Susan Schultz on “Attention Equals Life”

Susan M. Schultz, the poet, critic, and editor of Tinfish, recently posted a response to my new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), on her blog.  The post is entitled “‘I felt such tenderness toward common objects’: poetry as attention” and it touches on Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry, Buddhism, attentiveness and the everyday.  Here is an excerpt:

Attending in poetry to what happens is the subject of Andrew Epstein’s expansive new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, published by Oxford University Press. Epstein’s argument is that post-World War II American poetry is increasingly imbricated in daily life and that poets create “reverse hierarchies,” abandoning the lyric’s traditional move toward transcendence. The arc he traces begins with James Schuyler, who writes about daily moments without creating hierarchies of value (e.g., epiphanies) and ends with the (very) odd couple of Claudia Rankine and Kenneth Goldsmith. By way of chapters on A.R. Ammons, Ron Silliman, and Bernadette Mayer, as well as one on Mayer’s followers, including Hoa Nguyen, Epstein charts a narrative that moves from moments of perception to quite literal garbage, lots of it. He moves from poets who take the conflict between meaning and ordinary life as their subject to those who simply inventory the ordinary. He lays his scaffolding down with the help of everyday life theorists, including philosophers (Benjamin, Debord, de Certeau) and cultural theorists (Highmore, Gardiner, Sheringham).

Epstein makes several important claims along the way. One is that the avant-garde is not “diametrically opposed to ‘realism,'” but that “‘avant-garde realism”‘ “refuse[s] to accept the strict binary that would pit realism’s concern for immediate and ordinary experience against the avant-garde’s formal experimentation and skepticism about language and representation” (9). Another claim he makes is that experiments with everyday content are inevitably experiments with form: “there is a deep yet understudied connection between the pursuit of everyday life and an eagerness to experiment with form” (18). Finally, Epstein equates these experiments–many of them “projects”– with an increasing interest on the part of poets like Silliman and Rankine in a material politics. As Rankine shows us, everyday moments can be intensely political, especially as they involve our assumptions. To see clearly, then, is to locate a better politics.

Attention Equals Life is strong in the way that thesis-driven books are strong, and sometimes weak, as they are. But, especially in the first three-quarters of his book, Epstein offers very sensitive readings of poems; he opens us up to their everydayness, rather than tethering them to any particular notion of their significance. Part of the joy of reading this book for me was in re-encountering poems by O’Hara, Ammons, Mayer, and seeing them set in a new theoretical context. What is new, in literary terms, is Epstein’s claim that there’s little difference between Ammons, for example, and avant-garde writers he’s never included among. I was reminded of Marjorie Perloff’s essay (I cannot remember where I saw it) in which she wondered what the real difference was between Ammons’s work and that of Denise Levertov. Communities of poets are too often defined by social groups, rather than according to poetic affinities.

So reading the book is like taking a walk (walking being a form of attention) through familiar poems with an excellent tour guide. Once the walk is finished, you know why Epstein spent so much time pointing out Schuyler’s “trash book.” And you know why he spends so much time with his long poems, rather than sticking with the shorter ones. You know why Epstein turns away from Ammons’s early poems and lingers on his “Garbage.” You understand why Mayer’s decision to write all the time matters (for mothers, especially) and why Goldsmith seems to spring from the forehead of Ron Silliman. There’s a map of influences here that provides counter-point to the material each poet uses. If, as one of my colleagues said in a meeting, “I hate flat poetry,” you will not like these poems, especially as you walk into the present tense (the tense present). If you want to learn to attend to the world, this book will show you how.

What puzzled me, as someone who gets to this kind of poetry from another direction, is why the everyday is so important to Epstein. Yes, to really look at our lives is to resist distraction (though I wonder if, say, generating or reading the catalogue of facial movements in Goldsmith’s Fidget isn’t as distracting as anything); and yes, the everyday really is intriguing, entertaining even. Yes, to see what’s around us awakens us to political and cultural circumstances we might want to avoid. And yes, seeing the world around us makes us better people in a tangible way. As Hope Jahren puts it in her memoir, Lab Girl, if you look closely enough at the world, you are a scientist. But what really is the point? (And does my desire for one mean that I’m yearning for abstractions to jet me away from the material point here?)

Epstein gets at one reason in his Schuyler chapter when he quotes Fairfield Porter. “‘Art permits you to accept illogical immediacy, and in doing so, releases you from chasing after the distant and the ideal’” (81). How I wish this quotation had returned later in the book, when Epstein’s poets arrive at more political readings of the everyday. To my mind, close attention to the everyday offers a formidable shield (wrong metaphor, I know) against fundamentalism or ideological fixity. It enables us to see each other as persons rather than as cogs in a larger system. We are that, certainly, but we aim to become free radicals! Hence, Mayer and other mother-poets attend both to the children they love and to the cultural and political structures that would prevent them from loving and working at the same time. To love and work is to write a poem. Close attention is a crucial ingredient in compassion. Compassion is a politics that accrues, however slowly. (That Epstein only writes about biological motherhood irked this adoptive mother, because non-biological motherhood or in vitro motherhood or surrogate motherhood have been examined by so many poet parents by now. Each has its own ordinary, along with the one they all share.)

But, while attention to detail and not to scaffolding may liberate us, just a tad, from the strictures that bind us, that attention can seem as drab as garbage (and I’m sorry but long catalogues of garbage do not make me appreciate it much more, and much contemporary ecopoetry points more to the actual harm of garbage than to its Ammonsian wonders). See Allison Cobb. It’s here that I note the fact that there is but one entry in the index to Buddhism. The word appears on page 7 (of 346) in a long list of reasons for post-war poetry’s turn to attention as its subject: “the pervasive influence of Buddhism and eastern religions, with their call for mindfulness and attention to immediate experience.” That’s it. I can’t quarrel with the fact that critics need to contain their subjects or risk writing the interminable book, one that gets them to the grave faster than to tenure or promotion. But my own investment is in this form of attentiveness, and I think it also throws a wrench into the binary of “hierarchy” and “reverse hierarchy,” as well as in poets’ move away from what Epstein calls “the transformation trope.” He finds that move in poems by James Wright and other specialists of the Deep Image. It’s when you write a poem about an ordinary scene (complete with plain-spoken narrative) and then leap out of it, violently and beautifully. It’s Wright’s encounter with a horse, a real one, that ends: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom” (quoted on 23).

A poem that emerges from Buddhist practice neither remains material nor breaks the body into blossom. Instead, if it doesn’t find the world in a grain of sand, it does find reverence in close encounters with it. Attention, then, offers joy, but it also offers freedom from attachment. And that’s where its politics comes in. As Simone Weil writes, in Epstein’s one quotation from her work, by way of Robert Hass: “‘attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention come to life'” (quoted on 13). For the most part, Epstein’s canon contains materialist poets, for whom the everyday is both all there is and what matters most. Another canon includes Buddhist poets, for whom the everyday is all there is and what matters most, but includes the spirit. The spirit need not ascend; it can be embodied. Like matter, it passes. In its passing we find the meaning of what it is and also that it disappears. We also locate compassion for what disappears. I wish I’d written Epstein’s book; it’s a significant contribution to the study of post-World War II literature and western thinking. But I would have wanted to think more about questions of spirit and compassion in daily life. So here’s the briefest of prolegomena:

Where does one find the ordinary not as inventory (Goldsmith, even Mayer), nor as transcendence, but as something betwixt and between?


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