Impossible Poetry? On Gertrude Stein
“Stanza XVI,” by Gertrude Stein, is arguably one of the most clunky passages ever written—a seemingly impossible text. It is part of a much longer discursive serial poem, Stanzas in Meditation, that Stein wrote during her “middle period," between 1929 and 1933. Considered one of the most difficult texts of her oeuvre, the whole of the mammoth book is a heroic foray into uncharted poetic territory whose only subject matter is the act of writing itself. It is a wild experiment begging patience; it seems composed by a willful child or someone with a highly charged creative sensibility. It challenges as it obscures, yet something in Stanzas in Meditation invites readers in—not simply to make sense of it all but actually to stop making sense, as the Talking Heads song goes. Oddly, this thrust feels generative. One looks to a stripped down vocabulary of abstract prepositions and pronouns, cut from their moorings, and especially to the ubiquitous they, repeated twenty-five times in this stanza. Who are “they,” and does it matter?
What matters to me is that the emphasis of this poem is off meaning and onto language, grammar, and modest connective words that may be obstinate and willful. As such, it suggests a new way of reading, an adventure into the stops and starts occasioned by an unfamiliar positioning of non-expressive, non-emotional words. The process actually becomes mysterious.
I first encountered this seemingly impenetrable text when I began reading it aloud some years ago with my students in the class “Mind Gertrude Stein,” a title that alluded to the rhythms of her “mind grammar,” as we call it at the Kerouac School at Naropa University, where I teach. Reading Meditation in Stanzas aloud was the only way “in” for me and for the students in my class. My eyes would not take in the flatness—dullness, almost—of language on the page, and I had to hear the floating pronouns to give them their proper due (although this had nothing to do with meaning). I wasn’t reading this lengthy (nearly 200-page) serial poem aloud to make sense; rather, I was reading aloud for the tonal logic, which had its own eccentric dance of ideas or logopoeia, “dance of the intellect,” as Ezra Pound put it. Suddenly the writing was a rich tapestry of dancing grammar and opacity.
In the 70s I attended and was involved with the historic all-night readings of Stein’s novel The Making of Americans (an extremely fluid text in so many ways, especially by comparison) in New York City, which included the participation of musician John Cage, among others. Everyone read in particular inimitable and expressive ways, beautifully various. (Cage was bemused and earnest, as I recall.) But reading Stanzas in Meditation aloud with my students was a very different kind of experience. Its repetitions were fewer and more fractured. It was poetry, not prose, and by Stein’s definition, utilized fewer verbs. It lacked the participial fervor in The Making of Americans and was neither as flowing nor as exotic. Where does one travel with this monster poem and its Roman numerals, which seem almost merciful in suggesting the parameters of the stanza. My students wanted some relief, a break in the look of what seemed an arbitrary meandering exercise. We looked first to the patterns of meter and rhythm and the number of lines.
Stein followed her own investigation into the diagramming of sentences, and we, in turn, followed her. She showed the way meditative thought could leap into language skewing meaning. But we also “minded her” as it were, succumbing to her demand to abandon preconceptions of a normative poetry.
Next we started underlining all the repeating words in selected stanzas, hoping to create a kind of “score” for analysis. I color-coded phrases, waiting for a breakthrough. But the sense suddenly did not matter. There was a pleasure beyond getting meaning or message, of actually being able to read the words as discrete entities. It was the little words (look to the little ones, the “minute particulars,” as William Blake admonishes) that Stein brought attention back to, the words we take for granted, the connective tissue that is suddenly, in her purpose, the meat and bones as well.
This particular stanza (XVI) opens with ten dull, nondescriptive, monosyllabic words. I take this as a challenge. Two uses of the word will, (ah, there’s a focus) and out of that spins a typical Steinian rhyme play: still, until. The word will is repeated ten times and recalls Shakespeare’s wordplay around his own name, Will, in the sonnets. As an exercise, I suggest reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXXXV aloud, then reading Stein’s stanza XVI and listening for a resemblance in the tonal qualities, a delightful flurry in the meaning and message of the poem. It presents a conundrum and a close reading, in any case.
Stein’s stanza repeats the word they numerous times. They is the not-so-secret character or mover of the text. The initial I of the first line completely drops away, and this brings to mind the question of Stein’s improvisation and the dynamics of an “I” and an all-encompassing “they.” She plays out all the qualities and possibilities of a word that for most represents the mass of humanity or, in some cases, a paranoid sense of that mass. She positions this panoply of “they” up against the opening “Could I think.” Such a gambit for a writer! It’s as if language had assumed ownership of itself. There is a wonderful solipsism in this approach, this uniquely Steinian stance. And the poem starts to feel fluid yet all the while eschews transparency.
A key line for me in this regard is also “Often left to come to come to arrange this,” which is self-referential to the use of the writing and arranging of the word they and suggests meta-text underpinnings, one of the great pleasures of reading Gertrude Stein. Her vocabulary is simple, the constructs are complicated, the emotion readers might feel in response is conflicted.
But in the embarrassing search for meaning, which is a terrible habit, is the line “It is an estimate of ferocity,” which really leaps out for its tangibility. It seems to sum up the thrust or force of Gertrude Stein in the work and in the world. That she—as an artist—in her calculation, in her judging of the value, the “estimate,” is what we are left with. For this reader, it is a “ferocity,” a stubborn willfulness to reconfigure language and imagination.
This essay originally appeared in the spring-summer 2014 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2014 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member online.