The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year and carries a stipend of $25,000. The judges for this year’s award were David Baker, Mark McMorris and Marie Ponsot.
Once, as World War II ended, Alice Notley was born in Arizona (1945); she grew up in Needles, California. Once, she came to New York City and was a Barnard girl (1967). Once, she got an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (1969). Once, in the bracing vicinity of St. Mark’s Place, she married Ted Berrigan (1971); she and their two sons survived his death (1983). Once, she married a good British poet, Douglas Oliver, and moved to Paris (1992); she survived his death in 2000. All along, she encountered her world, wrote her poems and won prizes for them. Some of those prizes: the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry, the International Griffin Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America.
Of course, these biographical details can’t describe or even imply the body of her work, luminous, in Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005. Nor can I describe it fully. But I urgently want to evoke something of how I see that beautiful array. Let me try, so long as I remember how she says, “God if only/I was a package but I’m not.”
I relate the way she works to what Charles Olson calls “composition by field”–but with this difference: her field is her consciousness. Plainly, all poems always come from the mind of the poet; Notley has extensive and identifying access to her own. Her memory and thought exuberantly welcome her life experience. Her imagination is agile, unafraid, populous and swift at envisioning connections. It is not naïve. She allows us to hear and overhear her as she writes her self speaking the poem: “empty,” she says, “except for myself who observes me/both lovingly and detachedly…. I’ll make a poem for you which holds locked up a living voice–/the key’s on your own tongue.”
Her mental geography is the widening languaged expanse of what she knows. Its borders are open on all sides to experience. She is memorious. She summons memory and it appears, more and less entangled and enriched, fluent and fluid as the air we breathe. We access her dailiness of embraces, encounters, pizza, stairwells, bars, red shirts. We access snatches of her broad reading of comics, poets, classics, newspapers and politics. She moves us loosely, readily, through the spaces of her languaged world.
The tense and tension of her mental action is the progressive, the phenomenological present. In the flow of that present, we come upon islands and are grounded by vivid events where people emerge trailing their stories, their characterizing conversation. She’s got us where she wants us. She welcomes us with poignant phrases that strike us so we take them in. (What she bids us imagine puts us in the present tense of her mental action.)
Her constant subject is truly subjective; her themes and motifs and what she makes of them are all her own. The fluent openness is that of consciousness itself, reflective as it speeds ahead, an arena of air that precipitates forms like the celestial beings and airy presences in Chinese frescos, soft-lit or back-lit, in a long oceanic swelling and subsiding rhythm, large and slow.