Alice Notley Essay - Critical Essays


Alice Notley early established herself as a poet able to express with unabashed candor both her disaffection with the larger world and her sensitive appreciation of the microcosm of family life. Her early poem “Dear Dark Continent” (from Phoebe Light) reveals her recognition of how much of herself derived from her family: “I’m wife I’m mother I’m/ myself and him and I’m myself and him and him.” Rather than finding this domestic necessity disagreeable, she seems to accept it as an element in the “whole long universe,” an element that helps lift her out of a solipsistic or narcissistic point of view. In many early poems, Notley’s embrace of the realm of the home and of child rearing is notable. Poems such as “January,” published in How Spring Comes, reflect her interest in capturing the freshness of a child’s perception.

However important this domestic focus in her poetry may be, Notley consistently displays a fully alert and outwardly turned consciousness, at times by expressing a strong sense of disillusioned realism. Showing the influence of models including William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara, as well as such contemporaries as Berrigan, Anselm Hollo, and Anne Waldman, Notley’s poems illuminate the fleeting moment and frame her perceptions of the world in terms of common objects. The bold, often sharply incisive quality in many of her works seems to reflect a secure faith in the value of acting as witness to this daily life. Although a political attitude can be found within the poems, Notley’s elevation of the personal above the political gives them an exploratory immediacy.

Early in her writing career, Notley demonstrated her comfort with writing longer poems. As she moved toward the writing of poem sequences instead of individual, unrelated poems and then toward the composition of book-length narrative poems, Notley was able to unify her previously divergent approaches to poetry through the exploration of a set of images that had deeply personal meaning to her and that she was able to infuse with the quality of myth. The strength of this approach found its most powerful expression in her ambitious and highly imaginative feminist epic, The Descent of Alette.

In her chapbook Homer’s Art, the title work is a short essay on Homer. After arguing that the depictions of women by men are depictions of men, she ponders the possibility that poetry might reclaim the Homeric epic. She contrasts the twentieth century poem that “uses language to generate more language” with the Homeric epic, in which “language hurries to keep up.” It would be a service to poetry, Notley states, to take narrative back from the novel and return it to poetry. “Another service,” she concludes, “would be to write a long poem, a story poem, with a female narrator/hero.”

The Descent of Alette

Notley’s long story poem with a female narrator/hero, The Descent of Alette, may come to be regarded as her most important single work. Certainly it ranks high among the notable achievements of American poetry in the 1990’s. Among its unusual aspects is its mode of presentation. In one way, it is unusually traditional in its presentation of individual poems broken into quatrains. Consistently throughout the book, however, each line is broken down into smaller units by the use of quotation marks, as for example in these opening lines:

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