Well-Versed

Alice Notley ’67 crafts poetry that plays with form and tackles tough subjects

By Annette Kahn ’67

Poet Alice Notley ’67 believes that to write “vital” poems, one must always be in a state of rebellion or disobedience. Over a 45-year career during which she has published more than 40 books, Notley has mined her experiences to create a poetic world that embraces the quotidian and the nightmarish. Last year, she received the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the largest literary prizes in the English-speaking world. Her newest book, Certain Magical Acts , which examines themes such as climate change and economic adversity, was published in June.

Her poetry hews to no particular form. She explores word placement, shape, punctuation and illustration. She plays with rhythm and meter, stretching or fracturing them to express an emotion or an elusive moment of awareness.

Although associated with the second generation of the New York School poets—her late first husband, Ted Berrigan, was one of its most glittering stars—she refuses to consider herself part of any school. She conducts workshops, but prefers not to teach in a formal classroom setting. “Teaching is a separate talent,” she says. “I didn’t like it very much.”

Notley grew up in Needles, Calif., a small desert community where young people who saw a rare rain cloud in the sky would jump in a car and follow it. Barnard was her choice for a radically different experience.

After graduation, she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of two women to be admitted in 1967. She met Berrigan the following year. Notley held a variety of jobs after graduating from Iowa, including serving as a model for sculptor George Segal, whose installation “Alice Listening to Her Poetry and Music” is at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, Germany. In the ’80s, she did office work for poet Allen Ginsberg.

Her poetry has explored sexism and motherhood’s effects on creativity, as well as loss and grief. Her recent work examines the world and its difficulties, from the recent economic crisis and climate change to the sorrow of violence and the disappointment of democracy or any other political system.

Robert Polito, who is the president of the Poetry Foundation, says, “The range, comprehensiveness, and empathetic imagination of Alice Notley’s poems are among the major astonishments of contemporary poetry. Book by surprising book, she reinvents not only herself as a poet, but also what it means for anyone to write a poem at this volatile moment in our history.”

Her 1996 book The Descent of Alette , about urban living and the underground world of lost souls, is her most frequently taught work. Her 2001 book Disobedience won Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize.

Notley, who lives in Paris, returns a few times a year to the U.S. to conduct small workshops and give readings, including one given in 2007 under the auspices of the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

One reviewer who attended a 2015 reading wrote, “She has such intensity in her words that she brings her poetry to life. Notley sets the mood [and] the intonation with her immense array of diverse poems.”

In addition to her poetry, she has written criticism, edited several journals, and created collage art for her own and others’ books. She also generously promotes the work of young writers, but she doesn’t let any of these pursuits draw her away from her poetry. Each morning, as soon as she wakes up, she returns to her work: “Writing,” she says, “keeps me stable.” •

Latest IssueFall 2020

In this issue, you'll read about the alumnae healthcare workers who served on the frontlines of the pandemic, Barnard women's resilience during historic crises, a personal story on protest, the 19th Amendment reexamined, and more.