The Greatest Minor American Poet of the 20th Century
Bernadette Mayer was the greatest minor American poet of the 20th century, and the 21st too, in which she has become less minor. There are other contenders, of course, many—but Mayer is mine.
Mayer was Brooklyn-born and raised, and grew up—as a poet, as an artist—in New York City’s East Village. By the time she was 16, both her parents had died. Mayer set in her mind her father’s age at the time of death—49—as the year by which she would have to have lived her whole life. She felt the need to “hurry up.”
So she did. By 22 she was part of the downtown New York art scene, particularly attached to the avant-garde poets who congregated on the Lower East Side. Her artist sister Rosemary was, in this period, partnered with the artist and poet Vito Acconci. Bernadette and Acconci made the experimental magazine 0-9 for a couple of years, self-printing and distributing to local bookstores and friends. With one foot in the art world and the other in poetry, Mayer made Memory (1971), which cemented her nascent reputation in both scenes. Memory takes the month of July of that year and runs what is, on the face of it, a very basic operation. She exposed a roll of film every single day for thirty-one days, and captured the minute and particulars of each day in a journal. She then taped the journals, playing their contents in the gallery where the images hung on Greene Street. If you wanted, you could listen to every word while gazing on the paired set of photographs—it would take you the whole day. “A process fills its old bed,” Mayer wrote at the very end of Memory, “& then it makes a new bed: to you past structure is backwards, you forget, you remember the past backwards & forget.” Mayer experimented with the uncut account of a life—sure that if she captured a day, a month in its totality—the truth of memory and forgetting would surface.
After the success of Memory, and the warm reception of Studying Hunger (1972) by the first generation of New York School poets, most importantly John Ashbery, Mayer was accepted into the pack of poets called the New York School’s Second Generation. Many of her contemporaries were taught formally by the First, especially Bill Berkson. Mayer returned the favor immediately. At the Poetry Project, Mayer started teaching a group of “younger” poets, using the experimental prompts that would become a hallmark of her teaching for the next half century. Of the many who gathered, several would go on to found the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry and become her friends.
Mayer is a book poet—even her decades of sonnets were largely only published together in 1989—but despite her reluctance to write in smaller units, she has a few singles from this era, most famously “The Way to Keep Going in Antarctica.” This is how she introduced it at a somewhat recent reading in New York:
It’s a poem that I find deeply embarrassing to read because it’s kind of—I don’t know—emotional? And I’ve never read it much until I learned Stacy [Szymaszek, former director of the Project] loved it. I’m serious! Do you remember this poem?
Readers up at the mic at poetry readings, by which I mean poets, often feel the need to give deep and overly long explanations of the poem they’re about to read. They can fall into the trap of explaining the joke in advance of its telling. Bernadette didn’t need to do that. Her patter was brief and often non-sequitur. Sometimes she just accounted for why she had chosen to read a particular poem, sometimes why it was the first time she was reading it. Her life was the poem, the poem was her life. To perform something outside of it would have been a fatal redundancy.
The answer for every poet in the audience was undoubtably yes, they did indeed recall this poem. It begins:
Be strong Bernadette
Nobody will ever know
I came here for a reason
Perhaps there is a life here
Of not being afraid of your own heart beating
Do not be afraid of your own heart beating
Look at very small things with your eyes
& stay warm
Nothing outside can cure you but everything’s outside
Nothing can cure us, but we might still try to keep going toward the only salve: more experience. Bernadette decided to take a voyage to the unknown. She relocated to Massachusetts—that Antarctica of poetry—first in Worthington and then settling in Lenox. Once there she chose to do something that is often marked off as exceptional for the bohemian, except that it was totally banal; she decided that she wanted children and, with the poet Lewis Warsh, had three of them: Marie, Sophia, and Max. Mayer’s work was already committed to experimental structures of durative selfhood—the eight-hour gallery poem, the monthlong recording—which served as containers for experience and second-order reflection upon it.
Removing herself from urban life and her address of its public intimacy, coupled with the introduction of children to that quotidian, required a new emphatic absence and presence in the poetry. This makes all the more sense because Mayer didn’t really write in poems per se, but in what she called “structures,” or, “something more architectural.” In her allegiance to the term “structure”—and her rejection of the word “form”—we can hear the gendered difference between the two, how the habitable and domestic is part of the maternal everyday and a convening, governing feature of the poem. Yet it is too easy to say that Mayer was a feminist poet because she left New York to have babies and included them and their demands in her poems. Though the other women poets of her exact time and place—Alice Notley and Anne Waldman—also had children, Bernadette is seen as the patron saint of feminist poetics who took the terms, features, and structures of social reproduction seriously. As Amy De’Ath recently cautioned, it would be a mistake to read Mayer merely as a mom, either to salute or critique her, for she is just as much a “manly” poet of classic genres and tropes. Instead, we should read her work as “an active and painful transcription of the production of gender itself.”
If Memory and Studying Hunger re-presented the poem as tape recording and diary, in Midwinter Day (1982) Mayer makes writing and what it records coterminous by composing the experience of a single day in a single day. Recalling the logbooks of exploration, Mayer writes:
Now Marie says her boots are getting too hot
We run the few yards to the market in the deep and cheerful snow
. . . To market to market to buy a fat pig
Home again home again jiggety jig
There’s the State Line Potato Chip truck
We all go
In the door of the mausoleum store lit like a jailcell
To get spaghetti, oranges, juice, yellow peas and some cheese
Frank O’Hara’s queer cosmopolitan coterie poetics of “I do this, I do that” are refilled with the labor of the maternal and the rhythmic language of childhood, all of which expresses not only a commitment to the indecorous banality of such a day, but to clearing topical space in masculine lyric and epic for such subjects and vantages. The “this” and the “that” change, even if they both necessarily greet and document the cruelty of the day, the “Now.” That difference was, in Bernadette’s hands, also a way of naming the boredom and pleasure, the pain and history of life in Lenox, with the children and their breakfasts and their outings. She claimed to have written the whole work in a day, but also to have trained herself, to prepare for the task: “to prove the day like the dream has everything in it.” If everything is outside, the day is the ground of that exteriorized psychic and poetic life.
Mayer had a stroke when she was just 49: the ailment that killed her father arrived on schedule as she had feared. Years later she recalled telling Allen Ginsberg that the major effect of the stroke was, briefly, boredom. “I am so bored,” Mayer told Ginsberg. He responded, “Well, this is a good time to meditate.” “Fuck you, Allen!” came her reply.
The stroke did change forever how she wrote materially—and the infrastructural shift had a structural impact: when people suggested tape recorders she rejected them, and though she had made use of the medium before, now everything was composed on the electric typewriter. She performed little to no revision, choosing instead to ax whole stanzas and sections of books if they weren’t working (they usually worked). Mayer had made the prophecy of her death at this age and so hurried up again, living another brilliant, communitarian twenty-eight years.
I encountered Bernadette Mayer sixteen years ago, approximately two thousand miles west of where I should’ve, where a strain of American Buddhism and avant-garde poetics cross, in a small motel room in Boulder, Colorado when she was 62 years old, and I was about to turn 17. We found ourselves sitting in this motel because of the Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church in the Bowery. More directly, Anne Waldman brought us each there and then together. Waldman, in addition to everything else she is, was a longtime friend and co-author, not least of an article on the 1970s ABA Nets for Oui Magazine, and an intimate of Mayer’s (the two were each married—at different times—to Warsh). Waldman was also my boss.
I had arrived at the all too probably named Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute past its ostensible heyday. Founded in 1974 by Waldman and her “spiritual husband” Allen Ginsberg, the school had the reputation of a mountain retreat for the Beat Poets, and their friends in the New York School, and their friends in the Black Mountain school, and their friends in the New Narrative school. I imagine that for a long time these distinctions were preserved within the overlapping coteries, even as phone calls and letters bearing invitations to teach might wing their way to the East or West Village or the Tenderloin or to stranger corners for poetry like, say, Boston. But by the time I arrived, feuds generated after bad nights in bars or after some perceived slight in a reading line-up had finally been resolved, at least along the horizontal axis of generation.
There among the Red Rocks, especially in the summer, these many poets congregated with the students who wanted to learn from them and touch their living history. In the 2000s, Ginsberg had long passed, as had the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa and, with him, the controversies about drugs and sleeping with students. Naropa wasn’t exactly normal, whatever that might mean, but it sold Fizzy Izzys at a café. Nothing of world-historic note happened and that was precisely the point. Yes, there was a small uproar led by a Flarf poet, a girlfriend of a famous art critic got sloppy at a party, spells were cast. And students by and large went to class and faculty by and large showed up to teach them.
One of my jobs as Anne’s personal assistant was to make sure she had what she needed, but another was to make sure that the classes taught by her more famous friends ran smoothly and that they had everything they needed, which meant I got to sit in the following summer on Amiri Baraka’s class, or be a body in an undersubscribed class so that I might make a teacher feel more appreciated. One of the pleasures of the job, what might be called, in some other more transactional context, a “perk,” was that I could sign up to have my poems workshopped by whoever was teaching that week. I worked for free but this was, as intended, a moment of apprenticeship. It was always hard to choose. Many of my heroes were there, but I was also too terrified to have those heroes read my poems (and I am so grateful now, that by and large, they haven’t). I often chose someone I didn’t know, hoping that then I might really learn something from the crit precisely because I could withstand hearing it. Anselm Hollo’s voice and laugh boomed (he’s also gone now), but I knew somewhere Bernadette was sitting at the blue picnic tables reserved for us smokers. And I wanted her to look at my pages. Instead of bumming a light—a generally successful ruse—I invented a roundabout plan to get her attention. I would ascertain her favorite pie and then bake it for her and then, and only then, I’d mention that in addition to offering her pie and working as Anne’s assistant, I wrote poems. That’s where the plan ended. I think when I finally executed it, I turned away awkwardly, seeing her later back at the motel, and pretended nothing had happened. I never got any feedback.
It’s a funny thing to learn only ex post facto how much a poet has shaped your life, not just on the page, through what we might call “influence,” but via the infrastructures they built that continue to shape the scene of work (and of hanging out, for poetry is, a priori, a social medium). Structures get made so that you might set them and forget them, so that they might survive individuals. These things are less rewarded, even as they keep the literal lights on. When Bernadette was directing the Poetry Project, she kept track of long lists of poets who were due to read, or wouldn’t read on particular days, or hadn’t yet read. She wrote, yes of course, and that is what I am celebrating, but she also facilitated: workshops, donations to our spaces (most famously ten thousand dollars from the Grateful Dead to the precarious Project), made new magazines, new ways of thinking and being together, when these things are nearly impossible in the best of times. I didn’t know, for instance, until I began trawling through the archive of Bernadette’s life after she died, that I gave my first real reading in a series she had made, that was still going then some twenty-five years after she had started it and is still going now an additional fifteen years later. Forty years of Monday nights. Perhaps Bernadette would now tell me I am wrong in making this binary, that her poems and her logbooks, her recounting for the day and accounting for the Project, or what Max and Marie and Sophie ate or refused, aren’t distinct work and works at all, but the work of making work, one of her great subjects. Anyway, in whatever form, Bernadette made things to keep.
Mayer was also known for living, at least in part, her adage “Work your ass off to change the language and don’t ever get famous.” Mayer conceived of poetry as making, a structure for her structure. And despite her maxim, she achieved wider recognition in the past ten years or so. Even last winter, poets across the world came together to do that other work of poetry, to care for its keepers, in order to keep the heat on and make infrastructural repairs to Mayer’s home in upstate New York that she and her partner Phil Good shared, surrounded by Poetry State Forest.
This commandment or self-prescription not to get famous but to work your ass off is one that is going to resonate with nearly all poets, whether they live by it or no. Even the most celebrated ones need someone to keep their heat on in winter, even if that someone is the anti-person we call a university. We have no arts funding in this country. We have few schools that pay livable wages to faculty members and keep them employed full-time. And according to Bernadette, being a poet was always a full-time job precisely because the poem had no boundaries, works and days were synonyms.
Mayer had taught at Naropa in 1978, and again in 1985, ’87, ’89, and in both 1993 and ’99. Rumor has it that she and her students dropped acid during a workshop and got to know the forest in a particularly far-out way (although what forest in Boulder that would be, I don’t know). It may have been that Mayer had not been invited back to teach for a long interval when I arrived—that’s my memory and the archive backs it up.
After I left Boulder for the summer to go back home, I saw her once more that year, up at her house with Phil Good, my then-boyfriend driving me in his ancient Thunderbird from the city upstate where we drank red wine late into the night until finally, somehow, we got to bed, sleeping in a nest of blankets in the office downstairs. The following summer, she didn’t go back to Naropa but I did, transcribing an old handwritten manuscript of hers “The Ethics of Sleep,” and typesetting it for publication. It was also then that my first book (and only book in that genre—I don’t write poetry anymore and haven’t for a decade) went under contract. They told me to hustle up some blurbs. I turned to Bernadette and handed off her contact to my publisher. I guess I didn’t see her comments in advance because I remember unwrapping my books at 18, and there was Bernadette on the back: “Listen: this is how you begin to write poetry. The author bribed me with a raspberry pie!”
MY MOTHER WROTE ME THE OTHER DAY, “all my teachers are dead.” I feel too young to know the feeling but it’s one I share. I’ve thought to myself, well if only I could call up Kevin, or ask Akilah—they would remember that story, whether it was true, not that they would have neccesarily agreed with one another or anyone else. Perhaps it’s for the best that whatever couldn’t be corroborated with an archive or citation is leftover, for Mayer always cautioned that it could “kill friendship if I told all.”
The mythological friendship among of the New York School, of which I was momentarily the fourth or perhaps even fifth generation, is one Mayer helped invent. As poet and critic Juliana Spahr argues, Mayer’s work opened up the subject of poetry so that friendship, as much as romantic love or sex, might be central to its content. Both a subject and object of art, and vulnerable to it, friendship traipsed on and off the page. Friendship as solidarity was (and is) a form of poetic work itself, and like a poem, that solidarity also sometimes fell apart. And yet the fact of it, off the page and in her structures, was omnipresent (“He who worries or she who dares / To die practically without mentioning / Again our idiotic utopian friendships”). Relationships formed through poetry community can remain what they always were in their golden hour on the page that we reread and therefore recall. Out of time but full of it, the invention remains where friendship fled or faded. Whereas other scenes are dead to recall, Bernadette’s New York—and that of her contemporaries—continues to muster in all people living and dead, known and unknown to me, in the Village, in Kansas City, in Boulder, in the Bay Area, in Berlin. But only because Mayer (and others, many also gone) made these lasting architectures. How we might go on was one of the last questions Bernadette posed in her final book: “but how will we, still alive, socialize / in the winter?”
There will be a New Year’s Day reading at the Project. Earlier this month it was below freezing when Eileen Myles gathered a staggering number of younger poets to hear them and others read. Alice Notley is probably in Paris, poeming or with her kids in New York. And it will be summer again, too, and Anne Waldman, I assume, will be center stage at Naropa. And I hope, more than I hope anything else, that Phil Good has friends to gather with this July 4 in Poetry State Forest, to drink red wine and take prompts from the past or the beyond.
Be strong Bernadette.Your support matters…
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