Carter Ratcliff, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin



PC:  When did you start writing poetry?


CR:  I started writing poetry when I was nineteen or twenty years old.  I was in the English Department, at the University of Chicago, where I had to read Paradise Lost I don’t know how many times.  I also read the English Romantics, for class and on my own.  Entirely on my own, I read Ronald Firbank and the fin-de-siècle poets—Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson.  I read the writings of Aubrey Beardsley, even.  In those days, I did a lot more reading than writing.  Yet I knew, not that I was going to be a poet, but that I was a poet.


PC:  Since then, what poets do you read and return to?


CR:  Keats, Stevens, Bishop.  Eliot.  Shelley and Blake, but not as much as Keats.  Walt Whitman, especially “The Sleepers.”  I read Poe’s essays on composition and landscape but not his poems.  I read and reread Yeats’s Byzantium poems and “Leda and the Swan.”  A while back, I knew William Collins’s “Ode to Evening” by heart, and I have spells of reading Pope.  Long ago, I read certain poems by Auden that have been, all these years, simply there, like the Gettysburg Address.  I treat Emerson’s essays as if they were poetry.  That may be because they don’t make much sense unless I treat them that way, and there are passages of The Great Gatsby that have everything to do with my ideas about American poetry.  The possibility of it, for example, and yet I also read The Great Gatsby “for the story,” as people say, though there is not, finally, any difference between a “poetic” and a “prose” reading of this book—or of the books of P. G. Wodehouse, another of my favorite novelists.  There is a great “poetry” of cliché and threadbare quotation—not to mention dazzling misquotation—in the prose of P. G. Wodehouse.  I consider him a major twentieth-century writer, the equal of the philosopher J. L. Austin, whose sense of style—of what one can do with style—qualifies him as one of the great sensibilities of modern times.  To turn from the English back to the Americans, Donald Davidson, another philosopher, not only came up with the only account of the meaning of language that ever meant anything to me.  He also invented, just by the way, a brilliantly hard-boiled way of talking about impossibly elusive things.  I like the breeziness of Richard Rorty and the tough, slick ellipses of Elmore Leonard.  I like Greek tragedy, especially Hippolytus and The Bacchae.  I like the screenplays of screwball comedies.  My favorite movie of all time is Bombshell, a Jean Harlow vehicle slapped together with non-stop brilliance by John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman.  My favorite film noir is Out of the Past, followed closely by Touch of Evil.  The imagery, the acting—in film noir, it all depends on language of a kind that has been as important to me as the language of Keats and Stevens.  It is a mistake for poets to focus narrowly on poetry, which is not about itself or being poetic or “having an identity as a poet,” to quote a sad phrase I ran across the other day.  Whatever else it may be about, poetry is first and last about language—the medium or device that we all possess, that posses us all and makes us all equally human.  So a poet ought to pay attention to everything from Tom Swift to Shakespeare, whom I haven’t mentioned much as I haven’t mentioned air, because you can take it for granted that I breathe when write.  A poet ought to read everything from Heraclitus to the respectable newspapers and the headlines of the tabloids one sees when one is checking out of a supermarket.  Just the headlines.  Because there are, after all, limits to what one can read.


PC:  Do you like ekphrastic poetry?  If so, any favorites?


CR:  My favorites along those lines are the “Shield of Achilles” passage in The Iliad and Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”


PC:  A number of your poems refer to art, to aesthetics, to the art scene.  Have you also written ekphrastic poetry?


CR:  I think that the only strictly ekphrastic passages I have written are in a poem called “The Big Bad Art Thing,” and there may be only one—a stanza that compares Matthew Brady’s images of ruined buildings, in his photograph of “Richmond after the Bombardment,” to the look of collapsed cartilage in the nose of a heavy cocaine user.


PC:  What, if anything, does ekphrastic poetry have in common with art criticism?


CR:  An ekphrastic poem describes a work of art.  So does art criticism, though it usually tries to do more—to give an account of meaning, to place the work historically, and so on.  When a poem about an artwork moves on from description to interpretation, the resemblance between ekphrasis and art criticism increases, and yet the tone is different.  The tone, the style, the rhetorical means.  Even the most “poetic” art criticism looks and sounds like prose, not poetry.  And art criticism puts judgment in place of celebration, which is the chief purpose of ekphrasis.


PC:  How did you get started writing art criticism?


CR:  When I was in my mid-twenties, I figured out from a great deal of haphazard reading that the contemporary poets who interested me were all in New York.  And many of them seemed to have something to do with the art world.  Ted Berrigan, Jimmy Schuyler, and others wrote reviews for Artnews.  John Ashbery worked there.  When I showed up in New York, in the late 1960s, I discovered that the art-poetry connection was closer than I thought.  Poets and painters were friends.  Went to the same parties.  By 1968, I had published some poems in The World, the magazine of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and I figured that sooner or later I would be one of the poets turning out reviews for Artnews.  There didn’t seem to be any hurry.  I wrote some poems that took off from the form of the Artnews review, which was concise and overloaded in a way that cried out for extravagant variations.  Within a year, I was publishing the real thing—“real” in the sense that my reviews were now appearing in the pages of Artnews—though I have always seen art criticism as a form of fiction.  Like art.  Like poetry.


PC: What connection do you see in your work as a poet and your work as a critic?


CR:  They are variations on one another, though my critical writing is much more narrowly focused.  My poetry is about “everything.”  My criticism is about this or that work of art or body of work.  My poetry looks for ways beyond its own arguments.  My art critical arguments are coherent or try to be.  So when I say that art criticism is a form of fiction, I don’t mean that it is just an array of fancifully evocative images.  It is a mix of description and argumentation that proceeds with a certain, ultimately elusive goal in mind.  Nonetheless, art criticism is fictional and that is because its arguments do not arrive at defensible truths.  Therefore, a critic cannot convince you with the truth, though of course many critics have tried to persuade their readers to take their fictions as true—and many have succeeded.  The formalists of the 1960s got people to believe that one sees in certain paintings something they called “pure opticality.”  Now, “pure opticality” is a nonsensical idea, an artifact invented to hide the bare spots in a worn-out aesthetic.  The truth of it could not be demonstrated, only asserted.  Some acquiesced to the assertion, as others acquiesced, in the 1980s, to the assertion that modernism had given way to post-modernism.  But post-modernism was never coherently described, and supposedly crucial examples of it were found deep in the modernist period—in the art of Marcel Duchamp, for example, or in Surrealism, a modernist style if there ever was one.  Yet some took comfort from the faith that it was simply true that modernism had turned into post-modernism in 1979 or possibly a few seasons later.  This yearning for truth in art—and about art—is unfortunate because art raises no issue of truth.  Propaganda does but art doesn’t.  Art puts us face-to-face with images whose meanings cannot be settled by the sort of argument that strives for demonstrable truth.  Or, to put it the other way around, an image counts as art if its meanings resist that sort of argument.  So the interpretation of an artwork has, in principle, no end.  Of course, the critic must stop somewhere, if only for practical reasons—the essay is to be 2,500 words or less, the audience has fallen asleep, or whatever.  But the point of criticism is not to nail down the one true meaning of an artwork.  For there is no such thing.  The point is to give a sense that a meaning is possible, and worthy of a response—worthy of acceptance and elaboration, of rejection, of further consideration.  Responses like these keep one alive to one’s experience, rendering it more vivid and self-conscious, and so, one hopes, they lead viewers to a clearer sense of who they are.  It’s not that we see ourselves in art, though one could say that, metaphorically.  It’s more that we recognize ourselves, or redefine ourselves, in the course of making sense of art—of finding, perhaps inventing, its meanings.  Who am I, who must I be, if I see Hamlet this way?  Or that way?  I hope that those who read my criticism will ask this sort of question, and I want those who read my poetry to ask questions of the same sort.  So the connection between poetry and art criticism is somewhere in there, in the similarity of the responses they hope to get.  The difference is that, as a critic, I point to an artist’s power to invent endlessly elusive, endlessly interpretable imagery.  As a poet, I exercise that power.


PC: Why do you think there’s a strong tradition of poets writing about art?


CR:  It’s because of the affinities between art and poetry.  When we say “art,” we mean visual art.  When we say “poetry,” we refer to verbal art.  Art in any medium is always looking for an occasion to respond, to get under way, and so there is no surprise that verbal art—poetry—returns time and again to visual art, which is poetry’s inarticulate other.  Its silent self.  Just as visual art is poetry’s visible self.  Ut pictura poesis.  When poets write about art, they are taking a long and circuitous and reliably interesting path to their abiding subject, which is themselves.  Or their medium.  Or maybe “self” and “medium” are, for a poet, two words for the same manifold thing.


PC:  Where do you as an art critic locate your work in relation to art history and cultural history?


CR:  I am not an art historian and I am not interested in art history as an academic discipline.  For the art historian, an art historical account of this or that is a finished product.  The satisfactory result of having properly applied a—or the—proper method.  But I consider those methods to be too narrow, too reductive, and too likely to isolate art from everything art historical methods exclude.  So the art historian’s finished product is for me raw material.  A starting point, not an end point.  As for cultural history . . . it would be better for me to talk about culture . . .  or history . . .  specifically, American history, which is the origin of my egalitarian, pragmatist ideas and values and attitudes.  I have a pragmatist, not an authoritarian, notion of truth.  Which means, as I have said, that I am interested not in the truth to be discovered in artworks, for there is none, but in the truth of one’s experience.  I don’t claim that my pragmatism would pass muster in academic circles.  Nonetheless, insofar as my ideas, values, and attitudes are conscious, they follow from my reading of Emerson—the worldly not the trancendentalizing Emerson—and Whitman and William James, a founding father of the pragmatist tradition, as well as James’s sometimes fuzzy-minded colleague, John Dewey, and the incisive Robert Rorty, neo-pragmatist extradordinaire.  And Donald Davidson, whom Rorty would have liked to claim for pragmatism.  These writers belong to an American tradition.  My American tradition, and if I read British writers, Shakespeare or Adam Smith—the great, liberal Adam Smith, for there is no right-wing Adam Smith, right-wing demagogues to the contrary—or Frances Hutcheson, or French writers, Baudelaire or Simenon, or Italian writers, Dante or Andrea Camillera, a terrific detective-story writer, it is in an American frame of mind.  With an American attitude, which takes it as obvious and unquestionable that there are ordinary, useful virtues in freedom, democracy, and individuality.  That there is an obvious and unpretentious way in which one ought to be responsible to oneself and to the best possibilities for society.


PC:  There’s a lot of emphasis on the role of the poetry in relationship to political issues.  Similarly, artists, sometimes see themselves as making political statements (not propaganda, but political art).  Do you see art criticism a political act?  If so, how?


CR:  Art criticism is marginal, not only to daily life in the larger world but also to daily life in the art world.  For a quarter of a century, at least, the judgments made in the market place, by collectors, have had more effect than the judgments made by art critics in the pages of magazines and catalogs.  As for interpretations by art critics . . . as far as I can tell, they don’t have much effect at all.  So I see art criticism as political much as I see poetry as political.  Indirectly, and at the scale of my daily life, which is no less modest that the scale of most other lives.  I don’t suppose that, because I traffic in art and poetry, the stuff of high culture, my thoughts and gestures are any more significant than those of other citizens.  Therefore, in the matter of politics, I can only recall something I just said.  There is an obvious and unpretentious way in which we all should be responsible to ourselves and to the best possibilities for society.  But what does that mean?  If you believe in freedom and democracy, it means that the ball is your court.  The next move is entirely up to you.




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Carter Ratcliff


© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Carter Ratcliff, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin