on Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture by Andrew Epstein (Oxford Univ Press)

“I am less interested in talking about the aesthetics of the ordinary than participating in the fight for the ordinary,” proclaims Charles Bernstein in The Attack of the Difficult Poems. Are there any poets today who would not profess a loyalty to the ordinary? Yet as Andrew Epstein deftly explains in Attention Equals Life, the preoccupation with everyday life is a relatively new impulse in American poetry, especially as practiced in more deliberate, persistent, and extreme forms. Even so, “the idea that contemporary American poetry often trains its eye on everyday experience has become a truism and a cliché” requiring, he believes, a more discriminating look at the ways in which various poetries have handled the ordinary (“a genealogy of the fascination with the everyday”) and why the impulse to enhance our spans of attention has become a cultural urgency. Taking on a sprawling topic, he considers not only the era’s poetry but the aesthetics, philosophies, and cultural critiques that inform it.

EpsteinCover.jpegA professor of English at Florida State, Epstein delivers essays on the intentions and works of representative poets -- James Schuyler, A.R. Ammons, Bernadette Mayer, and Ron Silliman. His astute readings of their work relative to the ordinary provide timely insights into why, how and where this immersion in the everyday gained speed, depth and variety after 1945. Here Epstein focuses particularly on poets who matured in the 1970’s.

The fight for the ordinary often breaks out as a clash between poets and “competing forms of representing the daily.” Although Epstein’s introduction glances at poets such as Ted Kooser, Edward Hirsch, Robert Hass, Stephen Dunn and Billy Collins, his allegiance belongs to the generation of poets within and following after Donald Allen’s touchstone anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960) – representatives of the Beats, New York School, Black Mountain School, and the San Francisco Revival. In Epstein’s view, a poem such as James Wright’s “A Blessing” (1963) fails the ordinary because it “depends on the sacralization of the humble, the denigration of the tedious or trivial in favor of isolating magical, privileged moments.”

The post-avants Epstein favors scoff at what they see as heroic pretensions, but the avowed purity of their contestation for the ordinary implies heroism of its own. He seems to strictly accept the supposed chasm between experimenters and epiphanists, true believers and money-changers. It’s a narrow view with some appeal, a convenient way of splitting the creative world between first-person memoiristic orators and oblique-person construction workers. But the fight for the ordinary, which is also an insistence on what is actually happening, is waged throughout the poetry spectrum. Iconoclastic or idiosyncratic gestures, syntax-smashing and genre-stretching may now be found in many toolkits. If post-avants have insisted that the ordinary should be treated as evasive, close at hand but slippery, then so have uncountable poets not named or self-identified as experimentalists.

Epstein.jpegBefore he proceeds to essays on Schuyler and others, Epstein provides a chapter based on his notion of “everyday hunger” or “a powerful craving for closer contact with the most taken-for-granted and familiar aspects of the quotidian, a desire for a greater knowledge and more thorough documentation of our own daily lives.” Everyday hunger intentionally evokes David Shields’ “reality hunger,” but Epstein takes a more nuanced approach to considering specific attempts at reality-representation. For instance:

“All the microblogging, self-documentation, and life-logging, the daily and hourly updates, and the photographic food diaries have given rise to another version of this everyday hunger that comes at the quotidian from a different angle: a pervasive cultural discourse that mourns the loss of it. This has sparked a wave of interest in boredom as a phenomenon.”

In his chapter on Silliman’s Ketjak (1978), Epstein pursues a goal stated in his introduction -- “to debunk the widely held idea that the ‘avant-garde’ is diametrically opposed to ‘realism.’” In Silliman’s long poem, he finds “a distinctive brand of skeptical, experimental realism that strives to reconceive, expand, and improve realism itself, while simultaneously surrendering its dream of accurately or definitively capturing the ’real’ in its nets.” The idea is to generate a feel for -- and an alienated participation in -- what Stanley Cavell calls “the uncanniness of the ordinary.” Epstein concludes that the forms most ambitiously suited to this mission are those “freed from the exigencies of narrative,” liberally stretching the boundaries of genres.

Epstein frames Schuyler’s work firmly within the turbulent ordinary: “Schuyler’s poems relentlessly explore the set of contradictions proposed by Lefebvre, Blanchot, and other philosophers: that the everyday is always both impoverished and bountiful, boring and fascinating, forgettable and memorable, repetitive and different, familiar and surprising at the exact same time.” Schuyler worked hard to envision the passing moment, but continually ran into (and became moody about) the hurdle spelled out by William Carlos Williams: the difficulty and even the absurdity of lifting the ordinary into the imagination. Today that difficulty is compounded by a barrage of information and imagery.

a-r-ammons.jpgAmmons is enshrined in Epstein’s everyday pantheon because he “relinquishes the romantic emphasis on epiphanies and ‘privileged moments’ so common to the more widespread, less philosophically inclined poetry” of those long berated by Silliman as “quietists.” Numinous moments by earnest first-persons are seen as degrading the wildness of the ordinary. Dilemmas, not closures, are preferred. Unless, apparently, the poet allows his epiphany to go over the top. Ammons’ opening lines of “Still”: “I said I will find what is lowly / and put the roots of my identity / down there: / each day I’ll wake up / and find the lowly nearby, / and handy focus and reminder, / a ready measure of my significance, / the voice by which I would be heard …” The discovery of the ordinary entailed a true revelation for Ammons. In 1971, he wrote in a letter to Harold Bloom, “I ran my motor fast much of my life seeking the saving absolute. There is no such item to be found.” So he stuck with “what is lowly.”

One wants poems that strain toward a renewed orientation to the ordinary. Sometimes, this occurs in narrative poems. Today, many politically inflected poems by younger poets are inspired directly by the urgency not to be silenced. The poet undertaking to be recognized as fully human may not care for disparaging and glib critiques by post-avants about the heroic “I.” Nothing antagonizes the skirmishing experimenters more than poets who seem to domesticate the ordinary and bank on assured relationships between the observer and the observed. But when that young poet writes from marginalized turf, when that relationship is contentious and the observer is threatened, the resulting poems may insist on being credited for what they observe on our behalf.

celebrating-wisconsin-people.jpegEuro-American post-avants, determined “to ironically undermine the heroic, the spectacular, and the monumental,” have claimed for decades to represent a superior political response to everyday oppressive and unjust social conditions through innovative language. Lately, that claim is beset by critics. Some unabashedly heroic, first-person based testimonies rest on experiences proving that personal identity is unavoidable. These poets can’t elude imposed identity or regard it as artistically disposable. The ordinary inheres in more than unconventional perspectives or phrases about the field of objects. Epstein’s project doesn’t tread near this debate.

In the final chapter, “Everyday-Life Projects in Contemporary Poetry and Culture,” Epstein suggests connections between the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Claudia Rankine, Brenda Coultas, Harryette Mullen and others. He cites Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue (2009) as an attention-expanding project; like Silliman’s BART (1976), it examines the particulars of an urban environment. But most of Rankine’s work surely typifies heroic monumentalism, an assertive and often sententious countervailing presence. Her mode is frequently anecdotal, her epiphanies innumerable. The inclusion of Rankine in this chapter gives off a whiff of the concessional.

Epstein’s study clears a path to the recent past that helps us understand why genre- and syntax-busting techniques are now much more visible in American poetry. The ordinary is as wild and provocative as ever. What is becoming ordinary among poets, meaning pervasive, is the fear of falling into the hands of the enemy for having devised a mode of address to replace the mode that one is requested to use. That leaves us to waver between private, sometimes fragmented encoded languages and all the previously-owned forms of expression we have inherited. Our uncommon wavering is the ordinary work.

[Published July 1, 2016. 364 pages, $69.00 hardcover]