And now for something completely different. Make a cup of tea (or whatever you’d usually have with a nice slice of pie) and savour ‘The Poet’s Occasional Alternative‘ by Grace Paley.
I love the way this poem uses gaps rather than punctuation to show you how to “hear” it. There’s something pleasingly informal about this, as if we’re in conversation with the speaker, the kind of talk where there are companionable silent pauses for thought and ideas blossom and develop in the safety of the friendly space.
There is of course a slightly playful meta-ness about writing a poem about not writing a poem; but ‘the Poet’s Occasional Alternative’ reminds us of the courage and self-trust it requires to put something more explicitly personal than pie out there. ‘This does not happen with poems’ is a whole stanza on its own: I hear a wry pause before and after, imagine the speaker looking over at me as she says it, looking away again afterwards. And even if this does happen, how many poets actually get to know that there are eager readers banging metaphorical spoons on the table, clamouring for “More!”? It is a touching comparison, too, of the pre-existing, guaranteed ‘re-/ sponsive eatership’ with the pain of perhaps waiting ‘a week a year a/ generation’ (or even forever) for a right ‘consumer’ of poetry to turn up. In the end you have to create from you and for you, not for the sake of what might, just might, come back.
The passing allusion in the final stanza to the ‘unreportable sadness’ also shifts the tone, so that all subsequent re-readings are changed by the knowledge of why the poet has made pie and not poetry; but then changed again as you remember that she’s made poetry out of not being able to write poetry… There’s a pleasing neatness, a circularity here, which is part of the delight and which is why, for me, the poem contains the sadness—is not overwhelmed by it. It’s an intimate poem about how intimacy—the sharing of the self—is too hard sometimes; about how different, less revealing offerings are what we can give, in part because we know they’ll be appreciatively received.
I can certainly relate to that. Besides, who doesn’t like pie?