Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture

Attention Equals Life has just been published by Oxford University Press
and is available at Amazon and Oxford University Press

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.

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“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 ofBlue 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 Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. 

“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

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