This blog post is about Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), but Gertrude Stein deserves more than a blog post. (A dissertation chapter, perhaps? **cough cough** Thanks to my sister for introducing me to G.S.!) There are too many ways to talk about Stein for just a few hundred words. We could talk, for example, about her literary interpretation of cubism, about the aurality of her writing, or about her personal life as a rather masculine lesbian in a lifelong relationship with Alice B. Toklas (of the famed brownies).
I want to talk about Patriarchal Poetry, and about not talking about patriarchal poetry.
Patriarchal Poetry reclaimed renamed replaced and gathered together as they went in and left it more where it is in when it pleased when it was pleased when it can be pleased to be gone over carefully and letting it be a chance for them to lead to lead to lead not only by left but by leaves.
They made it be obstinately in their change and with it with it let it let it leave it in the opportunity. Who comes to be with a glance with a glance at it at it in palms and palms too orderly to orderly in changes of plates and places and beguiled beguiled with a restless impression of having come to be all of it as might as might as might and she encouraged. Patriarchal Poetry might be as useless. With a with a with a won and delay. With a with a with a won and delay.
He might object to it not being there as they were left to them all around. As we went out by the same way we came back again after a detour.
That is one account on one account.
- from Patriarchal Poetry, 1927
Now read it again, out loud.
Reading this poem is a visceral experience. Read it with an ear for grammatical analysis, and spend hours deciding where to place punctuation. Voice it aloud, and stumble over the repetitions and the variations. Do you speak it in a monotone, or do you attempt to impose your own grammar? One conclusion emerges: this is not a rational text. Not a crazy or an illogical text, either, but rational is not the word for Stein's engagement with language.
For all her many repetitions of the words "patriarchal poetry," Stein does not put forward any concrete feminist agenda - nor does she really "discuss" patriarchy at all, at least not in the way that we usually understand intellectual discussion. Rather, she inhabits varying overlapping spaces of fragmentation, refusal, forms of natural beauty (periwinkle, lamb, May, daisies), rearrangement, and degrees of engagement from "negligence" to "insistence." She plays with words like "pleasant," "charm," and "desirable." This constellation of ideas is not random - and neither is my use of the word constellation. By bypassing traditional logic, Stein creates a visual or auditory space in which her words can re-signify themselves through movement through an interconnected web. In the case of "Patriarchal Poetry," she weaves her web around issues of power, gender, and interpretation.
Stein creates these networks in all her writing. There's nothing special distinguishing the form of "Patriarchal Poetry"; I could've excerpted from just about any other page in a collection of Stein and come to the same conclusions about how to read her texts. In other words, Stein is not writing in a particular way in this particular poem in order to prove a particular point about patriarchy. On the other hand, there is something highly gender-conscious about Stein's grammar and form, beginning with her choices of masculine or feminine subjects and extending to more explicit references to gender:
I ought to be a very happy woman.
Premeditated meditation concerns analysis. Now this is a sentence but it might not be.
Premeditated. That is meditated before meditation.
Meditation. Means reserved the right to meditate.
Concerns. This cannot be a word in a sentence. Because it is not of use in itself.
Analysis is a womanly word. It means that they discover there are laws.
It means she cannot work as long as this.
It is hard not to while away the time.
It is hard not to remember what it is.
With them they accord in the circumstances.
- from Sentences and Paragraphs, 1930
There are so many places to go from here. Who are "they"? What is it that we are remembering? What does "womanly" analysis look like, and how does it relate to Stein's unconventional grammar? Rather than answer these questions, I would like to take a moment to think about the fact that Stein is asking them in the first place - and the way in which she does it. As we gaze up at the night sky and draw imaginary lines between stars, we know these constellations hang over a void of inaccessible space - space so inaccessible, in fact, that we hardly know which questions to ask about it. In the same way, Stein invites us to wonder about what lies in the gaps between her rhythmic networks of words.
Our difficulty with Stein, it seems to me, is not that her writing is opaque. Rather it is that we are unaccustomed to thinking, not in lines of rational thought, but in broad and spiraling webs. It is difficult to hold an entire web in one's head at once, and it is even more difficult - and might even do an injustice to Stein - to find precise language to speak about something so linguistically amorphous.
I would like to close this entry with a question: what if we were brought up to think in webs, and not in lines? to access the more associative, emotional side of language rather than to seek rational justifications?
One children's book writer, Jonah Winter, may have been wondering the same things as he wrote this book, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude. Way to go, Jonah Winter.
... and, next up will be a look at Julia Kristeva and how she might deepen our understanding of how Stein's poetry might operate along a revolutionarily feminist symbolic logic.