Nada Gordon

Form's Life: An Exploration of the Works of Bernadette Mayer


An organization is an open system, an entity composed of many independent parts inexorably intertwined with the outside world.

--- Mescon, Albert, Khedouri
Management: Individual and Organization Effectiveness
(Harper & Row, NY) p. 69

Writing is the most ridiculous thing to do. Now you do it out of desire, now not. Who knows what it felt like in other times. To write and write, someone says write a sensible thing, some other a commercial. One is dead like the dead. We write and write thinking it's better than watching t.v. to attack the typewriter with love and anger faster to say all of memory and being, maybe it doesn't exist.

--Bernadette Mayer
0 - 19

Why write? There is no single answer. One writer I know says he writes to leave a trace of his subjectivity. Another says she wants her writing to serve as a critical lever in the world. Another wants to become someone else, and still another wants to discover the mechanisms of his perception and memory, through writing. All of these motivations signal attempts to build bridges from the individual subject to the external world; in some, like "discovering the mechanisms of perception," the primary device might be mimesis, while in others, like "becoming someone else," the primary device might be imagination. But no matter how the motivations differ, they are alike in that they are mediations from person to world (or in some cases, as with certain chance procedures or muse- or prophet-inspired writing, from world to person).

As such, writing (by which term I mean, in this limited context, composition; this could be in materials other than language) is very much a process of negotiation -- not, I would think, the solid object it is perceived as once printed and bound. For no matter how tangible, a book always needs a living mind to activate it. The literary canon grants us a wall of solid objects so mighty and musty we sometimes forget that the works contained therein are records of just such negotiations between real people and real life / historical situations, fixed and removed though these objects seem. Canon-space is, of course, limited -- who knows what works have passed through the alimentary canal of history? -- and so the canon excludes. My (admittedly naive) hope is that one day the canon will be so inclusive that it won't exist as such anymore, so that all verbal messages might be considered objects of literary study -- really, the study of meaning itself. My intention in undertaking this project is to begin to expand the canon by exploring the works of an uncanonized writer -- Bernadette Mayer, whose attitude toward the canon might be best summarized in this statement of hers: "Work your ass off to change the language & don't ever get famous."

Bernadette Mayer is a prolific and innovative writer of whom very few people in the academic community (students and teachers alike) have heard. There are three possible reasons why this should be so: 1) She is a woman. 2) She is alive. 3) The forms in which she has elected to write are dense, colloquial, fluid, difficult, and radically different from what generally makes it into the mainstream literary marketplace. Yet they are not without forebears. Mayer's work, at least in terms of volubility, playfulness, risk, and depth of intention, can be compared to Joyce, Williams, Proust, and, especially, Stein. Why then doesn't her work (and the work of her artistic contemporaries) appear on university reading lists? It's largely a question of distribution. Many students of literature have no concept of the existence -- not to mention the plethora -- of volumes generated by the small presses of this country, while at the same time they delight in reading and discussing the very latest notions in contemporary theory. Contemporary criticism has in fact had a tremendous impact on the work of contemporary non-expository writers, but theorists, like English majors, remain blind (perhaps deliberately) to recent writing.

Some of those who are deliberately blind say that they feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of words in print now in existence, but such a sensation of saturation is really a fact of the culture itself. I believe I state the horribly obvious when I declare that in our time we make history at high speeds. We are trained in modernity to demand the latest model, the latest development, the latest information. But the vanguard is not worthy of attention simply because it's the latest, signifying that it's the endpoint of a specific trend, but because it's most closely linked to a progressive phenomenon of which we are a part: the constantly unfolding present moment, which contains all past moments in its wake.

Among Berkeley graduate students I frequently encountered an attitude I found disturbing: a fear of non-expository writing, especially but not exclusively of the difficult and modern sort. A typical dialogue went as follows: Me: "Do you write?" Sometimes the student would sarcastically reply "Doesn't everybody ..." but more often he or she would say "Oh no ... I couldn't. I used to scribble, but ..." I was reminded of the child who won't sing because someone has told her she's tone-deaf. These students in the throes of writing-paralysis, surrounded as they are with brilliant evidence of literary "bridges," must feel tremendously frustrated to feel they don't have the permission to perform such negotiations with the world. So they become scientists of the unascertainable, and ally themselves with other scientists -- especially experts -- rather than with specimens. The specimen is a slimy excrescence of the sloppy chaotic world that sends out too many messages. It needs to be rationalized into a logical order. The specimen as other generates fear in the scientist ("Language is a virus" -- William Burroughs). I saw many students afraid to face an unfamiliar or non-critical text without the mediation of a critic or a programmatic critical vocabulary. I heard one professor yell "LOOK AT THE TEXT!"

Oddly enough, I came from an opposite environment -- the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University -- which I found equally disturbing for the opposite reason. There the word "theory" acquired a dark, oppressive meaning; one was an "egghead" or an "academic" if one dared to talk or think conceptually about writing. As a result, the writing this institution fostered sometimes suffered from a lack of formal ingenuity and deep content, which come from study and critical reflection. My position is in the limbo between these two attitudes. I refuse both top-heavy theory without an object and a categorical fear-laden rejection of theory altogether. I hope that in the following pages I have managed to travel the road between these two extremes.

My intention for this project is to present a survey of the works of an important but overlooked contemporary experimental woman writer with a significant body of work -- a surprisingly rare bird. Because I've chosen to write a survey, I have not been able to say anything exhaustive about any one work, nor have I sustained one grand thesis throughout. However, I hope I have managed to establish the dominant patterns and concerns in Mayer's work, to align them with the cultural currents of the last fifteen years, and to consider her peers and influences. This wide focus should not be detrimental to the works; because they are so replete with the multivalence of poetry it is reductive to say any one thing about them. I do hope, though, that by furnishing close readings of passages I have given the reader some feel for the texts themselves and ideas on how to move through them, by exploring the relationships of form and syntax to world-view and aesthetic intent. I have quoted from the works a great deal, and have reasons for doing this besides just wanting to fill the vacuum of the pages -- both in order to give the reader a sense of this not readily available work and in order not to do the work the injustice of paraphrase.

Mayer demands from her writing a formal plasticity that matches? mimics? uses? the fluidity of experience. In this she emerges from a tradition of modernist realism whose foremost aim is to capture, in Baudelaire's words, "the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent." Here is an exaggerated, internalized realism -- Proust or Woolf without the scaffolding of fiction, for she focuses on the details of the quotidian. She aestheticizes her own daily life in her writing, but her writing is not diaristic because it is designed to operate in a public sphere, conscious of itself simultaneously as art and as diary: "you better start doing things, like, the diary as book -- 'the lowest form.' Everything's high or low, Germans, everything's perfect."1 In his essay, "The Distribution of Discourse," George Steiner writes about the "fantastically loquacious world of the diary," claiming that "loquacity, copiousness and temporal duration characterize the idiolects of diary writers" -- as they do the writing of Bernadette Mayer. Also, the diary has a history as a "woman's form":

Barred from public expression of political, ideological and psychological conviction or discovery, the intelligent woman in the ancien regime and nineteenth century makes her journal the forum, the training ground of the mind.2

The journal form permits the integration of the process of writing into everyday life, using daily experience as the stuff of the writing, but it also permits the inclusion of otherwise ineffable material, and a way out of a repressive world.


The world into which Bernadette Mayer was born was certainly restrictive. In an unpublished autobiographical work entitled 0 - 19 she describes her early life as "the big no-pleasure in everything":

Impractical I sought to be born and was idiotically raised shy so that even beyond all the time it takes to get to be a grownup human and do something, I couldn't even say anything well past that time, I couldn't speak at all. ... there was no money at all, there were fights about money, there were no fights about love, there was no ostensible love, words are pure spinach. We ate the frozen lima beans when they were cold, watching the Philco T.V. out of the corners of our punished eyes.3

Bernadette Mayer gives the factual elements of her autobiography as follows:

I was born in Ridgewood, a then mostly German place in Brooklyn in 1945 to a mother-secretary & father draft dodger WWII electrician. My older sister, Rosemary, is now a painter & sculptor. A stodgy Environment & bigoted, entirely Catholic, sexist & racist. Eisenhower-ish. My father died when I was 12, mother at my 14, & also uncle obsessive guardian at my 18, also died. Pursued the study of poetry (incl. Catholic school Greek & Latin), pursued rebelliousness, became pregnant, read Emma Goldman's autobiography & the writings of all the great ones incl. Dante & Gertrude Stein. Began to know my contemporaries too -- had both a good & intellectual time. Underwent psychoanalysis (for free). Left a beautiful anarchist lover of 10 years because he wanted no responsibility for children, I chose to have three with another, now living "alone" with them.4

She's also published eleven books [at the time of this writing], each inextricable from the patterns of her life and thought: Story, Moving, Memory, Ceremony Latin 1964, Studying Hunger, Poetry, Eruditio Ex Memoria, The Golden Book of Words, Midwinter Day, Utopia and Mutual Aid. From 1967 to 1969 she co-edited, with the conceptual artist Vito Acconci, a magazine of avant-garde writing entitled 0 - 9. Since then she has also edited (from 1972-74) Unnatural Acts, a magazine of collaborative writing, along with Ed Friedman. From 1978-84 she co-edited, with Lewis Warsh, United Artists magazines and books. She's also had works published in twelve anthologies and countless magazines -- and with this last claim I hardly exaggerate.

The second generation New York School, with whom Mayer is associated, did indeed turn out dozens -- hundreds, maybe -- of mimeographed, 8 1/2" x 11" typescript magazines that are emblematic of their aesthetic. Using the materials and technology at hand, they published their works in an accessible, unpolished format, rejecting what some perceive to be the "preciousness" of small press publishing, and demanding a certain immediacy. The stapled, mimeographed magazine's political statement is to declare that the work it contains is within history, less disposable than a newspaper but not intended to hold itself up as a model for generations. This stance has admittedly made research difficult, as these materials are not available in every public library. Such difficulties are illustrated in a play of Mayer's called "Cave of Metonymy" (whose principal characters are Herman Melville, Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mabel Mercer), in which Mayer has Louis Malle say, "I find it hard to keep up with their magazines coming out so irregularly & so much of who's published where and when depending on mood & fraternity." To which Hawthorne replies: "Yes, but they do write a lot, I mean they produce a lot of good writing, if you can follow them with it."5

The term "second generation New York School" refers to a group of East Coast poets that sprung up in the wake of Frank O'Hara, who died in 1966. O'Hara had found a way to be lyrical within the speed and confusion of modernity by incorporating elements from all levels of culture, all the while maintaining his grace and erudition, which showed even when he tried to be tough:

Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures [although he in fact did]. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don't even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone's chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don't turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."6

O'Hara's grace and immediacy appealed to young urban poets who felt the academy's loftiness and dessication did not coincide with their experience of the world. O'Hara, who didn't "believe in god," granted to art, in Benjaminian fasion, the aura that he couldn't see in theology. His poems, however, are hardly rough diamonds picked up casually from the New York streets; O'Hara's skill in cutting facets is everywhere evident in his works.

Another central figure of the New York School is Ted Berrigan, who died in 1983. His subjectivity and witty inclusiveness are qualities that have been much imitated. This one of his early poems is characteristic not only of Berrigan but also of the generation of poets that would follow him:

Personal Poem #7

       for John Stanton

It is 7:53 Friday morning in the Universe
New York City to be somewhat exact
I'm in my room wife gone working Gallup
fucking in the room below

                           had 17 1/2 milligrams desxyn
Last night 1 Miltown, read Paterson, parts
1 & 2, poems by Wallace Stevens & How Much Longer
Shall I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulchre
(John Ashbery). Made lists of lines to
steal, words to look up (didn't). Had steak & eggs
with Dick while Sandy sweetly slept.

At 6:30 woke Sandy
fucked til 7 now she's late to work & I'm still
high. Guess I'll write to Bernie today
and Tom. And call Tony. And go out at 9 (with Dick)
to steal books to sell, so we can go

The poem opens with what is linguistically the most subjective of statements (underscored, of course, by the title): a specific time and place in the present tense. "It is 7:53 ... I'm in my room," creates a real, unreplaceable speaker located in time and space, quite as the proper names indicate real individuals. One might counterpose to this Stephen Spender thinking "continually of those who were truly great," with a godlike omniscient mind removed from specific earthly conditions. Berrigan's poem, on the other hand, puts us smack in the middle of these conditions, including the tiniest details of the speaker's existence: what the poet ate, what drugs the poet took, what the poet read, etc. Berrigan displays his influences as a gesture of both confession and publicity, and, in a move typical of the New York School, veils his knowledge in a quotidian tone in order to set himself up against the prevailing academics.

An important peer of Mayer's is Clark Coolidge, a solitary writer not really affiliated with any one school. A former jazz drummer and geologist, influenced by Kerouac, he writes both verse and prose with a special emphasis on rhythm and sound quality -- never "divorced from" or "at the expense of" content, but rather creating a kind of meaning music -- more than zaum (transrational language composed of vocables) and less (or more) than explanation. Author of several books, Coolidge dedicated a book of poems, Own Face, to Bernadette Mayer. Even this short verse should serve to give a feeling for his style:

The Icing Up It Turns To

When, meaning where, will the wire go down,
meaning would, beneath the portion of tree,
substitute cracking, effected by the lower
portion, mod, of the sprung cloud, signifying
an uncompleted lace or lack of power.
A lash of wisdom for the bending.

Mayer's works show a similar freedom in regard to diction and rhythm; they also display many of the qualities evident in the works of Berrigan and O'Hara, whose literary presences dominated the city in which she was to create much of her early writing. In her work as in theirs, one finds the tendency to personal statement, the determination not to edit out seemingly "insignificant" details, the move to include the daily world in the writing.

It is important to keep in mind what the writers of the New York School were reacting to and against: the overbearing erudition and political conservatism of Eliot, the manic and fascistic demands of Pound, the squeaky-clean rhymed translations of Wilber, the recommendations of the New Critics that the poem be considered as an object-in-itself, eternal, out of time, divorceable from the conditions of the life in which it was conceived. Mayer, making gestures characteristic of the New York School, brings the text out of the library (in which she did however spend a lot of time) and into the sphere of the quotidian, while at the same time learning from her academic forbears how to manipulate verbal forms. She pulls and distorts form's effects to suit the world and mind in which she lives: her formative years are those of the early 1970s, when the liberatory dream and its resulting chaos / bliss pervaded the minds of young people. As her writing moves in to the 1980s it becomes a bastion of subjectivity in a world in which VCRs help to quell revolutionary sentiment. But more perhaps than Berrigan or O'Hara, Gertrude Stein (about whom both O'Hara and John Ashbery, also a prominent member of the first generation New York School, wrote) played the key role in the formation of Mayer's (and her female contemporaries like Alice Notley, Anne Waldman and Joanne Kyger) approach to writing. Exactly as I as a young writer look for woman writers to serve as models, so also did Mayer, but in the literary landscape of 1972 and the literary landscape of history there was what Mayer might have described as a "dearth of women"9:

When I was younger I couldn't understand how come there were so few women poets. People used to think you were crazy for asking this quesiton. I mean sure, there was Sappho and Barbara Guest and Gertrude Stein and Diane di Prima, and then I learned about H.D. and Laura Riding and Huang O. Recently I came across an examination I wrote in college that said my "culture heroes" were William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Anton Webern. I was embarrassed to read this. All the people I could find to talk to about poetry were men, which might be okay, except that I yearned for the opposite sex.10

1 Bernadette Mayer, Memory (North Atlantic Books, 1975), p. 32.

2 George Steiner, "The Distribution of Discourse," On Difficulty (Oxford, 1978), pp. 86-87.

3 Bernadette Mayer, 0 - 19, typescript, no pagination, private collection of author.

4 Postcard received from Bernadette Mayer, October 1, 1986.

5 Bernadette Mayer, "Cave of Metonymy," Oculist Witnesses, no. 3 (1976), no pagination.

6 Frank O'Hara, "Personism: A Manifesto," The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara, ed. Donald Allen (Random House, 1973), p. xiii.

7 Ted Berrigan, "Personal Poem #7," So Going Around Cities (Blue Wind Press, 1980), p. 78.

8 Clark Coolidge, "The Icing Up It Turns To," Own Face (Angel Hair, 1978), no pagination.

9 Interview with Bernadette Mayer by Ann Rower, December 18, 1984, Bench Press Series on Art (Bench Press, 1985), p. 1. Hereafter referred to in notes as "Rower intvw."

10 Rower intvw., p. 5.

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Eruditio Ex Memoria
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