Any honest introduction of Alice Notley should acknowledge that you can’t quite introduce her. She has written too much, for too long, in too many different ways, and if any principle explains her work, it’s what she calls “disobedience,” a refusal to comply with any movement or style or idea or identity.
It feels impossible to introduce Notley by this account, which is underscored by the poet’s having published some thirty books over forty-five years. Impossible, that is, until you think about that word, “disobedience,” which illuminates her work, as well as the role of a poet generally. It’s a long word, as English goes, and has a long history. It appears in the fourteenth-century English romance Arthur, in the works of Lydgate, Shakespeare, Milton, and Edward Gibbon, and also in Benjamin Jowett’s landmark translation of Plato. It’s a literary word par excellence, yet it’s an everyday one, too; it retains traces of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, though it can denote everything from routine teenage rebelliousness to urgent headlines about Occupy movements and whistle-blowers. The word covers a wide range of serious ethical considerations, and at the same time smacks of mere impudence, willfulness, loss of allegiance. The question to be asked is: Disobedient to whom? A government, a tradition, no doubt; but mainly, those who disobey are questioning interrelations in our society. It is disobedient to assert that wisdom and justice don’t become virtues by the fiat of majorities, or of those who hold power. When Thoreau said that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize,” he implied not only that disobedience opposes complacency and passivity, but that the work of disobedience is never done, that in fact it both precedes and outlives us. In that sense, disobedience is like literature, and poetry especially.
It’s no wonder that Disobedience is the title of one of Notley’s books, as well as the subject of an accompanying essay. In “The Poetics of Disobedience,” Notley describes an impetus to push back “against the pervasive idea that one must not protest what everyone else has named the Actual — how can you fight Reality? — against the psychology of belonging, of aiding and abetting.” This descends from and deepens Wallace Stevens’s argument in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” that the imagination serves as a potent force to push back against reality; for Stevens, as for Notley, “a possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure” of reality as we know it:
The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.
That last sentence helps us further appreciate Notley’s poetry, for her work, which began as a kind of spiraling away from that of the mostly-masculinist New York School poets, is greatly textured by the sounds of our words, and the accretion of descriptions of daily life. Her poems, like Frank O’Hara’s, say, or Kenneth Koch’s, are wonderfully wild with provisional thinking and rethinking. Like a New York School poet, Notley realizes the first person singular “as fully and nakedly as possible, saying ‘I’ in such a way as to make myself really nervous.” The result is poetry that is nimble yet edgy, nervous but assertive. At the same time, her work is fully distinct from that of her male colleagues: in her lines we encounter a feisty “female narrator/hero,” to borrow a phrase from “Homer’s Art,” a prose poem that proposes an alternative to the age-old practice of male poets telling public stories “for men about a male world.”
Notley’s poetry isn’t simple, and if at first you have trouble reading her work, bear in mind that she conceives of herself as disobeying even her own readership. There’s a wonderful comedy in that; and after all, comedy, disobedience, and poetry all require serious vigilance and attentiveness. Ultimately, she demonstrates that disobedience is, like those other things, a pleasure — even an entertainment. Reading Notley is great fun because there’s humor and wryness at every turn: there’s “probably nothing more disobedient,” she says, “than being a comic poet, since no one’s ever sure if that’s good enough.”
I don’t have toBecauseTo be contraryinexplicableIs the light burst thatwill changeus. . . . . .Don’t crywhen you’resupposed toDon’t reactDon’t re-anything Orplay rightDon’tdorightDon’t do Wrong Don’t dorightBreak all the un-written lawsDestroythe song— From Close to Me & Closer ... (The Language of Heaven)
Fighting words, these: “I don’t have to.” If, as she proposes, poets are those who break all the unwritten laws, then she has refreshed and embodied Shelley’s defense of poets as unwritten legislators of the world. Notley’s oeuvre is large, possibly because
It’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against ... everything. One must remain somehow, though how, open to any subject or form in principle, open to the possibility of liking, open to the possibility of using. I try to maintain no continuous restrictions in my poetics except with regard to particular works, since writing at all means making some sort of choices. But no doctrines.
Behind the multiplicity of voices and visions in her writing, there’s a capacious and heartening egalitarianism, much like Walt Whitman’s — perhaps inherited from him, though channeled through a contemporary voice.
I invented a voice for myself when there had scarcely been any female poets, and then a voice for myself as a young mother. I allowed my children’s voices in, and then the voices of all my friends, the people on the street, anyone, really, who hadn’t been in the poem before was welcome, to the extent I could hear them. I knew I couldn’t hear everyone, but I tried.
Could there be anything more Whitmanic, more American, more vitally important to our own time, than to let voices in ... to listen?
In the true American vein, Notley’s work has created and nourished a line of deeply democratic work in poetry and prose that is as extensive as it is uncategorizable. This explains why her work has been fresh year after year in a career spanning four decades. Like Whitman, she is simultaneously one of a kind and a poet for each of us: an exemplary, humane, surprising, and ultimately essential writer.
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...