This period also marks the point in Ramke's work at which casual readers may have begun to scratch their heads and wonder what was going on. Alongside intense and increasingly fragmentary accounts of his experience, Ramke's poems are scattered with verbal artifacts from his wide reading in literary, scientific, mathematical, religious, and philosophical texts, giving them a more experimental feel. Both books are full of sequences that bring together disparate subjects that sound similar emotional notes. This is the key to Ramke's difficult poetry: Even his most disjunctive poems center around a clear emotional core.
While Ramke's work has become increasingly complex with each new book, he's not trying to create puzzles, but to render a certain kind of experience that could only come from writing the way he does: "It's like steeplechase or running the hurdles—you'd actually get around the track much faster if you took out the hurdles, but it would be a different experience." Ramke likes the paradox of concepts that are simultaneously simple and difficult, which he also relates to his love of mathematics. "There are things like Fermat's last theorem," he says, "which was so fascinating for so long because it was so simple and direct."
Ramke doesn't sit down and work on a single poem until it's done. Writing, for him, is a process of collecting language—from notebooks of his own jottings, from texts he's reading, and from works of visual art he's seen—and then experimenting, over time, with how the pieces might fit together. "I'm generally working on a number of different poems simultaneously," he says. "There are a bunch of different files, and various things I might be reading will get tossed into them. At the same time, I continue to dismantle older things and rework. At various points, I'll just find some sort of nexus around which things have been accumulating. It will seem to sort of catch and maybe feel complete." Ramke oversees an ever-evolving laboratory of poems: "It occurred to me not terribly long ago that I had stopped confronting the blank page or the blank screen."
The most singular, powerful, and difficult period in Ramke's work unfolds in his four most recent books—Wake (1999), Airs, Waters, Places (2001), and Matter (2004), all published by the University of Iowa Press, and this year's Tendril. By the late '90s, a typical Ramke poem would be five to ten pages long and include a half dozen or more extended quotations from obscure texts, jagged free verse lines alternating with a few tercets or a prose paragraph, and citations for his sources listed on the right margin of the page. Ramke calls his first collection of these poems, Wake, "probably the most interesting of my books." It is almost certainly his densest. Just scanning the first ten-page poem, one finds descriptions of a postapocalyptic world; quotes from the poets Shelley and Robert Duncan, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Nietzsche, John Cage, the Aeneid, and a book called Beekeeping for Profit; and references to Kant and Elizabeth Bishop. Yet despite how allusive and crowded the poem is, what it's after is actually not all that complicated. In the middle, Ramke is again mulling over fatherhood, as he recalls a memory of his own father, whose life and death came to preoccupy Ramke as he wrote this book: "My father, too, knew words for things, the chemical compositions, / formulas that applied to the normal family... / He knew secrets of the soul, I am sure he did. He must have been / a man of passions, he would have told me if he could." All of Ramke's references and castings-about are attempts at explaining the ineffable. What is a father? How are we to take on the tremendous responsibility of fathering another, who will look to us for answers we simply don't have? The power in Ramke's recent poetry derives not from what it says but from the Herculean effort Ramke undertakes to search every corner of the mind, every cranny he can locate in Western literature and thought, for answers to basic human questions.
Tendril is at once the most public and the most private of Ramke's books. The poems deal with wide-ranging subjects, including the contemporary political scene in America, the last days of a famous mathematician, and the poet's own relationship to writing. These poems are Ramke's most difficult and abstract, but also his most penetratingly clear in their emotional revelations. Experimental techniques abound. One poem deals movingly, and disjunctively, with the death of Ramke's mother from Lou Gehrig's disease. Footnotes throughout the poem offer historical citations and commentary about the history of shorthand, in which Ramke's mother was an expert. "She told me once that in telephone conversations she would see everything that was said in shorthand," recalls Ramke. Toward the end, her disease made her unable to speak, so she had to write whatever she wanted to say in little notebooks; his mother's life-or-death relationship to writing, and her deep engagement with shorthand, made Ramke rethink his own relationship to the written word.
Elsewhere, quotes are inserted suddenly in the midst of poems, stanzas are placed side by side, and sentences jerk words around, seeming to converse with themselves: "I was / a body, a boy not in a body but like you I was // a body and mind which are, is, the same, a life." The long, sweeping title poem brings together all of Ramke's poetic concerns—childhood and parenthood, the poem as self-conscious object, the origins of words, and the literature of the past and present. "I don't want to artificially eliminate any knowledge," Ramke says, meaning his poetry tries to encompass as much of what he encounters as possible, from his biography to his bibliography. It is a hard-won achievement, and there is probably nothing else like it in contemporary poetry.
There is always a lot of talk in the poetry world about what experimental poetry is, and whether or not one person's or group's notion of poetry qualifies. Perhaps Ramke has the most humble definition: "I actually think that my work is experimental in a very real way, and experiments can fail." But, as any good scientist or mathematician—or poet—will tell you, there's always more to be learned from those experiments that don't go according to plan than those that do.
Craig Morgan Teicher's first book of poems, Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems, won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and will be published in November by the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University.