Coming After: Essays on Poetry
U of Michigan
Thursday, December 15th, 2005
When poets want to pick fights, they write essays.
The essays Alice Notley collects in Coming After look mainly at the works, communities, and belief systems of her close associates (she is the widow of two of her subjects). Like Robert Creeley, whose compact, closely observed prose hers sometimes recalls, she can damn well be a passionate advocate for the writers she admires; she takes it for granted her subjects are far better represented by her taking their writing seriously than if she were simply to distribute superlatives. She writes from Paris as if it were exile, but you have to understand: in the New York she reanimates here, she was something like the queen.
The writers she examines frequently use the continuous present to create a mood of excitement and uncertainty, which more often than not resolves to an exalted or enlightened state. It is not a universally accepted truth that these methods and aims are admirable —- Adam Kirsch has referred to this division of postmodernity as the art of the transcript. Nevertheless, these are the sources of the "living" feeling she values in works such as Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems or certain poems of Ron Padgett’s, and how these writers achieve this feeling is the subject she circles. She often works by negative comparison —- discussing Joanne Kyger’s work, for example, she notes that
If you think about it for a moment you realize her voice is the voice of that "search" or "state": not vatic not academic not showing-off, it is ordinary or actual life finding itself, which shouldn’t be boring and in her poems never is.
From the beginning, Notley’s poems have divided pretty neatly into three categories: the charmingly surly (c.f. her book Disobedience but also much of her breakthrough collection How Spring Comes), self-mythologizing (Mysteries of Small Houses but also Sorrento), and downright spooky (the best known of example of which is the "quotation mark" epic, The Descent of Alette). All along she has been fighting with the roles and forms assigned to women, both in society and in writing, and from time to time she likes to give the roles and forms the impression that they have her on the ropes, the better to come back strong:
Why did I want to write about a woman of action if women don’t act and if I don’t really approve of deeds? I do live and some sort of action in time is entailed in living itself. And I wanted, and still want, flatly, to write an epic—to take back some of what the novel has stolen from poetry and, further, to avenge my sex for having "greatness" stolen from it. This may be ambitious, and even self-aggrandizing, but also it may be necessary. ("The ‘Feminine’ Epic")
The phrasing in that last sentence echoes the close of Notley’s "hit" poem, "The Prophet": "You must never / Stop making jokes. You are not great you are life." Again with the negatives, and also with the intense sense of mission, compulsion, and struggle; thank goodness it’s in the service of what’s beautiful and enduring, or it might get to be too much. But then, these are essays —- tries. Not sermons, articles, or encyclopedia entries, but attempts; attempts at getting everything you know about a given subject in one place, without making an attempt on the life of the subject. Not to describe what’s going on in a given situation, but rather to make a point about that situation.
The job of a poet, when leaving the common of verse to make something of words that can pass in the day world, isn’t description exactly, though competent sparing use of sensual details has been known to lead to the occasional fancy advance. The opportunity other genres present to the poet is the opportunity to bring readers around to a world that is not merely narrative, or rather, about the means one uses to achieve a desirable end, but instead, is experiential — alive to the present moment’s excitements and difficulties, to the actual life around the one writing. The danger is that in doing so you expose that life to disinterested evaluation.
For example, in her heartbreaking continuous present account of meeting, befriending, publishing, and mourning the poet Steve Carey, Notley mentions Jack Kerouac’s "Railroad Earth" twice; the piece has Kerouac’s speed, appreciation for detail, and that flurrying emotional recollection of another person that can be called love. There are terrific phrases and comparisons in the Carey poems she quotes —- "She was white like a sonnet," "I think in lethal duet," "massively same and seeming brief" -— but what comes through here is Carey’s presence and character, which as with the people Kerouac depicts, is genuine but stylized, the representative and product of a time and place. As with Kerouac, you admire the passion and style, and wonder what prompts the recurring feeling of isolation. It’s obvious that Carey’s friendship is worth memorializing; what’s less clear is whether the poetry wouldn’t better be served by a friendly selection of poems. Less clear, that is, until the end of the piece when Notley throws her subject into relief:
If poetry isn’t, as the theory people say, or shouldn’t be about manufacturing a product, then poets such as Steve are the ones who should be given more attention. They aren’t, and not by the theorists. You can’t study him if you can’t easily get his books (products); if he doesn’t hang with a crowd of self-advertisers (theorists) telling you what his works mean and that he’s the only one; if his life is embarrassing or something, if it works according to its own (painful) rules.
She goes on to make the very arguable claim that self-destruction is a necessary by-product of making art, in fact, that "if you’re a poet and you aren’t somewhat ravaged" then "there’s probably something wrong with your poetry." To use some negatives (it’s contagious): No, no, and no. Or let’s hope not. Faust is one of those rare artworks where the sequel is infinitely preferable to the original. As she writes in her more helpful essay on Eileen Myles:
Why are some poets’ poems so much more alive than other poets’ poems? Because the poet/person her/himself is always right there in the lines forever, at the time of the writing — there was no wall between the poet’s inmost self and the poem.
That seems right, especially if no conclusions are drawn from it. And how important it is not to draw too many conclusions — as O’Hara wrote, logic is bad for you.
That said, Coming After is invaluable, the best guide on offer at the moment to the writers associated with the second and third groups of New York School poets. There is no better poetic thinker working than Alice Notley, and it is a pleasure to be recommended to anyone interested in poetry after the hydrogen bomb to think along and argue with this book.
Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor