Alice Notley

Alice Notley

It turns out January is the perfect month for taking a walking tour of New York City’s East Village.  You will visit the homes and hangouts of poets—famous, groundbreaking, struggling, prospering, almost conservative, and frankly sybaritic poets, to pin just a few adjectives on them.

If you take the online “Passing Stranger” tour on the Poetry Foundation’s website, the film director Jim Jarmusch will introduce you to many of the great men of letters and rambunctious rascals of prosody (think Whitman, Ashbery, Ginsberg, Kerouac ) and you’ll stop by St. Mark’s Church, the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, and McSorley’s Old Ale House.  Betting types would lay some money down that while all are fascinating subjects, if asked what was the unforgettable stop on the tour you won’t need to think for long before answering, “The home of Alice Notley.”

Meeting Notley may just be the perfect way to start a new year.

Born in 1945, Alice Notley married the poet Ted Berrigan in 1972. They had two sons, Edmund and Anselm, and lived at 101 St. Marks Place, lending their heartbeats to the pulse of the East Village. Berrigan was bedridden for much of their time there, but that did not diminish his position as a force in poetry—an oracle who drew dozens of poets to their home at all hours on all the days of the week. Poets came to talk to Alice as well, and the boys were at her heels while the troops of aspirants were coming and going.

Notley tells us she invented ways to write while the house was full of people, amalgamating their voices with her own and those of her children.

Anselm credits her with having blazed a trail to a new kind of poetry—poetry that recognizes the intensity and scope of the demands on women and the enormousness of the challenge for women artists. Alice Notley gave voice to women who knew that The Donna Reed Show was a male fantasy and who realized that, like Charlie Brown’s nemesis, TV’s Lucy was also a cartoon character.

Because her ability to incorporate other voices into her verses was consummate, it is difficult to find cohesive excerpts from Notley’s early poems, but this start to “World’s Bliss” offers us her perspective on the life explored in the Poetry Foundation’s “tour”:

The men & women sang & played
they sleep by singing, what
shall I say of the most
poignant on earth the most glamorous
loneliest sought after people

Ted Berrigan died in 1983. Alice mourned and reared her sons alone.  Together the three wrote “The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books.” She explains on “Passing Stranger” that the seemingly simple list of comic book titles is about the loss of her husband and the boys’ father, and how they were all mutants after he died.

Alice Notley found love again and married the British poet David Oliver, with whom she moved to Paris in 1992. He died in 2000, and two years later she underwent 11 months of brutal treatment for Hepatitis C. 

She may be speaking of this time in “Disobedience”:

You see, I wander lost
amid hotels and market
s, stalls which sell dead things;
if you’re young it’s glamorous, sci-fi—if old, not.

She has remained in Paris for reasons both political and economic, it seems, but stasis is not her style. Her poetry has always been exploration. She has the last word on this topic in David Baker’s conversation with her in The Kenyon Review in 2009.

“The only thing that matters is how much talent someone has and how far they’re willing to go with it—the rest of it’s largely bullshit, though it’s possible one needs some bullshit in life.”

We recommend taking the “Passing Stranger” online tour, getting to know Alice Notley better, and taking your talent as far as you can in 2014.  The bullshit is optional.