Elisabeth Joyce: Bad Girl!: Alice Notley's Disobediences

Spring '10 TOC


     "165 Meeting House Lane": "So you fucked me back in"

     "Incidentals in the Daily World": "for you / square the circle to fuck it"

     "But He Says I Misunderstood": "Well that latter is an outright and fucking untruth"

     "How Spring Comes": "I'm not doing your yoga not wearing / Your moondrops using your cream / Rinse letting you fuck me Exquisite"

     "The Prophet": "to deal with / Them constantly mentally is to dry-fuck or is it dry-hump?"

          "If two pigeon feathers fall / from heaven / To your feet, in the springtime park, & your friend says 'They / were fucking up there,' / Don't believe him."

     "Waltzing Mathilda": "Fuck 'em."

          "Man just give me the fuckin' rent money…"

          "Fuck her inner ear."

     "Postcards": "Feb. 19 / Dear Fuckface…"

     "Congratulating Wedge": "Fucking pain."

          "Hey asshole motherfucker…"

     "I Must Have Called and So He Comes": "'We don't say pain we say fucked-up.'"

     "Help Me Corpus Sagrada": "Flies asses. What's that French expression? / A fucker of flies up the ass: a stickler for detail."

          I run a clear risk here that after reading these quotations you will think that Alice Notley uses the word fuck a lot in her poetry, and you would be correct in the sense that she certainly uses it more than many poets, especially female ones. What I would like to suggest, however, is that fuck serves a particular function in her work as the indication of a moment where the poem launches itself beyond the mere words of the moment and into a wordless, perhaps dare I say, even transcendental experience beyond the realm of language.

          In her essay "Thinking and Poetry" Notley says that there is perpetual pressure to conform "in thought and style" even in the avant-garde community, but she thinks that to conform is to turn away from the continued learning process of the poet, as learning only occurs through transgression and learning is, I believe, a quest process, through which the poet explores questions of identity (159).

          In "The Poetics of Disobedience" Notley writes a manifesto of poetry as an act of disobedience. Disobedience has embedded in it the notion of resistance, of going against something, that the normative behavior is to obey, to submit to a higher authority, and that the poet must refuse this obedience (interesting note: the dictionary says that disobedience also comes about through a "failure" to obey, as if one had wanted to but couldn't achieve it). Notley believes that a good poem actively revolts from prevailing ideas of, not just what poetry should look like or talk about, but of what ideas are important. She says that poetry is "an immense act of rebellion against dominant social forces, against the fragmented forms of modern poetry, against the way a poem was supposed to look according to both past and contemporary practice." Notley's essay develops a list of what to defy and even more, to question: what is the truth? Just because something is in a book, is it the truth? There are truths that are equally important outside of any books. In short, she says that in order to write poetry, "It's necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against...everything."

          The trouble with conformity, she believes, is that it places, as she says, "a veil over clear thinking." Here is where she really gets radical, though, for she talks about reality as not merely what can be seen or registered with the senses, "as solely what's visible and in what shapes and colors it's said to be visible," she says, but as something she calls the "real real." The "no no" as she refers to it, is the move here towards the mystical, but this isn't so transgressive at heart, is it, if we think of the American tradition of the transcendental?

          Linguistic research indicates that expletives, of which fuck is one, do not carry content. Alan Cruse, in Meaning in Language, says for instance, "Some words possess only expressive and no descriptive meaning and to these we can assign the term expletives" (59). Jamal Ouhalla, in Functional Categories and Parametric Variation, argues that "expletives are items which lack a semantic content, in the sense that they do not contribute to the overall meaning of the sentence" (22). A word like fuck, therefore, has no meaning in the sense that it carries no material content. Use of it by a poet is already an act of insurrection, then, as words are the tools with which the poem communicates some type of message to the reader. Using words stripped of meaning revolts against this primary function of poetry.

          Swearing ties in to older brain functions. Steven Pinker suggests that "Swearing aloud, like hearing the swear words of others, taps the deeper and older parts of the brain" (334). Research shows that the amygdala in particular stimulate metabolic activity in brain scans when a person hears or sees a "taboo word" (332). The amygdala is the organ in the limbic system that "helps invest memory with emotion" (332). The limbic system is the inner border of the cortex related to pleasure but also the fight or flight patterns.

          There is a tangible physical response to swearing. Pinker refers to the "Emotional jolt [that we sustain] from a fraught word," that "Involuntary shudder set off by hearing or reading a taboo word" (332). I was not aware of this response when I started work on this essay, but when I told students in a class about the essay's topic, there was a distinctly discernable wave of movement on my utterance of "fuck." The context of the classroom was partially responsible for this reaction, for the impact of taboo words increases in salience concurrently with greater formality of the social milieu, but it does not account fully for the students' involuntary motions. Leonard LaPointe says that "Psycholinguistic studies have demonstrated that profanity and other obscene words produce physical effects in people who read or hear them, such as an elevated cardiac rate, increased Galvanic skin response, blushing, trembling, shallow breathing, and in extreme cases loss of normally regulated bowel and bladder functions" (vii). Hopefully my students did not void their bowels on my mention of my work, and equally hopefully, neither have you. Nonetheless, the degree of physical response indicates the power of the expletive.

          Swearing goes beyond mere provocation of physical shudders, however, for it also induces a Catharsis for the person who is cursing. Pinker says that one aspect of Catharsis comes about through an "Electrophysiological response to errors" (364), as a kind of emotional reparation for dismay at making a mistake. This reaction "emanates," Pinker says, "from the anterior cingulated cortex [which is] part of the limbic system involved in monitoring cognitive conflict" (365). He describes what is called the Rage circuit that runs from the amygdala, through the hypothalamus, and into the midbrain (365). In instances of pain, an outcome from certain types of errors, for instance, the pain activates the rage circuit, which activates in turn the part of limbic brain associated with negative emotion. This brain core stimulates the impulse for defensive violence, and the result is swearing (365). In "Swearing as a Response to Pain," Richard Stevens reports that "swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate, and decreased perceived pain" (1056). In this study he concludes that "the observed pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect may occur because swearing induces a fight or flight response (that ties in to the limbic system's early function that I mentioned earlier) and nullifies the link between the fear of pain and pain perception" (1057). Swearing, therefore, actually makes us feel pain less and able to tolerate more pain that we normally could.

          However, the weakening of the pain receptors may be more necessary since swearing is a moment when we are more likely to face the harshness of the truth. Profanity is dyphemistic, Pinker says, which means that it "forces us to think about disagreeable things" (as opposed to euphemisms which avoid reality through words not meaning what they refer to) (350). "Expletives," he argues, "indicate that something is lamentable about an entire state of affairs" (361) rather than cloaking over things. When we say fuck, therefore, we are not wearing rose-colored glasses; we are wearing the correct prescription.

          What is interesting about this feature of expletives is that, according to Robin Lakoff (via Marion Oliver and Joan Rubin), "women are not allowed to express their feelings in a forceful manner whereas men are" (191). For a woman to swear the way Notley does (and fuck is by no means the only example I could present from her work, nor are taboo words the only taboo items present in these poems) is especially powerful. Women are not socially permitted to make use of these cathartic and pain diminishing features of potent profanity.

          Cathartic swearing goes even beyond the lowering of pain and addressing of the truth—it creates a moment for social interchange. According to Erving Goffman, "imprecations … make a claim" on our audience "that our inner concerns should be theirs" (814). If we swear at a moment of pain, for instance, physical or emotional, those hearing our exclamation have a clear route to our thoughts. Therefore, he argues, "response cries," as he calls them, "do not mark a flooding of emotion outward, but a flooding of relevance in" (814), the comprehension on the part of our audience of our experience. Profanity serves to link participants in a "social world" in an exchange that travels more deeply than mere dialogue.

          Imprecations become in poetry the interface between the material world and the world of the soul or the world beyond the words. In her essay "Eileen Myles in Performance" Notley says, "[I]f one's purpose is a poet's traditional one of the mediation between the soul, the serene impartial center of one, and the world with its manifold tyrannies, one will include as content the stories of a harassed and rebellious life. What else is there to talk about?" (65). The topic of poetry is, therefore, the everyday life, with its hassles and daily complaints, but also its small and random pleasures. This is the subject matter for Notley's poetry and it is a subject matter that does not avoid the harshness of reality.

          The goal of her poetry, however, is not those mundane moments, but rather that effort to evoke life directly and completely and not to avoid the hard things, like our own faults or our grievances with others. In her essay "Thinking and Poetry" she says, "I want to discuss how to think honestly in connection with how to write honestly…. For it's very difficult to be honest inside yourself: you tend to slide over tough places hurrying…" (158). We try to skirt past difficult spots sometimes because we do not want to confront our own inadequacies or sometimes because we do not want to face old slights, as my husband says, real or imagined. Notley insists on making the effort to confront these moments; like fuck, her poetry is dyphemistic.

          There is a moment at those hard places where words can no longer serve a material purpose because they can simply describe a person's physical appearance, for instance, but they can never completely account for that person, for that person's presence and posture, gestures and expressions, and especially, thoughts, desires and intentions. By focusing on those difficult moments, the poet needs to move beyond words, and this is the place of fuck. It launches us into the transcendental by being a void of words. Because it has no material content, it transports us beyond the material and into that dreaded otherness, the mystical or transgressive not-here nonconformity. Fuck is a way to push against ideas of reality as solely what is visible; it has a clear visceral impact.

          One of Notley's concerns when she is writing "The Poetics of Disobedience" essay is with women and their non-place in the world. Once they are 40 on the east coast and 30 on the west one, they lose all social status. What happens to women when they are middle-aged? Notley complains in particular about the French, whose attitudes towards women's social value I've always found so interesting. On the surface they seem more accepting and even more appreciative of older women (that whole femme d’une certain age bit), but the reality is that just as many older women are alone in France as in America while men of their age pursue younger, more valuable, women quite successfully. I would like to suggest here that Notley resorts to expletives, and to fuck in particular, because fuck is so rich. It is probably the most flexible word in our language, serving equally smoothly as verb and noun, sliding between adjective and adverb, as happy alone (and possibly more forceful) as in combination with other words. Fuck, in short, provides a woman with an ego through its absence and surfeit of meaning.

          The only thing left to fill out the requirements for good poetry is the need for the right reader, one who is equally disobedient, who is prepared to sail away from the language of the poem on the transport of the expletive. In "The Poetics of Disobediences" Notley says that "It's possible that the reader, or maybe the ideal reader, is a very disobedient person a head/church/city entity her/himself full of soaring icons and the words of all the living and all the dead, who sees and listens to it all and never lets on that there's all this beautiful almost undifferentiation inside, everything equal and almost undemarcated in the light of fundamental justice." A poetry of disobedience requires an audience that is open to the transcendental, a place beyond and untrammeled by prejudice, but even moreso, devoid of discrimination while at once replete with it, not biased yet fully perceptive.


     To fuck.

     To fuck with.

     To Fuck around.


     Fuck you.

     Go fuck yourself.

     You fuck up.

     You fucked up.

     That's fucking unbelievable.

     That was fucking great.

     What the fuck?

     Fuck off.

     She fucks around.

     I give a fuck.

     "Can a woman have an ego? Can a woman poet get away with having an ego?" asks Notley in "Iovis Omnia Plena," an essay on Anne Waldman's poem (94). Fuck yes.

Works Cited

Cruse, Alan. Meaning in Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Goffman, Erving. "Response Cries." Language 54.4 (1978): 787–815.

LaPointe, Leonard L. "Profanity." Journal of Medical Speech-Language Pathology 14.1 (2006): vii–ix.

Notley, Alice. Coming After: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005 (quotations from essays from this volume).

___. Disobedience. New York: Penguin, 2001.

___. "The Poetics of Disobedience." http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/notley/disob.html

___. Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University P, 2006.

Oliver, Marion M. and Joan Rubin. "The Use of Expletives by Some American Women." Anthropological Linguistics 17 (1975): 191–97.

Ouhalla, Jamal. Functional Categories and Parametric Variations. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1991.

Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2007

Stevens, Richard. "Swearing as a Response to Pain." NeuroReport 20.12 (2009): 1056–1060.

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