Sunday, April 21st, 2013
One of the most tricky questions surrounding poetry is one of the most common: “what is this poem about?” While the question seems casual, easy—a way of filling unoccupied air—answering the question requires a fair amount of precision. Unless the answer has a grasp of the “aboutness” relevant to the poem at hand, the response is apt to be empty and misguided at best. Furthermore, the kind of aboutness that a poem has is fundamental to whether or not the poem is significant, by which I mean how much work it can do in the world and to what end.
In a 2010/2011 lecture available from Omnidawn Press in chapbook form titled The Given & the Chosen, Ann Lauterbach provides a rich response to the question of aboutness: “I might say, in answer to the question, what are your poems about, what is this talk about, that they are about what might arise between the given and the chosen.” This response, so rich in complexity and usefulness, for some time allowed me to play a game of separating the world into categories. To the category of the given I thought: the body, language, the physical world, one’s own native culture. I thought “given” as in present (Lewis Hyde), present (as in breath breeze sound), and as in always already given-to. To the category of the chosen I thought poem, gesture, word, form, location, and non-native language/culture. I thought agency, but with a question mark, and wondered to what extent. And then I thought about the space of possibility held open by the hinge-word between…
Later in her lecture Lauterbach hints at a connection between “aboutness” and significance, articulating a high call for art’s practice:
Many years ago in 1973 or 1974, I gave a course at Saint Martins School of Art in London called “choice, decision, and judgment.” I was interested then, as I am now, in asking questions about the possible relation between forms of life and forms of art…I wanted to know if the sequence of choice, decision, and judgment in one’s quotidian life might have some bearing on that same sequence, choice, decision, judgment, in making art…Contrarily, could the process of making choices, decisions and judgments in art-making in fact condition and shape a person’s life?
Aboutness as what might arise between the given and the chosen. Significance as art that conditions and shapes a life and is itself conditioned and shaped by a life. This form of aboutness and this call for a praxis of quotidian significance particularly resonates with experimental texts—by which I mean texts that reflect upon, and wrestle with, language itself. Stephen Ratcliffe’s Selected Days, recently out from Counterpath Press, is such a text.
In the book’s “After/Words” Ratcliffe outlines the scope of the project thus:
All these ‘days’ (poems/pages) selected from six previous books — Portraits & Repetition, REAL, CLOUD/RIDGE (each one being 474 pages written in 474 consecutive days), HUMAN/NATURE, Remarks on Color/Sound and Temporality (each one likewise 1,000 pages written in 1,000 consecutive days); all these days, 4,422 pages written in 4,422 consecutive days…all this writing (in/of ‘days’) still going on…
A writing in days, of days, Selected Days presents the last 20 poems of each of the 474-paged books and the last 40 poems of each of the 1,000-paged books. As a “selection” the book necessarily employs the given-chosen dynamic: the given = the six volumes of poems, the chosen = the selections. Selected Days operates serially, as do the six volumes, functioning within an ethic and aesthetic of the daily, using modular forms to create poems that record and participate in the passage of time. As such, this serial process immediately engages one of the most fundamental givens of daily life—time and the space in which it unfurls. And, the commitment to daily writing that the project entails articulates, again and again, the gesture of choosing. Ratcliffe’s particular choice: to attend the world in perception and word, to choose the poem as the form of this attention.
The poems of this project—both those included in Selected Days and those that remain unselected in their respective books—are not only held together by Ratcliffe’s commitment to daily, serial composition. The poems also share many structural and stylistic features, both within individual books and across several (or all) of the six volumes giving the overall project (which I will call, here, “days” to indicate all of the poems of the six books, selected and unselected alike) a quality of deep continuity. In many (though not all) respects the poems are fundamentally modular: lines and stanzas from any given poem would be quite at home in any other poem in the six volumes. From CLOUD/RIDGE, the poem titled “9.29” serves as an example of the features that recur across poems, giving the work of “days” this feeling of interchangeability. I quote it here in its entirety:
blue white sky above plane of still dark ridge
in window opposite the unmade yellow and blue
bed, shadow of tobacco plant branch slanting
across wall on the left
man in blue jacket
noting yellow orange of aspen leaves in left
foreground, whiteness of snow falling through
grey of sky beyond it
man in red truck noting
Wagnerian influence in Bruckner’s Ninth, light
and shadow on planes of ridges in front of it
Lily Briscoe thinking that “one wanted fifty
pairs of eyes to see with,” remembering Mrs.
Ramsey “sitting in the window alone”
clouds moving across circle of sun in right
corner, snow on rock in foreground below it.
Each poem in “days,” titled by its date of composition, is bookended by un-peopled landscape description, often juxtaposing domestic interior landscapes such as the “unmade yellow and blue bed” with exterior natural landscapes such as the “grey/clouds moving across circle of sun.” In all six books most often this external landscape is of the sea, the movement of weather, and/or a view that feels like it gives out through the same window. This repeated bookending of each poem allows the reader to become familiar with the books’ physical spaces—the given physical world—and affords the feeling of coming back to a location again and again.
Accompanying these repetitions of image and perception are Ratcliffe’s repeated typographical choices. All of the poems of the “days” series sit cleanly on their individual pages and are set in the same typeface, Courier, a monospaced font which allots each letter or character the same amount of horizontal space. This font-choice resonates with the project as a whole: as each day is equally worthy of an equal quality of attention, each letter is worthy of the same amount of physical space. Additionally, each book employs a distinct, repeated formal structure: for example, all CLOUD/RIDGE poems have the features of “9.29” above: 5 stanzas of 2-4 lines each that tab over to begin where the previous stanza ends, and each CLOUD/RIDGE occupies 18 lines of space.
In addition to this physical-visual repetition, each of the six books pays deep attention to sound: both ambient sound occurring in the world in which the poem is composed—and the sound of the words of the poems. The line “shadow of tobacco plant branch slanting” from the poem above exemplifies the careful aural gathering that happens all of the “days”: here we hear the deep pull of “a’s,” the up-spike of the “t’s.”
You will do yourself a favor if you reread “9.29” to yourself, now, out loud. After doing so, note that while the ambient sound going on around you as you read is something that cannot be easily shut out (your ears do not have the equivalent of the eyes’ lids), hearing the sounds of a poem-in-air is the result of a choice—your choice to articulate the poem out loud and to attend that particular sound above the radio, the traffic, the neighbor’s baby crying. If sound is the poem’s given—embedded in the words themselves—listening is an act of the reader’s choosing. Here we might consider the between that separates and joins the given and the chosen: this sonic “between” depends upon the reader’s participation in uttering the sounds, and listening to them—an act that itself happens within the passage of time.
Also ubiquitous to the project of “days” is “9.29’s” incorporation of language happening within the physical space of the poem: the “man in the blue jacket” and the “man in the red truck” “noting”—Lily Briscoe “thinking.” Throughout “days” such incorporation might include thoughts expressed by the poems’ figures—men and women who drift into the poems and then exit, sometimes thinking sometimes talking as in “the red-haired woman in the long black dress/ claiming a third of all new cars are leased” (6.29, REAL) or the “man on phone recalling man asking ‘what kind of sparrow/ was it, imagine not knowing what kind of sparrow'” (“6.30” HUMAN/NATURE).
The books CLOUD/RIDGE and HUMAN/NATURE incorporate quotations from outside texts in every poem. “9.29,” as you see here, cites Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in its fourth stanza—as does each poem in CLOUD/RIDGE. Poems from HUMAN/NATURE cite both named and unnamed visual artists, philosophers and composers (for example, Hegel, Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse—along with an unnamed “man” who might or might not be Ratcliffe himself) in the second and third stanza of each of its poems. It is important to note that Ratcliffe does not privilege one form of language above another: the citational is as significant as the notational or the perceptual; thought as significant as an overhearing. This inclusion of language within the frame of these daily poems insists that the fabric of our lives is in large part constituted by many materials of written and spoken language—and that this aspect of our lives is every bit as much a necessary given as our physical landscapes.
Also of note: as with “9.29,” all of the books avoid excessive use of articles and pronouns. In the Selected “I” is only used in quoted material and he/she are used sparingly. Here again we might think about this choice: the poems of Selected Days are everywhere filled with Ratcliffe’s thoughts and perceptions, but he chooses to give them to us in a form that privileges the eye and the ear over the I. And it is important to remember that he does this not only in a handful of poems, but as a gesture continued through a daily practice of writing that began on 2.9.98, accumulating in 4-5,000 poems, and that is still, to this moment, ongoing—an event you can participate in by reading of Ratcliffe’s blog where he posts daily poems along with photographs.
These features, shared across books, allows the work to read as one long, continuous project, admitting only the most subtle modulations in form and tone. However, the reader of the Selected soon becomes aware that each of the six books has its own repeated elements, native only to each particular book. And it is in allowing us to track and consider these choices—these subtle variations—that Selected Days offers readers not only an experience he or she can’t have reading one or two of the six individual books, but also offers valuable insight into the significance and power of the overall project. Take, for example, “6.12” from the book REAL. I quote it in its entirety:
Silver brightness of small cloud at top of ridge
a moment before the sun suddenly appears, a long
thin grey white finger of fog drifting below it.
The woman in Paris noting a “violent uprooting,”
moving in thirteen hours from being eminently
happy to awful state of “withdrawal.” Man’s
body under a white sheet whose eyes look up
toward camera, blink a few times before he
drifts off to sleep. The woman who takes
overdose of Seconal telling her husband and two
sons that she has been searching for something
all her life, now sees that paradise is right
here in the room. Upturned curve of waning
white half moon in pale blue sky above grey
white wall of fog above the tip of the point,
white line of wave moving in toward the GROIN
Of all six books, REAL is the only book to employ a single-stanza structure: as in “6.12,” all of the poems in REAL are composed of a single stanza spanning 17 lines. Also unique to REAL is the use of periods: poems in the other five books rely on sentence-like syntactical structure, but do not observe the stops and starts of the period and beginning capital letter. This compositional choice draws my attention to the sentence as modular unit within the whole. When I take a closer look at each sentence as an individual unit, I notice the paratactic nature of each sentence, and that each and every sentence is structured in two parts with a significant shift in perception in the space between the two.
For example, in the first sentence a comma divides the visual perception of the “silver brightness” and “small cloud” from the “long thin grey white finger of fog drifting below it.” While both halves of the sentence are part of the same visual scene, the perception of the sentence tracks in discrete motions: first brightness and verticality, then a grey wisp and horizontal drift. The second sentence in the poem also divides in two along the comma, but instead of a visual motion from top to bottom it hints at cause and effect: after the woman in the sentence notes a “violent uprooting” her mood shifts. The third sentence plays with readerly expectation: the man is first depicted in a position that leads us to believe he very well might be dead (his “body under a white sheet” his “eyes look up toward camera”). After the sentence’s comma, the man blinks and falls asleep: by giving us more visual detail—by staying with the image of the man longer—the context of the situation is extended and the event of the scene is clarified. And so on—each sentence of REAL creates a microclimate, wherein shifts of attention articulate the extent to which our experience—of poems, of days, of time—is constituted by, and made meaningful through, subtle shifts in perception.
Just as a reader can compare the differing qualities of attention in the sentences of the poems of REAL, Selected Days provides readers the opportunity to engage such a project of reading across portions of all six books. In comparing “9.29” with “6.12,” for example, we will see parataxis at work in both, but we will also come to ask what difference is made by the definitive endings and beginnings constructed by REAL’s periods and capital letters. One reader might say: not much difference. Another reader might say: a sensibility of beginnings and endings vs. a sensibility of pause and ongoingness?—here resides all of the difference in the world. Ratcliffe’s work does not answer this question of difference, but in presenting it in this way, he invites the thoughts of both readers, equally.
Just as Ratcliffe attends the shifts of light, sound, weather and language in his perceptual world, by attending “days” shifts we experience and think-through the difference between perceptions that deepen and qualify, or vector out and shift away, or equally note and observe. The significance of such a project—by which I mean both the project undertaken by the readers of Ratcliffe’s work and Ratcliffe’s “days” as a whole—should not be measured in terms of poetry, solely, for such a project creates an opening for us to become more conscious of the given world, the details to which we attend, and the significance of our modes of attention.
An “aboutness” such as Ratcliffe achieves, that hinges on such even care of, and attention to, what happens on some of the most basic levels of the given might seem to some readers to be, in the grand scheme of things, so very particular and minute as to not matter in the larger troubled world. Or, to other readers, the abstract and thinkerly qualities of the text might seem too subtle a sensation in the face of the cymbal-crash of narrated emotion that we have come more accustomed to think of as “mattering.” However, the kind of aboutness that Ratcliffe achieves can show us how to answer, in the affirmative, Lauterbach’s difficult question of whether or not choice in one’s quotidian life can have bearing on making art. It is such writing that answers, and shows us how we might answer as readers and writers, in the affirmative, the question of whether or not the process of making choices in art-making has the potential to condition and shape a life.
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See comments by readers about this reviews 
May 3rd, 2013 at 10:12 am
Q. What’s Philip Larkin’s poem “Ambulances” about?
There, now: that was easy, wasn’t it?
November 12th, 2013 at 12:28 pm
Is ease preferable, Bill? Is the best poem an instruction manual?