Excerpt: 'Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture' by Andrew Epstein


Mother and Child, Erich Borchert, 1929

From Bernadette Mayer and the Maternal Everyday: 

On December 22, 1978, the young American poet Bernadette Mayer undertook an unusual experiment that she had been planning for weeks: she wrote an entire book-length poem during and about the events and thoughts she experienced on that particular day. She later described the resulting poem, which she titled Midwinter Day, as “a 120-page work in prose and poetry written on December 22, 1978, from notes, tapes, photographs, and memory.” The poem recounts an ordinary day in the life of a young woman, her husband, and two young children in the small town of Lenox, Massachusetts, where Mayer and the poet Lewis Warsh, had recently moved from New York City. As the poet Alice Notley has noted, Midwinter Day is an “epic poem about a daily routine.”

Although it was not well-known at the time, Midwinter Day has increasingly come to be seen as a major long poem of the past several decades. While still hardly a household name, Mayer has lately become a beacon for younger American women writers who are still trying to negotiate what is often referred to as “the juggle”–the irresolvable balancing act of work and family that contemporary women endlessly struggle with. Many young poets today feel that Mayer managed to find a way to reconcile these competing roles successfully, long before the “mommy wars” of our day.  Her books of the 1970s exuberantly demonstrate that one can be a poet and a mother at the same time and still survive, and even thrive.

In recent years, Mayer’s work has received a smattering of good critical attention, but her poetry’s outsized influence on more recent writing has still not received the attention it deserves. Critics have often focused on Mayer’s complicated connections, especially as a woman poet, to the two different, often competing movements with which she is associated, the New York School and Language poetry. They have also discussed her relationship to conceptual art, her feminist revision of poetic forms (such as the long poem and the sonnet), and her complex handling of gender and sexuality.

Despite this recent surge of interest in Mayer’s work and her example, there has been little attention paid to her role as an important poet of the everyday, nor to the significance of her quotidian aesthetic for contemporary poets who follow in her wake. By referring to an everyday-life aesthetic, I mean the broad turn away from the extraordinary, the exotic, or the heroic towards the mundane, the small, and the ordinary that has often been hailed as a central feature of twentieth-century literature and art: a literary and artistic lineage that stretches from James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Carlos Williams to the “New American Poetry” of the postwar period, especially to Frank O’Hara and the New York School, a movement known for its loving attention to the daily.

In this chapter, I argue that Mayer should be viewed as an important and under-recognized contributor to this tradition. But I make the case that Mayer not only draws upon the resources of this lineage, but also offers a powerful retort, a bracing corrective to its failures and limitations. To do so, Mayer develops a groundbreaking, influential mode that I call “the poetics of the maternal everyday.” I use this phrase to refer to a feminist aesthetic that explores how daily experience is inescapably shaped by gender, that strives to represent the lived realities of being a woman and a mother, and insists on the fact that motherhood is always, at some level, political.  In short, Mayer’s work offers a stiff challenge to the supposed universality that has long cloaked the implicit male-ness at the heart of many models of dailiness.

The particular mode Mayer helped inaugurate – the poetics of the maternal everyday — has blossomed in the past several decades, as can be seen in the writing of a whole range of younger contemporary women poets, including Rachel Zucker, Claudia Rankine, Laynie Browne, Hoa Nguyen, Eleni Sikelianos, and Catherine Wagner, many of whom cite their debt to Mayer.  And yet Mayer’s profound and widespread influence on contemporary poetry has remained mostly under the radar and is only just beginning to be recognized.  The longer chapter from which this excerpt is drawn pairs Mayer’s poetry with the work of some of her most interesting descendants.  By focusing on Mayer and her poetic “daughters,” the chapter aims to revise discussions of poetry and the everyday, and to question some of the gendered assumptions that still sometimes structure those discussions.

From the beginning of her career in the late 1960s, Bernadette Mayer has been fascinated by the quotidian in all its complexity and contradiction. “I love you and daily life, what life isn’t daily? … what poetry isn’t everyday,” Mayer proclaimed in “The Poetry of Everyday Life,” a lecture she gave in 1998.  In an early poem titled “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica,” Mayer tells herself “Look at very small things with your eyes / & stay warm.”  The poem suggests that careful attention to the tiny and immediate can be a survival strategy – “the way to keep going” when faced with crisis, deprivation, and extremity, in the “Antarctica” of our lives.  Throughout her work, she espouses an experimental realism designed to attend to the full range of immediate, quotidian experience: as she puts it at one point in Midwinter Day, “I want to get / A tight pair of paints and dance / With you with things as they are.”

Mayer’s desire to dance with things as they are, her attempt to honor the vast scope and richness of the everyday and its “very small things,” drives her restless experimentation with form – such as her delight in blurring genres, exploring mixing media, and devising conceptual and constraint-based projects.  With one foot in the world of conceptual art, and the other in the New York School’s second generation, Mayer turns to avant-garde forms in part because she feels conventional forms and self-contained lyric poems do not offer an adequate mode of attending to and recording everyday life – especially contemporary daily life as experienced by women and mothers.

Like so many of Mayer’s other works, Midwinter Day is the result of a deliberate, constraint- and time-based project – a kind of “real-time” experiment written about, and during the course of, a single day.  In deciding to create a book-length poem, Mayer quite self-consciously contributes her own effort to the storied genre of the long poem. But she provocatively shifts the typical concerns and scope of the form from that displayed in long poems like Pound’s Cantos, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, or Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems to the domestic sphere conventionally associated with women and mothers, offering a provocative rejoinder to the epic tradition itself. Mayer’s book demonstrates that a poem about a single day in the life of a mother – even a day like December 22, which she seems to purposely choose because it is what she calls the “year’s least day,” “the shortest day of the year” – is so rich, complex, varied, and inexhaustible that it could include everything one finds in traditional epics: love, death, fear, war, violence, pleasure, loss, memory, sex, and dream. At one self-reflexive point in the poem she writes “I had an idea to write a book that would … prove the day like the dream has everything in it.”

Furthermore, by deciding to give a single day book-length treatment, Mayer both invokes and comments upon the familiar modernist tactic of using a single day as the focus and frame for a novel – a tactic most famously seen in Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. From the book’s first page, Mayer signals her intention to converse with these predecessors: Midwinter Day’s first word (complete with an oversized capital S) directly alludes to the famous beginning of Ulysses (where Joyce wrote “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan,” Mayer writes “Stately you came to town in my opening dream”). Mayer thus alerts us right away that she will be putting her own subversive stamp on this mini-genre. If those landmark modernist works were radical attempts to shift the scale of the novel to the daily life of “ordinary” people, Midwinter Day not only extends that project but takes it in a notably different direction. First, the events of those novels seem momentous in contrast to the much more mundane ordinariness of Mayer’s day, in which nothing conventionally “dramatic” happens at all (by far the biggest moment of conflict is a toddler’s tantrum in the town’s public library – a far cry from, say, the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway). Second, Mayer pointedly replaces the concerns of the Joycean everyday (largely male and urban) with the thoughts and actions of a woman caring for little children in a small town.

In addition, unlike those examples, Mayer’s poem is not a fictional representation of a single “day in the life.” It was – or purports to have been – written on a single day, by a woman who was also a primary caregiver to two young children. In that sense, Midwinter Day ups the ante on its predecessors and their claims about the everyday: it becomes a performance piece and feat of endurance. It is also a feminist refusal to abide by strict divisions of labor and the engrained belief that the domestic and the intellectual are incompatible. As Maggie Nelson suggests, Midwinter Day is designed to confront, perhaps definitively, the problem of “the juggle”: it responds to the questions facing all women writers who are mothers: how can you be both woman and artist? When do you find time to write? “All day long” is the book’s defiant answer.

Excerpted from Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, by Andrew Epstein, published by OUP on 1st July 2016. Republished here with permission of the author.