being
“varying circumstances of life.”






                     Man in the green chair
looking across the red brick plane, Cézanne
noting that painting from nature isn’t copying
the object but “materializing sensations.”



         The woman who doesn’t talk taking a two-
hour nap on two consecutive days, Stravinsky
also claiming “what diminishes constraint,
         diminishes strength.”

These instances contain an aphoristic charge, but embedded as they are they work in each case like random encounters, becoming as material and present in the everyday as the people and objects that pass through the space of each entry. Something in the writing and its repetition equalizes, brings material in to a quiet point of exchange, a quoted fragment of philosophical thought that might be balanced, say, with the angle of a building or barking dog, a color equal to the view of someone from behind, when the viewer isn’t there. This counterpoint hints at impossible lineaments of connection, which REAL stays alongside.

Ratcliffe has spoken somewhere about how the process of REAL reminded him of the journal writings of Dorothy Wordsworth, and there is something about REAL’s accretion which suggests both the randomness and matter-of-fact pitch of a datebook’s relation to its present: that odd distribution of material that joins unrelated details in the manner of montage as well as habitual observance, such that the writer might look back and recall what passed through on that day, testimony to his having been there. There is a passage here, it might seem, as things become present to naming and yet overlaid with something retroactive, somehow everyday and yet invested with potential weight because they are lived and already gone.

So REAL attends to what is clearly on one level a familiar and habitual world, focused on a circle of unnamed friends, and on a particular landscape where infinitesimal shifts in light and observation mean that repetition is always in some sense renewal, a logic of difference lived out as ritual. Poetry taking place among friends and among everyday patterns and happenings, as if elements of the New York School were transposed for a season to the West Coast. Yet this is a poetry which stems from place and the meditative traditions of the poetic environments of California: that would include Bolinas poets such as Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, and also Ratcliffe’s close friend Bob Grenier, who surfaces enough for readerly recognition.

Something in this intimacy abstracts. The way the sentence balances on the comma’s central point produces a kinetic effect, as if in watching the central bubble of a spirit level you might suddenly be overcome with vertigo at the flow tipping the weight one way or another. These might appear points of equilibrium, in which seeming contradictions or contiguities are worked through a rhythmic counterpoint. But while this balance is there, calmly, as if its cutting is simply documenting what is, its pivot can also swing to a point of intensity, sometimes disturbance.

Take, for example, the first two opening lines of 9.28 in REAL:

Prone position of the ridge in relation to white-
grey texture of sky pressing down on it, motion
of cloud embedded against it. Woman in window
in a black shirt leaning over the corner of table
above a surface of yellow and pink and white
circles, the man in a faded green tee-shirt
hanging up the phone on the word “venting.”


The description of the scene builds a sense of pressure: ‘prone,” “pressing,” “embedded”; the woman “leaning over”; but there’s a sense that you don’t really notice that until the word “venting” arrives as a release. The spirit level suddenly slides. “Venting” suggests a displaced description of anger, a verbal sounding off, the phone is hung up. As elsewhere there is nothing to explain this detail as event, though it appears as one instance of what might be seen as a telephone series, the recurrence of “telephone space” and its unheard conversations. These points of intensity render unease in what is otherwise a surface accounting without emphasis, producing other series of gestics throughout REAL. These gestics begin to accrete for the reader, often intimating violence, potential jeopardy: earthquakes, sharks, traffic jams, visceral encounters, sex, murder. As in 5.21, which I’m quoting in full:

Whirr of hummingbird approaching tobacco plant
flowers above the listener, the backs of three
bright yellow birds heading out into the field.
“Might Gertrude Stein lie open to criticism?”
asks the last page left in the black Royal,
followed by “it seems to be”. Top right corner
of moon disappearing through a gap in the trees
above crickets on either side of a gravel path,
the tops of tallest grasses slowly falling
as the weed whip moves to the right below them.
The woman attempting to pour red wine from one
martini glass to the other spilling it, small
pieces of glass embedded in man’s left index
finger. The long narrow frame on the floor
breaking, body lying on the table violated
by the man standing behind door who wants
to do it again.


This kind of attention in the continuous present is reminiscent, perhaps, of the ‘objectivism’ of the nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet (I’m thinking of a narrative like Jalousie), in its detailing and its enumeration of environments that seem encoded with significance and threat. But perhaps it is more interesting to think of REAL as a phenomenological form of noir, and in that way revealing of an unsung Californian real of another kind. Noir in the sense that Steinian insistence “lies open” to another “transformational grammar,” in Mike Davis’s words, in which the arcadia of the West Coast landscape returns in sinister equivalence. In City of Quartz, Davis argues that noir offers up a “surrogate public history” of Los Angeles.[8] Perhaps REAL offers a glimmer of that accounting in bringing the unseen and unknown materially into the frame, exposing the human violences and desires that work through the angles of things and environments. The sustained tone of REAL, noncommittal, neutral, is itself suggestive of a kind of symbolic violence. Or perhaps its reckoning remains no more than an extended desire to stay live to the documenting, as in 6.7:

                       The man on the radio understanding
man on glass porch in Swampscott, noting that
each next thing in Eigner’s poem is just that
next thing.


For the reader, there is a rich sense of suspension living alongside the attention of this writing, its daily practice, its quiet. But it’s also possible to encounter it differently. I listened simultaneously to Stephen Ratcliffe reading from Temporality in a sound file (there is ample opportunity on PennSound) while reading Color / Sound online and thinking about REAL. The triangulations it produced were accidental and generative, new kinds of acoustics and crossings. At the same time dimensions of a small London yard reflected in the screen, “the world / being thus put under mind for verb and noun” (2.26, 349).



1.  Stephen Ratcliffe, Portraits & Repetition (Sausalito: Post-Apollo Press, 2002).

2.  Ratcliffe, REAL (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007).

3.  Ratcliffe, “MEMO/RE: Reading Stein,” Corner 2 (1999).

4.  Ratcliffe, Listening to Reading (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 34.

5.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1989), 416.

6.  John Latta, “McGrath’s Objectivists,” July 22, 2011. McGrath is quoted from a 1987 interview in Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem, ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

7.  Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 456, 430.

8.  Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London: Verso, 1990), 38, 44.