Coming After: Essays on Poetry
There’s an interesting moment in the essay “American Poetic Music at the Moment,” one of several topical essays that comprise the latter half of Alice Notley’s Coming After: Essays on Poetry. In the context of her larger question of how “a girl can have a line,” Notley makes the following claim about her own poetic development:
It’s just that I knew I wasn’t that, that male-ish tradition as I’d been given it; and I did and do want to find my real voice (sorry, Ron Padgett poem “Voice”) and my real self (sorry, Postmodernism) and make them in some way coincident with my poem.
What’s interesting about this claim appears in the juxtaposition of this reference to Padgett with Notley’s more focused take on this same poem in her essay titled simply “Voice,” in which she quotes the poem in its entirety and speaks of the work thusly:
It may be, as Padgett seems to imply, pretentious and misleading for young poets to search for a unique and wonderful literary voice. However, judging by this poem, Padgett has found his own. (…) One can see from this example that such a voice, that speaks so directly and easily, might even as it changed tone or subject or even, almost, style, still point back to Padgett’s mouth. It is exceedingly flexible.
Now compare that to the following quote from “Ron Padgett’s Visual Imagination,” in which Notley examines an aspect of Padgett without reference to a larger theme or foundational inquiry:
In a five-part poem entitled ‘How to Be a Woodpecker,’…Padgett uses the “train of images” form to deal with problems of this his trademark method, as well as such issues as does one want to be a human being among others and like others. In part 1 the poet speaks of a wonderful sleep he once had in Florida (…) The unconscious is beautiful, and one is truly awake there.
The contents of Coming After are nominally divided into two broad categories, one of “Poets” and one of “Topics.” In the first of these, Notley makes extraordinarily attentive and useful observations about her contemporaries, primarily second-generation inheritors of the New York School, Black Mountain and Black Arts movements, such as Joanne Kyger, Kenward Elmslie, Lorenzo Thomas, and the aforementioned Ron Padgett. Her topical categories include voice, music, thinking in (and through) verse and a consistent aesthetic and political concern with women and poetry. Despite this structural division, Notley’s process of thought often follows a three-stage evolution characterized by her comments about Padgett quoted above. While she is more than willing to tackle a theme, and suffers no intimidation on account of breadth or scale, Notley turns very quickly on the possibilities of her own inquiry and displays her greatest acuity in pursuit of poems themselves, and not the concepts, agendas, movements or ideas from which they are sometimes claimed to spring.
Notley herself is well aware of the lure of affiliation with a house or guild of poets and poetics: in her essay on “Thinking and Poetry,” she observes that “the buzz of the dialogues already in progress, the terms and styles, are so seductive it’s tempting to replicate: everybody will like you and what else counts but a group of like-“minded” people, what else does reality consist of except such a group and its enemies?” And such cheaply-bought but dearly expensive affinities offer both a temptation and a challenge to a poet who, in the same essay, states plainly her desire for clarity (“Why should a story or a poem or a thought process have to be honest, and what is clarity? Honest here means true.”) and her desire for what poetry ought to achieve altogether:
I want to discuss how to think honestly in connection with how to write honestly. I want to oppose these two “how’s” to thinking and writing in accordance with received ideas: those that come to you from others, the outside; or your own old ideas, for it’s very difficult to be honest inside yourself; you tend to slide over tough places hurrying, saying, “Of course X is the truth, A, B, and C thinkers took care of that for me,” or “At this point everybody knows …,” or “I know what I think about that, that’s settled.” If that’s how the mind behaves how can there ever be a new poem? I’m convinced that as in reasoning, in writing both poetry and prose there must be a progression in which each unit is clearly rendered (what “clearly” means I’ll deal with presently) and words are clear as they occur. There must be something to hold onto so it might be assessed and even disapproved of by the reader. If a poem primarily creates a world to inhabit, that world should have well-defined contours, or if the contours tend to dissolve the dissolution process should be clear and shapely.
Fortunately, Notley views with legitimate paranoia (and sometimes impatience) the limits of stating a position, either despite or because of her gifts for stating such positions lucidly. In each of her topical essays, she quickly turns upon her own ideological ambitions, and thus challenges not only her own theses but also the very act of thesis making. In her essay on thinking in and through poetry, for instance, she comes to doubt the legitimacy of the standard poetic ego, the “self” who might speak a or even “the truth,” and eventually asserts that the ego with which she is most comfortable “…sits serenely and somewhat numinously behind my personality. behind a sort of window, watching the chaotic and distressing events of the world.” This numinous ego to which Notley refers here reminds me of the praise she has for the state of unconsciousness she discusses in Padgett’s woodpecker poem. For all the force of her deliberately direct statements of desire for and inquiry into the poetry that she continually hopes to write, Notley never succumbs to a belief that the art itself can be thought its way to, which is just another way of pointing out that she stands squarely in defense of poetry in the form of poems, and refuses any thesis that would replace poetry as a means of thought or establishment of voice itself. She can therefore ask if “In the face of what must be said, does it ever matter if one says “I” or not, if one tells a story or not, if one uses certain forms or not?” And then compel us to “Say what must be said.” But she can also honestly report her own writing life “as a struggle—still going on, absolutely—to find a measure or sound that suits me.” By working so diligently through the temptations to resolve such a struggle before its even begun in the verse itself, Notley more than earns her tremendous ability to occupy the mystery of actual poems, a mystery through which she is both a reliable guide and a perpetually, and inspiringly, awestruck participant.