Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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It is customary to refer to Gertrude Stein’s poetry—and her work in general—with the qualifiers “abstract,” “repetitive,” and “nonsensical,” terms that do little if any justice to a most remarkable literary achievement. The proper evaluation of Stein’s work requires a willingness to rethink certain basic notions concerning art, discourse, and life, a task that is perhaps as difficult as the reading of Stein’s voluminous production itself. Her work, however, is really not excessively abstract, especially when one considers that her poetic rests on the fundamental axiom of “immediate existing.” Nothing could be more concrete than that. Whatever she may be describing, each unit is sure to be a complete, separate assertion, a reality immediately given—in the present, the only time there is.

Repetition is insistence: A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Each time it is new, different, unique, because the experience of the word is unique each time it is uttered. Stylistically, this entails the predominance of parataxis and asyndeton, words being “so nextily” in their unfolding. Repetition of the same is often supplanted by repetition of the different, where the juxtaposition is in kind and quality. An example of the latter is the following passage from A Long Gay Book (1932):All the pudding has the same flow and the sauce is painful, the tunes are played, the crinkling paper is burning, the pot has cover and the standard is excellence.

Whether operating at the syntagmatic or at the paradigmatic level, as above, the repetition serves the purpose of emphasizing and isolating a thing, not simply anything. The break with all previous associations forces one to consider this pudding and this sauce, allowing a concretization of the experience in this particular frame of the present. If the content appears to have no “logical” coherence, it is because it is not meant to, since the experience of the immediate does not warrant ratiocination or understanding of any sort. Art in Stein is perception of the immediate, a capturing of the instantaneity of the word as event, sense, or object. The notion is clearly nonreferential in that art does not need a world to know that it exists. Although it occasionally refers to it, it does not have to—in fact, the less it does, the better. What is of paramount importance is that this self-contained entity comes alive in the continuous present of one’s experience of it, and only then. The influence of Stein’s painter friends was unequivocal. Not all discourse that links the work of art to history and other realms of life is, properly speaking, a preoccupation of the artist: It does not constitute an aesthetic experience, remaining just that—criticism, sociology, and philosophy. Meaning is something that comes after the experience, thanks to reflection, the mediation of reason, and the standardization of logic and grammar; it is never given in the immediacy of the poetic expression. Stein’s writings attempt to produce the feeling of something happening or being lived—in short, to give things (objects, emotions, ideas, words) a sense that is new and unique and momentary, independent and defiant of what an afterthought may claim to be the “true” meaning or sense of an experience or artistic event. From this perspective, can it still be honestly said that Stein’s work is “nonsense,” with all the negative implications usually associated with the epithet?

Things as They Are

Stein had from very early in her career a keen sense of the distance that naturally exists between objects and feelings as perceived, and their transposition into conventional formalized speech. Her first novel, Q.E.D. (for the Latin quod erat...

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demonstrandum, meaning “which was to be proved”), written in 1903 and known after 1950 as Things as They Are, dealt with the then taboo topic of lesbianism in a ménage à trois of three women. However, the work is already shorn of such typical narrative features as symbolism, character development, climax, and descriptions of setting, though it is cast in an intelligible variation of standard prose. At the limits of the (Henry) Jamesian novel, what happens among the characters and the space of emotional relatedness is more important than the characters as characters. The focal point is the introspection of these human natures, and all elaborations and complications of feelings remain internal, intimate, within the consciousness of the individual being described or, most often, within the dialectic of the relationship. Doing away with all contingent background material meant zooming in on the poetic process itself; but for all practical purposes the author is still struggling within the precincts of the most sophisticated naturalism: She is still representing, in the tradition of Henry James and Gustave Flaubert, two authors whom she admired greatly. The characters are at odds with the author: They are white American college women constantly preoccupied with the propriety of their relationship and therefore demand of the author a polite, cultivated, and literary realization.

Three Lives

The problem of the language to employ in writing is dealt with in the next work, Three Lives, where the progressive abandonment of inherited expressive forms is much stronger and can be said to constitute a first milestone in Gertrude Stein’s stylistic development, especially in “Melanchta,” the last of the three stories. Here Stein describes a love story set among lower-class blacks, where she can explore the intensity of “uneducated” speech and where, as Donald Sutherland quite aptly points out, there exists “a direct relationship between feeling and word.” Typical of her entire literary career, at the time of publication the printer inquired whether the author really knew English. In Three Lives, Stein was “groping for a continuous present and for using everything again and again.” This continuous present is immediate and partakes of the human mind as it exists at any given moment when confronted with the object of writing. It is different from the prolonged present of duration, as in Henri Bergson, where aspects of human nature may enter. At the stylistic level, punctuation is rare and the present participle is employed as a substantive for its value in retaining the sense of process, of continuity in a present mode that knows no before and no after. This “subjective time” of writing is paralleled by similar developments in the visual and plastic arts, from which Stein drew copiously. Her admiration and appreciation of what Cézanne had done for painting was matched by the unrelenting support that she bestowed on the upcoming younger generation of artists, such as Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, and Francis Picabia. Cézanne had taught her that there are no less important areas on a canvas vis-à-vis the theme or figure that traditionally dominated representational painting, and he returned to “basics,” such as color, tone, distribution, and the underlying abstractions, reaching out for those essentials in the welter of external detail to capture a sense without which there would be no painting. Picasso went even further, forsaking three-dimensional composition for the surface purity of plane geometry, ushering in cubism. For Stein, perception takes place against the tabula rasa of immediate consciousness, and cubism offered the flatness of an interior time that could be brought to absolute elementalism, simplicity, and finality.

Tender Buttons

Things as They Are and Three Lives, for all their stylistic experimentation, are clearly works of prose. In Tender Buttons, however, Stein blurs the distinction between prose and poetry. She works with “meaningless” babble, puns, games, rhymes, and repetitions. Much as in Lewis Carroll and Tristam Tzara, the word itself is seen as magic. In a world of pure existence, dialogue disappears, replaced by word lists and one-word utterances. Interactions of characters are no longer tenable, and people give way to objects. The portrait is supplanted by the still life, and the technique of composition is reminiscent of Picasso’s collages, not of automatic writing. The intention seems to be to give the work its autonomy independent of both writer and reader: One sees and reads what one sees and reads, the rest being reconstruction from memory or projections of the viewer’s intellect. The effort is ambitious: to see language being born. Disparate critical ideas have been invoked to “interpret” Tender Buttons, and it is likely that Norman Weinstein (Gertrude Stein and the Literature of Modern Consciousness, 1970) comes closest when he summons the studies of Jean Piaget, the Sapir-Whorf language hypothesis, R. D. Laing, and the dimension of schizophrenia. On the opposite bank, Allegra Stewart (Gertrude Stein and the Present, 1967) reads the work as a Jungian mandala and relates the alchemical correspondences to all the literary movements of the epoch, such as Dada, Futurism, and so on.

“A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.” The plastic use of language permits the bypassing of the rule where, for example, a substantive is the object of a preposition. The infinitive “to let” appears as the object of a verb and is modified by the indefinite article “a.” If analysis emphasizes the dislocation, the derangement, of standard usage, suggesting that alternative modes of expression are possible and even revealing, no matter how unwieldy, it should also note the foregrounding of “events” in an atemporal framework, where even nouns are objects that do not need the passing of ages to be what they are. Sense, if not altogether certain meanings, can be obtained only in the suspended perception of the reading, especially aloud.

This effort to see and write in the “continuous present” requires, Stein said, a passionate identification with the thing to be described: A steady, trance-like concentration on the object will first of all divest it of all its customary appellations and then permit the issuing forth of words and structures that alone can speak as that thing in front of the observer.

“Poetry and Grammar”

In “Poetry and Grammar” (1935), Stein says, “Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. . . . Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.” In this spirit of reevaluation of the nature and process of naming things she will then go all out in making sure that the things she looks at will by themselves elicit the way they are to be called, never being for a moment worried that such a process may be at odds with the limited range of possibilities offered by conventional reality; she wanted not only to rename things but also to “find out how to know that they were there by their names or by replacing their names.” As Shakespeare had done in Arden, the goal was to create “a forest without mentioning the things that make a forest.”

With this new discovery, for the ensuing twenty years Stein kept busy revisiting timeworn forms and models of poetic expression, charging them with fresh blood and impetus. The underlying magic would be constant: “looking at anything until something that was not the name of that thing but was in a way that actual thing would come to be written.” This process was possible because Stein had arrived at a particular conception of the essence of language: It is not “imitation either of sounds or colors or emotions,” but fundamentally an “intellectual recreation.” The problem of mimesis and representation was forever behind her, and the idea of play became fundamental in her work.

1920’s and 1930’s

The third stage of Stein’s poetry came in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when she was both very happy at receiving some recognition and much depressed about some new problems of her craft. Of the three materials that she felt art had to deal with—sight, sound, and sense, corresponding to the spatial, the temporal, and the conceptual dimensions of the mind—she had up to then worked intensely on the first two, relegating the third to the background by ignoring it or by simply rejecting it as a response to conventional grammatical and logical sense. At times, she handled the problem of sense by mediating it through her theoretical writings, especially after 1925.

With the ending of the Roaring Twenties, however, much of the spatiality in literature also disappeared. Painting became intellectual, poets became religious or political, and the newer waves did not seem to hold much promise. Stein had also reached a conclusion concerning works of art: that there are no masterpieces containing ideas; in philosophy, there are no masterpieces. Ideas and philosophy require almost by definition a mediated, sequential array of items over time and in history, ideas being about something or other. For a poetic of the unique, concrete thing—again, against all claims that Stein’s is a poetic of the abstract—the task of dealing with ideas, which are by nature abstract, posed no small problem. Still, owing also to her attention to religious thought and the artistic implications of meditation, communion, trance, and revelation, she felt the need to come to terms with this hitherto untrodden ground.

Stanzas in Meditation

Stein set about writing a poem of ideas without all the historical and philosophical underpinnings and referents that accompany works such as Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1925-1972) and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). True to the credo that art is immanent and immediate, she wrote Stanzas in Meditation, a long poem made up of five parts and running to 163 stanzas, some a line long, others extending over several pages.

Remarkably little has been written about this forgotten but truly major composition, for the difficulty once again is the unpreparedness of criticism to deal with another of Stein’s innovations: Instead of writing about ideas, she writes the ideas themselves: Thinking, in other words, does not occur in the mind after reading the words on the page, but the words themselves are the ideas, making ideas partake of the human mind instead of human nature. The old reliable technique of stopping the momentous thoughts on the page as consciousness becomes aware of them creates once again the typical situation with Stein’s art: One experiences ideas as one reads; one cannot lean back and expect to put together a “coherent” whole. There are in fact no philosophical terms in the traditional sense and no organization as such. Norman Weinstein writes that “The poem is not about philosophy, but is philosophy set into motion by verbal action.” The disembodied, fragmentary, and discontinuous vision of the cubists is here interwoven with the process-philosophy of William James and Whitehead.

Stylistically, each line tends to be objective and stable and corresponds to what in prose is the sentence. As the lines build up into a stanza, they swell with tension, and, like the paragraph, constitute a specific unit of attention. The poem will occasionally evidence images and allow symbols, but these are accidental, perhaps because the idea itself can best or only be expressed in that particular fashion. According to Sutherland, the poem can be entered in a tradition that lists Plato, Pindar, the English Metaphysicals, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The poem can be read by simply beginning at random, which is perhaps the best way for the uninitiated to get a “sense” of it and familiarize themselves with the tone, lyricism, and surprisingly deceiving content. The technique of repetition is still present, revealing new contexts for given words, and Stein coins new expressions for ancient truisms. The text is a gold mine of brilliant aphorisms: “There is no hope or use in all,” or “That which they like they knew.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Between the time of the appearance of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the publication, shortly before her death, of The Gertrude Stein First Reader and Three Plays (1946), thirteen other books came out, among which were the highly successful and important The Geographical History of America (1936) and Everybody’s Autobiography (1937). During these years, Stein’s major efforts were directed to the problem of self-presentation and the formal structure of autobiography. She put the writer on the same ground as the reader, ending the privileged position of both biographer and autobiographer. She continued to elaborate the poetic of impersonal, timeless, and spaceless writing, ensuring that experience, flow, and place remain within the confines of the continuous present of perception. Her poetry during this period was chiefly written for children, rhymed and chanted and playful, with no pretense at being anything more than a momentary flash in the continuum of life, a diversion, a game. Many of these works were published either as limited editions or posthumously in the Yale edition of her uncollected writings, where they can now be read in chronological sequence.


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