December 02, 2010

On the lyric and the short story

"Make room for the roots!" --Stanley Kunitz

Hoping here for guest bloggers soon: Rob Pluta, Daisy Hickman and Susan Tiner. In the meantime, I thought it was time for me to ponder the writing process with you and with the hope that you will comment. 

For today: Leavings, poems and the short story as lyric.

I believe that the poem and the short story share the quality of concentrated language to express both feeling and thought.

Kunitz and Bishop and Paley

I put these two poems “My Mother’s Pears” by Stanley Kunitz and the much anthologized “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop with the story “Friends” by Grace Paley for this reasons: All deal with loss. 

The day before I drove my oldest child to college, the day he really left home, for his returns since then have been visits, I sat across from him at a French patisserie on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.—not a very good cafe, a copy of the real thing—and I thought not about his leaving but about the way he first came, of that moment when the doctor cut the cord and gave him to me. Both loss and gift. At the time, both my mother and my sister were dying of long term illnesses. So loss was on my mind and has been ever since.

Kunitiz, Bishop and Paley, these three writers in these three pieces, express loss and give meaning to it.

Stanley Kunitz

More than a decade ago at age 90, Stanley Kunitz won the National Book Award for his poems, “Passing Through.” I heard him read “My Mother’s Pears” the year before at the Library of Congress’s Academy of American Poets celebration of its chancellors. And it was one of those poems that produced an audible sigh among the crowd as if we all said together, “Yes, that’s how it feels, the memory of what’s been lost and what remains.” We saw his scene, with the shovel in his hand, his mother in her kerchief, his sisters in their middy blouses, and conjured up our own.

My Mother’s Pears           
        by Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, "New Poems"

Plump, green-gold, Worcester’s pride,
            transported through autumn skies
                        in a box marked Handle With Care

sleep eighteen Bartlett pears,
            hand-picked and polished and packed
                        for deposit at my door,
each in its crinkled nest
            with a stub of stem attached
                        and a single bright leaf like a flag.

A smaller than usual crop,
            but still enough to share with me,
                        as always at harvest time.

Those strangers are my friends
            whose kindness blesses the house
                        my mother built at the edge of town

beyond the last trolley-stop
            when the century was young, and she
                        proposed, for her children’s sake,

to marry again, not knowing how soon
            the windows would grow dark
                        and the velvet drapes come down.

Rubble accumulates in the yard,
            workmen are hammering on the roof,
                        I am standing knee-deep in dirt

with a shovel in my hand.
            Mother has wrapped a kerchief round her head,
                        her glasses glint in the sun.

When my sisters appear on the scene,
            gangly and softly tittering,
                        she waves them back into the house

to fetch us pails of water,
            and they skip out of our sight
                        in their matching middy blouses.

I summon up all my strength
            to set the pear tree in the ground,
                        unwinding its burlap shroud.

It is taller than I. “Make room
            for the roots!” my mother cries,
                        “Dig the hole deeper.”

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful villanelle, with its similar understatement moves me with its specifics that get larger and weightier as the stanzas progress--from lost keys and lost hours to the loss of the gesture of the one she loved.

                        One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent,
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

            —Elizabeth Bishop from The Collected Poems

Frank O’Connor on the short story

It is this use of the specific in the concentrated moment that I think the poem shares with the short story. Frank O’Connor in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (sadly, appears to me to be out of print; I own an old copy and will try to photograph it soon), says of the short story writer, “Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco” (p.21). It is this selection process of each moment and word that I think the short story writer shares with the poet.

Annie Dillard on prose

Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction in her chapter on prose styles and speaking particularly of what she calls “short prose objects” (the short-short perhaps?) says that “fiction in this century has been moving closer to poetry in every decade” (p.114). And perhaps later that is explained when she speaks admiringly of what she calls “plain prose”: “This prose is craftmanlike. It possesses beauty and power without syntactical complexity” (p. 118).

Grace Paley

Grace Paley writes this kind of simple, concentrated prose. She carefully selects her moments and her words and in so doing creates new form and humble, carefully crafted prose that honor her characters and the world.

Some biographical background:

She was born in 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents. Her mother was 38 when Grace was born. Her father was a successful family doctor. Her sister Jeanne was 14 and her brother Victor 16 at the time. The story goes that neither knew their mother was pregnant until the birth--that their mother Manya never mentioned it and that she was a fat woman who just got a little fatter. Grace grew up surrounded by adults, (her father’s mother and sister also lived with them). When she was 13 her mother developed breast cancer and was ill for many years until her death after Grace was married. She married Jess Paley in 1942 when she was 19 and a half, had two children, Nora and Danny. She divorced Paley after 25 years of marriage and later married Bob Nichols. She lived most of her life on Eleventh Street in lower Manhattan in the Village. And most of her stories are set there in the apartments, the streets, the parks. She is widely known for her political activities: opposition to the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, her outspoken concern for environmental issues. Some call her a feminist. She published three short story collections: Little Disturbances of Man in 1959, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974 and Later the Same Day in 1985. Her Collected Short Stories appeared in 1994 and was a National Book Award Finalist. She never wrote a novel, though she tried once and was sorry for it. She has said in explaining that choice, “Art is too long and life is too short.” She died recently but lived until most of her life with Bob Nichols in Vermont.

For all of her much publicized political activities, her work is art and never propaganda. She wrote only poetry until she was over thirty (published a poetry collection Leaning Forward in 1985, and I think that her study of poetry is evident in her work: the concrete details, the weaving of conversation, and the use of a narrator who often speaks to the reader. As in the story “Friends,” her focus is individual lives and families, but the world with all its social ills is present. She writes with a belief that there is a moral framework to our lives, there is an “ought,” if you will, to what we do. We see this in the story’s final words, when the narrator says, Anthony “was right to call my attention to [the world’s] suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments.”

That report comes in details that do not move in clear chronological order and that pile up on one another to realize the losses life demands we sustain and the hope that our connections with one another offer.

            A few examples (page numbers are from The Collected Stories):

•            On page 303: “Our dear Selena had gotten out of bed. Heavily but with a comic dance, she soft-shoed to the bathroom, singing, ‘Those were the days, my friend...’ ”In the phrase, “soft-shoed” she gives us the image of dance but also of bedroom shoes and shuffling and illness.

•            On page 306, “Still we couldn’t move. We stood there in a row. Three old friends. Selena pressed her lips together, ordered her eyes into cold distance.” In the phrase “cold distance” she evokes both Selena’s impending death and her determination.

•            And right there, in the next sentence, when the narrator says, “I know that face,” we find Grace Paley’s characteristic authorial voice. She uses a shift to the present tense to put us inside the narrator’s head for another story.

•            One last example on page 310: the narrator who can right in the middle of the story speak out to the reader: “Because: People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they’re getting older they look at each other’s face a little ashamed. It’s clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn’t mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once. I didn’t want to remind you, my dear friend, of our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life. To which, most of the time, the friend’s eyes will courteously reply, My dear, it’s nothing at all. I hardly noticed.”

            One day, after my children had left home and my mother and sister had died, I read this story out loud in the car to my husband who was driving us somewhere. When I was done I wept at the sadness and the joy of all those conversations in the story. I wondered how Grace Paley had achieved this weaving of talk and comment and picture, as I sat there crying for my own losses and my own joys remembered.

I recall now that first birth and close with the joy that is my son: To birth, to life!