Alice Notley 101
Over the course of her career, Alice Notley has achieved something astounding: each of her nearly 30 books is different from the last one yet unmistakably hers. For some 45 years, she has striven against the forces that stifle idiosyncrasy. Notley’s work stands as a testament to how difficult it is to be truly individual. Her work is various, spontaneous, and increasingly mythological. She is, to borrow the title from her 2011 collection, a culture of one—a singular voice and the medium of many. Here is a brief introduction to her poetry through some of the poems that appear on the Poetry Foundation website, in chronological order from her earlier books to her more recent work.
“How Spring Comes”
One major joy and challenge of reading Notley’s work is the wild sense of freedom her poems generate: from line to line, word to word, anything can happen. In this emblematic early piece, the text spills across the page. Scenes, tones, and pronouns shift without warning. A semicolon becomes “a semi-precious garnet cluster” for the way it telegraphs these audacious leaps. All these disjunctions allow her work to be so radically personal; for example, this poem is at once a portrait of a mind in motion, a raw depiction of motherhood, a critique of patriarchal sexual politics, and a meditation on the sudden arrival of joy.
With long and limber lines, a clear narrative, and recognizable characters, this sad and sweet poem about Gracie Allen and George Burns demonstrates Notley’s wide range. It’s radio friendly enough for Garrison Keillor to read on The Writer’s Almanac, but it also includes a sly bit of misdirection: the poem’s comic duo are easy stand-ins for Notley and her husband, Ted Berrigan, whose 1964 collection The Sonnets made him a star in the New York poetry scene. Like the Hollywood marriage in this poem, Notley and Berrigan’s creative partnership was loving, mutually enriching, and, as she shows us here, a bit magical.
“The Goddess Who Created This Passing World”
In this short poem from her 1980 book When I Was Alive, Notley describes a female god who creates, instead of light, “lightbulbs & liquefaction,” who teaches us affection for paintings and films and the limitations of words. If this poem demonstrates her abiding interest in metaphysics, it also speaks to the immediate political realities of being a woman writer. From her early days in the male-dominated New York School, Notley’s work has been persistently, fiercely feminist, and this poem’s matter-of-fact mythmaking—the world it describes is ours—presages her later efforts to write women into the Homeric tradition.
“At Night the States”
As in “I the People,” the speaker in this masterpiece questions the relationship between person and nation and between private and public—but this time in the face of great personal loss. The poem is addressed, at least in part, to Berrigan, who died in 1983, and the speaker longs to make sense of a country without him in it. Notley’s struggle for solace and understanding is all the more moving for its contradictions, confusions, and stutters. Instead of ushering us toward received truth or false comfort, her work searches and invites us to look for ourselves.
“I the People”
What does it mean to be one of millions that comprise a nation? How do we make sense of ourselves in relation to huge abstract institutions such as democracy, the state, and marriage? In this midcareer lyric, the poet plays with the idea of citizenship in the everyday, exploring how, as poets and pedestrians, family members and lovers, people always exist somewhere between I and we. Notley’s language is, as ever, mystifying: in lines fluid yet clipped, interior yet discursive, she turns the idea of independence inside out to discover its seams.
Written after the death of her brother, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD, Notley’s searing elegy challenges the Western poetic tradition by drawing attention to its complicity in war making and empire building. It also marks a shift in Notley’s poetics away from the freewheeling chattiness of the New York School and toward something more visionary, historical, and grandly narrative. As in her feminist epic The Descent of Alette, the quotation marks here both interrupt and sustain. They measure out a skittering meter, question language’s capacities in the face of violence, and remind us of its primal connection to bodies living and dead, speaking and silent.
In her essay “The Poetics of Disobedience,” Notley writes, “I've been trying to train myself for thirty or forty years not to believe anything anyone tells me.” In this apocalyptic, darkly funny, and, indeed, gutsy poem from Songs and Stories of the Ghouls (2011), Notley indicts logic itself—the so-called common sense that reduces poetry to gender and experience to the known and erases whole cities in the whirlwind of war. “Cutting as many cords / as you tie to [her],” Notley leads us away from rationality to the forgotten and suppressed that makes up “another part of now.”
That is just the beginning. You can read her biography, an interview with Notley, and more of her poems in the Poetry Foundation archive. Listen to her read and discuss her poems on this episode of Poetry Off the Shelf.
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. He earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.