The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse

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9780231149303: The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse

Wallace Stevens once described the "malady of the quotidian," lamenting the dull weight of everyday regimen. Yet he would later hail "that which is always beginning, over and over"—recognizing, if not celebrating, the possibility of fresh invention.

Focusing on the poems of Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill, Siobhan Phillips positions everyday time as a vital category in modernist aesthetics, American literature, and poetic theory. She eloquently reveals how, through particular but related means, each of these poets converts the necessity of quotidian experience into an aesthetic and experiential opportunity. In Stevens, Phillips analyzes the implications of cyclic dualism. In Frost, she explains the theoretical depth of a habitual "middle way." In Bishop's work, she identifies the attempt to turn recurrent mornings into a "ceremony" rather than a sentence, and in Merrill, she shows how cosmic theories rely on daily habits.

Phillips ultimately demonstrates that a poetics of everyday time contributes not only to a richer understanding of these four writers but also to descriptions of their era, estimations of their genre, and ongoing reconfigurations of the issues that literature reflects and illuminates.

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About the Author:

Siobhan Phillips earned her Ph.D. at Yale University and is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her writing has appeared in PMLA, Prospect, and Hudson Review.

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Excerpt from Introduction: The Poetics of Everyday Time

In an early poem, Wallace Stevens calls it a "malady," a numbing quotidian "routine" of recurrent days. In a late poem, however, Stevens calls it a "health," a rejuvenating "over and over" of renewed mornings ( Collected , 81, 449). This book focuses on the concept of daily time that links Stevens's two phrases; I wish to investigate how and why a poet may transform the frustration of the first description into the fulfillment of the second. To do so, I look at four writers who pay consistent attention to the potential of everyday patterns: like Stevens, Robert Frost strives to make "over and over" a chance as well as a chore ( Collected Poems , 66); Elizabeth Bishop wonders how to turn recurrent mornings into a "ceremony" rather than a sentence ( Complete Poems , 52); James Merrill tries to perceive ordinary living as less like a cyclic degeneration and more like a spiral of ever-"truer" tomorrows ( Collected Poems , 616). Through particular but related means, each of these poets works to convert the necessity of quotidian experience into an aesthetic and experiential opportunity. Through particular but related developments, each of these poets find that daily life can be a vital form as well as a central subject. In their work, ordinary experience both shapes creative practices and directs thematic preoccupations. This book aims to describe their everyday project.

In so doing, I also hope to demonstrate why this poetics may matter not only to an understanding of four writers but also to descriptions of their era, estimations of their genre, and ongoing reconfigurations of the philosophical issues that literature reflects and illuminates. The topic of common living may seem too slight to bear this freight; can it matter so much, one might well ask, how or even if one gets up in the morning? The poetics of everyday time resists such indifference by presenting ordinary life as significant drama: in this writing, quotidian existence cannot be ignored or underestimated. These poems constantly brook the risks in diurnal patterns, and the effacing threat of "sink[ing] under" what is ordinary, as Frost writes, or the accusatory pain of morning's "horrible insistence," as Bishop records, shadows all four writers of this study (Frost, Collected Poems , 242; Bishop, Complete Poems 35). These poets confront such dangers, however, not to dismiss or even to overcome what is ordinary but rather to realize its full promise: the illumination of what Merrill describes as "days brilliantly recurring," what Stevens calls "an inner miracle and sun-sacrament," what Bishop names in one title as a "miracle for breakfast" (Merrill, Collected Poems , 673; Stevens, Collected , 236; Bishop, Complete Poems , 18). In their work, admitting the burden of quotidian banality is one way of discovering the gifts in given conditions. Their poems thus articulate a common good that is neither ignorant nor cynical; they replace the consoling but impossible sanctity of religious faith with the sober but available "sanction," to adapt Stevens's word, of everyday regimen. To use Bishop's phrases, this verse would look on the "untidy activity" of existence and perceive it as "awful but cheerful" ( Complete Poems , 61).

So much is evident in Bishop's "Anaphora," for example, which begins with "each day" and adopts as its subject just that ordinary pattern (Bishop, Complete Poems , 52). The poem's focus is representative, since the writers of everyday time often use the moment of waking as a crucial test of quotidian recurrence. In "Anaphora," a speaker begins in wonder at morning before realizing, by the end of the first stanza, that its pure energy will degenerate into the immanence of "mortal / mortal fatigue." Bishop's poem does not conclude with the repetitions of deathly exhaustion, though; rather, the mirroring shape of a second stanza follows the progression of day to the onset of evening, including the preparations for another sunrise. To accept the debilitations of dailiness is also to claim its regular, even ceremonial renewal: the "fiery event," as Bishop calls it, "of every day in endless / endless assent." This diction insists on the power inherent in the simple fact of one more sun, an energy transfiguring in its fire and elevating in its rise. Bishop's "assent" also shows the exertion behind this quotidian power, presenting matinal beginning as both a singular happening and an assumed pattern. If dawns are necessarily endless, that order makes each one no less of an "event." The "stupendous studies" of each day take up such eventfulness as their special, recurrent charge, transforming inevitable fatigue into an equally inevitable rejuvenation. This, in Bishop's poem, is the heroism implicit in a repetitive life, and it is also, and just as importantly, the heroism implicit in a repetitive poetry. From the title, which compares natural and verbal patterns, to the various returns of words that describe and transform daily recurrence, Bishop's work shows how rhetorical craft mimics and supports an existential effort. Like all the work of an everyday poetics, "Anaphora" perceives ordinary practice as an artistic task.

What, exactly, are the interests and investments of the task? "Anaphora" and other works define the stakes of a quotidian poesis by showing a specific dilemma to be emphasized in ordinary experience: the link between a creative self and the world it inhabits. The question of that connection is central to all postromantic aesthetics, certainly, and vital to all post-Kantian philosophy, but it becomes newly central in the postmetaphysical context of the modernist period -- in the era's accelerating uncertainties about the integrity of the subjective person as well as the coherence of the objective environment. A postmodern culture, with its increased emphasis on contingency and indeterminacy, accentuates the pervasive twentieth-century problem; poststructuralist doubts about ontologies of subject and object seem to have complicated rather than obviated concerns about the rights and relations of any discrete identity. Moreover, the skeptical divide between self and world may be particularly difficult for an American writer of the modernist or postmodernist period, since the literary-philosophical heritage of an American tradition, with its mixture of romanticism and pragmatism, charges aesthetics with the potentially contradictory goals of transcendent selfhood and practical efficacy. In such a context, the poets of this study show, common life can be newly critical, for its patterns repeatedly enact the association of a single mind and a general environment. Daily experience places the personal rounds of habit and routine within the natural returns of sunrise and sunset; it compares the contemplative shuttle of memory and expectation with the calendric cycle of yesterday and tomorrow; it sets an individual's decision to get up in the morning and face one more day next to the world's tendency to turn over in the morning and provide one more dawn. The writers of my analysis exploit such congruence as they discern how ordinary behavior might stage a viable, secular, and democratic response to a dualistic split. In their work, daily practice can maintain effective subjective freedom within an objective necessity, as everyday living mediates the constantly remade relation of two terms rather than demanding the uncertain choice of one or the other.

Daily practice can do so because of the pattern that distinguishes both human schedules and worldly cycles, a pattern of temporal repetition. Structurally and thematically, recurrence pervades the poems that I consider as well as the poetics that I wish more generally to describe. This ordinary rhythm avoids the common temporal extremes of stasis and change: the poetry of this study does not seek the eternity of T. S. Eliot's "still point," that is, or the novelty of Emerson's "original relation," or the "now" of Benjamin's " Jetz tz eit " -- but it does not accept the fluidity of Bergson's evolutionary stream, either, or the flux of experience in William James's later philosophy, or the storm of annihilating progress in Benjamin's historicism (Eliot, Complete , 119; Emerson, Collected Works , 1:7; Benjamin, Illuminations , 261, 257--58). Rather, everyday poetics articulates a timeliness in which each morning offers a fresh start and a familiar emphasis, an established precedent and a novel development. Ordinary experience moves by the recursive advance of three tenses, with each present comparing to a similar but different past and predicting a similar but different future. Such difference-in-sameness defines any instance of discernible repetition, whether it be symbolic or situational. In its daily instantiation, however, the pattern grants ordinary writers a vital possibility. Old-but-new mornings allow the innovation necessary for free will or creative individualism: the sense, always, of something original emerging into being. At the same time, old-but-new mornings provide the consistency necessary for that authority to find purchase: the conviction, always, of how a new conception will take shape. Daily time therefore allows the independent mind an empirically warranted place in the world's process. One might claim as one's own the dawn that actually comes, as in Frost's work, or desire as one's own the day that is actually realized, as in Stevens's; one might see in an impersonal tomorrow the remaking of a personal yesterday, as in Bishop's poetry, or read in the rounds of the calendar the progressive enhancement of the self, as in Merrill's. The iterations of everyday life, in these writers' verse, provide recurrent chances ...

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