We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Grace Paley (1922-2007), Poet · 4 September 07

Dear Marianne,

Today Judy Geater put on our WWTTA a poem by Grace Paley which I wish could be shouted from the rooftops everywhere. Since that’s not going to happen, I can at least feature it here:


It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it
on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

by Grace Paley

I tried to make a foremother posting of Grace Paley for Wompo this past Saturday (a day late) and discovered that since she’s identified as a short story writer and “social activist” (some such vague phrase is repeated, not always with explanation or detail of her activities—some do), her poetry is not mentioned. I went over to the poetry anthologies I have in the house and she turned up in none of them; I looked in the freshman and other survey anthologies and anthologies meant for captive student audiences, and could only find short stories. So in a way here is an erased poet all the while she is mentioned in a way that indicates approval over the past couple of days. The book that is mentioned is Begin Again: Collected Poems (where you can find a poem Judy first cited on our list and Katha Pollitt featured on her blog and Nation column as part of her obituary: “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative”).

For example, a life that at least presents her as a poet though no book of poems is cited. Wikipedia tells us she was a poet, and says she wrote poems all her life, but again no citation of books or poems. At the Nation and World we are told how she had a passion for poetry and politics, but again no poems cited.

Indeed, a foremother; that is, even as she dies and we get these obituaries signalling approval, her poetry is erased. Someone on Wompo said she had got some prize in some year, and had a title of Poetry Laureate from a state in the US, but these prizes and titles do not signal accessibility or familiarity or even presence. She’s present as a short story writer.

Here is another fine poem (I can’t reproduce the spaces between words in the lines):

This Life

My friend tells me
a man in my house jumped off the roof
the roof is the eighth floor of this building
the roof door was locked how did he manage?
his girlfriend had said goodbye I’m leaving
he was 22
his mother and father were hurrying
at that very moment
from upstate to help him move out of Brooklyn
they had heard about the girl

the people who usually look up
and call jump jump did not see him
the life savers who creep around the back staircases
and reach the roof’s edge just in time
never got their chance he meant it he wanted
only one person to know

did he imagine that she would grieve
all her young life away tell everyone
this boy I kind of lived with last year
he died on account of me

my friend was not interested he said you’re always
inventing stuff what I want to know how could he throw
his life away how do these guys do it
just like that and here I am fighting this
ferocious insane vindictive virus day and
night day and night and for what? for only
one thing this life this life.

by Grace Paley


PS. I’ll write separately on the theme of “This Life” tomorrow.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Grace Paley was my neighbor, and I’d see her fairly often on this or that street in the Village. The last time was about two years ago in Union Square at one of Women in Black’s vigils on behalf of the Palestinians. (A Yiddish speaker, she grew up equating her Jewish identity with social justice.) Here is a poem of hers:

    by Grace Paley

    Here I am in the garden laughing
    an old woman with heavy breasts
    and a nicely mapped face

    how did this happen
    well that’s who I wanted to be

    at last a woman
    in the old style sitting
    stout thighs apart under
    a big skirt grandchild sliding
    on off my lap a pleasant
    summer perspiration

    that’s my old man across the yard
    he’s talking to the meter reader
    he’s telling him the world’s sad story
    how electricity is oil or uranium
    and so forth I tell my grandson
    run over to your grandpa ask him
    to sit beside me for a minute I
    am suddenly exhausted by my desire
    to kiss his sweet explaining lips.
    bob    Sep 4, 9:57pm    #
  2. “Here I am in the garden laughing” is a popular poem of Paley’s; it and the one Katha Pollitt chose are those reprinted when Paley’s poems are discussed.

    I don’t care for it. It makes me wince because I never wanted to be an old woman with heavy breasts and still don’t. I'm relieved to have been lucky in my genes. The poem is somewhat "in your face" and makes me remember how in recent post-feminist satiric books, the older women (the mother) is often called a "poor old cow."

    The one quoted by Pollitt is sweet but (as in Shelley’s Waitress), pie-making is made into a good an aim as poetry writing. Simone de Beauvoir thought otherwise.

    Do you know any pro-Palestinian poems?

    Elinor    Sep 5, 12:23am    #
  3. I like the poem because I identify with it as an aging person who, despite all the negatives, like being the older man I have become.

    I really like the sentiment in “Responsibility, but the idea is all in your face and lacks the poetic tension and surprise the one I posted has.

    I know several pro-Palestinian poems.
    bob    Sep 5, 9:41am    #
  4. Well for me the concrete details of a poem count. I don’t erase them. I don’t mind being older (like Jane Austen where she's glad to be sat by the fire drinking muled wine and not having to worry if she's asked to dance); I often tell my age: 60. As I wrote, I am relieved my genes have led me to become the wiry and cragged type. It bothers me that Paley celebrates cowness and thick legs (that horror Coetzee loves to describe women that way). Why give ammunition to scorn?

    Perhaps Paley’s stories are in your face too. It’s been a long time since I read one and I don’t know what my response would be today. I used to find them in Freshman anthologies and discovered students responded positively to her.

    Are any of these pro-Palestinian poems by Paley?

    Elinor    Sep 5, 8:42pm    #
  5. I wasn’t one who loved Paley’s stories in the old days, but re-reading them now I appreciate their craft and their mood a lot more. Maybe because I have more irony these days.

    She wasn’t exactly pro-Palestinian. What she favored was a just solution to the conflict there, one that would be fair to both peoples. But it was important to her to call attention to the Palestinians’ pain, as that wasn’t as well known in the U.S. as it should be.
    bob    Sep 5, 9:13pm    #
  6. I love that “Paley celebrates cowness and thick legs” if that’s what she has. Why not claim one’s genetic inheritance and sneer smugly at the score of men like Coetzee? Paley was a feminist and an activist who surely fought against even small evils like stereotyping.
    Shawn    Sep 6, 8:26pm    #

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