25 October 2011

Listening to Stephen Ratcliffe

Jacket 2 has consistently curated some really spectacular features since its launch at the beginning of the year, but this new spread on Stephen Ratcliffe, edited by Julia Bloch, is really something to behold!

Featuring critical contributions by Vincent Broqua, Norman Fischer, Ariel Goldberg, Carol Watts, and myself, along with interviews instigated by the likes of Linda Russo, Jonathan Skinner, and Jeffrey Schrader, the feature offers a plethora of perspectives on this crucial (and often overlooked) body of work. "Listening to Stephen Ratcliffe" also features some of Stephen's thinking on his own project, including crucial "critical" interventions such as "Words as 'things' ('actions'/'events')" and "Reading 'sound.'"

My own contribution, "Stephen Ratcliffe's Hamlet," focuses on Ratcliffe's Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet (Counterpath Press, 2010), a remarkable book about the play, the poetics of off-stage action, and the labor of poetry. Here are the first two paragraphs of my contribution in hopes you'll stop by Jacket 2 and read around the feature:

In the early 1990s, Phillip Foss and Charles Bernstein coedited a special double issue of Tyuonyi ostensibly addressing contemporary tendencies in late twentieth-century poetry. To do so, they distributed a short survey asking participants to address what they called “patterns, contexts and time,” shaping (sharpening?) a praxis of the present by investigating the social and political factors influencing (both positively and negatively) tendencies in contemporary writing. In response to the question “What patterns, if any, do you see developing that are presently influencing habits of reading or readership within poetry?” Stephen Ratcliffe curiously addressed his contemporary scene by invoking none other than William Shakespeare: “The writing of today that most engages my attention reminds me of Shakespeare’s plays; one doesn’t so much want to ask ‘What is the meaning?’ but rather ‘Where does the meaning lie?’ — which is to say, ‘How does the work make meaning?’”

I’m immediately reminded of a dictum adduced by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that “the contemporary … must firmly hold his gaze on his own time,” in order to stare squarely into darkness — to face the aporias, the crucial absences that all but define one’s contemporary scene (despite the glare of the popular, the fashionable — the bellicose glare of what comes to stand, for better or worse, for an age and our participation in it). For Ratcliffe, however, Shakespeare offers the possibility to read what a text does rather than what it says — to stare into the darkness of meaning in order to meditate more intensely on how it works. He writes that Shakespeare’s words “send a current my way, through the ear by way of the syllable, whose sense so to speak won’t hold still, isn’t easily tamed, caged or made in any way to fit the pigeon-hole paraphrase would set to trap it, chew it up, digest away the play.” Shakespeare, then, is Ratcliffe’s closest contemporary, for he is precisely the poet (to use Agamben’s terminology) who knows how to see this obscurity — “who is able to write dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.”

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