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Alice Notley Carrying the torch

The poetry of the beats comes to campus

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Posted: Friday, April 12, 2013 12:16 am | Updated: 12:18 am, Fri Apr 12, 2013.

Language is poetry. All languages carry with them an inherent beauty in their words. Yes, even German.

Friday at 7 p.m., famed poet Alice Notley will host a reading in the Dell Brown Room of Turner Hall.

The self-proclaimed ‘hermit’ has published more than 30 books of poetry and was a Pulitzer finalist for her book “Mysteries of Small Houses.”

Notley started writing fiction while attending school at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Upon meeting young poets, Notley said she began embracing her natural talent and became a narrative poet.

“It had never occurred to me there were live poets. I met young men that were writing poems, and they seemed kind of dumb to me,” Notley said. “But there was something about writing a poem that was like being involved with a piece of music, and that appealed to me.”

Long before publishing anything, she kept her poetry fairly private and only showed her writing to future husband Ted Berrigan, who was a professor at Iowa at the time. Over the years — before they were married — she and Berrigan shared their work with one another, developing a relationship based upon a shared art form.

While staying with Berrigan in Michigan, Notley made friends with one of the most legendary beat poets, Allen Ginsberg.

“I was staying with Ted in Ann Arbor in this guest house, and I came out of the bathroom, out of the shower, one day, wearing underwear and a shirt, and Ted said, ‘This is a test of your aplomb, I would like you to meet Allen Ginsberg,’ and there he was.”

After Berrigan’s death in 1983, Notley formed a similar relationship with British poet Douglas Oliver. She said her close relationships with poets inspired confidence and developed her skill, and that she wasn’t afraid to be bad in front of them.

Notley said she could no longer see New York — where she had been living — the way she once did as a result of multiple family deaths, including Berrigan’s. She struggled to write. Upon meeting Oliver, Notley moved to Paris, where she has lived for the last 20 years.

Poetry is one of the oldest literary forms, even older than prose fiction. Stories were originally told in poetry, one of the more beautiful and natural arrangements of language. But much like classical music, it requires a certain unteachable talent in addition to years of study.

Years ago, Notley published a book called “In The Pines,” which she wrote primarily while being treated for hepatitis C, unsure if she would survive. During this time, her son sent her mixtapes of old blues music, which acted as inspiration. The title of the book references the famous Leadbelly song, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

Andrew Whiteman, of Broken Social Scene, and his wife Ariel Engle recorded an album under the moniker “AroarA,” which is based on Notley’s book. The songs are based on selections from the book, making Notley the primary lyricist.  

The album was a welcome surprise to Notley, who is producing more work than she can handle.

“I’m writing really good work now and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to get it all published,” she said. “If you publish more than one book every two years it disappears — no one pays any attention to you. This world doesn’t like poetry.”

eben.wragge-keller@umontana.edu

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