I Didn’t Realize I had Written These: Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets

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Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets is a landmark collection, central to her mammoth oeuvre, whose reverberations continue to be felt in the contemporary generation of poets. Eschewing the epic accounts, full of miniscule detail, that result in texts of massive length—as found in the tremendously successful long poem Midwinter Day or prose of Studying Hunger Journals—Mayer’s volume of Sonnets compresses her considerable verbosity into sparkling gems, each around fourteen lines in length. The result is a pick-up-anywhere-and-go collection of brilliant, deeply generative poetry.

Mayer came of age within the close circles of friendship and publication associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Lower East Side during the late 1960s–70s, despite the heavily male-oriented climate that prevailed at the time. This scene not only informs her writing but crucially shapes the lens through which the majority of her readers have encountered Mayer’s work. Alongside other women poets such as Anne Waldman, Alice Notley, and Hannah Weiner, Mayer served as encouragement to later generations of women poets—such as Eileen Myles—to resist intimidation or unwelcome in their poetry milieu.

Sonnets: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition
by Bernadette Mayer
Hardcover, $30.00
Tender Buttons Press, 2014

Her awareness of a women’s tradition opposed to the male lineage into which she was instructed—having been educated by nuns—isn’t necessarily Mayer’s central concern. It is, nonetheless, a crucial dimension of her work. Mayer often asserts alternatives to the presumptions of her male counterparts, and her ideas have help expand the broader conversation surrounding poetry: questions such as “Who can be a poet?” and “What is a poem?” have been permanently altered by her skepticism.

In this case, compare Mayer’s title, Sonnets, to that of Ted Berrigan’s volume The Sonnets. Unlike her Poetry Project peer, Berrigan, who made grandiose claims about his own volume, Mayer didn’t set out to compose a book of exceptional or groundbreaking greatness. Notice that the patriarchal self-pronouncement of greatness in Berrigan’s “The” is absent from Mayer’s title, Sonnets. In her note to the original edition, she writes, “I didn’t realize I had written these […] I looked through my past poems in the morning and discovered I’d been writing the always somehow peripheral sonnet all along without understanding the forms of brief conclusive thought the poems had been taking so often in 14 lines without me.” Mayer has no impulse to grandstand. This fundamentally delightful, skillful re-dux of the classic form turned out because the writing happened that way. It may not be entirely true, but it is certainly true to the spirit of the work.

From line to line, Mayer relentlessly diverts, corrupts, complicates, and celebrates the various manifestations of her art and life. She forcefully tears down social mores, whether of supposed moral conduct or literary/grammatical acceptance:

            Other than what’s gone on and stupid art
I’ve no even memory of people and their part
In bed I forget all details
The female with the male entails
For whatever that’s worth who cares
He who worries or she who dares
To die practically without mentioning
Again our idiotic utopian friendships

Mayer offers lines rich with playful sonic exuberance—“Publicly dishing out imitative luxuries / To show off poetry’s extreme generosity”—that actualize the immediacy of her wit in lively colloquial inventiveness. In the editor’s note, Tender Buttons publisher (and poet in her own right) Lee Ann Brown describes Mayer’s technique:

Spliced throughout with compositional strategies like collage, reversal, found language (“Mommy the Twilight Zone is on I love you”), uncensored language, and aural/inventive spellings, these poems show what happens if Stein’s “language is a real thing, not an imitation” is true. Words and phrases are rearranged like etymological bricks as in the stanza beginning “Tell like so cause me Bill loves you to not to know.” Is it Bill Berkson or Bill Shakespeare or some other? Both, both. With a musicality born of early study of Greek and Latin prosody, here Bernadette is Catullus-as-a-woman writing personal-political forms on the Lower East Side, sonnets railing against the incommensurate intricacies “of love and landlords.”

Brown learned about the unpublished existence of the manuscript for Sonnets twenty-five years ago, as a student in Mayer’s Poetry Project Workshop. Tender Buttons Press more or less came into being for the occasion, publishing Sonnets along with a dozen or so poetry titles.

This new deluxe anniversary edition of Sonnets includes a fresh introduction by the poet along with facsimile reproductions of several original manuscript pages and the addition of Mayer’s “Skinny Sonnets” from Mayer’s archive at UCSD. The new introduction by Mayer is more or less a prose list of the random and the fascinating—items such as “tender button is a euphemism for the clitoris” and “Langston Hughes made money from poetry.” The new “Skinny Sonnets” march to a similar, complimentary beat to the originals: “Perfect would be art / Of shadow change to / Imitate future or other”.

Since the initial publication of Sonnets arose from Mayer’s writing workshop, and since the majority of the works included were instigated by experiments—and since the book has been used numerous times over the years in workshops by Mayer’s many students and readers—Tender Buttons has also simultaneously published Please Add to This List: Teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets and Experiments as companion to the anniversary edition. This instructive volume contains an early review of Sonnets as well as an assortment of responses by poets and non-poets alike. Contributors run the gamut from editor Katy Bohinc’s mother to celebrated poets like Brenda Coultas and Dodie Bellamy.

The chief delight of Please Add to This List, however, is the previously unpublished version of the extended list of “Experiments”—writing prompts from Mayer’s Poetry Project workshop in that “mysterious year of 1988,” during which Brown became aware of the Sonnets manuscript:

Write a work that attempts to include the names of all the physical contents of the terrestrial world that you know.

Trade poems with others and do not consider them your own.

Consider word & letter as forms—the concretistic distortion of a text, a multiplicity of o’s or e’s, or a pleasing visual arrangement: “the mill pond of chill doubt.”

Set yourself the task of writing in a way you’ve never written before.

Attempt to write in a way that’s never been written before.

Attempt as a writer to win the Nobel Prize in Science by finding out how thought becomes language, or does not.

Find the poems you think are the worst poems ever written, either by your own self or other poets. Study them, then write a bad poem.

The generative nature of Mayer as poet and person is everywhere apparent. Jen Hofer’s contribution to Please Add to This List, “Bernadette Exercises,” usefully instructs readers: “where the word ‘poem’ appears feel free to substitute it with ‘sonnet’ or ‘prose text’ instead. It doesn’t matter what form you write—it just matters that you write!” One thing that’s as true of Sonnets as it is of all Mayer’s books is the focus on realizing the fundamental nature of writing as just writing: the product of this one specific activity.

Any and all classifications—whether it be that these are “poems” or “sonnets”—is at some point invalidated, and it does not matter. Mayer’s not interested in rules; or, rather: she is very interested in breaking them. In “Incandescent War Poem Sonnet,” she writes, “What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that / I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck / To one subject…” She’d rather have the writing move to its own inclination that it shows her something unexpected: “Sex, where’s the couplet? / The concluding modern thought’s a warm winter scarf”.

Mayer doesn’t back down boldly self-defeating statements, belting them out with a glee rare among poets: “Writing poems is really dumb”. She takes such delight in delight, without worrying over appearances. It’s an entirely liberating perspective from which to approach the whole bum poetry biz. Liberation is the order of the day:

It is to think this or that might include all
Or enough to entertain all those who already know
That in this century of private apartments
Though knowledge might be coveted hardly anything
Is shared except penurious poetry, she or he
Who still tends to titles as if all of us
Are reading a new book called THE NEW LIFE.

This is poetry that refuses to conform. It sticks in the maw of those who prefer quietly refined and quite polite verse. Noisy, brash, fearless: Mayer’s poems are jubilant with interruption and non sequitur injective. They express the fervency of life and the playfulness of art, with lasting exuberance. They bear repeated reading.

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About Patrick Dunagan

Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at USF. His latest book is There Are People Who Think That Painter's Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011). Other writings appear (or expected) in 1913, A Journal of Forms, Amerarcana, Greetings, House Organ, Lightning'd Press House Mag, and elsewhere.