poem index

The Difference is Spreading: on Gertrude Stein

Year

2007

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (Library of America, 2000) is the first mainstream anthology to treat Gertrude Stein as what she surely was—one of the century's major poets. We usually think of Stein as a fiction writer (Three Lives, The Making of Americans), an essayist (Lectures in America), an autobiographer (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ), or even a dramatist-librettist (Four Saints in Three Acts), but a poet? Can Tender Buttons or Yet Dish, neither of them conventionally lineated, be considered poetry? Earlier anthologists and literary historians evidently thought not. But in the year 2000, the binary opposition verse/prose no longer seems to be the deciding factor.

"Do not forget," Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, "that a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information." Stein's poems illustrate this aphorism at every turn: she takes ordinary language—the "language of information"— and makes it strange, forcing us to be acutely aware of the way words work. Here, for example, is the first of the "Objects" in Tender Buttons, "A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass":

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Stein herself insisted that Tender Buttons was entirely "realistic" in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert. "I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen," she recalls in "A Transatlantic Interview—1946" with Robert Bartlett Haas. What she no doubt means is that reference remains central to her project even if representation does not. Unlike her contemporaries (Eliot, Pound, Moore), she does not give us an image, however fractured, of a carafe on a table; rather, she forces us to reconsider how language actually constructs the world we know.

A carafe is, of course "A kind in glass"—a kind of object belonging to the glass family, which includes its "cousins": bottles, pitchers, jugs, tumblers, wineglasses, and so on. A carafe is a "blind glass," presumably because it is filled with red wine (or sherry or port) and so one cannot see through it. It is also a blind glass because it doesn't mirror the spectator; Nor can a carafe be used, like a pair of glasses, to look at anything. One looks at it and through it ("a spectacle) but it does not improve our vision in any way. "Nothing strange" there. The "single hurt color" probably refers to the wine, red being traditionally associated with "hurt." But "hurt" may also refer to some sort of contamination: perhaps something (soda water?) has bled into that pure color and changed it. At the same time, the carafe participates in what Stein calls "an arrangement in a system to pointing"—a compositional arrangement like that of the Cubist paintings Stein loved in which each thing is related to every other thing, an arrangement that, in Stein's lexicon, is called grammar. One of her most delightful texts is called "Arthur a Grammar."

The carafe, in any case, is "not ordinary" (i.e., not just a pitcher), "not unordered in not resembling" (it is distinct from all its "cousins," but they are all part of the compositional system). And Stein concludes with the curiously postmodern assertion "The difference is spreading." No two instances are ever identical: even when the same phrase is repeated over and over again, as is common in Stein, there is always difference. And such "not resembling" enlists the reader's participation in the text's linguistic differential play. Under the title "A petticoat," we read, "A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm." Here in eleven words, all but two of them monosyllables, Stein produces a miniature erotic drama. One way to read it would be to ask how the "rosy charm" relates to the "disgrace" of the inkspot on the white petticoat? But there are many other paths of entry, the text being, in John Ashbery's words about Stanzas in Meditation, "an open field of narrative possibilities."

Stein's properties, as her "tender buttons" suggest, are domestic, everyday, female. Her language is not so much about eros as it is itself erotic. The poem called "Peeled pencil, choke" has three words to match its three-word title: "Rub her coke." And XXXV of "Yet Dish" reads:

Witness a way go.
Witness a way go. Witness a way go. Wetness.
Wetness.

It sounds like a child's jump-rope rhyme or a cheer, calling up such phrases as "go away" and "way to go!" But how do we get from "witness" to "wetness"? If poetry is, in Ezra Pound's famous definition, "language charged with meaning," Stein's writing becomes exemplary. From Ashbery, John Cage, and Louis Zukofsky to such contemporaries as Rae Armantrout and Harryette Mullen, poets have been playing "Catch as catch as coal up" with her brilliant linguistic inventions.