Here in the Northern Hemisphere, Wednesday December 21st, it’s the Winter Solstice, Midwinter Day. We celebrate today with a spotlight on Bernadette Mayer‘s remarkable book-length poem, Midwinter Day
Written on December 22, 1978 at 100 Main Street, in Lennox, Massachusetts. “Midwinter Day,“ is, as Alice Notley has noted, “an epic poem about a daily routine”. In six parts, the poem takes us from awakening and emerging from dreams through the whole day – morning, afternoon, evening, night – to dreams again – “…a plain introduction to modes of love and reason”
October 2019, at Harvard, interviewed by Fanny Howe
BM: Midwinter Day.. it’s kind of.. I got inspired by the Antarctic explorers who would have big suppers on Midwinter Day because it was the day that the sun turned around and, you know, be the beginning of light coming back and into our lives. So now it’s become for a lot of people, I think, a replacement for Christmas. So they don’t celebrate Christmas, you just have a gala reading of Midwinter Day, it’s so great. I love it, I never realized that it would be popular in that particular way.
FH: Did you write it all in one 24-hour period?
BM: Yeah, I did. And yeah – a little.. I did a little rehearsal beforehand, because I wanted to get good at remembering my dreams. So I spent two weeks remembering dreams and I got really good at it. And then.. and then I did things like I knew I was going to buy that day’s newspaper. So I have a list of all the articles in the newspaper. So these are the tricks of epic-writing, right? You make a lot of lists. I listed all the women poets who have children! – Yeah, it was fun to write. I used to have a tape-recorder. I wrote it at this apartment, I was living in Lenox Massachusetts, and it had extensive closets and I used to have the tape-recorder in one of the closets so that I could speak into it without the kids, you know, being distracted, you know, and asking me what I was doing and stuff. So it was fun .
FH: Oh its such a great, great piece of work.
The complete interview/conversation and a reading can be found here, one of a number of Harvard’s remarkable Oral History Initiatives (part of the Woodberry Poetry Room Vocarium)
Stacy Szymaszek interviewed Bernadette at Poets House in New York, March 2019 – on the long poem and daily writing. The full text of that conversation (scroll down) can be read here
Andrew Epstein, 2018, writing on the 40th anniversary of Midwinter Day
“Mayer casts off the strictures of poetic convention as too limiting to capture the variety and complexity of daily life. Smashing the confines of the short lyric poem, Midwinter Day features a dizzying variety of forms, moving from disjunctive free verse, to strangely antiquated rhymed quatrains, to long-lined stanzas, to rambling prose paragraphs, and back again to poetry—with different sections of the poem (and of the day) corresponding to different poetic modes. The formal variety, fragmentation, and overall sense of flux and flow aim to convey the rhythm, the feel, the distinctive temporality of daily life with small children…
“By insisting on the interconnection between the mother-figure and wider public spheres of politics and capitalism, Midwinter Day refuses to abide by expectations about “women’s poetry” or the poetry of motherhood. Mayer consciously attempts to welcome everything into her long poem, to broaden the scope of the poem far beyond the confines of family, marriage, and “love” (conventionally understood), beyond the nursery or kitchen, to include the whole world.’
As Megan Burns notes in her extensive 2010 Jacket Magazine essay on the book:
“A long held tradition on Midwinter’s Day was to let the hearth fire burn all night, literally keeping a light alive through the longest night of winter as a source of both heat and a symbol of inspiration to come out the other side of the long night closer to spring and rebirth. It is fitting that a poem about surviving death and the intimacy of the family would be centered around this particular day that traditionally has focused on both. The hearth is the center of the home where the family gathers, where the food is cooked and where warmth is provided. Metaphorically, the poem Midwinter Day stands in for the hearth gathering the family into its folds, detailing the preparation of food and sleep and taking care of the family’s memories and dreams.”
Here’s Bernadette reading as part of the Poetry Project, 2008, 30th anniversary reading (continuing here) – (She reads the first seven pages, Peggy De Coursey reads the next ten pages, and Barbara Eppler finishes the first section. Part 2 is not read because it is in prose but Bernadette reads a brief description of it. For Part 3, Lewis Warsh reads seven pages and then Marie Warsh reads seven pages – Part 4 is likewise not read but briefly described – For Part 5 Brenda Coultas reads the opening seven pages and Philip Good concludes that section – For Part 6 Jamie Jones reads the first seven pages and Lee Anne Brown reads the next seven pages. Bernadette finishes the reading).
Here’s a vintage reading of Bernadette reading (from part 4 of) the poem at the Ear Inn, New York City in the Spring of 1979, (not long after the poem’s completion)
Another early reading (from Part 1 (but the quality of the recording, I’m afraid, leaves something to be desired)
Another Midwinter Day group reading – here
& Becca Klaver presents the Midwinter Constellation – here
2022 Midwinter Day marathon
****2023 Midwinter Day Reading
Happy Winter Solstice everyone!
Bernadette Mayer 1945-2022. (see also here, here, here, here and here)