The use of voice in Alice Notley’s “In the Pines” is troublesome in that it feels more like prose than poetry, yet when read aloud it flow like poetry. The complete lack of a poetic structure bothers me and yet I think that I like it. The sort of self-argument that the poet begins in the first pages of the book is reminiscent of the discussion that the Fisher King has at the end of T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. The self-effacing discussion seems meant to draw the reader in and still seems almost singsong its choice of language and words.
I find the direct address of the reader to be disarming and somewhat charming. Above all though, I must say it strikes me more as a story than as a poem. I think the part of “In the Pines” that strikes me most as poetic is not the language or the way that Notley chooses to uses, but the subject matter. I have long though that poets and philosophers were somehow tied and I feel that every deeply when looking at this work. Notley begins her piece asking why she should take the time to try to convince the reader to listen or pay attention to her story.
The question is a deeply philosophical one and is ome that every writer or poet asks themselves at some time. “Why should I respect, or convince, or even interest you? ” (Line 1). The deeply thoughtful nature of the question itself helps me to identify this as poetry, for philosophy, when not written as poetry, is more long-winded and pretentious with “thee” and “thou” and a great deal of flowery and ambiguous speech. It seems philosophers are always trying to prove things that either must simply be accepted as fact or must be rejected, but cannot ever be proven.
Poets write about the same things but do so with the knowledge of their hearts regarding the truthfulness of the question. It is with that knowledge of a poet that Notley writes in phrases not quite sentences about the things that confound philosophers and theologians. That knowledge and the staccato phrases she uses in “In the Pines” are the greatest evidence that this is poetry and not merely poorly written prose. “I say I know who I am . I entered the trailor, this black one, and found it less wanting than the world, where my eyes had filtered outwards and were only part. ” (Notley, p.
6) the poet asserts tot eh reader that she understands herself, something poets and philosophers and theologians have fought to do for centuries and makes her argument as only a poet can. She talks of her mood, her existence, as a trailer that is a better place that the world which she usually occupies, emphasizing that in the outside world her eyes deceive her. Only as a poet could she say that her “eyes filtered outwards and were only part” It is clear from these lines that Notley is concerned that the things that she saw were only a part of who she was and yet it is the way that most people define who they are.
Like many other poets before her, Notley writes of death and discusses the concept as though it is an old friend, come to help her through the hardest parts of her life. She tells the reader that she has no desire to fight away death and go back to the struggle. Instead, she writes, she is tired and ready for the respite that death offers and discusses who might have been to blame for her death. “What was the time of death? You ask. You still don’t remember killing me, maybe you haven’t done it yet. ” (Notley, p.
6) Death then is an allegory for the loss of self and the pain which notley feels, not the physical death of the body. This is another factor in the evidence that her work is rightly identified as poetry rather than the prose it appears to be. The key here is her use of the allegory, personification, metaphor and other tricks of the language to say what she is feeling and what she hopes to accomplish. Never could prose be this indirect. It must at some point be direct in its storytelling, while poetry has the luxury of circular speech, hiding from its direct meaning.
As the wqork progresses, Notley turns more toward traditional, though free-flowing verse, yet throughout the poem, it is the means of telling, not the form on the page that makes the difference. Though there certainly are poets that are best known for the way they put the words on the page and the way that a poem looks, Notley is less concerned about the conventions of how a poem should look and more about the way the words feel in your ears. “Have you ever helped create a tormented human being? I walk very slowly now, but I do little harm, I say” (Notley, p.
38) Again, this is the phrasing of a poet. If she had merely been trying to communicate an answer to the question, a simply yes or no might have sufficed, but the question here is both philosophical and metaphorical, the essence of poetry itself. Reading it, the only conclusion one can reach is that “In the Pines” is pure poetry, meant to be heard and the words listened to more than read. When the words are spoken aloud, they gain power, the natural flow comes forth and they mean what they should have all along.