I don’t know much of the poetry of Alice Notley, but the Sunday New York Times review of her latest volume, In the Pines, piqued my curiosity. Here are a few paragraphs from Joel Brouwer’s lively review:
Over the course of Alice Notley’s long and prolific career — she’s written more than 25 books since 1971 — readers have assigned her any number of identities: native of the American West, Parisian expatriate, feminist, experimentalist, political poet, Language poet, widow of the poets Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver, mother of the poets Anselm and Edmund Berrigan and member of the New York School’s second generation, to name a few. Each of these labels sheds a little light on Notley’s work, but it’s the fact of their sheer number that’s most illuminating: this is a poet who persistently exceeds, or eludes, the sum of her associations.
“I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me,” Notley has written, and anyone coming to her work for the first time would be wise to follow that example, scraping away the barnacles of received wisdom that cling to her poems, and also casting aside any assumptions about where poetry comes from, or what it should sound like, look like and concern itself with. To write vital poems, Notley has said, “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything.” To read such poems requires a similar discipline…
Notley is, in the best sense, a primitive, more interested in conveying raw thought than purveying the aesthetically cooked. The New York School poets of the mid-20th century fronted a puckish anti-literary offhandedness, but this was a bit of an act. They were quite serious in their desire “to put together a tradition to build on,” as John Ashbery described O’Hara’s ambitions. Notley’s ambition is different; she seeks to establish or continue no tradition except one that literally can’t exist — the celebration of the singular thought sung at a particular instant in a unique voice — and it seems she’s getting closer to it all the time. As she writes in this collection:
Who do you serve? Do you serve somebody?
I serve the poem, no one.
It may be that I will be less compelled by her work than by the fierce defiance of her process. But that distinction is not an uncommon one for me. There are visual artists with whom I share a similar “come from” but our final outcomes are miles from each other. But what a hearty lift I get from reading her words–”I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me”–and the transigent wisdom of “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything.” My kind of gal.
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