As I’ve mentioned a few times here before, my second book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, was recently published by Oxford University Press. Although it is not strictly a study of the New York School of poets, the book has a great deal in it for anyone interested in the movement.
Attention Equals Life focuses extensively on several poets central to the New York School, with chapters devoted to James Schuyler and Bernadette Mayer (and an array of poets influenced by her). Most broadly, the book explores one of the New York School’s most distinctive features — a fascination with using poetry to capture daily life in all its dailiness. I also borrowed my title from a remark of Frank O’Hara’s — “attention equals Life, or is its only evidence”– and O’Hara himself hovers over the whole book as a kind of guiding spirit.
If you’re interested, you can hear me discuss the book and read some portions of it on this podcast, a recording of a reading I gave in Tallahassee, Florida a few months ago. Also, a brief excerpt from the chapter on Bernadette Mayer was published by Berfrois.
Poetry has long been thought of as a genre devoted to grand subjects, timeless themes, and sublime beauty. Why, then, have contemporary poets turned with such intensity to documenting and capturing the everyday and mundane? Drawing on insights about the nature of everyday life from philosophy, history, and critical theory, Andrew Epstein traces the modern history of this preoccupation and considers why it is so much with us today. Attention Equals Life argues that a potent hunger for everyday life explodes in the post-1945 period as a reaction to the rapid, unsettling transformations of this epoch, which have resulted in a culture of perilous distraction. Epstein demonstrates that poetry is an important, and perhaps unlikely, cultural form that has mounted a response, and even a mode of resistance, to a culture suffering from an acute crisis of attention.
In this timely and engaging study, Epstein examines why a compulsion to represent the everyday becomes predominant in the decades after modernism and why it has so often sparked genre-bending formal experimentation. With chapters devoted to illuminating readings of a diverse group of writers–including poets associated with influential movements like the New York School, language poetry, and conceptual writing–the book considers the variety of forms contemporary poetry of everyday life has taken, and analyzes how gender, race, and political forces all profoundly inflect the experience and the representation of the quotidian.
By exploring the rise of experimental realism as a poetic mode and the turn to rule-governed “everyday-life projects,” Attention Equals Life offers a new way of understanding a vital strain at the heart of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature. It not only charts the evolution of a significant concept in cultural theory and poetry, but also reminds readers that the quest to pay attention to the everyday within today’s frenetic world of smartphones and social media is an urgent and unending task.
“A book of enormous breadth and ambition, Attention Equals Life is at once astonishing and reaffirming, challenging and clarifying. It engages more broadly than its scholarly focus would suggest. Epstein (Florida State Univ.) explores contemporary poetry’s obsession with the quotidian, setting that obsession in literary context (both historical and current) and identifying it as contemporaneous with cultural interest in the ordinary, the commonplace, the “real.” His argument is persuasive, the information is abundant and compelling, the endnotes and bibliography are extensive if not exhaustive, and the style is accessible. This book has something for everyone—poets, critics, teachers of literature and contemporary culture, fans of contemporary poetry, and even those who think that no poetry of value has emerged in the US since Robert Frost. The book is demanding in that the author consults and embraces theorists and practitioners from many fields. Though it is not for everyone, Attention Equals Life will richly reward those willing to take up the challenge. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. — J. A. Zoller, Choice
“Theoretically adept, poetically alert, and socially perceptive–serious about ethics as about aesthetics–this book reveals how the quotidian and its immersive immediacies are fundamental to contemporary cultural practices. Epstein keenly traces the anti-sublime practices of skeptical realism with acute attention.” –Rachel Blau DuPlessis, author of Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work
“Andrew Epstein has written a wonderful book that sensitizes us to the way that a strain of experimental poetry has sought to attend to daily life in all its complexity and obscurity without desiring to transcend it. Theoretically nuanced, historically compelling, and politically astute, Epstein writes about the skeptical realism of everyday life poetry with energy, wit, and perspicacity.” –Ben Highmore, author of Cultural Feelings: Mood, Mediation and Cultural Politics
“Is poetry the most potent remedy for our Age of Distraction? If so, Andrew Epstein argues, then it works most effectively not through escaping into transcendence or imaginative transfiguration but through a rigorous attention to the everyday. In Attention Equals Life, he demonstrates brilliantly how several generations of American poets (from James Schuyler and A.R. Ammons to Bernadette Mayer, Ron Silliman, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Claudia Rankine) join together with theorists of the everyday (the American Pragmatists and continental thinkers such as Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Lefebvre, Debord, and de Certeau) to probe the promise and limits of the quotidian. By inventing a variety of constraints, techniques, and projects, the poets succeed in revealing directly what the theorists can only assert: that the ordinary is extraordinary.” –Stephen Fredman, author of Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art
“[An] expansive new book… A significant contribution to the study of post-World War II literature and western thinking.” —Journal of Poetics Research
Here is the book’s table of contents:
Introduction: The Poetics of Everyday Life Since 1945
Chapter 1: The Crisis of Attention, Everyday Life Theory, and Contemporary Poetry
Chapter 2: “Each Day So Different, Yet Still Alike”: James Schuyler and the Elusive Everyday
Chapter 3: “The Tiny Invites Attention”: A. R. Ammons’s Quotidian Muse
Chapter 4: Writing the Maternal Everyday: Bernadette Mayer and her “Daughters” (Hoa Nguyen, Susan Holbrook, Laynie Browne)
Chapter 5: “There is No Content Here, Only Dailiness”: Poetry as Critique of Everyday Life in Ron Silliman’s Ketjak
Chapter 6: Everyday Life Projects in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Kenneth Goldsmith, Claudia Rankine, Brenda Coultas, Harryette Mullen)
Conclusion: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Beyond
I hope you’ll check it out! Again, you can receive a 30% discount if you order the book directly from Oxford University Press, here, using the following promo code: AAFLYG6.