“Attention Equals Life”: Now Out in Paperback!

For anyone who has been dying to get my recent book but couldn’t stomach the cost, good news! It’s just been published in paperback by Oxford University Press, now at a more affordable price — plus it’s got some new blurbs/review excerpts on the back.

Attention Equals Life is an exemplary work of criticism. Authoritative but not dogmatic, at once wide-ranging and immersed in the textual details of individual poems, it provides in each chapter both a conceptual map for understanding broad cultural and aesthetic trends and the sort of sensitive and synthetic account of a poet’s career that will stand as the starting point for future scholars and students. It is certain to become one of the definitive literary histories of postwar and contemporary American poetry.” — Brian Glavey, Contemporary Literature

“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…Summing Up: Essential.” –J. A. Zoller, Choice.

“Epstein’s Attention Equals Life (2016) offers a powerful account of the preoccupation with the everyday and the construction of what he calls a “skeptical realism” in postwar US poetry. … Epstein’s argument is not only original but persuasive too. It has that quality that only the best arguments do of cutting through an already well-plowed field in order to reveal similarities and affinities between otherwise aesthetically disparate materials.” –Christopher Breu, American Literary History



“Attention Equals Life” named an “Outstanding Academic Title for 2017” by Choice

I was very excited to learn that my book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, has been named an “Outstanding Academic Title for 2017” by Choice, the magazine of the Association of College & Research Libraries.

According to the website: “Every year in the January issue, in print and online, Choice publishes a list of Outstanding Academic Titles that were reviewed during the previous calendar year. This prestigious list reflects the best in scholarly titles reviewed by Choice and brings with it the extraordinary recognition of the academic library community.”

The College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State University, where I teach, was kind enough to post this article about the recognition:

A Florida State University professor’s book on the rise of “experimental realism” in modern poetry is making waves in the academic world.

Andrew Epstein, a professor in FSU’s Department of English and associate chair of the department’s graduate English program, is the author of Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture. The book, published by Oxford University Press, was recently named one of the “Outstanding Academic Titles for 2017” by Choice, a magazine of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL).

In awarding Outstanding Academic Titles, Choice editors apply several criteria to review titles:

  • Overall excellence in presentation and scholarship
  • Importance relative to other literature in the field
  • Distinction as a first treatment of a given subject in book or electronic form
  • Originality or uniqueness of treatment
  • Value to undergraduate students
  • Importance in building undergraduate library collections

Being named to this list is a prestigious accomplishment, as it is often influential in determining which books libraries will purchase. Epstein’s book has also made the shortlist for another top award in his field: the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize.

Attention Equals Life book cover.jpeg

“After spending years of hard work researching and writing a book, it’s very gratifying to know that people are reading it and finding it interesting and useful,” Epstein said. “I’m especially glad that the book seems to be reaching people beyond just academic experts in my area of specialty, because I think the problems and issues I discuss — about attention and distraction in the age of the smartphone, the complexity and appeal of the everyday, how art forms can capture the daily, and so on — are topics of broad interest and urgent concern in our culture today.”

Attention Equals Life examines why modern poetry and other art forms have become so preoccupied with representing the ordinary and humble experience of daily life.

“Rather than focusing on grand subjects, timeless themes and sublime beauty, contemporary poets, and many other writers and artists, have been much more invested in documenting and capturing the everyday and mundane,” Epstein said. “I view this turn to the daily as a response to the rapid transformations that have characterized the period since 1945, which have resulted in a culture of distraction and information overload. My book argues that poetry has become an important, and perhaps unlikely, cultural form that responds to, and tries to resist, a culture suffering from an acute crisis of attention.”

Gary Taylor, chair of the Department of English, praised Epstein, saying his book “really does make the ordinary extraordinary.

“Although Andrew Epstein is a theorist and observer of everyday experience, there is nothing quotidian about his achievement.”

Writing in Choice, reviewer J.A. Zoller stated, “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.

“. . . 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 U.S. since Robert Frost,” Zoller added.

Taylor described Epstein as a tremendous resource for the English department, as “he is exceptionally valuable in linking the Graduate Program in Literature, Media and Culture to the Graduate Program in Creative Writing.” In addition, he credited Epstein with being instrumental in bringing the nationally acclaimed poet and critic Stephanie Burt to the university, where she gave both a poetry reading and a critical lecture on the relationship between poetry and song.

“Attention Equals Life” Shortlisted for Modernist Studies Association Book Prize

A few months ago, I was pleased to learn that my book Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture was shortlisted for the Modernist Studies Book Prize for 2016, one of the most important prizes in my field.  My book was selected along with 4 other terrific books for this year’s short list.  In their commendation, the MSA Book Prize committee wrote:

Attention Equals Life is the culmination of work from the past several years on modernism and the everyday, particularly American poetry moving toward the mid-century. The book is extremely readable for broad audiences and makes a compelling extension of discussions of the everyday, both from an American standpoint and with a focus on mid-century literary production. The nuanced attention to poetic language is convincing and the theoretical and philosophical argumentation is bested only by detailed analyses of poems, which are frequent and efficient. Close attention to the text itself is always diligently related to the American philosophical tradition so that textual analyses do not operate as mere illustrations but signal a new step in scholarship. This study challenges our perception of poetry as a genre and as a form – it raises new questions in terms of poetics, aesthetics, and ethics, and particularly how poetry works as a form of cultural and political action. Attention Equals Life is a completely convincing work.

For more about the prize, see here.

Interview about “Attention Equals Life” with Andy Fitch at Los Angeles Review of Books

I was recently interviewed by the scholar, poet, and interviewer-extraordinaire Andy Fitch for the Los Angeles Review of Books, for a new series of interviews Fitch is doing with authors of recent scholarly books.  I had the opportunity to talk at length about my new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture.

Fitch and I discuss the central concerns of my book and how I came to write it, including theories and poetics of the everyday, French New Wave film, secular vs. spiritual approaches to dailiness, politics, an app that lets you take one second of video per day, and many other things.

You can find the interview — “So Insistently Focused on the Daily: Talking to Andrew Epstein” — here.




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?

“Roberto Bolaño and the New York School of Poetry” — on the OUPblog



A piece I wrote about the writer Roberto Bolaño and poetry has just been published on OUPblog, the Oxford University Press blog.

Bolaño is best-known as a novelist, but he was also a poet, and an obsessive interest in poetry appears across his body of work. This piece argues that Bolaño not only has connections to poetry in general, but more specifically, some strong and rather surprising connections to poets and artists of the New York School.

Review of The Banquet by Kenneth Koch at the Los Angeles Review of Books

My review of The Banquet, the collected plays of Kenneth Koch, has just been published by the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s my first piece for the LA Review of Books, which I love, and I’m excited to have my work appear there.

If you like Koch’s poems, but don’t really know his plays, they’re crazy and fun – as I argue in the piece, experiencing his plays is a bit like seeing “key elements of Koch’s poetry, and poetry of the New York School more broadly, lifted off the page, set in motion, and turned into 3D spectacle.”

“Here Is Freshness and the Shore’s Timeless Teeth”: The Plays of Kenneth Koch

“I’ll Be Your Mirror”: Lou Reed and the New York School of Poetry

In the wake of Lou Reed’s death last week, a piece of mine about Reed — “‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’: Lou Reed and the New York School of Poetry” — was published on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, as part of their “Open Door” feature.  I’m very interested in the longstanding, serious connections between Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and poetry, something that hasn’t been discussed very much in the outpouring of obits, recollections, and assessments after his death.  He’s often referred to as a “punk poet” or “poet laureate of New York,” but this is usually used in the metaphorical sense (just as Dylan is called a “poet”).  His interest in poetry is much more extensive, and in this piece, I argue that the Velvet Underground evolves out of American poetry and art in the 1960s in a way that is really unlike any other phenomenon in rock music.

The piece can be found here and I posted some more reflections on Reed and poetry on my blog here.