With his sharp features, Ramke looks severe, inscrutable, as if he might command a deep, ominous voice. In fact, he's very soft-spoken and utterly humble. Born in 1947 in Port Neches, Texas, to a Cajun mother and a father who'd grown up on the bayou, Ramke first discovered his passion for verse in the late '60s when he was introduced to modernist poetry—work by Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Wallace Stevens—in a freshman honors English class at Louisiana State University (LSU). There, he also took his first poetry workshop, with Stanley Plumly.
Under the spell of modernist poetry and living day-to-day in the tumult of the Vietnam era, Ramke was launched into his life's trajectory. "It was really around '66 that I first started writing poems," he says. "There was a sense of a voice, to use the cliché, which could become available to a person. People were organizing little readings, and a lot of them were in connection with protests. So there were these opportunities to have a public." But Ramke never felt drawn to poetry as a forum for sharing his wisdom or opinions: "From the beginning I was leery of the idea of having something to say. I kind of knew that I didn't. Instead, I had a sense, not well stated at all, that the need to do something, to make things of language, mattered."
After completing his BA at LSU, he pursued a masters at the University of New Orleans, and then, with Plumly's encouragement, a PhD in English literature at Ohio University. For the past twenty-two years Ramke has lived in Denver with his wife, Linda, a fiction writer, quilter, and former elementary school teacher, and their son, Nic. Ramke continues to teach at the University of Denver's PhD program in creative writing, he edits the literary magazine Denver Quarterly, and sometimes, in the fall, he teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Ramke's poetry career officially launched in 1978 when his debut collection, The Difference Between Night and Day, was selected by poet Richard Hugo for publication in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets. At the time, Ramke was teaching a heavy course load of freshman composition, literature, and creative writing classes at Columbus College (now Columbus State University) in Georgia, his first full-time teaching job after finishing his PhD. His manuscript, however, was not Hugo's first choice: The judge had originally chosen a manuscript by Greg Pape, who had, before hearing from Yale, been offered a book contract by Paul Zimmer, founder of the Pitt Poetry Series at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Hugo had to go back into the pile and pick another book: He chose Ramke's. "I've always been grateful to Greg Pape for that," Ramke says.
From the beginning, Ramke wrote autobiographical poems, though many of his earliest efforts, rooted more in his sense of place than his actual experience, are persona poems about very smart loners whose only friends are their imaginations—characters much like Ramke himself, who grew up with a passion for math in rural West Texas. For Ramke, mathematics was the light illuminating the long, dark tunnel of adolescence. "I had always assumed that some element of physics, science, or mathematics was what I was going to do," he says. While his plans clearly changed, readers can still see the influence of those disciplines in his poetry and his approach to writing it. Ramke says he doesn't imagine a listener when he writes; instead his test for a poem is one he borrows from mathematics: "Either the proof will hold up to scrutiny or not."
In 1979, a year after The Difference Between Night and Day was published, Ramke's son was born. The life change is reflected in some of the poems in Ramke's second book, White Monkeys (University of Georgia Press, 1981). "The Petting Zoo," for example, includes the lines "my first son dreams of the sheep / he first touched today." The poem becomes a meditation on human isolation, on how people can seem separated from each other and the world by a "membrane... / ...through which / no one can reach, nor no star shine." The poems in this book seem written into a void, the work of intense—and intensely experienced—aloneness, evidence of a mind communing with itself.
In Ramke's next book, The Language Student (Louisiana State University Press, 1986), the poems begin to grow more abstract, though they are still largely rooted in the Texas and Louisiana landscapes of Ramke's youth. Poems haunted by what Ramke calls "the guilty sleep of fathers" look back at his own father's life, and increasingly toward Nic's future. Ramke's father, who died in 1984, had a complex career that was, perhaps, the inspiration for the poet's restless imagination. During World War II he served in a navy bomb disposal corps, was passionate about drawing, and worked with explosives and water treatment as a chemist for DuPont. "He showed me much of what he did," Ramke remembers. "He took me with him on boats in the swamps where there were test wells to be examined, and took me into cavernous treatment facilities in a hospital where he sometimes worked. While we had the standard conflicts, he is for me a model of a certain kind of wholeness."
In Ramke's next two books—The Erotic Light of Gardens (Wesleyan University Press, 1989) and the Iowa Poetry Prize-winning Massacre of the Innocents (University of Iowa Press, 1995)—the elements of Ramke's mature style begin to emerge and crystallize. Ramke had begun teaching in Denver in 1984, and traces the shift in his work to his friendship with the poet Donald Revell, then his colleague: "We were both intensely reexamining what our respective connections to ‘poetry' might be." These poems are obsessed with the moments of their own making, and, for the most part, are obviously autobiographical only in the sense that they narrate the leaping processes of thought that brought them into being.