known for her short stories, Grace Paley is an accomplished poet who has written poetry for more than half a century. Paley's style is open and casual, written in simple language with little punctuation. This "comfortable" style—something she learned from W. H. auden—and Paley's habit of grounding her poems in her own experiences as a social and political activist, mother, teacher, and writer, create a connection between poet and audience, reader and text. In her poems Paley uses the combination of a sharp ear for dialogue and a concern about larger issues to merge the provincial and the global in interesting ways.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrants, Paley was raised in New York City. She published her first book of short stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, in 1959. She was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1968, and in 1987 she was awarded a prestigious Senior Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her first collection of poems, Leaning Forward, was published in 1985; her New and Collected Poems was published in 1992.
Among the prevalent themes in Paley's work are her connections to family and history, women's issues, time, the city of New York, and, importantly, issues of social justice. In poems that seem to concentrate on simple, everyday events, Paley explores the connections between these events and larger concerns. Affirming the importance of the poet's connection to society, many of Paley's poems are testimonies to what she has witnessed in her years as an activist. These poems, which often focus on linguistic events—such as a story told to her as a child or the testimony of an El Salvadoran woman who has lost a son—highlight her conversational style by including various phrases—such as "they said" or "she answered." These powerful poems about social and political issues constitute Paley's most distinctive contribution to American poetry.
"Street Corner Dialogue" (1992), for example, opens with the exclamation "Thank God for the old Jewish ladies / though their sons are splendid with houses"; these are people who can be relied upon to "take our leaflets." She describes a dialogue in which their acceptance signals the promise of a better future. In "Responsibility" (1984), Paley reaffirms her concern with the world's future, stating that it is the poet's responsibility to watch over this world and to "cry out like Cassandra, but be / listened to this time."
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