Saturday, October 17, 2009

I have seen the future of poetry on Blogger . . .

and its name is . . .

[collage of Stephen Ratcliffe poem post and blog headers]

Yes, my headline above shamelessly riffs off (read: rips-off!) Jon Landau’s well-known 1974 pronouncement about having seen the future of rock ‘n roll whose name was Bruce Springsteen.

And yes as well, the headline’s assertion has a large measure of bravado. Who am I, the humble keeper of this here glade, to arrogate the ability to know the future? Or to presume to know what will prevail, in anything? And how can I, or why should I, or anyone, saddle someone with the label of being “the future” of anything?

So Stephen Ratcliffe, accept please my apology. And you readers of this post, please hear me out. For you see, I really mean it: I’ve seen the future of poetry on Blogger – and its name, yes indeed, is:


I can’t quantify it, but there is a lot of poetry on Blogger. Not blogs about poetry, but blogs that are nothing but or mainly poems, written by the blogger who posts them.

Some of that poetry – maybe most of it – misses the mark, and widely. One type of poem that seems especially abundant is the greeting card inspirational, with final stanzas such as:
We all have choices in life - do
yourself some good and choose love
- you will never regret it.
This does NOT send me anywhere good, even (especially) when (as you can find) the poet sets the words in brightly colored type and borders them with images of pastel pink frilly lace, an iridescent butterfly, and an over-sized purple ribbon.


Of course, there’s plenty of great poetry on Blogger. As an example, consider please the series of Dance Poems that Mark Lamoureux has posted this year. He’s put up sixteen so far, five each in April, June, and August, and another this month (yet another appears in the current issue of EOAGH, an on-line magazine). These poems, as the series’ title suggests, are written by Lamoureux while watching live dance (generally, each poem arises from a different performance). They are in this way similar to his Film Poems (2005), which he wrote while watching experimental or independent movies.

I could write a lot about Lamoureux’s Dance Poems, but a full report must wait until he finishes his project (and I hope he finds a publisher for a hard-copy collection). I love the spontaneity of them. I love also how each poem is an object (creative work) unto itself, without regard to how it came to be, but that each also– via the use of spare lines (generally only a few words each, sometimes just one), a spare page (lots of white space), and a varied vocabulary – reflects the movement of Lamoureux’s eyes, mind and spirit while watching the particular dance which gives rise to it. Of course, each poem also naturally reflects something of the particular performance itself. Your humble glade-keeper highly recommends that you slip on your ballet shoes and check out them out (examples are linked to in the paragraph above).


Great as they are, Lamoureux’s poems have been posted more or less occasionally, not daily. Although Blogger accommodates any posting frequency, the daily post seems its ideal use. After all, Blogger’s default template stamps the day and date at the very top of each post, similar to where such information would be found at the top of the page in a daily newspaper. Bloggers who can manage a daily post (I can’t), assuming regular readers, can very much expect people to check in as a kind of daily ritual, similar to how many habitually read a daily paper or three, or check the weather forecast on the TV or radio.

If – as really can’t be argued – Blogger works the best with daily posts and daily readers, then Stephen Ratcliffe is the perfect poet for it. As you may know, Ratcliffe for many years has written poems every day. For example, the poems he wrote each day from February 9, 1998 to May 28, 1999 were published in Portraits & Repetition (The Post-Apollo Press, 2002), and those written each day from March 17, 2000 to July 1, 2001 were published in REAL (Avenue B, 2007).

And the two books cited above were but the start of Ratcliffe’s diurnal poem-writing. His daily poems from July 2, 2001 to October 18, 2002 are collected in CLOUD / RIDGE (available on line only, as a 479 page pdf (click here!)). Those from October 19, 2002 through July 14, 2005 – that’s 1000 consecutive days – are in HUMAN / NATURE (also available only on-line, as a 1003 page pdf (click here!)). There then followed, per a note I’ve received from Ratcliffe, the not yet published Remarks on Color / Sound, which comprises poems written each day from July 15, 2005 – April 8, 2008. As you can surely anticipate, on April 9, 2008, Ratcliffe began another series of daily poems, one that earlier this year he began sharing, each day, on his blog.

Each of the above-mentioned sets or series of daily poems has its own particular form and/or focus (foci), although the uniform nature of each still allows plenty of day-to-day variation in content. But the point here is that they are day-to-day, with mostly fixed forms.

Has anyone else published such daily, essentially fixed-form poems, or at least so many of them, covering such a long stretch of years? I can’t think of anybody. Ratcliffe, to paraphrase another rock-n-roll tag line (promoter Bill Graham’s, about the Grateful Dead), is not only the best at what he does, but the only one who does what he does.


Bolinas, California
(overview, looking Northwest)

Ratcliffe’s daily poem-writing routine was reported on about two years ago by the Point Reyes Light, a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper published very near Ratcliffe’s home in Bolinas, California (in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge and north of San Francisco, for those not familiar with the town or area). Here’s what reporter Sasha Wolf wrote:
Every morning at the crack of dawn, Stephen Ratcliffe goes downstairs to his kitchen and makes himself a cup of coffee. He sits at his kitchen table and looks out the window at the sewer ponds in the meadow behind his French cottage-style Bolinas house. Then he gets up and walks around, inside, outside. Carrying a small black and red notebook, he writes down what he sees and what he thinks about what he sees. Once he has written notes in the small book, Ratcliffe writes a “finished” poem in a larger notebook, identical in style and color to the smaller one. Finally he types the lines on his computer using the Courier font . . . . It generally takes him 30 minutes to two hours to complete a poem.
Ratcliffe’s current series of daily poems is titled (if I understand correctly a comment he made on another blog a few months ago) Temporality. I’ve become a stone-cold addict of these poems. I MUST read each new poem every day. If I miss a day, I CRAVE until I go back and catch up. Poem-junkie Steve, you can call me.

One reason Ratcliffe’s Temporality posts are addictive is that every poem, each day, has the same basic format. Each has a three line opening stanza, followed by section consisting of two indented couplets, and then a final, justified-to-the-left margin, stanza-couplet. Each of the three sections has a particular focus, which remains the same day-to-day, and all poems use the distinctive Courier font with lower case letters, and have the same between lines (and between stanzas) spacing. Here’s the poem “5.15”, published (as you’d expect) on May 15th:

first grey light in fog against invisible

ridge, birds calling from branch in lower

left foreground, sound of wave in channel

      more to what extent and why,

      “translate” means here

      picture frame whose edge is,

      image, exact dimension

tree-lined canyon of ridge across channel,

white clouds in pale blue sky above point

And so you can see how the look of the poem, and the format and focus of each section, remains the same, here’s “10.7”, from (natch) October 7th:

first light in sky above plane of black

ridge, waning white moon above branches

in foreground, sound of wave in channel

      “unconceal” the “unconcealed,”

      words in strict sense

      approximate height and width,

      effect, toward center

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,

whiteness of moon above sunlit branches

The three-line opening stanza of each poem, as you can deduce from the examples above, always present details about the outside (out in nature, I might say) world seen and heard. Even more specifically, the stanzas’ first phrase concerns what’s seen at some distance, generally at a ridge line that sometimes can be seen, at or just before dawn. The second phrase generally presents a matter closer at hand, and the third involves, typically, some particular sound heard. The latter typically, almost but not exclusively, involves “the channel,” an area of the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Bolinas lagoon.

The particular details in Ratcliffe’s opening stanzas, as you might also deduce from the two examples above– and which I can confirm based on my daily reading for the last six months – often vary only slightly day-to-day. This is only natural, given that Ratcliffe (per the newspaper report above, and by the evidence in the poems themselves), gets up and looks and listens at about the same time every morning. This almost repetitive routine is both comforting – no matter what goes down, Bolinas a la Ratcliffe always stays just about the same – and capable of great surprise.

Imagine my surprise, for example, one particular day a little more than three months ago. For weeks, the final phrase of each day’s first stanza had involved – or was – the “sound of wave” (or “sound of waves”) “in channel.” But then, on July 3rd, I woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, looking up I noticed I was late . . . but still I turned on the computer, hit the bookmark for Ratcliffe’s blog, and read an opening stanza that looked oh-so-familiar, and included details similar to those I had read before, until its final phrase:
grey whiteness of fog across shadowed

green ridge, crow calling from branch

in foreground, sound of car in street
I swear, the sound of that car, after I came to it in the poem, was the loudest thing I heard that day! What a change up! And yet, I’m quite confident that’s just how it went down in Bolinas that morning. Instead of hearing the waves at dawn, or having the hearing of waves dominate his mind as he made the poem, Ratcliffe that day heard a car, or had the hearing of the car he had heard most in mind when he that morning wrote the poem.

Although it is not uncommon for Ratcliffe to repeat particular words in the opening stanza day-to-day, that stanza has never repeated itself in toto. There’s always some thing, and generally a number of things, new, within the uniform structure and similar focus of each constituent phrase. In this respect, the change on July 3rd from waves to a car is but the most dramatic example of what happens day-to-day to you, the reader.

This day-to-day perceiving in Ratcliffe’s poems of differences within that which is otherwise quite similar is, of course, a very apt model to what it’s like when encountering the world each day. Ratcliffe’s poems thus very effectively train or hone the eyes and mind. This is another addictive quality.

As you know, those who exercise daily get both an endorphin-rush “runner’s high” and undeniable benefits to general health. Similarly, when reading Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems, and in particular when reading the similar but not always identical details of his opening stanzas, I get a daily mental work-out. That work, I swear to Jack LaLanne, releases something in my head that permits me to better see, to more precisely distinguish one thing from another. I become, in other words, more open to the poetry of daily life.


The middle section of Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems present a mental exercise – and have a mental effect – of an entirely different kind. Whereas the opening stanzas present details, a la the Objectivists, that cohere into distinct seen or heard images, the two indented couplets that follow present phrases concerning mostly abstract matters, fragments that often seem lifted and placed out-of-context, and which hardly ever (read: never) cohere into any unified whole. Please see here the middle sections of the example-poems above; or the following, the middle section from “10.14”, posted by Ratcliffe just a few days ago:

          therefore motions of light,

          which can be formed

          also defined, moving point,

          that is in relation

The contrast between the concrete opening and more abstract middle sections is stark, but delicious. After being focused on particulars for three lines, the reader’s must – no, gets to – shift into a different mode. Lock-down focus on particular matters is now impossible, and the mind travels, via Ratcliffe’s middle-section phrases, in two, three, sometimes as many as four or five different directions. As with any good work-out, the middle section allows a profound, and many-faceted, mental stretch.


The closing section in each of Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems is always a couplet, fully-justified to the left margin, which returns to the particulars of landscape with which the poem begins. However, the perspective has changed. The final lines find Ratcliffe, I do believe (based on the words of the poems) down at the ocean, or nearer to it than the opening three lines. He now sees the channel, and often mentions or alludes to “the point” where land meets sea, or the “GROIN sign” that marks the end of a structure, located at or (depending on the tide and season) near the water-line, designed to interrupt water flow and limit the movement of sediment. Here are the final lines of “10.14”:

grey rain cloud against invisible ridge,

whiteness of waves in windblown channel
I find Ratcliffe’s poem-closing approach brilliant. The change of scene implies movement across time as well as place, yet also anchors the poem back on earth, and on the page, after the middle section’s flights of abstraction. And it is two lines long, as opposed to the opening’s three lines. This too is smart, like the playwright who makes the closing act shorter than the first, knowing both that audience attention tends to wane after intermission, and that quick often means more dramatic. Here, Ratcliffe brings his poems each day to a conclusion that seems, comparatively, snappy or peppy.


Ratcliffe’s Temporality poems probably are an acquired taste, and not for everyone. Within the poems, you will not find humor, poetic devices such as metaphor, language gone wild, references to current events of the kind you’d read in newspapers, or the strum and drang (or unmitigated joy, for that matter) of human relations. The absence of such may make the poems seem dull to some.

However, and of course, all that is not included in the poems means that Ratcliffe can focus all the more on that which he does include. It’s an old story, but sometimes constraints spark incredible creativity and make for compelling and enjoyable work. I think that’s the case here. Ratcliffe’s a master at what he’s doing, and what he’s doing – day-in-day-out, week-after-week, month-after-month – is very special, and the best use of Blogger poem-posts that I can imagine.


Stephen Ratcliffe



Conrad DiDiodato said...


firstly, congrats on your taking the time to follow that closely a blogger's daily poetry journal: a uniquely immersive experience that only blogging makes possible. Blogging, I believe, is meant to create just that sort of 'poetry or writerly fellowship'.

Secondly, Ratcliffe's daily writing ritual reminds me of the same sort of daily regimen the great American haiku artist Timothy Russell encouraged his students to follow. In fact, I'm tempted to look at each of Ratcliffe's horizontal lines as potential haiku (with some deletions & rearrangements), haiku of the traditional kind, nature-inspired, based on direct observation.

Ed Baker said...


Ratcliffe's in each moment

nothing quite like a
strong cup of black coffee
to get everything (in the morning) flowing

good stuff both from him and from you

Ed Baker said...

pee est Steve:

someone mentioned
Richard Kostelanetz to me and I recalled that he and I are in current issue of

and I also thought to my self:

"self, I seem to recall something of Ratcliffe"


in same issue
a nice run out of SR's 1,000 page HUMAN / NATURE

neat stuff!

Anonymous said...

oppps forgot to include link to litterbox!:

michael said...

well, i've posted a new poem almost every day on my blogs (graywyvern.blogspot & then graywyvern.livejournal) going on five years now--though i know they're not that great.


Steven Fama said...

Thanks all who've let a comment so far.

Conrad, I like your idea of thinking of individual lines of Ratcliffe's poems as kind of haiku. He long ago said some of his daily poems explore the limits of the prose poem (long lines that look prose-ish, but of course are also broken), which I mention because your idea to take each line as a poem is almost is the obverse.

Ed, I think your comment that Ratcliffe's "in each moment entirely" is as concise a way to put it as anything, so thanks.

Michael, a poem a day for almost five years, yes indeed! That's something, I really mean that. I just read the poems from the last few weeks. I love that title on one earlier this month -- "Murder on the Orpheus Express".

I do note that your daily poems are of various lengths and, if I may be so presumptuous (since I have not read all of them) varying subjects and the like. Also, you include an image (photo) most days, and which changes every day, and sometimes also have links at the bottom of your post.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, it doesn't diminish your poem-writing and daily posts of them, but it all does differ from what Ratcliffe does. Like I said in the main post: nothing but a poem, in the same essentially fixed form, day after day.

John B-R said...

Ratcliffe's routine reminds me of Jacques Roubaud's as described in The Great Fire of London. It would be interesting to come up with an anthology of works created if that's the word via strict life-routine to see if they had anything much in common ...

Kirby Olson said...

The house in Bethesda was in fact 1500 dollars for three nights.

I'm going to read this Lamantia post later.

Ed Baker said...


begin with

Touch of the Marvelous and then The Blood of the Air

then go to the essay
(or vice-uh / verse-uh
neat story about the two "Phil"'s

so's they wouldn't be confused with each other

but, I forget the details as to who
said what: