Analysis and Response
In this article originally published in The New York Times, on January 9, 1983, Marshall is discussing how she became a writer and what her influences were. Some of her influences were conventional:
I was sheltered from the storm of adolescence in the Macon Street Library, reading voraciously, indiscriminately, everything from Jane Austen to Zane Grey, but with a special passion for the long, full-blown, richly detailed 18th and 19th century picaresque tales: Tom Jones, Great Expectations, Vanity Fair, (6)
Elsewhere she mentions other famous white writers: Czeslaw, Milosz, Flannery O’Connor, Thackeray, Fielding, and Dickens. However, Marshall’s purpose is to celebrate the ordinary talk of the women she mixed with during her childhood – her mother and their friends = and she argues that listening to their inventiveness with words was a crucial part of her development as a poet. From this she develops three ideas: that ordinary, everyday language is appropriate language for literature; that ordinary speech can be extraordinarily inventive; that language is an important way for people to maintain and celebrate their identity; and that black writers should be more widely studied and read in schools (which has happened in the years since this a article was written).. This essay will show that Marshall’s ideas still have great relevance for us today and that language and ordinary talk can play a vital role in our lives.
Common speech and the plain, workaday words that make it up are, after all, the stock in trade of the best fiction writers.
She makes even greater claims for it: the proper measure of a writer’s talent is his skill in rendering everyday speech... as well as his ability to tap, to exploit, the beauty, the poetry and wisdom it often contains. (240)
“The poetry... it contains” – a separate argument is that ordinary language is inventive and playful, and she gives several examples form words she heard during her childhood : “this man country” meaning America; “in the way” or “tumbling big” meaning pregnant; and, intriguingly, “beautiful ugly.” She also treasures the wisdom of their proverbial sayings like “God don’t love ugly and He ain’ stuck on pretty” (5) and “The sea ain got no back door.” (4) apart from the playful inventiveness of these phrases Marshall argues that these proverbs express a profound outlook on life in simple, ordinary talk.
Marshall argues that talking and shared language can remind us of who we are and can help to preserve our identities. This was certainly true of Marshall’s mother’s generation, since they were from Barbados. Marshall writes (alluding to Ralph Ellison’s novel) “They suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners.” (4) Marshall argues that it was their shared language and gossip which allowed them to retain a sense of social coherence and to maintain their identity:
But given the kind of women they were they couldn’t tolerate the fact of their invisibility, their powerlessness. And they fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word. (4)
Language brought comfort and a sense of shared values to her mother and her friends.
Marshall’s amazement at discovering the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar is excitedly conveyed as is her discovery of other important black writers – Langston Hughes, James Eldon Johnson, Zara Neale Hurston, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth - whom the education system had ignored – and this idea of Marshall’s has changed what is studied in American schools and helped bring about a more inclusive canon.
Marshall’s arguments about women taking certainly reflect my own childhood experiences: I was surrounded by aunts, cousins and grandmothers who all found great pleasure and comfort in every ay talk. Such talk can serve to preserve and strengthen social and familial bonds, and that is why it is important.
I think Marshall’s arguments are still relevant today, perhaps even more so than when she first wrote them. We live in a changing world and people move from one country to another: sometimes the only way to preserve their identity and sense of group solidarity is through language which is kept alive by talk. Talk may be the only way you have to leep in touch with your roots. Another idea that I completely agree with is the notion that everyday speech can inspire and influence literature: American fiction as so many famous novels written in the first person person that a writer without an ear for ordinary speech is at a severe disadvantage. Thus, in the spirit of Paule Marshall, I will conclude by saying: “Soully-gal, talk yuh talk!” (4)
Marshall, Paule. ‘From the Poets in the Kitchen.’ Pages 240-247 in Schlib, Johhn & Clifford, John. Making Literature Matter. 2008 (4th edition), New York: Bedford/St.Martins. Print.