Bernadette Mayer, poet who celebrated the ordinary, dies at 77

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Bernadette Mayer, poet who celebrated the ordinary, dies at 77
A New York writer and artist who found inspiration in the countryside, she used experimental forms to celebrate mundane pleasures.

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Bernadette Mayer, a poet whose unfiltered yet richly layered work starting in the 1960s brought a sense of magic to the rituals of daily life with a stream-of-consciousness approach that pushed the boundaries of poetry, died on Nov. 22 at her home in East Nassau, in upstate New York. She was 77.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, her daughter Marie Warsh said.

Throughout her career, Mayer rejected formalism for the avant-garde. She expanded the parameters of poetry by incorporating other elements into her work, including photography, collage, letters from friends, audio recordings and personal datebooks.

Mayer believed that “poetry didn’t have to be a thing in the middle of a page with a lot of white space around it,” she said in a 2011 interview with poet Adam Fitzgerald published by the Poetry Foundation. “It could be anything: over the page, off the page, anything.”

One of her best-known works was “Memory,” a multimedia project in which she shot a roll of 35-millimeter film every day in July 1971 and recorded her life in journals, then later made six hours of audio recordings of the text, which she presented, along with 1,116 photographs, at the Holly Solomon Gallery in downtown Manhattan in February 1972.

“‘Memory’ syncopates the ebullient and the mundane to approximate the unevenness of life’s passage — that combination of major joys, minor disasters, and moments that float somewhere in between,” Tausif Noor wrote in The Nation when a book version was published by Siglio Press in 2020.

As Mayer put it in an Artforum interview that same year: “July 1971 was a random point in time. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and that was the idea.”

Mayer grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, forged her career in the lofts of present-day SoHo and is often associated with the so-called second-generation New York School of poets, including the likes of Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley and Bill Berkson.

She nevertheless spent decades living a pastoral life in the Berkshires and in upstate New York and felt more attuned to the rhythms of nature than the city, Annabel Lee, a poet and a board member at the Poetry Project, based at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, said in a phone interview.

“The Transcendental writers including Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne were very important to her view of literature,” Lee said. “Observing plant life — things like moss that grow slowly, that change slowly — was very much a part of the way they approached life.”

The title poem of her book “Another Smashed Pinecone” (1998) celebrated the simple pleasures of a walk in the woods with her family, as well as the timeless cycles of life in nature:

We start down the roadanother smashed pinecone!past cock-a-doodle-doo-he’s greedily sleepingthe pines are whispering to kidsice cream cones ice cream cones

For Mayer, the quotidian was an endless source of fascination — and material. Her book-length poem “Midwinter Day” (1982) is a six-part reflection on the rituals, both simple and glorious, of a single day — Dec. 22, 1978 — in the life of a family in Lenox, Massachusetts, including waking from a dream state, taking care of children and strolling the town. The work combined verse, prose, lists, dreams, history and biography:

I write this love as all transitionAs if I’m in instinctual flight,a small lady bugWith only two black dots on its backClimbs like a blind turtle on my penAnd begins to drink ink in the lightof tradition

Notley called it “an epic poem about a daily routine.” To poet John Ashbery, it explored “the richness of life and time as they happen to us in tiny explosions.”

The work reflected the influence of Mayer’s New England literary forebears, who in her teenage years in the city, she said, were “my way of realizing there were other parts of the world besides Brooklyn and Queens.”

Her childhood, in fact, was filled with memories she wished to escape.

Bernadette Francis Catherine Mayer was born on May 12, 1945, in Ridgewood, which is now part of Queens but which in her youth she considered disputed territory. She saw herself a proud Brooklynite, even though “nobody could decide what borough it was in,” she said in the Poetry Foundation interview.

“The side of the street I was born on was Brooklyn, and the other side was Queens,” she added, “and so my address was Bernadette Mayer, 5914 Madison Street, Brooklyn-Queens, New York.”

Home life was not happy. The younger of Theodore and Marie (Stumpf) Mayer’s two daughters, she lived in a house with her maternal grandparents, whom she remembered as stodgy and mean.

“My grandfather used to yell at me for reading at night,” she said in the Poetry Foundation interview. “He would say, ‘Why don’t you read in the daytime when there’s light instead of wasting electricity!’”

Her mother, a secretary, was a staunch Catholic who discouraged her daughters from socializing with anyone from another faith or background.

Her father, who designed cameras for Fairchild Aircraft on Long Island, died of a cerebral hemorrhage when she was 12. Two years later, her mother died of breast cancer. “My relatives were afraid that if they adopted me, they would die too,” she said in 2020.

Her first attempt at higher education — at the College of New Rochelle, a Roman Catholic school in Westchester County — did not go well. The priests and nuns there told her “they would throw me out for wearing sandals and reading Freud,” Mayer told Artforum. She eventually finished college at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, where she took a poetry class with Berkson, who introduced her to prominent poets such as Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.

Even early in her career, Mayer “made decisions in her work that were very brave, very courageous,” poet and photographer Gerard Malanga, who was then associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory, said in a phone interview. “She just did what she did, not really caring about what the style was in those days. I couldn’t pinpoint anybody else that she may have even mimicked.”

Mayer soon joined the scene herself, starting a radically experimental literary magazine called 0 to 9 with artist Vito Acconci, who at the time was married to her sister, Rosemary, an artist.

When the magazine ceased publishing two years later, Mayer began teaching workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where she would serve as director for four years starting in 1980.

Despite her prominent place in the New York poetry scene of the early 1970s, Mayer spent much of the decade living in rural Massachusetts, where she married the poet Lewis Warsh, another New York City expatriate, and had three children. They separated in 1985. Warsh died in 2020.

Mayer published more than 30 books of poetry and prose and was awarded a 2015 Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors. She was also an influential educator and mentor, teaching poetry at New England College in New Hampshire, Naropa University in Colorado, the New School and other colleges, and was a well-known mentor to young poets, running workshops out of her home.

In addition to her daughter Marie, she is survived by her partner of 37 years, Philip Good; two other children, Max and Sophia Warsh; and two grandchildren.

With her embrace of the messiness of everyday life, Mayer “was writing to live, in a sense, and to live with a kind of exalted consciousness,” poet Anne Waldman, a close friend since the 1960s, said in an interview. “It’s as if there’s a kind of constant music going on with her in her everyday life.”

Mayer once put it more bluntly. “The idea of perfection in a poem is pretty stupid,” she said. “Because if nothing else is perfect, why should a poem be perfect?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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