One Art


Bernadette Mayer (b. 1945)

I remember I had gotten in trouble in Catholic school for reading “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” And they said, "If you didn't have such good marks, we'd throw you out."

John Ashbery said, speaking of Bernadette Mayer's "Poetry State Forest" (2008): "The richness of life and time as they happen to us in tiny explosions all the time are grasped and held up for us to view in this magnificent work of prose and poetry that teaches us at the end why 'no one knows why / Nothing happens.'"

An avant-garde artist associated with the New York School of poets, Mayer was born on May 12, 1945, in Brooklyn. Her mother, a secretary, was a strict Catholic. Her father was a designer of cameras. "Frankenstein" was the only book the family had. Living with her parents, mother's grandparents and uncle in a claustrophobic home, Mayer soon discovered -- with her sister Rosemary -- the local public library that was a block away. A Greek mythology book showed her that "there were other worlds beside this world that I was stuck in." By the age of 14, Mayer had lost both parents. Attending the College of New Rochelle -- the first Catholic college for women in New York -- she studied Greek and Latin. She had a close relationship with a nun, from whom she learned about Hawthorne. She then became fascinated with Melville, Emerson and Thoreau.

Mayer had to wait until the death of her uncle (her guardian) to leave Catholic college.

She had a stint for two weeks at Barnard College, which she detested. She then immediately applied to the New School for Social Research. There she became a student of Bill Berkson, who was only six years her senior. Berkson told her that she sounded "a little too much like Gertrude Stein." Having never read Stein, Mayer crammed all of her work that she could find. She also read "The Cantos," "The Waste Land," "Paradise Lost" and "Ulysses" on her own during a year off. She received her BA in 1967.

When Mayer was 24, she appeared in "An Anthology of New York Poets," edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro. Mayer was the only woman in the book. From 1972 to 1974, she and conceptual artist Vito Acconci - who was Rosemary's husband -- edited the journal 0 TO 9. ("Vito and I started talking and we realized we wanted to create an environment for our own writing and that none of the magazines that we knew of had it properly down.") With husband Lewis Warsh, she was coeditor of United Artists Press. They published a number of eminent writers, including Robert Creeley, James Schuyler and Alice Notley. Mayer has also taught at her alma mater and The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in New York City.

Mayer won critical praise for the exhibit "Memory," which combined photography and narration. She took 36 pictures a day as color slides during the month of July 1971. When finished, she arranged the 1,116 color snapshots in a gallery on all four walls. An eight-hour tape of notes Mayer kept as a journal during the shooting accompanied this. Mayer is a poet of extraordinary inventiveness. "Midwinter Day," a book-length epic poem, was written during a single day (December 22, 1978). Her forthcoming book, "Helens of Troy," includes photographs of all the Helens in Troy, New York. It turns out that there are 15 (the youngest is 28 and the oldest are in their 80s).

Mayer is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including: "Ethics of Sleep" (2011), "Two Haloed Mourners" (1998), "Proper Name and Other Stories" (1996), "The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters" (1994), "The Bernadette Mayer Reader" (1992), "The Formal Field of Kissing" (1990), "Sonnets" (1989), "The Golden Book of Words" (1978) and "Ceremony Latin" (1964). An archive (spanning 1963-1996) of Mayer's opus, including correspondence, manuscripts, notebooks, audio recordings and photographs, is stored at the UC San Diego Mandeville Special Collections Library.

Today is Valentine's Day, and thus I have selected a fitting piece from Mayer to celebrate the occasion. Mayer likes to apply her sardonic intelligence to themes both emotional and erotic. Her fondness for language and her affectionate use of it in matters of the heart are clearly discernible in this charming poem from "Scarlet Tanager" (2005).


  • The poet's photo appears on the front cover of her 1975 book, "Studying Hunger," the facsimile copy of which is available at
  • Mayer had a stroke in 1994 that affected her right side but luckily not her language. For a while, she couldn't walk and had to use a wheelchair. She remembers saying to Allen Ginsberg, "I am so bored  sitting in this wheelchair ." Ginsberg replied, "Well, this is a good time to meditate."
  • Most of the quotes and biographical information are from "Lives of the Poets: Bernadette Mayer," a 2010 interview by Adam Fitzgerald, accessible at

I saw a great teapot
I wanted to get you this stupendous
100% cotton royal blue and black checked shirt,
There was a red and black striped one too
Then I saw these boots at a place called Chuckles
They laced up to about two inches above your ankles
All leather and in red, black or purple
It was hard to have no money today
I won't even speak about the possible flowers and kinds of lingerie
All linen and silk with not-yet-perfumed laces
Brilliant enough for any of the Graces
Full of luxury, grace notes, prosperousness and charm
But I can only praise you with this poem --
Its being is the same as the meaning of your name