These poems come from Bernadette Mayer’s long-unpublished early book, The Old Style Is Finding out Something about a Whole New Set of Possibilities, which was written mostly from 1966 to 1970, when Mayer was between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five. Unlike the majority of the poems in the book, they were never published in any form until their appearance in Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015), which we coedited. When Mayer began The Old Style, she was a student at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, taking poetry classes from Bill Berkson. She had met or at least seen many of the New York School poets, including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. She was launching the journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, who was married to her older sister, Rosemary, and who had known the orphan Mayer sisters since the late 1950s. The first issue of 0 to 9 was printed in April 1967, not long before Mayer graduated from the New School. During the next two years, she continued to edit 0 to 9 with Acconci and lived with the filmmaker Ed Bowes in the East Village and Soho, according to a series of interviews with Mayer in 2013–2015, as well as the partially fictionalized timelines that Mayer included in Studying Hunger (Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky, 1975) and Studying Hunger Journals (Station Hill, 2011). Mayer said that she discussed both poetry and her own poems by far the most with Acconci, who lived nearby with Rosemary during the 0 to 9 years.
Discussing Acconci’s poetic influence on her work, Mayer said, “Even though I had my differences with Vito Acconci, I really thought that he was correct in the sense that you don’t see poems as this thing that’s surrounded by white space and is a precious object.” One thing that appealed to her in Acconci’s work was “using a source … that was already there.” Partially contrasting her writing to his, she suggested that she was more interested than he was in “thinking about letters and … how words look and sound.” In addition to her relationship with Acconci, Mayer became very close poetically with Hannah Weiner and Clark Coolidge by 1968.
The first poems here, “Auditoriums” and “The General,” come from the initial section of The Old Style and appear to be among the earlier poems in the book, written before the launch of 0 to 9. They are short, like almost all of Mayer’s very early poems, and impersonal, unlike the poems preceding them in Red Book in Three Parts, which was dated “1965–66” on its original copyright page. “Auditoriums” shows an almost obsessive interest in “how words look and sound.” The second stanza of “The General,” a quotation from Leonardo Da Vinci, shows Mayer’s interest in “using a source … that was already there.” The next five poems, beginning with “Split Decision,” come toward the middle of The Old Style, in the section appropriately titled with the letter “A.” Some of her earliest “thinking about letters” is evident in “The Sun’s in my eyes …,” and the interest in “how words look and sound” is strong in the repetitions of “Here’s Gold,” “Day,” and “15 Times.”
After writing these poems, according to a chronological notation on the handwritten contents page reproduced on page 88 of Eating the Colors, Mayer wrote her first long poem, Story, which soon became her first published book, coming out as a special issue of 0 to 9 in 1968. Story is one of Mayer’s most extended uses of sources. She seamlessly weaves together preexisting writing from Native American myths, “a recipe for true sponge cake, a 19th century letter about etiquette, quotes from Edgar Allan Poe,” according to the author’s note in Eating the Colors. Around the same time, Mayer submitted an early version of The Old Style manuscript for the inaugural Frank O’ Hara Prize, which was awarded to Joseph Ceravolo’s Spring in This World of Poor Mutts in 1968.
When Mayer returned to The Old Style manuscript after writing Story, she embarked on a series of longer poems, beginning with “One Thing,” published in 0 to 9 in June 1968. Asked whether writing Story freed her up to write long poems like that, Mayer said, “Yeah. But I was working, at that point in time, in a total vacuum. I had never had any idea that anything I was doing would be interesting to anybody else. I mean, who would it have been interesting to? Certainly none of the poets that I knew.” The next poem here, “Drivers Dividers,” comes among a group of poems “using a source,” notably the encyclopedic poems “One Thing” and “Anthology.” “Drivers Dividers” is visually similar to the poem that immediately precedes it, “Bus Stop,” and similarly built out of signs in the environment, as well as the repeated word “divider” and pairs of letters beginning with “u u” and cycling through the alphabet to “t t.”
Left to right: the covers of Story (1968), Moving (1971), Memory (1976), and Studying Hunger (1976). Photos courtesy Craig Dworkin.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is one of the longer poems in The Old Style. “It was based on this box set that I had of Webern,” Mayer said. Each section begins with the alphabet spread horizontally across the top of the page. “The line begins under the letter that it begins with.” In the poem, Mayer weaves together a number of sources, just as she did in Story, but on a smaller scale and less seamlessly. The most common thread, phrases such as “9 min., 56 sec.,” presumably a track length, highlights the importance of time in Webern, legendary for his brevity. Another common thread is fragmentary descriptions of people on a bus, people getting off the bus, which fulfills the title’s cinematic promise. There’s the suggestion that everything happens in small increments of time, or that all of experience is broken up into small increments. Another strand is “first avenue goes uptown,” “second avenue goes downtown,” etc. — useful knowledge for anyone in New York. Asked if she had an impulse to transmit useful knowledge in poems, Mayer said, “Well, in Moving, there’s a recipe for pound cake. So I mean it’s all over my work … For a person who has a certain amount of knowledge, to impart it is an appropriate thing. So this is my job. I get together all this knowledge and I try to impart it to people. It’s not a complicated issue.”
Some of the other obvious repeated strands are quotes from artists and philosophers such as Donald Judd, Marcel Duchamp, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; descriptions of the weather; a thus-far-unidentified piece of hyperbolic writing; and a couple of factoids about Webern, culminating in the apocalyptic “anyone / going by the name of Anton Webern, / Mittersill, Austria, please stay inside,” which resonates with the great composer’s end, shot to death on his front doorstep by an American soldier in Berlin in 1945.
“Complete Music of Webern (A Movie)” is very similar to the long poem that immediately precedes it in the book, “A Moving Boat Is a Squeezed Boat: 52 Cards,” where each roughly one-page section begins: “Jack explained that the moving boat was squeezed as it floated by the pier,” a line that Mayer in an interview linked to Einstein’s theory of relativity. One of the sources that Mayer uses is lines from her own poems, which helps us date “A Moving Boat …” and suggests that it was written after the companion Webern poem, though, of course, they could have been written simultaneously. Lines appear twice from “Definitions at the Center of the Newspaper June 13, 1969”; and twice from “Family” and once from “untitled,” which were both first published in 0 to 9 in January 1969. In the second section, there’s a line from the companion Webern poem: “7 min., 50 sec.” Some of the other threads are the repeated Jack line, references to Walt Whitman, and quotes from Buckminster Fuller, whom Mayer mentions in Moving.
Among the last poems in The Old Style, “Design What Design Does” appears to be an improvisation loosely exploring repetitions of a series of words: design, devoted, what, why, do, want, spaces, put, has, what, covering, over, rectangle, spaces, done, them, you. “From the point of view of four-dimensional space-time …” and “The Invisible Structure,” and even “Minnesota,” with its outside-the-body travel, continue the scientific vein of “A Moving Boat …”
In October 1969, Mayer moved from New York to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she lived alone in the country until the following May, and worked on the book-length poem Moving, which was published in early 1971. Moving was followed in quick succession by her New York epics Memory, written in 1971–1972, and Studying Hunger Journals, in 1972–1974. Meanwhile, Mayer didn’t succeed at finding a publisher for The Old Style, which was assembled in its final form after she wrote Memory, according to the handwritten contents page. In 1976, she was able to publish less than half of the poems in the first section of Poetry. The majority of the poems were either never published, such as the poems here, or published only in 0 to 9, a collector’s item until Ugly Duckling Presse republished the magazine’s issues in 2006, and they still aren’t very well known.