This is great. Please skip directly to minute 34 for Paley reading her poems. Before that, she reads a couple of short stories, and before that, there’s a lot of intro stuff (Pinsky) and another reader. After that, you get about 30 minutes of Grace Paley reading Grace Paley poems (with some sweet/funny pauses while she gets absorbed in looking for the exact poem she wants among her sheaves of paper). This reading took place in April 2007, when she was 84. She died in August 2007.
I’m a big fan of Grace Paley’s poetry, as various Very Like A Whale posts have shown. Sadly, though, liking a poet’s poems is never any guarantee that one will like that poet’s reading of his or her poems. In this case, however, we are definitely lucky.
So what do we have in this You Tube video? A short, elderly lady with big glasses, a red hat, a gravelly old-lady voice and a pronounced New York accent. She doesn’t look up at the audience much while she reads. She uses no hand gestures or body movements. And she looks tiny and unprepossessing behind the big lectern at which she stands.
She clearly has a wicked sense of humor and is just plain wise, but it’s not just that that makes her completely engaging. The first big thing she has in her favor from my perspective is that she reads the poems as if she’s talking to you – conversationally. No rising inflections or declamation, no plaintive lingering on the last word/syllable of a line, no self-conscious ahem, I am reading a poem voice. She is obviously a natural story-teller, which helps – lots of convincing variation in tone, pitch, pace. Clear delivery. Appropriation of the material. She is in the poem as she reads. To repeat what I said of a couple of different poets in a recent post: what you feel when Grace Paley reads is not: Here I am, reading my poem. What you feel is just: Here is my poem.