Coming After: Essays on Poetry

Alice Notley

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.

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Coming After: Essays on Poetry

Alice Notley

University of Michigan Press

March 2005

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

There’s an interesting moment in the essay “American Poetic Music at the Moment,” one of several topical essays that comprise the latter half of Alice Notley’s Coming After: Essays on Poetry. In the context of her larger question of how “a girl can have a line,” Notley makes the following claim about her own poetic development:

It’s just that I knew I wasn’t that, that male-ish tradition as I’d been given it; and I did and do want to find my real voice (sorry, Ron Padgett poem “Voice”) and my real self (sorry, Postmodernism) and make them in some way coincident with my poem.

What’s interesting about this claim appears in the juxtaposition of this reference to Padgett with Notley’s more focused take on this same poem in her essay titled simply “Voice,” in which she quotes the poem in its entirety and speaks of the work thusly:

It may be, as Padgett seems to imply, pretentious and misleading for young poets to search for a unique and wonderful literary voice. However, judging by this poem, Padgett has found his own. (…) One can see from this example that such a voice, that speaks so directly and easily, might even as it changed tone or subject or even, almost, style, still point back to Padgett’s mouth. It is exceedingly flexible.

Now compare that to the following quote from “Ron Padgett’s Visual Imagination,” in which Notley examines an aspect of Padgett without reference to a larger theme or foundational inquiry:

In a five-part poem entitled ‘How to Be a Woodpecker,’…Padgett uses the “train of images” form to deal with problems of this his trademark method, as well as such issues as does one want to be a human being among others and like others. In part 1 the poet speaks of a wonderful sleep he once had in Florida (…) The unconscious is beautiful, and one is truly awake there.

The contents of Coming After are nominally divided into two broad categories, one of “Poets” and one of “Topics.” In the first of these, Notley makes extraordinarily attentive and useful observations about her contemporaries, primarily second-generation inheritors of the New York School, Black Mountain and Black Arts movements, such as Joanne Kyger, Kenward Elmslie, Lorenzo Thomas, and the aforementioned Ron Padgett. Her topical categories include voice, music, thinking in (and through) verse and a consistent aesthetic and political concern with women and poetry. Despite this structural division, Notley’s process of thought often follows a three-stage evolution characterized by her comments about Padgett quoted above. While she is more than willing to tackle a theme, and suffers no intimidation on account of breadth or scale, Notley turns very quickly on the possibilities of her own inquiry and displays her greatest acuity in pursuit of poems themselves, and not the concepts, agendas, movements or ideas from which they are sometimes claimed to spring.

Notley herself is well aware of the lure of affiliation with a house or guild of poets and poetics: in her essay on “Thinking and Poetry,” she observes that “the buzz of the dialogues already in progress, the terms and styles, are so seductive it’s tempting to replicate: everybody will like you and what else counts but a group of like-“minded” people, what else does reality consist of except such a group and its enemies?” And such cheaply-bought but dearly expensive affinities offer both a temptation and a challenge to a poet who, in the same essay, states plainly her desire for clarity (“Why should a story or a poem or a thought process have to be honest, and what is clarity? Honest here means true.”) and her desire for what poetry ought to achieve altogether:

I want to discuss how to think honestly in connection with how to write honestly. I want to oppose these two “how’s” to thinking and writing in accordance with received ideas: those that come to you from others, the outside; or your own old ideas, for it’s very difficult to be honest inside yourself; you tend to slide over tough places hurrying, saying, “Of course X is the truth, A, B, and C thinkers took care of that for me,” or “At this point everybody knows …,” or “I know what I think about that, that’s settled.” If that’s how the mind behaves how can there ever be a new poem? I’m convinced that as in reasoning, in writing both poetry and prose there must be a progression in which each unit is clearly rendered (what “clearly” means I’ll deal with presently) and words are clear as they occur. There must be something to hold onto so it might be assessed and even disapproved of by the reader. If a poem primarily creates a world to inhabit, that world should have well-defined contours, or if the contours tend to dissolve the dissolution process should be clear and shapely.

Fortunately, Notley views with legitimate paranoia (and sometimes impatience) the limits of stating a position, either despite or because of her gifts for stating such positions lucidly. In each of her topical essays, she quickly turns upon her own ideological ambitions, and thus challenges not only her own theses but also the very act of thesis making. In her essay on thinking in and through poetry, for instance, she comes to doubt the legitimacy of the standard poetic ego, the “self” who might speak a or even “the truth,” and eventually asserts that the ego with which she is most comfortable “…sits serenely and somewhat numinously behind my personality. behind a sort of window, watching the chaotic and distressing events of the world.” This numinous ego to which Notley refers here reminds me of the praise she has for the state of unconsciousness she discusses in Padgett’s woodpecker poem. For all the force of her deliberately direct statements of desire for and inquiry into the poetry that she continually hopes to write, Notley never succumbs to a belief that the art itself can be thought its way to, which is just another way of pointing out that she stands squarely in defense of poetry in the form of poems, and refuses any thesis that would replace poetry as a means of thought or establishment of voice itself. She can therefore ask if “In the face of what must be said, does it ever matter if one says “I” or not, if one tells a story or not, if one uses certain forms or not?” And then compel us to “Say what must be said.” But she can also honestly report her own writing life “as a struggle—still going on, absolutely—to find a measure or sound that suits me.” By working so diligently through the temptations to resolve such a struggle before its even begun in the verse itself, Notley more than earns her tremendous ability to occupy the mystery of actual poems, a mystery through which she is both a reliable guide and a perpetually, and inspiringly, awestruck participant.

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One Response to “Coming After: Essays on Poetry”

  1. Alexandr Vergelis Says:

    For me, as a poet, it was very interesting!

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