Daily routines, mundane activities, ordinary objects and experiences - those themes do not usually come to mind when a person thinks about literature or poetry. However, as Andrew Epstein demonstrates in his new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (Oxford UP, 2016), modern writers have been intensely interested in rendering and documenting the daily life. Epstein argues that over the past several decades poets have become particularly fascinated with the everyday as subject matter and as a central philosophical and political problem for literature.
"This book came about because I realized that a lot of the poetry I was drawn to was obsessed with exploring everyday experiences that didn't seem to be 'important,' 'beautiful,' or lofty enough for a good deal of earlier literature and art," Epstein says. He adds that some of his favorite literary figures - James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and poets such as William Carlos Williams and Frank O'Hara, for example - focus on daily, overlooked activities like brushing one's teeth or riding the bus, events "that might seem 'boring' or not worthy of art."
Epstein began to question where this preoccupation comes from, and as his own interest in the topics developed, he began researching theory and philosophy as well as political critiques about everyday life.
"I came to the realization that this trend in literature and art has something to do with our culture's increasing anxiety about the effects of modern technology and media on our ability to pay attention in an age of distraction," he says. "I decided to argue that this 'crisis of attention' that we hear a lot about has sparked a hunger for contact with everyday life that you can see in everything from reality TV to, I argue, developments in poetry.
"Few critics had connected this body of theory about everyday life to American poetry yet, which was especially odd since so much of that poetry is profoundly focused with the everyday."
Epstein began mulling over the ideas in Attention Equals Life in the early 2000s and began engaging in extensive reading and research and writing bits and pieces of the book in 2004. He eventually set aside work on the project, however, so he could finish his first book, Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar Poetry, which was published in 2006. Although they are on quite different topics, there are continuities between the two studies. Both books, he says, "focus on important aspects of post-1945 American poetry, the practices and complications of the avant-garde, and the idea of reading poetry as deeply intertwined with the social."
Once he returned to working on Attention Equals Life, the bulk of the writing occurred during a four- to five-year period, mostly during summers, a sabbatical, and research leaves.
"It was definitely a long and difficult process, but also a very rewarding one that I thoroughly enjoyed," he says. "Needless to say, I am thrilled it is now complete, and it's exciting to have the book out in the world now, where it can become part of a conversation about poetry and culture."
Attention Equals Life is an ambitious project, which Epstein says is typical of scholars moving past their first books, when circumstances can allow for a large second project. For Epstein, the scope and nature of this topic meant he needed to immerse himself in some new areas of philosophy and theory, and he began to gather a multitude of examples of "everyday life projects" and experiments, drawn from poetry, fiction, and art, but also from in the culture at-large, in things like television, movies, and YouTube clips. What he found, he says, was that the "crisis of attention" he explores in his book seems to have grown more serious and more pervasive over the past two decades, thanks in part to new technologies and the Internet.
"I felt like other scholars had not yet really tackled developments in recent poetry of the everday, and I thought it would be a fun and interesting challenge to work on material that was very recent and current," he says.
For the poets he focuses on in Attention Equals Life, Epstein chose ones who are associated with different movements and different backgrounds to give a fuller sense of the phenomena, although he admits that it was impossible to be comprehensive and he didn't try to be.
"I did try to select poets who might be representative - standing for different aspects or exemplifying different trends and also speaking from a diversity of backgrounds," he says. "This seemed important to me for a whole variety of reasons, but especially because I wanted to use a range of poets in order to illustrate one of the points of the book: there is no single, monolithic 'Everyday' that is universal - although the everyday is something we all hold in common, it is also, paradoxically, marked by difference, shot through with politics and power."
Stephen Fredman, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and author of Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art, praises Epstein's efforts for pulling together so many voices and ideas in his new book.
"Is poetry the most potent remedy for our Age of Distraction?" Fredman writes. "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."
Epstein writes in his introduction to Attention Equals Life that everyday poetry attempts to combat the criticism that is sometimes aimed at poetry for being "elitist and irrelevant." One of Epstein's points in the book is that "poetry isn't just this rarefied abstract thing, or a parlor game for an elite, cut off from real daily life."
"I think the poetry I am talking about - if people are open-minded in approaching it, since it can often be quite unusual and challenging- can be appealing and accessible because it is grounded in, even obsessed with common everyday experiences which we can all relate to," he says.
For example, Epstein writes about Ron Silliman, a poet who is a founding member of an avant-garde movement that emerged in the 1960s called Language Poetry, which Epstein says has often been attacked for producing extremely difficult abstract and obscure writing.
"I wanted to show that although Silliman's work doesn't look like the type of poetry most people are used to, it is actually very accessible and fun - filled with vivid renderings of daily life, concrete particulars we can all relate to, humor, puns, and meditations on the experience of ordinary life," Epstein says. "But I was also suggesting that this kind of poetry, or poetry in general, can be a tool that can sharpen our awareness of everyday life - all that stuff that passes beneath notice because of habit and routine - and that poetry, and literature and art in general, can give us tools and practical steps we can take to channel our attention differently and better."
Epstein says he has always attempted to pitch his own writing to multiple audiences. He writes for both scholarly venues and more general interest magazines and outlets, and since 2013, he has kept a blog called "Locus Solus" which is devoted to American poetry - specifically, the movement known as the New York School of poets - and which he says has given him valuable experience writing for a broader audience. That background helped him during the process of shaping Attention Equals Life.
"In all of my writing, I am always trying to grapple with sophisticated ideas without relying too much on specialized vocabulary - jargon -- which seemed especially important when writing on the topic of poetry and its relationship to the everyday and ordinary," he says.
Now that Epstein has completed Attention Equals Life, he is excited about the prospect of working on his next book, The Cambridge Introduction to American Poetry Since 1945, which will give him the opportunity to offer his own take on his entire field and to introduce recent American poetry to a broader audience.