July 5, 2010

Carter Ratcliff

Carter Ratcliff [USA]

Born in Seattle, Washington, Carter Ratcliff grew up in Michigan and Ohio. In 1963, he earned a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago. By 1967, he had settled in New York and found his way into the milieu of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. His poems first appeared in The World, the Poetry Project magazine. Early in the 1970s, he conducted one of the Project’s poetry workshops.

With the publication of his gallery reviews in Artnews, in 1969, Ratcliff joined the ranks of those New York poets who pursue a second career as art critics. Since then his art writing has appeared in major art journals in the United States and abroad, and in catalogues published by major American and European museums.

His books on art include John Singer Sargent (Abbeville Press, 1982); Robert Longo (Rizzoli, 1985); The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996); Out of the Box: The Reinvention of Art, 1965-1975 (Allworth Press, 2001); and Andy Warhol: Portraits (Phaidon Press, 2007).

Ratcliff has received a Poets Foundation grant, 1969; an Art Critics grant, NEA, 1972 and 1976; a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1976; and the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism, College Art Association, 1987. His editorial positions include Editorial Associate, Artnews, 1969-1972; Advisory Editor, Art International, 1970-1975; Contributing Editor, Art in America, 1976 to the present; Contributing Editor, Saturday Review, 1980-1982; Editorial board, Sculpture Magazine, 1992 to the present; and Contributing Editor, Art on Paper, 2001 to present.

Though Ratcliff has said, “My poems are all love poems,” his poetry ranges over many themes and subjects, among them landscape and, in particular, the American sense of space; the interplay of poetry and painting; politics, with an emphasis on questions of individual agency; the nature of narrative, as exemplified by such genres as the detective story and the political thriller; figures of ancient myth and tragedy; and the characters of the commedia dell’arte. “A quality of language brings with it an intuition of character,” says Ratcliff. “When I put my sense of another’s voice into play I am brought by a roundabout path to the full range of my own interests. This is anything but mysterious. The dramatic monologue is about as transparent as a fiction can be. To elaborate it—to speak in a variety of obviously made-up voices—is to stay alive to something we all know, that meaning is not only a work in progress but a perennial collaboration between oneself and all the others who inhabit one’s landscape.”


Fever Coast ( New York: Kulchur Press, 1973); Give Me Tomorrow [with art by Alex Katz] (New York: Vehicle Editions, 1983); Arrivederci, Modernismo (New York: Libellum Press, 2007)

Winner of the PIP Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry in English

The Raven Was Right

The earth circles the sun,
not the sun the earth. I suspected as much,

though I can’t imagine what circles the raven
or what the raven circles, and, oh, I forgot,

your ex-boyfriend called,
he wants you back.
He wants to be your shadow.

Love is hard,
and harder still to classify. Is it an object, a theory, a form
like a sonnet or form like a villa or a palindrome? Who knows,

and why not? Are we all too hopelessly eroded
by whatever the measure of charisma we still possess?
Is everything the fault of the motion picture camera?

sigh the powers that were
and would like to regain their old preeminence, the glamor
and the glory of the one that flings the many into shadow, and, oh, I forgot

your ex-girl friend called, she wants to be your many shadows
and I guess you must know, by now, your old place is for rent again,
and all that is fair in love is still too stubborn to give war a chance, still refuses
to give even name, rank and serial number.

Is that because love is so rare,
so unlike other things, or is it, au contraire,
too like all those other things?

Leaving the arcade and turning south,
the personage stumbled but never fell, never
came anywhere near falling, in song or story, despite the moral disaster

the world underwent just then, more by coincidence
than for any reason that need engage a mind as dreamy as yours,
my darling, my pretext for opening my eyes
in the morning, in the evening, whenever I want, because why not?
I leave it to the moth who circles my head like a flame

to remind me that you left me
years ago, before time began and reminders
were ever necessary, and I can’t imagine who reminds the moth of her task,
what infinitely versatile thing takes the trouble to do so, to be the world

that invites us to love the truce that we have made with it.

Reprinted from Vanitas, No.1 (2005). Copyright ©2005 by Carter Ratcliff.

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