Notley, Alice

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Nationality: American. Born: Bisbee, Arizona, 8 November 1945. Education: Barnard College, New York, B.A. 1967; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1969. Family: Married the writer Ted Berrigan in 1972 (died 1983), two sons; 2) Douglas Oliver in 1988. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1980; Poetry Center award, 1982; G.E. Foundation award, 1983; Fund for Poetry grant, 1987, 1989. Address: 101 St. Marks Place, 12A, New York, New York 10009, U.S.A.



165 Meeting House Lane. New York, "C" Press, 1971.

Phoebe Light. Bolinas, California, Big Sky, 1973.

Incidentals in the Day World. New York, Angel Hair, 1973.

For Frank O'Hara's Birthday. Cambridge, Street Editions, 1976.

Alice Ordered Me to Be Made: Poems 1975. Chicago, Yellow Press, 1976.

A Diamond Necklace. New York, Frontward, 1977.

Songs for the Unborn Second Baby. Lenox, Massachusetts, United Artists, 1979.

When I Was Alive. New York, Vehicle, 1980.

Waltzing Matilda. New York, Kulchur, 1981.

How Spring Comes. West Branch, Iowa, Toothpaste Press, 1981.

Three Zero, Turning Thirty, with Andrei Codrescu, edited by Keith and Jeff Wright. New York, Hard Press, 1982.

Sorrento. Los Angeles, Sherwood Press, 1984.

Margaret and Dusty. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1985.

Parts of a Wedding. New York, Unimproved Editions Press, 1986.

At Night the States. Chicago, Yellow Press, 1988.

Selected Poems of Alice Notley. Hoboken, New Jersey, Talisman House, 1993.

The Descent of Alette. New York, Penguin, 1996.

Mysteries of Small Houses. New York, Penguin, 1998.


Anne's White Glove (produced New York, 1985). Published in New American Writing, no. 1, 1987.


Doctor Williams' Heiresses: A Lecture. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1980.

Tell Me Again (autobiography). Santa Barbara, California, Am Here, 1981.

Homer's "Art". Canton, New York, Institute for Further Studies, 1990.

The Scarlet Cabinet: A Compendium of Books, with Douglas Oliver. New York, Scarlet Editions, 1992.


Critical Studies: Interviews in Talisman, 1, fall 1988, and in Onthebus, 4–5(2–1), 1992; "Machine's Corpse: Within the City's Body" by Mark Irwin, in Denver Quarterly (Denver), 32(1–2), summer-fall 1997.

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Alice Notley is an American poet whose expression has been shaped by a conscious indebtedness to the legacy of William Carlos Williams. Regarding herself as one of "Doctor Williams' Heiresses," Notley has realized that "you could use him to sound entirely new if you were a woman. It was all about this woman business. I thought we didn't need to read women—I mean find the hidden in the woodwork ones—so much as find the poems among whatever sex that made you feel free to say whatever you liked. Williams makes you feel that you can say anything, including your own anything."

In most of her published work "your own anything" centered around Notley's life with her first husband, the poet Ted Berrigan, and their children on New York City's Lower East Side. Her poetry reflects her intelligence, humor, and commitment to her craft, and it is perhaps strongest when she is expressing her remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of human relationships. Rather than insist on her own emotional independence as an emancipated woman in the fashion of her New York contemporaries Anne Waldman and Diane Wakoski, Notley stresses the bonds between people, savoring with great refinement the closeness and communication that result from shared feelings. With delicacy and simple wonder she describes the miracle of physical possession in "Song," from the collection When I Was Alive:

Who shall have my fair lord
Who but I who but I who but Alice
By the black window
Softly in November
Who but I who but I who but Alice

In more complex poems like "Sonnet" (from A Diamond Necklace) Notley brilliantly explores the components of a long marriage between two famous people, the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen:

The late Gracie Allen was a very lucid comedienne,
Especially in the way that lucid means shining and bright.
What her husband George Burns called her illogical logic
Made a halo around our syntax and ourselves as we laughed.
George Burns most often was her artful inconspicuous
He could move people about stage, construct skits
  and scenes, write
And gather jokes. They were married as long as ordinary
Would allow, thirty-eight years, until Gracie Allen's death.
In her fifties Gracie Allen developed a heart condition.
She would call George Burns when her heart felt funny and
He'd give her a pill and they'd hold each other till the
Stopped—just a few minutes, many times and
  pills. As magic fills
Then fulfilled must leave a space, one day Gracie Allen's
heart fluttered
And hurt and stopped. George Burns said unbeliev
  ingly to the doctor,
   "But I still have some of the pills."

Notley responds to a broad spectrum of American culture, and her experiments with poetic forms and free verse owe as much to Gertrude Stein, Frank O'Hara, and Berrigan as they do to Williams. Like them, she believes that she is writing primarily to express her own personal tone of voice, which is her music and her breath. She understands Williams's concept of the variable foot to mean "the dominance of tone of voice over other considerations … I break my lines where I do, as I'm being as various as my voice should be in our intimacy." She feels that her speech sounds as the voice of "the new wife, & the new mother" in her own time, but her intent is to make a poem rather than present a platform of social reform: "I'm not all that interested in being a woman, it's just a practical problem that you deal with when you write poems. You do have to deal with the problem of who you are so that you can be a person talking."

Describing herself as an "imperfect medium," Notley insists on her own limitations as a poet. She often deliberately deflates what she senses as her own pretensions, as in "The Prophet," a long poem from the collection How Spring Comes, which ends with the lines "You must never / Stop making jokes. You are not great you are life." When this tone of self-depreciation is absent, however, and she concentrates on presenting her keen perceptions of her subject, her work has considerably more substance. Despite her loyalty to Williams, it would appear from the evidence of her poetry that her reflections—like Emily Dickinson's—are as sharp as her observations. Notley should trust them more, along with her heart.

—Ann Charters

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