Coming After: Essays on Poetry
“It should be the poet’s business to test, continuously, current assumptions, rather than assume them. I find being a poet something that must start again all the time[…].”
—from “Thinking and Poetry”
The above passage from Alice Notley’s Coming After: Essays on Poetry should come as no surprise to those familiar with her poetry, which, volume by volume, enacts the kind of flexible tenacity prescribed in this quote. But the passage also suggests a model of the poet as one who exists in a world made of time but apart from time’s imperatives, one who acts “continuously” but without continuity, one who “start[s] again all the time.” The essays in Coming After address the work of eleven poets as well as broader ‘topics’ in poetry; together, they conceptualize poetry as working in and on time.
The opening essay, "O’Hara in the Nineties," examines how O’Hara’s work, for Notley, briefly became "frozen into art" or "artifact": "Its late-fifties references to people and landmarks […] had seemed present for a long long time, much longer than they were "in real life, " but now were truly the past." She then tells how his work became unfrozen for her, and proceeds to unfreeze it for the reader through an intense engagement with (and thus revival of) its processes. It is in this essay that she delivers the volume’s first definition of "metrics, " "the relationship of [one’s] extraordinarily precise line to its content."
This special definition of "metrics", not as conventional meter but as a kind of measuring of line against content, pertains to temporality on a local scale (i.e. how time is parceled out in the line itself) as well as on a larger, philosophical scale. In "American Poetic Music at the Moment," Notley describes this search for "a measure" as the defining struggle of her own career; indeed, each poet’s measure is a kind of integral signature:
Prosody is a real subject, how you or your thought becomes articulate in a precise time that won’t ever go away. Prosody’s a decision you keep having to make.
It is this double status of prosody—as a choice which continuously must be made by the poet, and as one which, once made, "won’t ever go away"—that gives Notley’s essays their urgency and gives the poems she analyzes the ability to serve as vessels of time, continuous models of something continually changing.
In an essay on Joanne Kyger, Notley describes Kyger’s work as intricately involved with time, and notes, regarding her use of the journal form, "[t]he word "journal" means "by day, " which is how time passes, and it’s time we’re given to find out in." Correspondingly, Kyger’s Just Space is "a journal of an arrived spirit, with a stake in a community of people and other natural beings." Choice of the journal form amounts to a choice of "the quotidian, the people and events of her days, as the obvious ground for right living and less obviously for acquiring knowledge. "
To Notley, Kyger’s poetry enacts one kind of relationship with her present moment; Eileen Myles enacts another. Whereas Kyger’s work seeks to engage in the present viz. the communal/quotidian, "Myles’s mission […]continuously has been to unite her work to herself"; in her poems, Myles herself has center stage. Notley reads Myles’s work, even on the page, as performative: "This is a performance—a live act: will Myles bring the poem off, will the poem—which seems to be synonymous with the life— win again?" In the absence of conventional form, the reader must invest in the poem’s (and Myles’s) performance to know whether the poem has been ‘brought off’; meanwhile, it’s the measure of the poem on the page that enacts the performance: "performance is everything, so form is, the line and stanza in action, a body-life moving about in front of every body, to see what happens during and after this." Notley finally proposes, "[p]erhaps Eileen Myles is trying to create the coincidence of all her poems into one, one time." This type of temporal Mission Imposssible is the sort Notley can approve, and resolves whatever ambivalence Notley has briefly expressed about the work.
It is in the context of this essay on Myles that Notley makes another remarkable observation about the way poetry serves as a vessel of the present tense:
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.
In this passage we see Notley’s characteristically paradoxical view of time; the poet exists in the poem both "forever" and "at the time of writing." Put another way, in the most "alive" poetry, "the time of writing" is “forever."
It is not only the present, then, that occupies Notley; as she remarks in an essay on Anselm Hollo, "Prosody, of course, is also about time; one may use it to go forward in many different ways." She sees in Hollo’s highly allusive surfaces an apt alternative to the information overload of the corporate internet; she notes, optimistically, that his poetry "doesn’t spout facts as possession, but it’s equal to all that. It could probably handle the future." The topic of the poet and the future seems to always come up in discussions of poetry’s methods and properties, and it is treated here with devilish elan: "[…]poetics doesn’t change the world much, or shouldn’t. (Wouldn’t it be terrible if a poet actually changed the world’s consciousness to be like his/her theory, or poem!)" Later, in an essay on Lorenzo Thomas, this view is somewhat revised: "A poem may not change the world right away, but it will be, and thus change, the time of those who read or perform it for as long as the performance lasts."
The notion of poetry as always involved in and working on time ensures its public relevancy and political agency. In the late essays of the book, Notley turns from explorations of individual poets to essays on a handful of topics central to her own career. Explicating the volume’s title in "American Poetic Music at the Moment, " she describes her generation as one coming uncertainly ‘after’ the great masters of measure, Olson and Williams. She then revises this, recasting hers as "an initiating generation of strong woman poets for example," the first of their kind to make poetry, who must find their own ‘measures’ and sounds. Thus, the writing of Descent of Alette required Notley to conceive of "a new kind of foot/line geography," reflecting her new consciousness
that within the line is where the action is, the energy of the poem and the character or presence of the poet, as well as whatever connects her/him to the whole culture, the formal frame. That is, a line is not an arrow, it’s its events.
The foot, then, is not a unit of sound, linear time, syntax, or even logic; it’s the place within the poem where the present tense occurs.
Reconceiving of the line and its foot allowed Notley, and presumably those of her "initiating generation," to make an initial measure, to break with their sense of coming after and begin a new lineage coincident with new lineations. As the essay "Women and Poetry" suggests, however, the real time-related crisis is not ‘coming after’ Olson and Williams but coming so late in history, when male-centered cultural models have wreaked so much damage:
Finally we are allowed to write, hysterically pile up paper in a dead-end world using dead-end forms of articulation written on dead trees. Everything must change and very very soon. Women and poetry, is a joke—Where is the world? Where is the first world? We must find it as soon as possible.
To find it, to smash up the myth and pattern-making abilities of the "sons-of-bitches in Washington and Wall Street and L.A.," women must make new myths and patterns. As Notley declares in "The Feminine Epic," "I still want to write an Epic."
I want to discover a woman’s voice that can encompass our true story existing on conscious and unconscious levels, in the literal present, witnessing more than one culture.
However much voice may govern Notley’s future questing (and this talk was written in 1995), the poem’s participation in the "literal present" will provide its instrumentality, as it rewrites a present apart from the myths invented by the tyrants in all their guises.
While I have stressed a highly conceptual thread through the essays in Coming After, I should note that they are also enagingly written: clear, amusing, and familiar, as well as brief. "I don’t want to be a scientist about poetry," Notley insists, and while her intelligence is exact, it is always lively. After a familiar, anecdotal set up and incisive yet uncluttered analysis, each piece closes with a knock-out punch, a burst of sentences which somehow deliver a mind-changing revelation regarding poetry or life itself. At the end of an essay on Douglas Oliver, for example, New York City is suddenly weighed on the in time/out of time balance, and comes down on the side of the former: "New York tends to have only a present, a present from which it’s difficult to get any distance. To live there is to be in its story, which is perhaps why it isn’t a stronghold of linguistically based poetry." The placement of these huge, funny, and felicitous statements at the conclusion of the essays delivers a delightful and salubrious shock to the reading mind absorbed in its own minute analytical processes. The essayist Notley is great company, and Coming After is made of brilliant, punchy stuff.