Alta Essay - Critical Essays

Alta

Introduction

Alta 1942–

Alta is an American poet and editor. Defiantly iconoclastic, she rejects poetic conventions and the traditional mores they reflect. Her poetry deals with everyday matters, and its frankness has been termed challenging and liberating. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

Marge Piercy

[Alta] doesn't say more—or less—than she means. Her poems drop into your mind like stones and set up vibrations. Not angelic or demonic, not grand or overinflated, not studious or posey, what she writes is as human and daily and nourishing as good soup. She has a salty sense of humor. Poems of the kitchen, the bedroom, and the street, and of herself as character caught and speaking.

Marge Piercy, in her foreword to I Am Not a Practicing Angel: Poems by Alta (copyright © The Crossing Press, 1975), Crossing Press, 1975, p. iv.

Suzanne Juhasz

It is only recently that [Alta] has been represented in any national anthologies, a recognition that has come from women. An important fact, because the most common negative response to her poetry is: "It isn't poetry." Who says? People who don't like what she writes—a vicious kind of circle. Don't like it (we are now at an emotional, not an intellectual or theoretical, level) because it is shocking. Why shocking? In its anger (and joy) it does not lie. It isn't true life, it is poetry, but the electric connection between the two kinds of truth is not severed. For some, the poems are too honest….

Honest, these poems lack "decorum," that heretofore primary criterion for women's language. They shock when they speak to men…. They shock more profoundly when they speak to women—not through men, because of men, about men, or for men—but to women directly….

They shock not only because they overturn stereotypical male/female relationships, but because they break down all protective barriers of politeness that isolate one human from another…. (p. 181)

Alta writes of the moments we try to ignore or forget about ourselves and others …, because she is fighting a revolution that is not only for women but for love itself…. Alta is shocking for another reason: she is funny…. There is always a gasp of pain in our laughter for these poems, as there is in Alta's wry wit when she writes them. It is allowable for people in pain to laugh at themselves (it eases the hurt and keeps them from resisting), but they are not supposed to use their humor as a way of fighting back. Alta's wit threatens, because it helps bring pain into full consciousness, which is the first step. (pp. 182-83)

It is the distillation of experience that her words achieve that accounts for [the purity of her lyrics]; it is their engagement with experience at a level of direct feeling that accounts for the terseness…. The compression in [her] poems results in an accompanying expansion, which however takes place in the mind of the reader/listener. I am talking about the impact from these poems, an afterimage or...

(The entire section is 888 words.)

Michael Janson

If there is a traditional "value" that is not subverted in [I Am Not a Practicing Angel], it would be hard to find. The great thing about it is that [Alta's] values, while limited, are hard to dispute. In the first place, Alta is a poet of the body, more explicit than Whitman, but similarly sensual…. Alta's poetic is responsive and notational. It affirms the joys and betrayals of the moment, insists on the dignity of impulse and sensation, and refuses, adamantly, to accept sexual and social limitations imposed by conventional morality (which is often equated with conventional bigotry). Successes and failures in love and sex, both hetero- and homosexual, are her obsessive subject…. But all is not loss or frustration. She can be playfully humorous…. And she can be militantly political…. (p. 56)

Alta's belief in the primacy of the sensual body overrides what might be the feminist version of "vulgar marxism." The grim opposition to sexual play and to intellectual playfulness which one often finds among ideologues is unacceptable to her, as in "A Play":

      man & woman
      fully dressed,
      rolling on floor.
 
      feminist jumps between them
                     "STOP! don't sell out yr sisters!"

The "feminist" here is only one of a crowd of interrupters, but elsewhere Alta also refuses to conform to the aesthetic commands of the movement:

            anyone who tells me what to do
            sounds just like anyone else
            who tells me what to do.

Alta's combination of effusive sensuality and insouciant rebellion makes her book a refreshing, even compulsive, "read." Marge Piercy calls her work as "nourishing as good soup." I can't argue with that. (pp. 56-7)

Michael Janson, "Reviews: 'I Am Not a Practicing Angel'," in Open Places (copyright 1979 Open Places), No. 28, Fall, 1979, pp. 56-7.

Judy Grahn

No poet irritates me more than Alta does. This irritation is not because her writing is abrasive, it is not, or that she is cutting, she is certainly not. Her writing is irritating to me, I have gradually decided after years of being affected by it, because (why did she have to say THAT) she never lets me use simple categories and become absolutely right about anything. Phoo … She deprives me of political correctness, of 100 percent finally figureditall outness; I never (why did she have to bring THAT up) get to climb on a bandwagon and be smug and certain and going in a straight line.

Instead having to feel and reason my way along. (p. vii)

Alta is one of the great writers of our time.

She has attributes of other great writers, such as great courage to take tremendous risks. She is sudden, and funny. She is both extremely calculated and extremely spontaneous; both, at once. She writes from a moral position, and she gets many cans tied to her tail. She tells the truths which are underneath our lives.

Because as a poet she is also a reporter, and because one of her goals, or methods, is 'to tell the truth'—and for other reasons having to do with women's history—Alta uses her own life, especially her everyday feelings, as subjects. She examines this life, holds it out to us, shakes it, nags it, comments on its behavior. As a peculiar consequence, she is the least subjective of...

(The entire section is 402 words.)