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Grace Paley on rhetoric and politics in poetry

May 3, 2010

from NPR interview with Liane Hansen on ‘Weekend Edition Sunday’ in 1992

LH:

Are there any lines between the personal and the political, for you – and the poetic?

GP:

I don’t really think so, I don’t feel any lines, let’s put it that way…the slogan that came in with the women’s movement, that the personal is political, was wonderful, because it was true, and for me it felt very corroborating…

LH:

…has there ever been a time when you felt your art sort of, ‘foundered on the shoals of ideology’?

GP:

No, because – I’ll tell you why I don’t think so. I don’t think so because when I’m really being ideological, I really am. (laughs) You know? I mean, I don’t feel like I’m trying not to be, and then sinking into it. If I want to write a kind of a leaflet poem, I like to do that. And I come right out and say: this is what I’m writing about.

In a way, a poem called ‘In This Family’…is something like that, and some of the Viet Nam poems are a little like that too.

LH:

there’s another poem like that… it almost sets out a credo. It’s called “Responsibility.”

GP:

Oh, yeah. Right…that really was written as a talk, almost. I was part of a panel, on the responsibility of society and the writer, and I was one woman among a number of men, so I wrote this, right away, while I was there.

Responsibility

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
powerless
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

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