Oxford University Press
364 Pages; Print, $65.00
Occasionally one runs across a book with an unviable premise which is nonetheless worth the read because of its erudition, the topic it covers and the challenge to readers to disprove its reasoning. Such a book is Attention Equal Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture by Andrew Epstein.
Attention Equals Life analyzes the work of a number of poets from 1960 to the present day who reject traditional forms in favor of a rules-based aesthetic as an attempt to capture the reality of everyday life. Epstein and others call it “everyday project poetry,” which replaces the artificiality of meter and line length with a set of procedures that guide the writing. In all cases, Epstein says the rules help the poet experience the everyday outside the ideological and perceptual constraints of the technologies that tend to mediate experience in the contemporary world. In a real sense, Epstein believes these poems help the poet—and the reader—to pay attention to the everyday.
Some examples: Ron Silliman’s prose poem “Sky” derived from the poet looking up at the sky every day for one year and noting what he saw in one sentence. To create, or perhaps I should write generate, “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” A. R. Ammons put adding machine tape in the typewriter and types for 35 days, much of the time about his everyday life or about the act of writing. The constraint of the tape forced Ammons into writing short lines. James Schuyler pasted together pieces of text from the New York Times Magazine to create “The Times: A Collage.” Bernadette Mayer’s filmed one roll’s worth of narration every day for a month and exhibited the seven hours she generated in a gallery, thus creating at the same time a long poem, a performance piece, an art exhibit, and an archive of daily life. In “The Helens of Troy, New York,” Mayer tracked down every woman named Helen in Troy, New York, then took a photo and wrote a poem about each. To generate “Nursery,” which explores the actions and feelings associated with nursing, the contemporary poet Susan Holbrook wrote one sentence per session of nursing her baby, identifying each sentence by which breast the child suckled, left or right. Another contemporary poet, Kenneth Goldsmith, recorded every word he said for a week, then transcribed it into a poem he called “Soliloquy.”
According to Epstein, a number of characteristics unify these poems of the everyday: 1) The poet generates the poem from a set of constraints involving time and/or space. 2) The poems focus on either urban or domestic daily life. 3) The constraints are a way to express a “real” unmediated by mass media and technology. 4) The poems blur genres. 5) They rely to a certain degree on “found” texts. 6) The poets often use technology to help create the poem. Epstein admits that the use of technology to overcome the distracting and alienating effect of technology seems counterintuitive, but he attempts to resolve this ostensible contradiction by invoking the “theory of everyday” life that developed in the twentieth century, primarily after World War II.
Epstein believes that these rules-bound poetry projects represent an extreme form of a broader concern for everyday life that Epstein sees emerging in post WWII poetry, which he postulates is a reaction to the increased mediation of the everyday through technology and mass media. Epstein connects these project poems and the broader focus on everyday life in contemporary poetry to a number of twentieth century philosophical schools that studied everyday life. For example, the Frankfurt school of Marxists—Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno and others— views everyday life as a form of subjugation to the capitalist “culture” industry. He also mentions a strain of American pragmatic idealism starting with Thoreau (whose Walden  is a kind of literary project) and running through William James...