Bernadette Mayer
By: Franklin Bruno | Categories: HiLo Heroes

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“Work your ass off to change the language & don’t ever get famous.” That’s the last item on a list of “Experiments” BERNADETTE MAYER (born 1945) gave out to her writing classes at the Poetry Project of St. Mark’s Church in the 1980s. It’s also a credo for what’s now a half-century of writing and publishing the margins of official literary culture. Mayer’s book-length poems of the 1970s, including Moving, Memory, and Midwinter Day, attempted to pack everything — the domestic and the political, the past and the present, street-level experience and hypnagogic imaginings — into capacious, self-generating forms that directly contravened the minimalist and anti-representational aesthetics of the time. Her shorter, more discrete poems and sequences are no less iconoclastic. One of 1988’s Sonnets begins “You jerk you didn’t call me up” and ends with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure couplet that irreverently sums up that historically weighted form’s traditional themes: “To make love, turn to page 32./To die, turn to page 110.” A published letter (to the poet Bill Berkson) avows that she’s been “elected” to poetry “like a fucking nun with a ‘vocation’,” and while this calling hasn’t been ascetic, there’s no pretending it’s been easy. Her recent poetry is as frank about periods of illness and near-poverty as she’s always been about sex and parenting. As for not getting famous, that depends on who you ask. Ignored by academic critics (though give them a few decades), Mayer is revered by contemporaries and younger poets, not least as one of the few for whom The Poetry State Forest — the title of a generous 2008 collection — has been a real place.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Tony Hancock, Edward Lear, Philip Gordon Wylie, Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Beuys, George Carlin, Ian Dury, Lorine Niedecker.

READ MORE about members of the Blank Generation (1944-53).

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Franklin Bruno is the author of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (Continuum, 33 1/3 series). His current band is The Human Hearts. Twitter: @humanfranklin.