Grace Paley, who died of breast cancer in 2007, is perhaps best known for her short stories, which were originally published in leading magazines and eventually in book form in 1959, 1974, and 1985. In 1994 her book The Collected Stories was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. However, Paley began her career by writing poetry, from her teenage years into her mid-thirties, switched over in the 1980’s to publishing mostly poetry, and rounded out her career with the posthumous poetry collection Fidelity. Although her early poetry was apparently derivative, reflecting in part her study with W. H. Auden, her efforts in poetry might have helped her develop the distinctive voice and dialogue for which her stories are famous. She was noted for reading her stories aloud as she composed them and later when she taught classes.
Poetry seems the more natural genre for Paley. Her stories tend toward open form; they have been criticized as being plotless, emphasizing, instead, character and voice. Poetry allows Paley more freedom of form: She writes in loose free verse, leaving some poems untitled and dispensing with conventional punctuation by indicating pauses with lineation and spacing. Poetry also allows the distinctive voice to be hers unambiguously. For a woman who has something to say, why bother with fictional pretense or dramatic personas? In poetry, she could speak more personally and directly, with more bardic authority, although the autobiographical element was never far away, even in her stories. The title Fidelity seems to be a poetic continuation of her main character in the stories, Faith (a thinly veiled substitution for Grace).
Much has also been made of Paley’s New Yorker, Jewish background. Her parents, Isaac and Manya Goodside (originally Gutseit), were Jewish socialists from the Ukraine who, persecuted by the czar, immigrated to New York City, where their daughter Grace was born, raised, attended college without taking a degree, and at age nineteen married film cameraman Jess Paley. However, other influences are also important in Paley’s career. After having two children, Paley and her husband divorced, which might explain the feminist influence on her work. Nevertheless, feminist influence did not keep her from getting married again in 1972 to Robert Nichols, a landscape architect and writer. In 1988 they moved to Thetford, Vermont. This more varied background comes out in Fidelity.
Another notable influence in Fidelity is the philosophy of the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), especially the Quakers’ peace testimony. Paley was working with the American Friends Service Committee for peace when she met her second husband. During the Vietnam War, she was an antiwar activist and joined a peace journey to Hanoi. After the war, Paley continued working for peace and nuclear nonproliferation, getting arrested several times. In interviews Paley worried about the dangerous world she was leaving to her children and grandchildren (to whom Fidelity is dedicated). Several poems in Fidelity express Paley’s antiwar sentiments, especially “Fathers,” “Thank God there is no god,” and “To the Vermont Arts Council on Its Fortieth Birthday.”
Other Quaker attitudes and beliefs reflected in the poems are the liberal interpretation of belief in God (“Thank God there is no god”), belief in the just sharing of the world’s resources (“An Occasional Speech at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering”), natural acceptance of dying, feminism, and a liberal attitude toward sexual orientation. “Sisters,” for instance, opens with the flat statement “My friends are dying/ well we’re old it’s natural . . . .” Nevertheless, the friends live on in memory: “I have not taken their names out of/ conversation gossip political argument/ my telephone book or card index . . . .” (A couple of the friends mentioned are “Claiborne,” probably Sybil Claiborne, an antiwar activist and writer, and “Deming,” probably Barbara Deming, a prominent Quaker activist and writer.) She remembers “their seriousness as artists workers/ their excitement as political actors . . . vigiling fasting praying in or out/ of jail . . . .” In the poem’s strong conclusion, which might sum up the book’s theme, she remembers
their fidelity to the idea thatit is possible with only a little extra anguishto live in this world at...
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