Saturday, December 16, 2006

Alice Notley Is My Hero

Silliman writes:

There is a wonderful, fascinating, even funny moment in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers when Alice Notley, in the midst of her profile, says,

"I don’t have a poetics. I think that’s bullshit… I change my style all the time. I change the forms I use. The whole thing is in flux. I think that poetics is an industry."

Which caused Jonathan Mayhew to write:

There is/are only poetics, there is not "a poetic" of this or that. There are emphases within this, or statements of where one is "at" at a particular time. That's why a blog might state a different poetics every day, but in an evolving series. It's temporal and ongoing. You can't have a poetics, in the sense of possession; you can only participate in it. It's thinking I understood something the day before yesterday, but realizing it's only a partial understanding. That is why Alice is right to call poetics bullshit. It is an inherently provisional enterprise. (This is different from someone who never thinks about poetics in the first place.)

Poetics in the neoclassical sense of prescription, how boring is that? Poetics can only be descriptive, in the sense that linguistics is descriptive. Describing what good poets already do, not telling someone what to do. Or worse, what NOT to do.


I like these formulations. I've always disliked "a poetics." A poetics is a backward looking formulation. To know where one is at, to know "a poetics," seems reduced, reductive, to me. Am I missing something?

A poetics is only really visible looking back. To say one has a poetics in the present tense, in the way that one may have a cold (as I do this morning), and then to be able to speak it, is a lessening of possibility.

I suppose one might say one has a compositional method, as Ashbery does, but even that becomes to feel a little prescribed. One might say "usual compositional practices," but to me the idea of a poetics is best left to someone other than a practicing poet.

Or is this just a way to let a poet out of answering an important question, that if the poet would force him/herself to answer, the poet and the questioner would learn something about the art?

Anyway, Alice Notley's new book is Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005. We should all go out and buy several copies.


At 12/16/2006 11:22 AM, Blogger Andrew Shields said...

"... to me the idea of a poetics is best left to someone other than a practicing poet."

Generally, the best theorists of poetry are not the poets themselves. Or as my friend Geoff Brock once said to me, "One does not need a degree in Comparative Literature in order to write poems."

The irony of this, of course, is that Geoff and I both have degrees in Comp. Lit. (though we both wrote our dissertations on novelists), and even that we became friends in grad school. :-)

In the starting point of this discussion, Ron Silliman wrote this about Alice Notley: "She may choose to deny that what she does constitutes a poetics, but that denial, it seems to me, is not just a part of that poetics (as surely it is), it’s also part of the conscious loneliness that makes Alice Notley’s work instantly unmistakable, regardless of the forms it may take."

I would agree that the work of Alice Notley (or any poet) can be analyzed in such a way as to describe that poet's "poetics" (as something ever mutable, in the case of a living poet, as something complete and potentially even fully describable, in the case of a dead poet), but it is certainly not necessary for Alice Notley herself to do that analysis in order to write poetry.

At 12/16/2006 12:12 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"...but it is certainly not necessary for Alice Notley herself to do that analysis in order to write poetry."

I agree, and I want to push it a bit further and say that it's also not advisable (past a point [all things in moderation]).

That would be my critique of some poet/theorists . . . who run the danger of theorizing their poetry out of existence.

Possibly. I don't like to commit myself.


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