Dec 9, 2009

Poem for a Day: "Walking in the Woods" by Grace Paley

Is Grace Paley's "Walking in the Woods" a companion poem to Dylan Thomas' famous "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night"? Is it also a response to Altadena Hiker when she said here (in the Dec. 6 visitor comments) that people should stop whining and get on with it? (She said it more forcefully than that).

Over decades, a number of scholars and critics have said there is no What in poetry, only the How. The How is the What. Along those lines, form is especially worth talking about in "Walking in the Woods." I'm never sure how I feel about using white space or unconventional (self-conscious?) line structures in place of punctuation and more traditional lines. I like to think I'm open-minded, but there's also a traditional old fart alive and well within me: mellow old quasi-hippie on one shoulder and formalist bean-counter on the other. Something about "Walking in the Woods"--and a lot of Paley's poems--makes my internal codger sit down, shut up and go with it.

I cannot imagine improving upon the closing of this poem, though I suppose someone could argue it's didactic, an instant aphorism, bumper sticker wisdom, a neat ribbon and bow, tied and pasted on a package that exists only to serve the bow. However, maybe I'm tired enough of my own whining, as well as others' self-indulgences, to love Paley's simple and direct command as closure here. I'm at least as comfortable with it as I am with Keats' equally didactic conclusion in "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

Notice too that Paley (almost) instructs us not only to shut up and "do it," but also to like life. If you haven't "liked life," why not? What's wrong with you? Look around. Look at that tree. How can you not like that? Those who don't are more or less disinvited from the poem--or at least invited to reconsider their way of being in the world.

This is getting close to a high-handed, judgmental dismissiveness. But for some reason, the whole line of thought and Paley's method of expressing it strike me as completely original, full of impact, and above all, earned. This speaker has forced us to give her permission to say what she says, the way she says it; moreover, she orders us to like it, and I'm guessing most of say okay. Or, Yea Verily. I'm not sure where, why, or how this happens in the poem--something in the voice, I suspect--but I'm convinced it does, and I do not resist.

Many serious lovers of serious poetry (and all art?) argue that there's a magic in it, a power that comes from some unknown source--in poet, poem, and audience. Surely "Walking in the Woods" is a case in point.

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Anonymous said...

This is my favorite essay so far. You have a wonderfully distinct, comfortable, affable, intelligent voice.

And you accomplished your goal, I think. I now want to read more of her work, and I did like the poem and the thoughts. In fact, I think I'll memorize this one.

About the white space. I think I understand that too. Commas are kind of ugly, I prefer dashes.

Brenda's Arizona said...

A quasi hippie but also bean counter... hmm. Loves poetry but white space is a turn off? I figure you were 40 going on older in your thoughts. Now I am totally convinced.

Grace Paley's poem is like a shrink talking. Or at least like my shrink. "Don't go there", meaning the dark places in mind. "Don't go there - recite a poem, sing a song, anything, but don't go there." Until you get brave enough to see the 'there' as a place you can tolerate, you can be forced to stick your toe in it, test the water, and then like. Whereas Dr. Shrink is dismissive, judgmental, I like my own reward in 'getting over it' and just going on with it. And then I become the one high-handed, but I earned it.

Awesome learning here, Banjo. MORE, MORE, MORE! Bravo!

Banjo52 said...

AH, thank you! What you compliment is precisely what I hope to convey.

Maybe I should have included in the post the title of her collected poems: Begin Again: Collected Poems of Grace Paley.

Re: punctuation, white space, etc.:

At a party the other night, I mentioned a rumor I'd heard that a major poet (now deceased and not nearly so major) forbade his MFA students to use semi-colons in their poetry--not for grammatical reasons but because he thought semi-colons were ugly.

I've always thought that story/rumor was supposed to illustrate the arrogance of the "major" poet, but the only people responding the other night said they agreed with him. Eschew the semi-colon! Hang him high! Dangle his ugly ass over the Grand Canyon!

I tell you, it was frightening. It was mob mentality. It was semi-colon bigotry run amok.

That'll teach me to bring up such things at social gatherings. Or will it?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, your comment is great. Bringing Dr. Shrink into it is dangerous for me because psychology has been an ongoing interest for me since college--double dangerous because sometimes I convince I know what I'm talking about.

At the party I mentioned, a friend who's an MSW tossed out a label new to me: "narcissistic hurt." I don't know if it's relevant here, but if I understand it, I love the concept--never mind that I've probably been guilty of it.

So when people connect in their own way to writing that I think deserves their attention--maybe even moves them--that's what it's all about. The way you're making the Paley poem your own is terrific.

And if AH follows through on memorizing it, I'll become dysfunctional with delight.

PJ said...

It occurs to me that for some time now I've been confusing Babe Paley for Grace Paley...

Brenda's Arizona said...

Narcissistic hurt? That is a great one!

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