(or The Revenge of Lorine Neidecker)
Alice Notley & the Novel Poem
by Pat Nolan
“The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace has passed.” —Simone Weil
It may come as a surprise to some but Alice Notley is a novelist, a poet novelist, narrative poet, if you prefer, whose novel poetry, layered, abstracted, disjunctive, expressionist (like a Joan Mitchell canvas) reinforces the disappearance of the distinction between poetry and prose. Her poetry prose follows an arc of increasing complexity, reliant on hypnagogic landscapes and the language of reverie and dreams.
Notley’s original writing instinct drew her to the narrative, and still does. She is perhaps a writer who would not have considered poetry, so obscure, dull, limited in what it could say in the ways it could say it. Chancing upon the right band of poetry vagabonds in the tradition of the bohemian bonhomie DIY unaffiliated mavericks of AmLit helped. Picture three wise men, (Black Mountain Bob, Red Cats Anselm, and New York City Ted aka Tulsa Ted), crossing the quad at the University of Iowa. “Who are those guys?” Once presented with literature as an extracurricular activity everything kind of falls into place. And it’s nothing like what was taught at Barnard or even in the renowned writing workshop. So some guy she just met (one of the three) left her alone in a room full of poetry books the likes of which she had mostly never seen before.
The rest is history: how “Libby” from Needles, on the edge of the Mohave Desert, on the shores of the Colorado River, south of the Dead Mountains where the giggles of teens hanging around Irene’s Drive-In might be heard, at the beginning (or end) of Route 66, likely wrote herself a full ride to Barnard the working class way, and whose unique talent won acceptance to the Iowa Workshop. Like another acclaimed American poet, Lorine Neidecker, from the wetlands of the Midwest, self-exiled in rusticated obscurity on a river island, Notley is also one of William Carlos Williams’ “pure products of America.” Unlike Neidecker, Alice Notley, from the Western outback where the sun stroked landscape still haunts her memory and her poems, a hope, skip, and a jump from the frying pan of Death Valley to the inferno of New York City, crucible of arts and literature, made the poetry world her own with a vengeance.
Notley as poet returns, in her more current poems and poetry selections, to the shamanistic role of plumbing the depths of the soul, doing a little psyche spelunking, leaving some graffiti on the walls of memory’s cave through incantations of language and the detailing of a journey to a psychological state littered with the shiny sparking objects of consciousness. The individuality of the mental state is inviolable in being exceptional and singular. This seems to be the trend in art in the last century or so, a movement toward the unpredictability and uniqueness of the individual psyche and how it can be represented and responded to as a recognition of a commonality transcending the barriers of insularity as well as a response to the increasing codification of innate inclination.
Her work delimits, restricts, subverts sentimental emotional engagement through the distance implied by its disjunctive technique verifying the intensity of its usage and misdirection to maintain the tension of its intent through unpredictable splinters of language, rough syntax, tenuous agreement, paratactic disorder, colloquially formal, and formally colloquial, no pun intended or unattended amidst the playful ambiguity of appropriated repurposed cultural clutter.
Notley’s rare and raw sensibility inhabits a personal fiction as a poet who may say anything she wants, unfiltered through the mesh of literary propriety. Whose language leads, a discursive survey as a nervy narrative. It is a picture of the mind moving, undulating, oscillating, osculating, skipping and leaping, doing a little dance down previously unexplored corridors, shape shifting, hinting at other dimensions, and then revealing, vulnerable, lithe, facile, always just out of reach.
In the late 60s/early 70s a loose aggregation of disaffected poets, not solely on the East Coast or the Lower East Side, of like inclination, rooted in similar sources of the Don Allen New American Poetry and the New York Poets anthologies, national and regional post-Beat, proto-grunge working class affiliations, and the ubiquity of alternative (underground/mimeo) publications were riffing off each other. The early 20th century French poets were in fashion once again thanks to the translations of John Ashbery and Ron Padgett (among others). Duchamp, the spirit of Dada found new congregants and permissions of the impermissible. As well there was Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath which presented the case for an anything-goes radical experimentation.
It was the cusp of an era, a fleeting moment when a synced association of young, restless, ambitious, independent poets held a unique artistic vision in common. Over time, as always happens, individuals drifted off as their own singularities, beating a path through the literary thicket: some got lost and gave up, some sunk roots and stayed put, some died too young, and others, as Kumasen Abbott used to say, “built their own railroad.” The tenor of the times is too elusive to convey accurately that sense of camaraderie and energy afoot during those scant years before naked ambition, drugs, esthetic differences, indifferences, factionalism, pettiness, disaffection, and happenstance scattered fortunes to the wind.
The spirit of Dada and Surrealism’s collaborative projects of automatic writing and exquisite corpses, cut ups and appropriation were much in vogue then as it undermined (as was its purpose and history) the staid expectations of bourgeois intellectuals. What was taken in stride of being in that milieu: to not only think outside the box, but to eliminate the box altogether. “You want free verse? I’ll give you free verse!”
That sense of camaraderie was also reinforced by reams of mimeographed paper in the guise of poetry books and magazine produced at a fevered pace in basements, backrooms, and the ever present kitchen. The basic ingredients were a case of paper, a ream of cover stock, two quire of stencils, a typewriter, preferably electric, A.B. Dick or Gestetner table top mimeograph machine, adequate beer for those volunteering to collate the pages and staple them together into a twenty page selection of poems as a magazine or book. And whose end product was approximately two hundred copies to be mailed across the country and around the world to contributors, friends, publishers of similar means (who could be counted on to reciprocate), and influential writers who might blurb said accomplishments and call attention to another tireless effort in the cause of cutting edge literature. Handfuls were placed on consignment at neighborhood bookstores (remember them?). The small press little magazine and the network/scene it engendered functioned as a life preserver for many poets/editors/ publishers allowing them to stay afloat in the vast, often choppy seas of relevance (or irrelevance) no matter their talent while providing a sense of connectedness to like minds.
Tom Clark suggested I contact Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley to solicit poems for the first issue of my mimeo poetry magazine, the end (& variations thereof), c. 1971. I got my introduction to Alice Notley’s poetry by typing her poem onto a stencil.
Reading, deciphering, going along for the ride, Alice Notley’s poetry is a visceral experience. Or as Julia Kristeva put it, “Understanding is not possible without implicating the reader as an interpreter who is no longer neutral but is entirely caught up in the attempt to come to some sort of momentary identification with the avant-garde text. . .enact a distance to be able to describe it in one’s own terms to one’s self.”
Notley is not fixed by the past in following where the spirit moves her. Her points of departure are rather mundane and bordering on the conventional, the quotidian, but what ensues is neither conventional nor mundane. Rather than focus on the fractured narrative that might or might not exist, the lyric technique redefines in a fractal restructuring. The text has texture, a shape shifting ambiguity that allows for allegory and universals as abstract expression, the sheer indulgence of the artist self. Her landscapes are littered with language as no turn of phrase will lie unnoticed.
There are surprises when least expected in the bass drone of the texts that rise out of the density of language whose blend contributes to an ineffable sensation of the authentic or that of uncanny exactness. The implacable drone, a subtle oscillation, the inspiration and expiration of breath, breathing.
Notley’s recent books have ceased being selections of poems. They’re self-contained works of poetry with a breadth and depth considered narrative bracketed by covers. The epic removed from its hagiographic setting as a praise song, remade as a reexamination of the process in the practice of the art of poetry, as a documentary from the bicameral studio. The reader must give up the lexical, syntactic, semantic urge to decipher but instead explore the path to its production and the moments of the brilliance that produced it. The epic tradition lives on in Notley’s work. It has always had a strong narrative streak no matter how it was put together. Now her architecture is on a cosmic scale. While most books of poems are program notes of moments when they occurred, Alice Notley’s live within the field of their creation.
The concept poetry book is not new and it facilitates the epic by providing a larger canvas than just the page or a brief succession of pages for nonlyric expression. A continuous nerve movie as Whalen would have it. That idea of poetry is echoed in the work of Anselm Hollo, although a minimalist in comparison to Notley where it is radically exemplified. And if a poem is framed sentience then it is up to the poet/artist to locate within the context of its constraints, be it lyric or narrative—Notley excels at the mind bending lyric—the continuous film of consciousness as appropriated by language inflecting, reflecting, dancing as light.
The internet/digital never-ending page allows the poet more latitude to expand into longer forms resembling song cycles and epics. Not uncommon before the advent of the word processor even though the typewriter did enforce a kind of lyricism limited to a page. Philip Whalen’s Scenes From Life At The Capitol is an example of such a rolling horizontal scroll of moments of consciousness artfully arranged in movements, moods, and intellection. Williams’ Paterson is another such praise song cycle, ambitious in depicting everyman existentially. It is all one poem, as Anselm Hollo insisted, one cosmic language flow, framed by titles reflecting on the multiple aspects of moving through the language of concerns and imagination’s displacement, the Heraclitean stepping in and stepping out of poetry consciousness.
Notley would have been a talented novelist, prose, short story author in a field crowded with posturing males and lipstick ambition, and would always have been considered a woman writer. By choosing poetry she allowed herself a greater freedom in how she approached writing as an art and as a means of conveying the experienced intelligent personality as a subject for her nerve movies with verve and audacity. She has dismantled the assumptions of the prose narrative and rendered it a poetic construct, touching levels of being and allowing the lyrical (the music of language in the mind) to be a vital force in her work. Language and its usage is radically transformed. Rhythmic, lexical, syntactic changes disturb the tranquility of the text continually allowing openings into adjacent possibility as an on-going process captured superficially as writing in an upsurge of transformation and subversion.
Alice Notley’s willfulness both abolishes the world and recreates it in an intensely spectacular fashion.
Facing the title page of Alice Notley’s latest poetry book is the “also by” list, twin columns of twenty poetry titles each, testament to a fucking prodigious creativity unmatched by very few if any of her contemporaries. Bracketed by the sonnets of 186 Meeting House Lane from the early 70s to the more recent harshly lit postapocalyptic anime epic of For The Ride with its Nazcan figures made of words, her achievement is as audaciously original as it is consistently extraordinary.
I was fortunate in the 70s and early 80s to be on various mailing lists and to receive “review” copies from the small presses publishing Alice Notley’s work or from the author herself. Then I found myself on the dark outside with Black Bart and Life Of Crime, and was subsequently excised and blackballed (appropriately so) from many a mailing list. Once Notley became a Penguin Poet, however, access to her work was much easier as it was usually carried by the local library system or could be accessed through interlibrary loan. And used bookstores have on occasion turned up a few gems to add to my collection. Along with a recently acquired used copy of Certain Magical Acts, I can count at least two dozen of Alice’s books ranging over fifty years in my possession as a kind of literary capital. Of those not gifted to me or used bookstore finds are two, Reason and Other Women from Chax Press and Benediction from Letter Machine Editions, I actually broke down and purchased (no one realizes what a cheapskate I am) and that are perfect presentations encompassing the enormity of what Notley is attempting.
The content of all these poetry selections, in particular the early publications, is a vivid reminder of how tuned in Notley was to the experimental edge that characterizes and is indicative of the eschewal of traditional forms or modification of same that was at the core of experimental writing of the late 60/70s. Using methods borrowed from Dada, surrealism, tabloids, and the cinema as well as the antiestablishment attitude of the pacifist free speech counter culture, everyone, just about, was trying out similar routines and approaches to their art. Ed Sanders’ mimeo mag, Fuck You, pretty much summed up the defiance of approach as did, somewhat later in the underground’s evolution, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” itself a tacit public acknowledgement of the struggle against the police state. The poets may not have been out throwing bricks in the street (though likely some were), but they were throwing brickbats at the entrenched conventions of institutional literocracy.
After Berrigan essentially abolished the sonnet, everything else was fair game. O’Hara had allowed for the incidental, as Williams had before him, but with a personal colloquial elan. Cleverness was back thanks to Koch, and Schuyler raised the bar on the ephemerality of the lyric. Ashbery reigned as the enigmatic splice of the obvious. Kerouac and Ginsberg were in the rearview mirror, except for the unfathomable Mexico City Blues always looming in the future. Only an outlier like Whalen from that generation could hold the attention and provide a unique way of proceeding. Olson, Duncan, Spicer choked on their own baroque, imnsho.
An indication of spooky action at a distance is that when these ideas came along, everybody (figuratively) was ready for them, psyched and synced, one might say. Of course there were the precedents in Mallarme, Apollinaire, Jacob, Reverdy, Tzara in terms of technique. As well William Carlos Williams’ emphasis on improvisation. The rest was made up, rules were posited only to be ignored. If you could, after the fact, rationalize what you were doing or attempting to do, and fine, if you were a conceptualist, but the whole purpose was to violate the accepted. There was an anarchist nihilist bent to it that might have been post Beat nostalgia but fortunately was done with a sense of humor that essentially made it a kind of pataphysics.
A similar sardonic humor, devastating, acerbic wit can be found in Notley’s snappy incisive lyrics as well as in the longer Olsonian open field Calderesque word mobiles. And then there is her acute sense of speech, and its emotional tone. There is much to delight in, from proto-Twitterture brain blitzes to the longer freeform improvisations of a pre-Tic-Toc gestural clip.
Personally, I particularly appreciate that she doesn’t foreswear her roots and can comfortably and confidently say “fuck this, fuck that” without sounding like she’s putting it on, an unpretentiousness that places her contra the trend to gentrify wild words. Also, after all this time in Paris, that she code switches into her adopted language and brings to its usage the same ironic twist of her native pronouncements. With her in-your-face flaunts, her authentic swearing and cursing, she is not interested in your pretentious bourgeoise bullshit.
Random thoughts and takes on Notley’s wide ranging oeuvre have littered the pages of my notebooks over the years. Her saving grace, for me, is that she keeps poetry interesting. Thinking about her poetry allows me to have a conversation with myself about her poetry and poetry in general. Much of the material for this appreciation is cobbled together from marginal notes accompanying the reading and contemplation of her work. Many are tied to specific selections.
Songs for the Second Unborn Child. This would be the peak for some, why take it into the stratosphere—an incredible symphony of movements and early indication of the development of the narrative plan. The orchestration of movements, the clash of symbols as the new life is affecting its host, the pinwheel displays of sentient sparks and the utterly commonsensical, the poetic presence that wills it all.
Waltzing Matilda. Notes scribbled on the errata sheet on first reading: “intensity, thoroughness, the blend of diversity. Tireless task of sorting through chaos for order and disordering to achieve blissful chaos. Serious, successful, like a great Russian poetess enduring the proletarian tragedy she sings her heart out, a water glass of vodka, an ashtray full of butts, and one long burning ash on the rim, her purposely unpolished dazzle.”
Meaning is not necessarily the poem’s reason for being. In Doctor Williams’ Heiresses, a paean, a folk mythology, and a scene from The Honeymooners if Ralph (Ted) and Alice were poets and argued about poetry. “To the moon, Alice!” And elsewhere, stumbling across the Kerouac poem she inhabits in a way that approaches voodoo, “Aw shit! She’s channeling Jack!”
In the 80s she continued to tell stories through various artifices, catalogue the incidental, mine the moment of its essence. The line between dream and waking, the hypnagogic—not awake not asleep, the zone, as if you’ve stepped out of your body or your body has stepped into another dimension. She writes what’s there, the sparkling diamonds on the surface of consciousness, catching the light, not how they might be cut or in what setting they would look best, but the raw unadulterated sense of what’s right then and there. She represents the thread that connects the mavericks of AmLit on the map of originality. When Frank O’Hara talked about going on your nerve he was thinking (presciently) about Alice Notley.
The Descent of Alette is an ultimate mindfuck in the genius of its audacity. The quotation mark is an ingrained convention over and above the intent of the text, and by doing so, lifts the poem off the page and returns it to the auditory cortex to lend it its spoken context—its effect is Pollackian, a layered cacophony.
Mysteries of Small Houses. Appropriation and imitation and mind bending syntax of cut ups and random whim, the undercurrent of irreverent humor, flip disregard, mocking acerbic wit that could strip the chrome off a trailer hitch (and I mean that in a nice way).
For the Ride’s oversaturated stark desert light of a post-apocalyptic Mohave that can be found in her other work, quite noticeable here, and as it is also manifested in Benediction, where verse form becomes irrelevant. Through tone and layered glimpses the present consciousness features an allegoric crew in a dystopian landscape exchanging an equally dystopian disjointed dialogue as hastily sketched presences who speak a futuristic disjunctive dialect.
Notley’s readers are a specialized class of esthetic adventurers, like rock climbers or cross country runners, able to exert themselves in a specific concentrated way that will uncover nuances that are not for everyone. Nor is she waiting for anyone to catch up. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, tracking the energy that put all that together, infused with a knowledge that spans eons. As an artist she presents the reader with choices, decisions. But again, maybe it’s not what the poetry reader wants or expects. It is in code and maybe not the code they’re used to. As the reader continues, the task is to decipher the trails, the contrails, rough trails, unmarked trails, steep trails, the entrails (for there is divination), and end trails that lead across a landscape of language, sometimes barren and lit by sodium flares, sometimes confined by tiny spaces made of words, just a few judicious ones parsed to an economy of reuse and repetition. The darkness of her vision is the concentration of her energy, psychic structures enabled by opportunistic appropriations that rise to the challenges of the greater complexity of fractal contours.
Her brilliance allows her the whimsy with which she dissects her speech (poetry) for the purpose of becoming the focal point where all speech converges, a hysteric discourse to position itself within an impregnable transference to dominate, capture, and monopolize everything within the discourse’s ineffableness in the guise of a centralizing consensus, however briefly. In her recent work Notley has capitalized on the infinite circle of being put into question, the chimerical, the endless excavation (strip mining) on the path to self-consciousness. The narrative drive of her earlier poetry selections, couched as lyrics or sequential movements, become more abstracted as time passes.
In the large canvases of her later poems, the somber oversaturated tones and striations, the layers and strata of an all-encompassing consciousness presupposes a deep dive into the psyche as a poetic reverie. In Gaston Bachelard’s words, “Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reveries is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this ‘my non-I’ which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share. For my ‘I-dreamer,’ it’s this ‘my non-I’ which lets me live my secret of being in the world.”
There is a tendency to confuse the persona and the person, the artist and the genderless psyche. The artist you respect, the psyche you wonder how rich is that consciousness, how complex? If you’re looking for meaning, prepare to prospect for it, to enter a topological kingdom unlike you’ve ever encountered unless you are a fan and even then the footing is unpredictable. Don’t expect cleverness or quotable bon mots or pyrotechnics—they are there, subtly, in snatches, in moments when the brume Alice shifts or thins, separates long enough to give a glimpse of genius. Otherwise there is the disruption of the associative train, linguistic assumptions thwarted (derailed) by labyrinthine schemata, truncated notational syntax done with deliberation or “is it more like a chameleon/ trampled and least.” Joyce, Beckett, even Stein, are obvious models for uncompromising and somewhat difficult works, and Notley is that original.
Alice Notley is a novelist raised by poets, a fairy tale of literary life with its share of tragedy to be a small town gal, a Persephone of sorts, taken into the art underworld by the lord of that particular scene, where she meets a couple of snake oil charmers, learns their poetry con, emerges yearly as a prodigiously brilliant stylist and ends up living in exile in Paris as the beacon for the future of American poetry—it could be an HBO special.
Just ask Alice:
“Prosody is really about your own voice, your own physiology, your own vibrations. Prosody’s about how objects and voices vibrate, and how they’re packaged, made compact, but not compact, at the same time—how they spread and become small and then dense.
“Music is the only way you can make a poem make sense. But you fight the music sometimes, because if you give into it, you tend to be giving into somebody else’s sound. I was slightly giving into the Gertrude Stein sound, and it was really bothering me, because I knew that wasn’t the structure of my mind. But in her work she had made a really wonderful structure. . .She’d presented a structure for her mind, and a very plausible structure that stood in for how the mind works. It’s very seductive, and it’s also the sound of California—California and France together, you know, which is me. I had a lot of trouble with that. Then I just kind of gave in finally and let it do it, and the poems became more and more structured. Then I found out more things, which is what happens when you give in to form—things that you would never think to say come out of you, and then you have them, they’ve been brought to light.
“It’s elegance that helps you curse well.
“Well, outer identity is very slippery—no one can keep hold of it right now. Inner identity, I think, is quite graspable, but it’s indescribable because it’s a mystical entity. It’s what the Hindus call self, when they talk about whatever they call their mystical experience—I can’t remember right now—it’s an experience of self. Oh yes, the self is the atman. It is said to be about the size of your thumb, or you should concentrate on it with that image in mind—I think it’s in the chest.
“‘I write for those who don’t read my poems.’ That’s my sense of what I do, that I write for those who don’t read my poems. I’m trying to change their lives, I’m trying to change their minds, I’m trying to change them. I’m trying to give them something that they might not have, or speak for them even. I’m writing for them in that way—to and for. I think they’re with me. It’s a huge job to be a poet. It’s the most essential thing there is. In terms of essence, it’s very essential. Poetry is the species. I would probably emphasize the ‘is.’ All of our perceptual equipment is geared toward seeing us as forms, as compact forms operating on many levels—that’s like a poem. That’s who we are, that’s how we see. That’s what there is, really: there’s poetry. Prose is very, very flat. But we’re not flat. We’re dense and layered.
“I also think long poems do plot and story better than prose does.
“Poetry comes out of all the places where you break. It isn’t romantic to suffer, but you won’t know anything if you don’t.
“But I’m lonely! I write.”
Pat Nolan’s poetry, prose, and translations have been published in numerous magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia. He is the author of a dozen poetry selections including So Much, Selected Poems Vol. II (1990-2010) from Nualláin House, Publishers (2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, 2018). His online poet-centric novel, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusing at odetosunset.com. He is also the founder and editor of The New Black Poetry Society’s blog Parole. Made In The Shade, a limited term poetry document, began posting monthly in January of 2022 and which will end on December 31, 2022 can be viewed at made-in-shade.com. His most recent fiction project is Dime Pulp, A Magazine of Serial Pulp Fiction (tencentfiction.com). Pat lives in the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.