DECEMBER 25, 2016
THE QUESTION OF MEASURE was at the forefront of “New American” poetic thought in the 1960s, when experimentation ushered in abstraction, colloquial language, collage, and uneven rhythms. Robert Creeley understood measure to be the potentially unruly rhythm and music of language as it flows through the poet in the act of writing. It is both a highly individualistic concept (related to the language patterns of a particular person), and an abstract and impersonal force (related to the movement of language as it exceeds intention). Thus “measure” in this context is distinct from meter; it intimates the particular rhythm of a poet, as opposed to a set pattern of syllables and stresses.
Charles Olson also suggests that measure is the registering of fact by the senses — the fact of objects, the fact of the poet as an object, the fact of language as an object, and the fact of all these objects in active motion. Paradoxically, he argues that the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of a writer’s breath is what gives poetry objectivity; it “allows all the speech-force of language back in.” Speech imbues verse with solidity. In this way, Olson conceived of poetry that attempted to enact the energetics of experience — one that situates the writer, as an object, within the flux of geological, human, and literary history. If this sounds grandiose, that’s because it is. The overreach of these claims, however, is partially what lent them their polemic force.
Discourses surrounding measure continue to frame and shape the work of poets who started writing and publishing in the ’60s. This is especially the case for Alice Notley, who more than any other poet of her generation has worked to safeguard and expand the concept. Beginning with The Descent of Alette in the mid-’90s, this concern became more pronounced, as she moved away from exuberantly disjunctive lyrics and began developing a style of feminist epic grounded in the attempt to “discover a woman’s voice that can encompass our true story existing on conscious and unconscious levels, in the literal present, witnessing more than one culture.” Each of her epic books (there are at least a dozen of them) is composed using a different unit of measure — a different rhythm of the line which carries these pan-cultural and transhistorical women’s voices.
The tension between individual voice and the public function of collective utterance is at the heart of her recently published book, Benediction, a long and knotty poem, 250 dense pages, written 15 years ago, partly while her husband was extremely ill. It is a challenging book, arranged in 42 five-page sections, each of which is written in fast-paced and fragmentary style characterized by erratic spacing, abrupt shifts between verse and prose, and thematic leaps. That said, there’s also a weird consistency, or insistency, to the poem. A particular sense of line, or phraseology, remains steady throughout, which is clear enough in its sound and feel. It has something to do with anger. Outrage permeates the writing. Though this anger is often explicitly feminist — aimed at micro- and macro-aggressions against women, their exclusion from positions of social and literary power, incessant sexualization, and the dismissal of women’s stories — it is also diffuse, passionately exasperated with all forms of power (gendered, governmental, militarized, economic), and with power itself.
Benediction most resembles her 2006 book Alma, or The Dead Women. But while Alma grounds its anger in very specific conditions of injustice or misery (poverty in the United States, drug addiction, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan), Benediction is slower to articulate its enemies. More abstract and philosophical, it couches its anger in a set of repeated images that function like symbols without clear referents: a crystal city, which seems to suggest an utopian cacophony of multifaceted voices; a dream-world in which reality, imagination, and nightmare are fused; the figure of Robert Johnson, who seems to represent the artist whose voice is both singular and collective; visions of the planet destroyed by poison and pollution. The writing continuously interrupts and alters the circulation of these symbols with personal recollection and bluntly stated emotion. The phrases and sentences are unevenly lineated and punctuated, foregrounding the closeness and collision of voices and topics:
in my former life when i was a you a socalled young woman i experienced various kinds of possession, i was possessed by states of others. thats why the world is dead now. i had this depression but that was part of the real the real it i got over it by blocking it didnt i thats how you get over reality right the reality right is a bunch of whitehaired guys who tell you you didnt feel it. after all it hasnt be properly named. i think im going to cr not while im writing but i feel physically sickened this minute all over my it which they call a body all over it like the tingling but its disgust sickness how can i go to the city this is part of the crystal this is when it turns over this is how i found it later through the tingling of disgust in a former life. which im in in a state of public prophecy trying to change the future but i cant believe in that i believe in this disgust and in the fear which came before it i never want to feel again. ill still try to make us magical.
The typographical “errors” create a sense of urgency, as well as an excessive syllabic sputtering that undermines the smooth mellifluousness of poetic language, but they also express a protest against a literary tradition. The “reality” conjured by that tradition is one peopled by “a bunch of white-haired guys who tell you you didn’t feel it.” In contrast, Notley’s epic book-length poems, which she’s been composing for the last 20 years, could be read as her attempt to develop a disobedient feminist conception of measure, not a supplement to the work of male poets, but a reimagining, grounded in narrative, of the aesthetic and philosophical presuppositions of modernist poetry. These books, however abstractly, tell stories about life, myth, and emotion.
Notley’s work is not simply about the reality of the fragment (as an object of consciousness among the other objects of the world); it’s also about the reality of narrative and myth. For many modernist poets (and those who came after), narrative is illusory, a masking of the material fact of language. Though this line of thinking led to some interesting poetic experiments, the denigration of narrative as illusory only makes sense if we privilege “objective” fact over experience. On the contrary, narrative strategies not only make varieties of experience visible (especially those that have been marginalized); they also connect and build relationships between experiences, structures, and facts. In Notley’s work, these relations come fast, one after the other, and are often sketchy. As Maggie Nelson writes about Notley, her “task is logorrheic by nature, and agitates against the notion often floated in poetic circles that the words that matter most are the ones that don’t get said.” The speed of language in Notley’s poems ensures that poetry is concerned with tracing, at the pace of speech and life, the existence of relations; it is not attempting to propose a systematized logic of relations.
Notley has imagined a poetry in which the particularities of personal and collective injustice and memory are represented both separately and linked, bound by anger, an affective expression that relentlessly and clearly connects the personal to the political. If this clarity seems obscure or difficult in her poetry, that’s partly because it emerges from a set of aesthetic considerations that have been forgotten, in which measure is a mediation between the personal and collective, and the poet is a medium channeling social forces. A clear articulation of Notley’s position on this can be found in her essay on Lorenzo Thomas. She summarizes Thomas’s poetics, which clearly stand in for her own:
Thomas believes … “all poems are produced by some force out there which then focused on some individual to collect the sound and words.” This is not, in current critical jargon, to privilege the poet; it is a job description which implies keeping oneself attuned to large forces. It privileges those forces, whether ineffable and musical, or sociopolitical, or what’s more likely some combination of them.
Following this, we can imagine that the “magic” Notley is attempting to conjure in her work is not part of some esoteric system, but the visibility of relations, voices, and stories (and, in the abstract: the idea of relation, the idea of voice, the idea of story) which have been marginalized as non-objective and therefore unreal. The idea of measure, in this context, is not reducible to a new way of thinking about metrics and authorship, but is related to the immeasurability of experience, insofar as the fate of one is related to the fate of many: “those are the measurements of fate / your fate is comprised of the whole / worlds measure and thats why and thats why the world / must be cared […] / no matter what else / is happening to you.” The measure of the line is related to the measure of the voice; the measure of the personal is related to the measure of the whole. Again, she clearly articulates this when writing about Thomas’s poetry:
It isn’t antipathetic to the personal; rather one feels as if it’s guarding, rightfully, its privacy while letting the feel of that privacy through. It uses personal feeling and knowledge to achieve a public voice that’s thoughtful enough, playful and subtle enough, to appeal to a reader or audience member as an individual intelligence without separating him/her from others, from communal issues.
The second half of Benediction finds the poet repeatedly visiting a hospital, as her husband becomes increasingly ill, though the book focuses more on the passages in and out of the hospital, and in and out of sickness and health, than with the details of his illness. It expresses frustration with the repetitive nature of illness and the gendered expectations of care, in which the woman is expected to perform the simultaneously desexualized and hyper-sexualized role of nurse (it’s difficult to render her spacing, so I’m using the forward slashes to suggest pauses as best I can):
I’m supposed to be packing up to go into / another hospital room / pink nightgown red shorty nighty highnecked flannel / for cold old night, nighties for all the hospital / of this world / and the deathshead face lying on top of them all in the suitcase throw them away / out the high window. / throw out the suitcase clothes aren’t the real.
This is narrative in the most expansive sense; it voices the story of private feeling (frustration, sadness, and anger) in a public place (the hospital) regarding a private relationship (to the body of the beloved) and its public face (the gendered and sexualized roles of husband and wife).
But as the title implies, Benediction is not a book without hope, and this is especially the case in the last 50 pages or so, in which the body of the poet and the body of the sick beloved become intertwined in moments of intimacy and healing:
so your legs hurt all night but they were mine / I didn’t know whose love’s or / mine / they ached and ached through dreams and we put / shiitake mushrooms on each leg. I’m different this morning so I know it wasn’t me my legs. / That was the real part I undertook love’s legs so I could help them.
Or take this brief scene, from the same section, of the poet literally opening her heart, taking the beloved’s place on the operating table: “I am lying on my back with my chest exposed / with my clothes pinned back like skin flaps and / my inner chest exposed, not exactly my heart but / it must be my heart.” Such passages evoke the desperation of healing and the pain of loss, but they also evoke the immeasurable connection between humans.
And along with the pleasures and depths of intimacy, there are the pleasures and depths of anger. Notley’s outrage is contagious. As we know from protesting in crowds, from reading the impassioned work of a furious author, or from everyday experience, it can be extremely enjoyable to be mad, especially when one is mad in consort with others. Anger can join people who would otherwise be distant; it can give voice (and measure) to hidden relations. It binds people and creates a sense of common agency, which is necessary for any resistance, private or public. In her essay, “Women and Poetry,” Notley posits that women can write and publish more freely only after the tyrannies of capitalism, unbridled industry, and masculinized power have already destroyed the planet: “Finally we are allowed to write, hysterically pile up pages in a dead-end world using dead-end forms of articulation written on dead trees. Everything must change and very very soon.” In the end, Notley’s work insists on the pleasure and immediacy of anger, which should not be confused with helplessness.