Paley in 1959; poet Robert Pinsky says she was "more appropriately named ... than anyone else I know."
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At Length: Pinsky on Paley
Hear an extended version of Neda Ulaby's conversation with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
'Her writing is like her social presence ...'
Grace Paley, one of the great American short-story writers, has died; she was 84, and had been battling breast cancer.
Paley was an activist and teacher, and former state poet laureate in both New York and Vermont. She died Wednesday in Vermont, where she had made her home in later years.
But she was a native New Yorker, a child of the Bronx who raised her own children in Greenwich Village. The streets of her childhood were filled with immigrant Jewish families arguing about politics, and gossiping — in English, Russian, Yiddish and Polish.
"The word 'gossip,' which is considered so terrible, is really ... it's just another way of storytelling," Paley said in a 1985 NPR interview. "And it's the way women tell stories, and it's kind of denigrated, 'cause its women who do it ... you know?"
Paley said the informal, vital rhythms of gossip informed her writing and deepened her pleasure in characters and stories.
Poet Robert Pinsky knew Paley for more than 20 years, and he loved her poetry and short fiction.
"They're completely lucid," he said. "They take the materials of a life, and make those materials immensely beautiful — that's art."
Through her art, Grace Paley illuminated a world she shared: New York in the second half of the 20th century, a city smart, shabby, bustling with opinionated left-wing women chatting about kids, middle-aged lovers and aging parents.
In 1985, Paley read from a short story called "Love" on WHYY's Fresh Air.
From half a block away I could see the kale in the grocer's bin. Crumbles of ice shining on the dark leaves ... an interior counter view ... I imagine my husband's North Country fields, the late-autumn frost and the curly green. I began to mumble a new poem ... "In the grocer's bin the green kale shines; in the North Country it stands sweet with frost, dark and curly in a garden of tan hay and light, white snow." Light, white? I said that a couple of questioning times.
Paley's fiction and poetry were of a piece, as were her parenting and political involvement; a longtime proponent of liberal causes, she was active on issues from women's rights to nuclear proliferation to the war in Iraq. She said she could have helped the peace movement more with her writing — but she liked being out on the streets.
Paley told her students at Sarah Lawrence College that writers need two ears: One ear, she said, for the literary canon, the stories and poems you study in school, and another for "family and childhood and specifically the ordinary language of your time — which, though I use the word 'ordinary,' is always extraordinary, I think."
Grace Paley's voice was ardent, delicious, idealistic and funny, Pinsky says. He remembered that whenever people told Paley they loved one of her stories, she would say, "So, what's wrong with the rest?"