LIT 4386 British and American Literature
Marshall, "Poets in the Kitchen" (1946)
POST #11 Group B
- To analyze the kitchen culture of Marshall's West Indian women
- To discuss the way language represents people, culture, philosophy
Marshall begins by offering a female kitchen culture as an advantageous
and fertile ground for the artist (p. 1946), by "instilling in her an appreciation for ordinary speech."
She shows us how she develops as an author from this background.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
1. Paule Marshall, "Poets in the Kitchen"
What form is it?
How does this differ from a short-story? A Memoir? An Autobiography?
What does it share with these?
How does it compare with V. Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own?
What style is the writing?
What is the context (if not setting)?
Who are the main characters?
Why is "ordinary speech" important, according to Marshall?
In Marshall's experience, the occupants of her basement kitchen were poets,
who after a day of "'scrubbing floor'" would gather for conversation:
"Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab
coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank
their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked. While my sister and I sat
at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they
talked -- endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with
impressive range. No subject was beyond them. True, they would indulge
in the usual gossip: whose husband was running with whom, whose daughter
look slightly 'in the way' (pregnant) under her bridal gown as she walked down
the aisle. That sort of thing. But they also tackled the great issues of the time" (1947).
Note the energy of conversation -- the ability to speak freely.
How does this differ from other spaces in which these women might speak?
What do the women talk about?
Later she analyzes this speech: "It served as therapy, the cheapest kind
available to my mother and her friends. Not only did it help them recover
from the long wait on the corner that morning and the bargaining over their
labor, it restored them to a sense of themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth.
Through language they were able to overcome the humiliations of the work-day" (1948).
It also served as a creative outlet: "They were women in whom the need for self-expression
was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to
them they made of it an art form that -- in keeping with the African
tradition in which art and life are one -- was an integral part of their lives" (1948).
It served as a refuge: "Language is the only homeland" (Czeslaw Milosz) p. 1949.
It served as visibility: "My mother and her friends were after all the female
counterpart of Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Indeed, you might say they
suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners.
They really didin't count in American society except as a source of cheap
labor. 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" (1949).
Note how important the spoken word -- the voice -- is. How can talking
in the language of their common speech, of their homeland, do all this?
What qualities does Marshall take from her experience with the language of these women --
their spirit expressed in their style? (1949)
Note their agency in adapting the standard English to their needs, their desires, their character:
"There is a theory in linguistics which states that the idiom of a people, the way
they use language, reflects not only the most fundamental views they hold of
themselves and the world but their very conception of reality. Perhaps
in using the term 'beautiful-ugly' to describe nearly everything, my
mother and her friends were expressing what they believed to be a fundamental
dualism in life: the idea that a thing is at the same time its opposite,
and that these opposites, these contradictions make up the whole" (1950).
How do you understand this dualism? What does this dualism suggest about life?
In what sense is Marshall's "graduation", from the female-centered oral environment of the kitchen
to the male-centered, white written-word of the library -- symbolic? (1950)
After awhile the wonderful emersion into the long, detailed novels of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left her feeling "a lack after a time" (1951).
Why does she feel this lack? What's missing?
She discovers an affinity with the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "Although I
had a little difficulty at first with the words in dialect, the poem spoke to me
as nothing I had read before of the closeness, the special relationship I had had with my father" (1951).
And this whets her appetite for more. She makes of point of saying that she doesn't
give up her Fielding, Dickens or Thackery, but she discovers James Weldon Johnson,
Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston -- she discovers a history, a
culture and art of black Americans. Why is it important for Marshall to have
discovered this writing tradition? How is this like the need to study women writers in this class?
At the same time she begins to imagine her own future in writing -- and these things
are related. She says "Dunbar -- his dark eloquent face, his large volume of poems -- permitted
me to dream that I might someday write, and with something of the power with words my
mother and her friends possessed" (1952). How does Dunbar's example help her envision her own writing?
Can this be another reason for including black writers (women writers) in the tradition
or education of young people?
How are the writings by Hurston, Angelou and Marshall similar in their use or awareness of language?
Follow up questions:
How is the language of Hurston's characters, Angelou's Mamma and Marshall's mother and her
friends different from "standard English"? What is "standard English"?
How does the writer come to know the difference? (Marshall's experience is the most explicit.)
As women writers, how does each author represent this conflict in language -
the conflict between the dominant form of spoken and written English and the idiom of her people?
What is the "value" of their idiomatic languages?