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To Write About the Button

The late short-story wizard Grace Paley began and ended her long writing career as a poet.
Grace Paley once told The Massachusetts Review, “Well, I really loved poetry best and I loved doing it and I wrote it all the time, but there was something really wrong with the way I was working. I never got it, really.” Rachel Aviv discusses the poet's complicated relationship to her craft and the literary world.

Photo: Gentl & Hyers/Arts Counsel, Inc. © 1994

In interviews, Grace Paley, who died of breast cancer last year at the age of 84, often talked about what a bad poet she was. “I just never get good. Poetry is too literary,” she told the French journal Delta in 1982. Three years later, she told The Massachusetts Review, “Well, I really loved poetry best and I loved doing it and I wrote it all the time, but there was something really wrong with the way I was working. I never got it, really.” She blamed it on her distaste for pretentious language. She thought of herself as a “neighborhood person,” not a writer, and felt that poetry made her take on a voice that wasn’t hers.

By Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
83 pp., $20.00
In 1940, when she was 17, Paley enrolled in W.H. Auden’s literature class at the New School, where she became increasingly aware of her tendency to write in a “British accent.” She wrote like an upper-middle-class gentleman, about war and love. When she went to see Auden for help, he gently asked if the language felt natural to her. She described the incident in the 1983 anthology Women Writers Talking: “He said to me, ‘Do you usually use words like trousers?’—I had never said anything but pants in my whole life—‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I do . . . sometimes.’ ‘And what about this word?’ he said. ‘Subaltern.’ You know, like a sublieutenant. This was the beginning of the war. ‘Subaltern.’ ‘Well, once in a while.’”

When Paley wrote her first story at age 30—while recovering from an abortion, she had time to stay home and begin projects longer than a few lines—she was relieved to find that her fiction sounded nothing like her poems. She wrote about frumpy women in Greenwich Village who sit around in city playgrounds complaining about their “hotsy-totsy” lovers. The first lines of her stories are always concrete: “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs”; “My husband gave me a broom one Christmas”; “At that time most people were willing to donate organs.” Paley said that her poems aped the sounds of literature (Milton, Coleridge, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were some of her favorites), while her fiction captured the voices of people on her street. She described her first story as the moment when she learned to “use both ears suddenly.”

The discovery changed her poetry as well. During the 26 years between her acclaimed first book of fiction, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), and her last, Later the Same Day (1985), she was continually writing poems and then forgetting where she put them. In the early ’80s, one of Paley’s students at Sarah Lawrence, Beatrix Gates, urged her to locate the old poems—from inside bureau drawers and wastebaskets, from under the bed—and to continue writing. Gates helped Paley publish her first book of verse, Leaning Forward (1985), a collection that received a few moderately positive reviews (Poetry called her poems “perky, likable”) but was generally ignored. By that time, her poems had lost the stilted pose of her early years. If being a “real poet” used to mean being cryptic and inflated, then Paley did everything she could to show that she thought little of her work. Her poems are about sanitary napkins and municipal centers and B.O., and they have almost no punctuation and often stop midline with an “oh.” She makes self-deprecating jokes about her own talent:
Madness is a gift
(though not to me)
Paley began and ended her career with poetry. Her final book, Fidelity, has just been published, a little over half a year after her death. It is made up of raw glimpses of her life as it moves further and further from the genteel ideal of her early years. “I have experienced the amputation / of my left breast I hate its absence,” she writes in “Many,” a poem about her friends whose organs have become useless. She describes the death of her family (sister, mother, father) and the shock of seeing her disease headlined in the New York Times, then apologizes for making “complaints against mortality.” Her language is plain and self-effacing, yet strangely upbeat; sometimes it’s hard to tell whether her poems are appealing because of her language, or because she seemed to be such an exceedingly likeable woman. Speaking from his home in Vermont, her husband, Robert Nichols, an architect and playwright, says that the “unusual thing about Grace is that her personality and her persona as a poet were the exact same thing.”

Paley worked on Fidelity sporadically in the 15 years before her death. “She had very little time for writing,” Nichols says. “When the volunteer fireman asked her to make a pie, she’d make a pie. She was open to everything.” Throughout the book, she repeatedly alludes to how difficult it is to complete a piece of writing: “To translate a poem / from thinking / into English / takes all night / night nights and days.” In “The Irish Poet,” she describes a class of poetry students studying the masters and worries that none of them will ever put in enough work:
flashed onto a screen the poems
are by Shelley Yeats Bishop

they are serious teachers these poems
are the early abysmal drafts
of great poets the students are
encouraged they have many abysmal
drafts themselves they have usually
stopped at oh their second or
third draft what if their longing
for their own true invention
of language is not strong enough what
if they are satisfied too soon
Paley often spoke of her own indolence (“I laze. I mean really hang out”) and was rarely able to write pieces longer than five or six pages. She blamed it on her temperament: she was fairly happy. She put out few books—three story collections and four books of poems over nearly six decades of writing—because she was raising two kids, traveling, and protesting three wars. “It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy to hang out and / prophesy,” she writes in “Responsibility,” perhaps her most famous poem. Paley once said that she started writing when she got “a strong language feeling”—when she heard a phrase she liked, sometimes uttered by a friend—and, from there, decided whether there was enough momentum to make it more than a poem. Many of her best pieces sat around as first lines for months before she figured out a way to move on.

Although she’s often grouped with postmodernists such as Robert Coover and Donald Barthelme (who lived in her neighborhood), Paley had very little interest in deconstructing or even talking about narrative form. She never graduated from college and consciously avoided becoming part of the literary world. She typed up her first few stories at the PTA office of her children’s elementary school on 11th Street. When she was honored as State Author of New York, she thanked the committee members but said she would have felt prouder if she’d won an “award from my block.”

Throughout her career, she was continually rediscovered in waves of magazine and newspaper profiles (almost always mentioning her white “halo of hair,” wonderful organic cooking, and affability), but her work, and particularly her poetry, has received little scholarly attention. When Kathleen Hulley, a literature professor at New York University, tried to put together a special issue of Delta on Paley’s work, she could barely find enough contributors. Many of those who initially volunteered dropped out, finding Paley “resistant to criticism.” In the introduction to the issue, Hulley writes that the most common excuse was “She is too direct; she leaves me with nothing to say. Paley has no secrets: she tells what she is doing.”

Paley’s poetry doesn’t fit into any particular school of writing, and her motives and themes are too transparent for academic decoding. She wasn’t averse to saying exactly what she meant. “A poet can write about a man slaying a dragon,” her mentor Auden famously said, “but not about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb.” Paley wrote about the button and made no excuses for it. She wanted nothing to do with symbolic grandeur. Her poems are easy to overlook because they are spare, candid, and make no claims to importance. “This eighty-year-old body is / a fairly old body what’s it / doing around the house these days / checking the laundry,” she writes in a poem called “Windows.”

She focused on poems, and not stories, in her final years for a simple reason: they took less time. She could do the dishes, visit her grandchildren, attend an antiwar meeting, and still find an hour or so to jot down some lines. “She was just the opposite of a Romantic poet,” says Nichols fondly. “It didn’t interest her to be a poet with a capital P. She was an absolutely ordinary person, and she was proud of it.”



To Write About the Button

The late short-story wizard Grace Paley began and ended her long writing career as a poet.


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