Dec. 11, 2004

The Poet's Occassional Alternative

by Grace Paley

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Poem: "The Poet's Occasional Alternative" by Grace Paley, from Begin Again: Collected Poems © Farrar Strauss & Giroux. Reprinted with permission.

The Poet's Occasional Alternative

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it many friends
will say why in the world did you
make only one

this does not happen with poems

because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership I do not
want to wait a week a year a
generation for the right
consumer to come along

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1936 that Edward VIII abdicated from the English throne. He had ruled for less than a year. He chose to abdicate after the British government, public, and the Church of England condemned his decision to marry the American divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson. In a radio address, he said, "I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king, as I would wish to do, without the help and support of the woman I love." The next day his younger brother, the duke of York, was proclaimed the next monarch.

Edward was born in 1896, the eldest son of King George V. He was still unmarried as he neared his 40th birthday, and he socialized with the fashionable London society of the day. He fell in love with American socialite Wallis Simpson, but she was married and had already been through one divorce. American and continental newspapers reported their affair, but it was kept out of the British press. In October of 1936, Wallis divorced her husband, Ernest Simpson. The affair went public and was debated in Parliament. Only Winston Churchill supported the King's decision to marry his mistress.

Wallis and Edward lived in France after the abdication. They visited Germany in 1937 and met with Adolf Hitler. They moved to Spain when France fell to the Nazis, and it was during this period that the Germans devised a plan to kidnap Edward and return him to the British throne as a puppet king. Churchill didn't know about the plot but was worried about Edward's pre-war Nazi sympathies. He appointed Edward as a governor of the Bahamas in the West Indies. Edward and Wallis set sail from Lisbon in August, 1940 and only narrowly escaped a SS team sent to kidnap them.

The couple returned to France after the war. It was not until 1967 that the royal family invited them to attend a public ceremony in England. Edward died in Paris in 1972, but he was buried in Frogmore, on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Wallis died in 1986 and was buried at his side.

It's the birthday of American short story writer Grace Paley, born in New York City (1922). Paley is the youngest daughter of politically active Ukranian-born Jews who opposed the Russian czar in their youth. Her father, Isaac, was exiled to Siberia but was released in 1904 when the Czar pardoned all prisoners under 21. The couple sailed for New York City and settled in the Bronx.

Paley grew up speaking Russian, Yiddish, and English. She has said that she discovered her own voice by listening to the voices of the New Yorkers around her. Paley said, "When I was little I loved to listen to my parents' stories...I loved to listen and soon I loved to talk and tell." She was a bright but uninterested student and was expelled from Hunter College during her first year for missing so many classes. Paley said, "I really went to school on poetry."

In the early 1940's she studied with the poet W. H. Auden at the New School for Social Research. She married Jess Paley, a movie cameraman, in 1942. They settled in Greenwich Village, where she began raising their two children.

Paley was fascinated by the New Yorkers she met in the parks, playgrounds, and streets of her neighborhood, and she realized they had no place in the literature of the day. She couldn't figure out how to bring them into her poetry so she decided to try prose. She published three stories in magazines before an editor with Doubleday and Company, whose children were friends with her children, noticed her work. He told Paley, "Write seven more and you'll have a book."

In 1959 Paley published eleven short stories in her first book, The Little Disturbances of Man. The author Philip Roth said, "Though no blood sister, she's as funny as Jane Austen." One character in the book named Faith thinks about her "destiny, which is to be, until my expiration date, laughingly the servant of man." She says, "What is man that woman lies down to adore him?"

Paley's book was an overnight success but her next literary efforts didn't come easily. In the 1960s she became involved in politics and social action in Greenwich Village. She began a novel but never finished it. Her next book of short stories didn't come out until 1974. Paley visited Hanoi and Moscow as a member of peace delegations. In 1978, she and ten other demonstrators broke away from a tour group and displayed an anti-nuclear banner on the White House lawn. Her group was called "The White House Eleven." They were fined and given suspended sentences of 180 days in prison. Donald Barthelme called her "a wonderful writer and troublemaker."

Grace Paley said, "When you feel a pull, go with it."

It's the birthday of American poet and novelist Thomas McGuane (1939). He's best known for his novel, Ninety Two in the Shade (1973), which was later made into a movie directed by McGuane himself.

McGuane was born to a family of Irish storytellers and grew up on an island suburb of Detroit. His father was an accomplished sportsman, and also a compulsive drinker. Struggles between fathers and sons became one of McGuane's biggest themes.

McGuane flunked out of the University of Michigan with a .6 grade point average. He was only interested in writing. He finally graduated from Michigan State and married his sweetheart, Portia, a direct descendent of the frontiersman Davy Crockett. McGuane spent three years in the Yale Drama School studying to become a playwright, but novels were his true passion. He later said that his favorite books from that period "all had one thing in common-the comic exaggeration and excesses of language carried to an almost hallucinogenic degree."

Simon & Schuster published his first novel, The Sporting Club, in 1969 and Joyce Carol Oates called him "that notorious and difficult creature--a writer of promise." Shortly after, he moved his family to Key West, Florida, where he indulged in his passion for sport fishing. His home became a gathering place for a group of hard-drinking, party-loving writers and artists including the poet Jim Harrison and the rock singer Jimmy Buffet.

In 1972, McGuane finished his third novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade, a tale of two fishing guides bent on destroying each other. A month later, he lost control of his Porsche on an icy road in the Keys. He was unhurt but shaken. He later said, "In Key West after the accident, I finally realized I could stop pedaling so insanely, get off the bike, and walk around the neighborhood."

These days McGuane divides his time between the family home at Key West and seven hundred acres in Montana. Along with three novels, he's the author of three notable screenplays. He says, "I'm not considered as illegitimate as I once was. Because in a sense I'm like lip cancer--I'm not going to go away."

It's the birthday of the Romantic composer Hector Berlioz, born in France (1803). He is known as the founder of modern orchestration though he was mostly unsuccessful in his lifetime. He once said, "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils."

Berlioz was the son of a doctor who taught him to play the flute at a young age but hoped he would study medicine. Berlioz disappointed his parents and gave up everything for music. He wrote symphonic works, cantatas, sacred music, and three operas. In the 1960's his operas and large-scale works were finally performed and his genius revealed.

It's the birthday of the French poet and playwright Alfred De Musset, born in Paris (1910). He was trained in law and medicine, but the book of poetry he wrote at the age of nineteen won Victor Hugo's approval. Hugo took Mussett under his wing and into his Romantic literary circle.

Mussett wrote, "How glorious it is, but how painful it is also, to be exceptional in this world!" He wrote the first modern dramas in the French language and is known for his grasp of the psychology of love.

In 1833, Mussett read the novel Indiana by the feminist writer George Sand. He wrote her an admiring letter. The two began a passionate affair that ended when they visited Venice together and became dangerously ill. Sand fell in love with her physician and Mussett returned alone to Paris. Their stormy relationship inspired some of his finest plays, On Ne Badine Pas Avec L'amour and Lorenzaccio.

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