Alice Notley’s Disobedience

The shape-shifting voice that changed American poetry

Tausif Noor

For the American poet Alice Notley, poetry is an act of reconstructing the self by remaining permeable to ways of knowing, writes Tausif Noor. Chris Felver via Getty

Crowded with voices that speak, often simultaneously and with equal vigor, of love and sex, motherhood and its domestic demands, war and ecological crisis and human desperation, Alice Notley’s poetry is driven by a will to “disobe­dience.” In her 1998 essay “The Poetics of Disobedience,” Notley reflects on her decades-long rebellion against any form of truth proposed by others. “I’ve been trying to train myself for thirty or forty years not to believe anything anyone tells me,” she writes.

I discovered I couldn’t go along, with the government or gov­ernments, with radicals and certainly not conservatives or centrists, with radical poetics and certainly not with other poet­ics, with other women’s feminisms, with any fucking thing at all; belonging to any of it was not only an infringement on my liberty but a veil over clear thinking.

It’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against . . . everything.

In a signature move, Notley contradicts herself in the very next sentence, to remind her audience that they “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.” Contradictions have buoyed Notley’s career: across at least forty-eight published volumes of poetry and essays (and one play), she has developed a practice defined as much by what it refuses as by what it takes in, as much by singularity as by the voracious rework­ing of tradition. She rifles through sonnet and song, villanelle and vernacular speech, only to arrive at something quite unlike what these modes have historically been used to communicate. The pas­sive acceptance of received knowledge is anathema to “clear think­ing”; for Notley, poetry is instead an act of reconstructing the self by remaining permeable to ways of knowing that roil beneath the surface of reality. “I don’t want to become the automatic part of me,” she writes in a 1994 essay, in which she answers her own call for ruthless self-examination by looking anew at the poetry she wrote in her youth. “I want the automatic part of me to become me. That is, I trust my conscious self.”

In moving across a lifetime of memories in Notley’s new book, she reveals how funda­mentally loss has shaped her personhood and her poetics.

Her readers have learned to place their trust in that conscious self as well. Since she began publishing in the early 1970s, Notley has proved herself a poet of inexhaustible inner resources. Her latest volume, Being Reflected Upon, a memoir in verse written between 2000 and 2017, arrives on the heels of three others released last year: Telling the Truth as It Comes Up, a selection of essays and talks delivered by Notley from 1991 to 2018; Early Works, edited by Nick Sturm, which assembles Notley’s published and uncollected poetry written between 1969 and 1974; and The Speak Angel Series, a doorstopper epic clocking in at over six hundred pages. Together, these recent publications underscore the poet’s instructive philoso­phy of the self as a set of constantly evolving forms, forms that are unearthed only through the evisceration of convention.

“Notley has never tried to be anything but a poet, and all her ancillary activities have been directed to that end,” reads the author’s note accompanying Being Reflected Upon. At seventy-nine, she has received illustrious prizes from the Poetry Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but she has never acceded to popular pressure, nor to the bureaucratic strictures of the academy. She does not hold a perma­nent teaching position. Though often associated with the “Second Generation” of the New York School, Notley has always insisted that her voice is her own—even as she absorbs and ventriloquizes the voices of others, from her family and friends to long-forgotten women from the ancient past. In her latest volumes, Notley exca­vates moments of personal grief; the voices she channels are those of the dead. But to commune with the dead is, for Notley, a testa­ment to the act of living—the great comforts and pathetic struggles of life, its constant flitting between reality and dreams, conscious desires and subconscious drives, all of which together continually make and unmake the self.

“who would have thought the poem says I’d be / still alive and in Paris, France for the health care,” Notley writes in “That Kind of Poem,” which opens Being Reflected Upon. The melancholic, often wistful collection is bookended by the death of Notley’s second husband, the British poet Douglas Oliver, in 2000 and the end of Notley’s treatment for her breast cancer in 2017. Refusing the standard chronology of memoir, Notley piles events on top of one another, as she writes in the preface, in order to approximate “actual time, one thing all together.” “I tried to let as many people as possible into my mind,” she continues. “I became the one who held things together as they, the things, kept their motions going, being reflected upon me.” The collection is rife with references to atoms and particles; as if inspired by quantum physics, Notley’s poetry takes shape through the energetic forces of perception and remem­brance, fixed by the present vantage of the poet. If for Notley the space of the poem creates a “real Real World” unto itself, external realities nevertheless insist on flooding in, prompting memories of friends long gone, like the poet Lorenzo Thomas, who died in 2005 and in a dream “burst out of his coffin / in Chicago the Diversey St house where we first bonded ’72.”

Death is an old preoccupation of Notley’s, but in moving across a lifetime of memories in her new book, she reveals how funda­mentally loss has shaped her personhood and her poetics. These latest poems are peripatetic, traversing Florida, Amsterdam, Berlin, and the desert of her childhood, to which Notley returned in 2012 for her mother’s funeral. Notley was born in Bisbee, Arizona, in 1945 and raised in Needles, California, in the Mojave Desert. In a recent interview, she described the isolation and strangeness of that environment as motivation for leaving, though it has fueled her own mythography: “Growing up . . . I know I was the only person in town who had it. My own thought process. I had to take care of it, because it was probably precious.” She spent her child­hood taking piano lessons and studying Latin, playing in the des­ert’s gullies, and attending public school with the local indigenous communities. (Notley’s 2011 book Culture of One—the closest the poet has come to the novelistic form—is set in this desert landscape, with its protagonist raised in a dump on the outskirts of town.)

At eighteen, Notley left for New York City to attend Barnard College and soon after graduating in 1967 enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she planned to write short stories. It was there that Notley met the poets Anselm Hollo and Ted Berrigan (her future husband), who along with Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara formed a quartet of influence that Notley has con­sistently cited as crucial to her discovery of her own voice. (The title Being Reflected Upon is borrowed from O’Hara.) Notley and Berrigan began a relationship in her second year, and with his encouragement she committed to studying poetry. Her early verses imitated her predecessors, borrowing from the voices of Berrigan and Edwin Denby, but Notley’s persistent interest in narrative led the poet toward her later epic forms.

After graduating from Iowa in 1970 with a degree in both fic­tion and poetry, she and Berrigan moved frequently for his teach­ing jobs. The next few years were a whirlwind of activity: her first book of poems, 165 Meeting House Lane, named after their home in Long Island, was published by Berrigan’s C Press in 1971; their first son, Anselm, was born in Chicago in 1972, and their second, Edmund, in Wivenhoe, England, in 1974. Notley was writing the entire time. “At first, I was interested in the fact that you could get words out onto a single page and do stuff with them until they turned into a poem,” she told Hannah Zeavin in a recent interview. The poems from this period, collected in Early Works, are impres­sionistic, sensitive, and chatty, collaging together thoughts and conversations drawn from daily life. “The Comfort,” from Notley’s 1973 collection Phoebe Light, reads in full:

I needed a long bus ride up-

town like a new hole oh well

my only comfort the possibility

you’re unhappy, insane etc

Songs for the Unborn Second Baby, written in Wivenhoe while Notley was pregnant with Edmund in the spring of 1974, details the pressures of raising children while coming into one’s own as an artist, including straightforward accounts of her own strug­gles with postpartum depression. (The book would eventually be published in 1979 by Lewis Warsh and Bernadette Mayer’s United Artists press, three years after Notley and her family had returned to the United States and settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.) Inspired by O’Hara’s odes, Notley’s poetry began to assume more inventive forms, sprawling across the page in constellations of frag­ments, some verses arranged in tight columns and others spread apart by empty white space. Notley maintains that these poems, while initially overlooked, set her apart from most of her peers, who had not yet made motherhood the subject of their opuses. The voices of Notley’s children often interject as she contemplates the acts of giving and sustaining life: “the day now it’s him now it’s me again him // what is this with babies anyway? / all this for the pleasure of holding this? Yes Why Don’t know Animal Magic.” Notley wanted to be recognized as an artist separate from her roles as mother and wife, but her plainspoken approach to domestic and reproductive labor has been a core part of her appeal to younger poets and scholars.

Early Works concludes with Notley’s magisterial long poem “Your Dailiness,” written shortly before the birth of Edmund. By Notley’s own account, the poem was a moment of major transi­tion, and she later recalled being “given” it, seeing “every word more or less at once,” and then proceeding, over several intervals, to transcribe it “from its great slab in my mind.” By conjuring her grandfather, the opening lines of “Your Dailiness” begin Notley’s ongoing communion with the dead. Other apparitions enter the poem, including her father’s best friend and an aunt whom she saw “dying wasted down to her / bones, the most pitiable animal,” causing Notley to weep without grieving, to learn to recognize the rhythms and gestures of a buried world. The responsibilities of motherhood —“I just fed the / baby for the third time today, I must do these things / daily”—are not so much displaced as woven into Notley’s haunted visions of Picasso, the poet Paul Blackburn, and a woman poet who speaks to her from within the walls of her home.

The years following would be clouded by a series of deaths: her father’s, in 1975; Berrigan’s, due to prolonged complications from hepatitis, in 1983; her beloved stepdaughter Kate’s, from a car accident, in 1987; and her younger brother, Albert’s, who, having fought in the Vietnam War, suffered from PTSD and battled drug addiction, in 1988. That same year, she married Douglas Oliver, and in 1992, he and Notley moved to Paris, where she has resided ever since, in an apartment on the Rue des Messageries.

how to accommodate such losses, quotidian and sometimes cat­astrophic? By the 1980s, Notley felt that poetry had calcified into delimiting “schools,” whose poetic conventions—the overemphasis on presentness among New York School writers, for instance—felt rudderless, frozen in time. Notley’s “disobedience” is formal as well as social; “radical poetics,” “government or governments,” and “other women’s feminisms” all play a part in occluding the clarity of thought required to apprehend crisis. To counter these limita­tions, Notley turned to Greek epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey, which offered poetic forms for facing the dead. Her particularly gendered approach to epic was also an effort to tap into an earlier, undivided language, anterior to men’s dominance over the world. “White Phosphorus,” written as an elegy to Albert in 1988, takes up the Trojan War as an allegory for patriarchal tyranny and the harm committed in its name. Its title comes from the noxious chemical weapon used by U.S. troops in Vietnam. (It has recently garnered attention for being supplied by the United States to Israel for use in ongoing violence in Palestine and Lebanon.) The poem’s stanzas are compact and its visual imagery dense; each foot of the poem is demarcated by quotation marks indicating pauses for breath:

“we have ever, in all ways” “yielded to them” “by speaking of ” “always

speaking of ” “Kings” “presidents” “the Great Men” “their mistresses”

“Generals” “Communist Kings” “Leaders” “Warriors” “West Point of Greeks”

“West Point of Greeks against” “West Point of Trojans” “Isn’t it more

beautiful, under the Earth?” “Or to be sunlight, not history?”

“Now I can love, & only” “now” “Remove us from history but

not from your air” “History is willfulness” “is” “precious parts”

Drawing on the perspective of the female witness, Notley’s poem excoriates the violence that led to her brother’s demise. “White Phosphorus” also furnishes the form that she would use for her 1996 book-length poem, The Descent of Alette, set in the dark recesses of a subterranean rail system rife with sticky substances and shadowy figures. Modeled on the Sumerian narrative poem The Descent of Inanna, Notley’s book stages a struggle between an original, subsumed female entity, trapped in this underworld, and a patriarchal Tyrant who lives in the upper world. “I thought I had discovered all by myself the concept of the Dead White Male, the Tyrant being one of those who never dies,” Notley wryly reflected in a later essay. The unnamed protagonist of Alette is a raconteur of the unconscious locked in a quest for the original female voice.

Notley’s plainspoken approach to domestic and reproductive labor has been a core part of her appeal to younger poets and scholars.

Voice is a slippery term, perhaps too freely used—often to mean character or persona or to evoke an ineffable quality about a poet’s work that comes through in syntax, rhythm, and phrasing. Across Notley’s oeuvre, voice can index genre or convention or otherwise bound the poem in a particular time and place. The variousness of its functions has made voice the defining characteristic of Notley’s poetry, remarked upon by her peers, by critics and scholars, and by Notley herself. It is both the marker of her idiosyncrasy and the vehicle through which she conjures past, present, and future. It connects Notley to poetic traditions and enables her refusal of those same traditions. In her eponymous essay on the subject, Notley writes that while the voice of her poetry—the I—cannot be equated to Notley the poet, neither can it be separated from the poet. Though it takes on a life of its own, voice emerges from her phys­ical being and therefore bears the residue of its origins. (Notley notes that she once felt her poetic voice as emerging from the side of her forehead, but it later began to spool out of her mouth or pos­sibly her eyes.) The poet and critic Steven Zultanski, in his com­pelling taxonomy Thirty-Odd Functions of Voice in the Poetry of Alice Notley (2020), names this very inseparability of voice from the poet herself as Notley’s “humanistic” aspect.

Notley’s humanistic and epic strands are woven together in the 2023 volume The Speak Angel Series. The sprawling work is mod­eled explicitly on The Descent of Alette in its mediation among death, history, and contemporary life as well as in its form: taut, con­densed stanzas constructed from short metrical feet—though here presented without quotation marks. Written between 2013 and 2015, The Speak Angel Series begins with the death of Notley’s mother in 2012—a “point zero, where the current description, on earth, of the cosmos, ceases to exist”—and across six books swells with collaged dreams and detours. With this latest epic, Notley positions herself as the leader of the dead, a medium who is attuned to their voices and can channel their messages to her living audiences.

In its attempts to blend contemporaneity and epic history, The Speak Angel Series roams widely across disparate cultural and polit­ical contexts. With her vast scope of reference, Notley sometimes risks equating distinct forms of violence, making death a trope rather than a subject riven with its own histories and particulari­ties. For example, Michael Brown, a young Black man murdered by police in Ferguson in 2014, appears incongruously as a motif along­side imagery of Notley’s own crucifixion and the book’s many med­itations on the unconscious. Though we do not have to accept them, misfires such as this are perhaps inevitable for a voice as search­ing and confident as Notley’s. The Speak Angel Series is the grand­est expression of her protean ethos—or, to paraphrase Édouard Glissant, her consent not to be a single being—and the clearest indi­cation of how that ethos can lead to self-abnegation. In Notley’s poetry, abnegation is only one part of the cyclical emergence of the self, which constantly accrues new shapes through infinite sources, infinite voices, and not necessarily for better or worse.

Notley’s modulations of voice establish a continuity between her autonomy—her disobedience—and the many others who have shaped it, between Notley the poet and Notley as a keeper of poetic tradition. In Being Reflected Upon, this continuity is most evident in the many plangent poems studded with proper names. “The Fortune Teller,” for example, was written in memory of San Francisco poet Joanne Kyger, with whom Notley and Berrigan spent time during their short stint in the tiny seaside town of Bolinas, California, in 1971. A loose confederation of poets had gathered there in the late 1960s, among them Robert Creeley and Bill Berkson, whose Big Sky Press published Notley’s Phoebe Light in 1973. “She liked surprise birthday parties / what I liked was her voice,” Notley remembers of Kyger, who died in 2017. “She had such / brilliance and one wanted her to write like one / she would always follow her voice.”

In Notley’s poetry, abnegation is only one part of the cyclical emergence of the self.

In order to speak for the dead, Notley first has to listen to them. The coprophagic reminiscences of her life and work in Being Reflected Upon frequently invoke sound. In a hilarious poem about a detested neighbor against whom she repeatedly files noise com­plaints, she writes, “I was born receptive and sound shakes me up / I have a poem in which the universe is like a vocal cord / it must also be an ear infinite reception.” Notley’s singular attunement means that she has an ear for both what is there and what is possi­ble: “do you hear how this is a poem,” she asks the reader in “What Is a Thing,” “different from speaking because the micro-/ tones sound holy even when humorous.” What makes something holy, and how can we hear it? For Notley, poetry’s secular sanctity is its capacity to create and build a universe unto itself, responsive but not beholden to our world and its history. Our present universe’s fealty to prose has left Notley, from birth, “bored ever since.” Like Prometheus bringing poetry to humankind, she attempts to res­cue us from our “destructive lives masses of noise”—though she deflates this heroism at the last minute, “anything to / forget what and maybe I am only a nerve.”

i have been trying to remember who I was / before 1945 year I was born I have given / up on the world of things,” writes Notley in a poem from Being Reflected Upon simply titled “2015,” in which she tires of being both “animal” and voice. “But never born I was always there with all capacity / To communicate the every­where thought.” In November 2023, on a Monday evening in San Francisco, Notley’s devotees gathered to hear that singular voice speak and witness its capacity to create and destroy—to “remake it w/ microtones,” as she titled one of her recent poems. In an eloquent introduction, the poet Trisha Low spoke of how Notley’s work taught her that writing, as “the active partiality of knowing oneself, stridden and vulnerable and disputing,” could be “a better way to live than living.” As Notley began reading from The Speak Angel Series, the room fell silent. Each body leaned slightly forward, toward Notley, as though she were a transmission device tuned to frequencies previously untapped. (The critic Andrea Brady has noted that one of Notley’s early jobs was to transcribe broadcasts for Radio Free Europe.)

Notley’s electric performance seemed to alter the room’s atmo­sphere and change the shape of our own language so that after­ward, we who had witnessed her words could only speak in the tones of the converted: reverent whispers and enthusiastic babbles, all of us enraptured by her voice and the voices she summoned. I, who had never heard Notley read in person, who had never felt the transformative force of her poetry as it emanated from her own animal throat, understood something then about the massiveness of poetry, its vast history and broad present. In order to apprehend that massiveness, we must each continue in the voice we claim as our own. “I’m still looking for something that’s like the beginning,” says Alice Notley, who has all her life only ever been becoming her­self. “It could be the beginning of the universe.”

Correction, June 10, 2024: The print version of this article in the Summer 2024 issue misspelled Trisha Low’s name. She is “Trisha Low,” not “Tricia.”

Tausif Noor is a critic and curator. He is a recipient of a 2023 Grace Dudley Prize for Arts Writing from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, as well as a 2023 Andy Warhol Foundation/Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant for Short Form Writing.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


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