Photo by @RussellBennetts, retweeted by @alice_notley, 21 March 2018
Trying to write critically about the poetry of Alice Notley feels weird and uncomfortable, and probably it ought to. ‘Poetry should feel hugely uncomfortable in the academy’, she once told an interviewer; an academic approach that in return felt blithely at ease around her poetry might only make things more awkward. And what would that approach even look like? Notley’s work, which now amounts to some forty books and pamphlets from the last five decades, leaves the reader with a range of options—confusion, scepticism, love, impatience, awe—but somehow measured analysis ends up looking unsolicited, either pedantic or presumptuous, as if taking it too seriously or not seriously enough. The reader who gets comfortable, who starts to formulate clever theories, soon gets put in their place:
Do you know what it’s like to be transparent?
I’m not particularly interested in anything
but say the first thing that comes to mind.
You of course aren’t here, you’re where you are.
This comes from Notley’s 2016 collection Certain Magical Acts, in the midst of a poem called ‘If the Real is So Real Why Isn’t It’. But this type of gesture comes up again and again in Notley’s more recent work. Partly it’s a shrug, or a waving away of the wrong kind of attention. If the words on the page really are ‘the first thing that comes to mind’—and interviews confirm that Notley’s late style, with its vast, spiralling forms, is indeed coming closer in some ways to a kind of automatic writing—then how does the conscientious critic keep up? And why bother, when the emperor herself insists she has no clothes: ‘Do you know what it’s like to be transparent?’ The tone is half imperious, half absent-minded; or perhaps it’s the reader whose mind is elsewhere. ‘You of course aren’t here, you’re where you are’, could be as much as to say, keep your distance. You had to be there; don’t get any ideas. (Don’t organise any symposia?)
Of course, this reticence or resistance in Notley’s poetry has a history. Maggie Nelson, in a chapter of her book Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (which probably still represents the best single introduction to Notley’s work), looks back to an older critic and an older poet to make an important argument about Notley’s standing towards her readership: ‘Marjorie Perloff’s point about O’Hara’, Nelson writes, ‘was that he refused to care [if readers were paying attention] “because he knew, all along, that we would indeed be looking”. Notley has never felt such assurances.’ For the first thirty years of Notley’s career, that is, critical attention was something that happened to other people: established poets; the first New York School generation; men. Nelson’s book came out in 2007. Since then, Notley’s reputation has only grown, and Nelson was already wondering, given the start of her recognition in the nineties, about ‘how Notley wields this well-earned attention’. What has followed since then has certainly been no victory lap. Nor has Notley’s writing moved towards the confident coyness that Perloff saw in Frank O’Hara’s. But perhaps a certain assurance in the attention she now wields, as Nelson puts it, has left its trace all the same.
The point is that with Notley’s growing fame, the idea of the reader’s attention as a reliable quantity that is there to be stretched, distracted, redirected or ignored has seemed more and more like an active condition of the imagination behind her poems. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Reason and Other Women, published in 2010. A long sequence written mostly in unpunctuated and ungrammatical prose, the collection is purports to be based on ‘Byzantine art, […] Christine de Pizan’s La Cité des Dames, […] dreams, intentions, structural maps, and schemes of color symbolism and numbers’. Vague images, phrases and at times jumbled letters stutter in and out of uncertain, interminable order. An extract doesn’t really give any idea what it’s like:
fangs at will near the best western in airport city where is emerald city, we are filthy industrial cars and oval busstops at night i’m looking for a. i’m looking for my. i’m looking. looking a out, doe, to find the forms maybe, find some saints to talk to. in airport city, where’s my dad […]
‘If you read this book slowly, no more than ten or twelve pages at a time, if you read those pages word by word’, Notley writes in the preface, ‘your consciousness can shift’. It’s a tantalising offer, but also a huge, almost impossible demand to make on the reader’s faith—structured, not coincidentally, as a demand on their time. For a writer who claims to play fast and loose, to ‘say the first thing that comes to mind’ (and who genuinely sometimes writes like that might be case), what does it mean to ask for such a slow, determined, steadfast devotion from her readers?
I’m currently in the second year of a PhD that started, in part, from Notley’s poetry (now tangled up with other things), but I don’t know what I think about that question. What I do know is that whatever the demands and impositions made by the poetry she is writing today, those demands are met, unfailingly and demonstratively, by a growing readership that has less to do with criticism than with a kind of passionate, exceptionalist fandom that few writers can inspire. ‘I’ve always said don’t follow me’, Notley writes in a recent poem in the magazine Datableed; ‘now I frankly think that you should’. The idea of following a poet, of what you take literally and what you don’t, starts to get complicated. But in any case, Notley’s followers and fans include the British poet Denise Riley, who hailed Certain Magical Acts in the Times Literary Supplement as ‘unsurpassed in her long output […] Scrupulous as a modern Dante, proudly generous as Whitman’. Countless readers proudly pass around Notley’s lines, and photos like the one at the top of this article, on Tumblr and Twitter. A huge wealth of interviews, reviews and reflections is available online: the Notley ‘constellation’ curated by Carol Watts and Edmund Hardy on Intercapillary Space is the place to start. Now, with inexorable momentum but perhaps just a hint of reluctance as well, these are starting to cross over into journal articles and book chapters, and in 2014, the Bay Area Public School in California was responsible for the first academic conference on to her work, ‘Alette in Oakland’.
The keynote from the event, an electrifying tribute given by Notley’s friend and onetime pupil Eileen Myles, can be watched on YouTube. But even for Myles, that critical discomfort, that sense of not quite being able to either get the measure of or measure up to Notley’s achievement, is still there. ‘Like every good idea I’ve had in the specific months I’ve spent reading this book’, she says at one point near the opening, ‘it got limp rather than exciting while the performance of reading Grave of Light [Notley’s 2005 selected poems] rode on’. So Myles instead performs being baffled, unsure of where to start, her critical faculties tongue-tied before the force of her response to the poems—a response which itself she calls a ‘performance’. Is it possible that’s where the true value is, in these performative loops and flairs of love and shock? Typically, I’m asking the wrong question. ‘Critics create value’, Notley says. ‘We don’t need any value, we need poetry.’
Conrad Steel is a second-year PhD student at Cambridge, researching
Apollinaire, F.S. Flint, Allen Ginsberg and Alice Notley, among others.