Listening to Stephen Ratcliffe

Stephen Ratcliffe's notebook. Photo by Jonathan Skinner.

In his 1951 preface to Paterson, William Carlos Williams writes that the long poem “is also the search of the poet for his language”: in the long poem Williams found a form whose discursive capaciousness lends an ongoing quality to that search both in speech and on the page, a search whose desired object — a text, a kind of speech — is never completely bounded. We search for a certain kind of text, but Williams also seeks to draw upon the rushing, watery noise of the Passaic Falls, which he says “seemed to me to be a language which we were and are seeking.” The Falls in their ongoingness mimic the modern search for language as much as they also teach us something about how we are constituted by that language.

This intersection of place and language could be said to inform the work of poet (and surfer) Stephen Ratcliffe, whose ongoing project to document, frame, and reframe daily detail now occupies thousands of pages in print and online, from 2002’s Portraits & Repetition to 2011’s CLOUD / RIDGE and in three 1,000-page books — HUMAN / NATURE, Remarks on Color / Sound, and Temporality — available at Editions Eclipse, and whose work Jacket2 here highlights in critical appraisals, reviews, interviews, photographs, and recordings.

Along with commentaries on Ratcliffe’s poetry and critical prose by Vincent Broqua, Michael Cross, Norman Fischer, Ariel Goldberg, and Carol Watts, we offer conversational interviews between Ratcliffe and Linda Russo, Jonathan Skinner, and Jeffrey Schrader; two essays by Ratcliffe that offer extended meditations on sound and the materiality of the word; poems by Ratcliffe from his forthcoming Selected Days (Counterpath Press); and a number of recordings newly available at PennSound, including extensive conversations between Ratcliffe and Robert Grenier that were recorded between 2001 and 2010. (You can find those recordings and more audio and video at Ratcliffe’s PennSound page.)

In his 2000 book Listening to Reading, Ratcliffe gives us a model for how to think critically about the intersection of sound and text, how to ‘hear’ the relationship between sound, shape, and meaning in poetry that is testing the boundaries of what language can do. The work here explores how Ratcliffe has continued to ask these questions as he writes long poems that test the boundaries of the reading (and hearing) experience. In “The Longing of the Long Poem” (published in Jacket 40), Peter Middleton writes: “Modernist long poems resist the support institutions of poetry. Expensive to print; tricky to handle digitally; too long to be read in their entirety at poetry readings; too big for anthologies; much too big for little magazines to be able to publish anything but short sections; almost always too long to teach within the constraints of a timetable; exorbitantly demanding of a reader’s time; and sometimes barely readable until extended scholarly labours have provided guides and critical readings. And yet the long poem continues to represent the peak of poetic achievement just as early epics did.” Middleton points to the inherently resistant qualities if not downright anti-institutionality of the long form, qualities Williams certainly understood when he wondered simply in Spring and All, “What about all this writing?” What about the sheer volume of a work like Stephen Ratcliffe’s 474-page REAL, which exhibits much of the genre hybridity ascribed to the tradition of the long poem yet whose insistence on procedural patterning and Courier typeface suggests a fidelity to order in the midst of the demands the text makes on the reader? Or one of his fourteen-hour performances available on PennSound? The pieces in REAL and Ratcliffe’s related projects have been variously described as serial poems, epics, documentaries, essays, translations, or musical scores; Ratcliffe, whose relationship to Gertrude Stein was most pronounced in Portraits & Repetition, frequently employs recursivity and portraiture in pieces whose dailiness also claims a genealogy with work by Larry Eigner and James Schuyler. More chronicling than epiphanic, the pieces also evoke work by poets like Bernadette Mayer who set out to record how we hear language even as we “seek” its verisimilitude with experience. Jacket2’s Ratcliffe feature also challenges reader endurance by publishing Jeffrey Schrader’s 36,000-word email interview with Ratcliffe, which we have reproduced (along with Ratcliffe’s poems) faithfully in Courier, the vehicle Ratcliffe describes here as an “‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width.” Many parts of this feature are resistant texts that demand immersion and reward sustained attention.

Ratcliffe was my master’s thesis advisor at Mills College, and I still in a corner of my office have taped up a copy of a (short) poem he handed back after workshop. After underlining the poem according to its more obvious attempts at sound patterns, he began drawing lines between disparate parts, connecting words and lines that he saw resonating with one another in shape and sound despite distance on the page: one l recalls another two lines down; two lines similar in length suggest a pattern in space. The result looks a little like one of fellow Bolinas poet Bob Grenier’s drawn poems, with the more staid Hoefler Text submerged beneath the hand-drawn lines, curves, circles, and dashes. Stephen taught me how to treat the page as a shared sonic space even if the experience feels like a private one, how to listen to reading and writing, how to write in and toward the sounded possibilities of language.