The poetry of Gertrude Stein was extremely divisive at the time of its release, and it remains provocative enough to inspire venom and adulation in equal measure. For what it’s worth, I consider myself a fan, though her work is best enjoyed in short readings and long discussions afterwards. That’s not to say it isn’t often a pleasure to read, of course. There’s an enviable wit and brilliance to a line like, “Sugar is not a vegetable.” And at their best, her poems can achieve a mantra-like sense of rhythm.
Still, her greatest accomplishments are theoretical ones. Her cubist poetry is the paradigm of “deconstructionist” artwork. In particular, Tender Buttons is a bold attack on conventional notions of how language relates to reality. She describes commonplace objects anachronistically, inconsistently, ungrammatically, and impossibly, assigning emotions and actions to the inanimate, colors and shapes to the noncorporeal. As a result, the reader is forced to reconsider the associations he or she has formed between words and the physical manifestations they represent. For example, by the end of “A Piece of Coffee,” we have seen the word “coffee” used to describe something utterly inscrutable. All we know for certain is that, for Stein, “coffee” can not possibly refer to the brown, caffeinated liquid with which we commonly identify the word, primarily because that kind of coffee can’t be cut into pieces.
I might be wrong about this, but I believe it was Yeats who said that the duty of the poet was to make metaphors, similes and symbols “new,” to form linguistic correlations that had previously been unconsidered by the reader. And as we all know, words are the most basic examples of symbols in a language, even though we often find them inseperable from the things they represent. For example, there are no qualities the word “yellow” shares with the color “yellow.” We simply don’t have the capacity to describe the qualities of the color in simpler terms, so we employ the word “yellow” as a symbol. It follows, then, that Stein is an extremely successful poet. She not only forces her readers to reconsider what “coffee” or “yellow” is- she forces the reader to think about what “poetry” is.
Gertrude Stein’s poems are not in any measurable verse. They are not divided into lines and stanzas, but rather sentences and paragraphs. They are not grammatically correct. They make no clear “points” about anything. We’ve recently read three pieces adamantly espousing the point of view that a work of literature must contain “truth.” Stein’s poems seem to render the very notion of “truth” laughable. By all accounts, there was no precedent for Stein, no critical standard in poetry that could have prepared the world for her work.
A few questions:
1. Can Stein’s work be considered “poetry?” Why or why not? And if not, what are they, and what difference does it make?
2. Stein worked in this radical postmodern style for years. If she had written, say, only one poem in this manner, would her point have gotten across? (Thelonious Monk once said something along the lines of, “Play the wrong note twice and becomes the right one.”)
3. A contemporary poet can easily get away with emulating, deliberately or indirectly, the style of, say, Whitman or Stevens. If a contemporary poem were to be written in the style of Stein, however, do you think it could stand on its own? If so, why? If not, does that reflect positively or negatively on Stein?