Alice Notley recently was honored with the Lenore Marshall Prize -- “$25,000 for the year’s most outstanding book of poetry.” In his October 14th article for the New York Times’ “Sunday Book Review,” Joel Brouwer attempts to categorize Notley’s “prolific career” by recounting “any number of identities” designated by her readers: “native of the American West, Parisian expatriate, feminist, experimentalist, political poet, Language poet, widow of the poets Ted Berrigan and Douglas Oliver, mother of the poets Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan and member of the New York School’s second generation, to name a few.”
Despite this extensive regression into taxonomy, Brouwer provides a generous, if brief, reading of Notley’s work over the years. He does, however, use the occasion to bring up a perennial critical refrain in American letters. He points out that misleading binary of “the raw and the cooked” -- something he sees as process-oriented writing fueled by instinct and drive versus the closed, formal “art” of more steady and, some might say, self-compromised minds.
Self-compromise, of course, for the sake of art, is no big thing. It provides in the word space of the poem an essential entry for the world. At the same time, however, because the relationship between self and language always teeters on the brink of overburdening the poem, it can vanish into the art of one’s designs on it. The New Yorker frequently prints poems that attempt to beguile the reader like some rare, stuffed bird -- an exotic, trophy as testament to the powers of self-control and austere formal insight on behalf of the carefully self-commanding poet.
By contrast, Brouwer writes: “Notley is, in the best sense, a primitive, more interested in conveying raw thought than purveying the aesthetically cooked.” Here it seems as if Brouwer wants to pigeonhole Notley to some extent in order to make her more accessible to the Times’ readers, perhaps. Moreover, it’s hard not to read this as a kind of political power play too, exerted to remind readers of the cultural capital at stake in American poetry. We can recognize this poet’s rich achievements, but let’s keep her in place with those Beatniks, New York Schoolers, and others of her “primitive” ilk.
Why not scrutinize the term: “raw thought"? If such a thing exists (and I’m tempted to believe that really there are just different degrees of cooking at stake), can such “raw thought” surface in language between others? Is this problem of thought and form not the very issue at stake in the poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries? What is it to be left with this residual trace on the page, the raw intent of an individual, an inner life projected onto an outer surface that becomes a poem? What, if anything, distinguishes thought from language? The material of poetry -- mere words -- has what relation to a self, exactly?
A problem commonly recognized by those who work in communications is this: a person speaks. Out come words. Listener hears something. That rich interface between them -- words, language, texts, and human sounds, facial gestures, and bodily motions -- creates a kind of noise. How writers anticipate that problem is intriguing, and how they use it, also, provokes considerable existential reflection. For instance, if we think of the noise as being somehow minimized through cultural “norms,” figures of speech, or social expectations, we receive a sense of language as somehow capable of conveying what resides inside someone else. We “understand” other.
Poets traditionally used conventional metrical prosody to manage that noise: many still employ it. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, other formal innovations were introduced to better apprehend the problem of the noise. The acceleration and accretion of modern life interfered with the slower pace and production of texts which were published by hand prior to the convenient illuminations of electricity in urban centers. As the noise proliferated and new media such as film and radio extended texts beyond the written page, poets explored new ways to process and represent the sounds of modernity.
Take Gertrude Stein’s prolific response to the noise. She approached texts as though words were the material substance for her application. Language lost its transcendent illusions as the easy interplay between sound and things grew mute. More violently still, Stein disrupted even the anticipation of an emotional relation between things and words. Her work reveals an outer limit in which language is dispossessed of the world. Its syntactic patterns and sonic impressions extend a dense textual mass into the communal transactions of language. What we get reveals itself as the very shape and texture of the world thus filtered as language, a material form as real as brick and stone. This obdurate formal indulgence confronts readers with an explicit demand. We must apprehend the break in flesh and word and from there begin to look at the world new again.
In a poem from Mysteries of Small Houses called “Point of Fidelity,” Notley writes:
Taking a large bloody napkin upstairs
Then eat a blue heart-shaped valium
with a red dot on it
Why can’t I live as I say
barren wilderness beauty I say?
offer a right poverty
sitting near my sandals
throw away these feelings I’m so
easily tricked by
poems of smallness I’m so easily, others’
easy reception of a heart-mind
What might make this appear “raw” to certain readers? The “bloody napkin?” The “valium / with a red dot on it?” Or, perhaps, what’s at stake is the questioning of the poet’s ability to communicate at all, the faint suggestion of the impossibility of connection in “poems of smallness.” The existential crux, however, is this: “Why can’t I live as I say, barren wilderness beauty I say?” This comes as an interrogation of poetics, in which a “barren wilderness of beauty” intrudes between life and words. Our understanding of words, at best, Notley suggests, will remain uncertain -- understood only from a distance.
Unlike Stein, however, Notley’s relationship to language remains visceral: words retain emotion. They are moved into what William Carlos Williams called a “field of action,” a field just beyond Notley’s ability to ascertain an appropriate structure for thought to fill it. What Charles Olson called “Projective Verse” here too applies: getting the “content” down into a dynamic field, the writer pushes out onto the page to confront language, to energize it by placing it within quick approximations of that intent to say something. It is the reach of poetic inspiration. The gap between what can be said and what actually gets said remains a wilderness.
The Old English word raw is akin to its Latin cousin, crudus: crude. Cruor, blood, and the Greek, kréas, raw flesh -- are these words apt as a way to register Notley’s writing? Certainly, in the stanza above, a care for words is evident, and the pace confronts a reader to reflect upon this problem of that awful wilderness between what I want to say and what can be said. A recognition of that wilderness reveals not crudity, but it’s opposite, a keen vision and care for approaching the terrible actuality of the real.
Perhaps that “bloody napkin,” however, would seem a bit “raw” to certain readers, in a red-meat-sort-of-way. I wonder, were we able to interrogate Brouwer and the editors of the New York Times, as well as other administrators of our official culture, if, when the pincers were exerted forcefully, they might not admit to some conscious revulsion to the presence of such crude human features in the poem. For such cultural marshals, isn’t a poem often understood as a textual reflection of a culture through which we (the reader) get to experience the carefully triaged noise of souls confronting their middle class anxieties? Spiritual confrontation can burden the poem with extensive, writing-school metaphors. Such cooked-up texts manage the mind of the reader by privileging their class expectations over the messy world and its intrusive demands. Maybe the raw -- or, more accurately, the under-cooked -- offers too much of fleshy, mundane life to bear in a poem. And yet bodies present themselves. They seek inclusion into the fields of our perceptions. So what if they’re occasionally gooey, spurting fluid, or passing secreted residue?
Notley’s books such as Alma, or The Dead Women, Grave of Light, and, most recently, In The Pines, push the boundary of self and word, wherein the poem takes on the pliable elasticity of a membrane. The poem’s form in Notley’s use of it mutates according to the requirements of the relations of inner vision subjected to the material surface of language. Her affections and revulsions motivate this poetry, applying just enough heat as necessary to apprehend the world around her -- a world that also happens to contain her inner life. Leave the raw/cooked binary for those who are queasy over that life. It’s part of the machinery of the culture industry we inhabit, and poets endure its obdurate mechanics. As Notley, writes:
I let smug men say thing about my poems.
Am I trying to turn into
a smug man so I -- fear sits on I --
so I won’t be afraid, I guess.
And deeper still
who’s afraid. Is it I.
Below who’s afraid’s the one who isn’t.
The ghost from the future. I almost
believe I will prevail
when I’m asleep and the future
haunts this house.