Alice Notley

The Dean of FASS and the Department of English are delighted to announce that the 2017-2018 Munro Beattie Lecture will be delivered by acclaimed poet Alice Notley. Celebrated as “one of America’s greatest living poets,” Notley is the author of over forty books of poetry and critical prose.


She is the recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards, including the Griffin International Poetry Prize for her book Disobedience in 2002. The Mysteries of Small Houses was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1999. Born in Arizona, Notley grew up in California. Having lived in England and numerous American locales including New York City and Chicago, Notley moved to Paris in 1992.

Notley’s long career traces a dynamic process of constant self-reinvention that has led her to explore a wide range of themes in her work, and to utilize an astonishing diversity of styles from traditional lyricism to radical experimentation. Challenging yet playful, Notley’s poetic investigation into the mystery of the self often incorporates popular cultural references to Muhammed Ali, comic books, and film noir. (See Notley’s poems “30th Birthday” and “The Ten Best Issues of Comic Books.”

Publishing her first collection in 1971, Notley rebelled against the exclusion of women’s experience from the poetry of the time. Like her contemporaries Adrienne Rich and Louise Glück, she became known for her pioneering depictions of the details of domestic life, especially pregnancy and motherhood, and her unsparing treatment of the competing demands of being both a mother and an artist.

Notley’s best known work is the book-length poem The Descent of Alette (1992). A feminist epic, the poem transforms the epic hero’s obligatory journey to the underworld into a heroine’s dreamlike descent into the depths of a contemporary urban subway system. Blending the Sumerian mythology of the goddess Inanna with the influence of such poets as Dante, Chaucer, and Milton, The Descent of Alette marks a shift in Notley’s career toward long narrative sequences that have earned her the reputation of a “present-day Homer”.

The Descent of Alette

Notley’s refusal to align herself with any one school or style of poetry reflects the commitment to disobedience that is one of the guiding principles of her art. She writes that the book Disobedience began as a continuation of her previous attempts to “interact with the so-called visible or phenomenal, the despised daily,” but became “more and more pissed off as it confronted the political from an international vantage, dealt with being a woman in France, with turning fifty and being a poet and thus seemingly … ignored.” In her conviction that “it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against … everything,” Notley demands from her readers the same vigilant critical thinking that defines her approach to writing. (Watch below the video of Alice Notley reading the poem “There was also valium in the drink, placed there by two other people” from Disobedience)

Notley’s Munro Beattie lecture carries some of her past preoccupations into new territory. Entitled “Remember Before You Were Born,” and inspired by a long-ago reading of Laura Riding’s The Telling, it is concerned with Notley’s attempts to remember the time before her birth, as well as her existence as an infant, “in order to invite that memory/knowledge into her present life as a poet.” Flouting the boundaries of genre, the lecture is written in prose, but sounds “a lot like a poem,” and continues Notley’s ongoing exploration of the possibilities and limitations of language in articulating a fuller perception of the self and its relation to the world.

Munro Beattie Lecture featuring Alice Notley
Date: Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: 5050 Minto Centre

This is a free public lecture; all are welcome. Seats are not reserved, so plan to arrive early. A reception will follow the talk.