Thursday, June 30, 2011

Poetry: Gertrude Stein's unique style

Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874 – July 27, 1946)
From Four Saints in Three Acts

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
be.
Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily
Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.


Experimental writer Gertrude Stein has had her share of mockery for her loos and rambling writing style, and no more so than from her editor, AJ Fifield, who sent her a following rejection in 1912:

'Dear Madam,
I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your MS three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.
Many thanks. I'm returning the MS by registered post. Only one MS by one post.
Sincerely yours...' 

 

Actually, Stein started to developing this style at the early stage, as a student. Stein attended Radcliffe College from 1893 to 1897, and was a student of psychologist William James. With James's supervision, Stein and another student named Leon Mendez Solomons  performed experiments on Normal Motor Automatism, a phenomenon hypothesized to occur in people when their attention is divided between two simultaneous intelligent activities, like writing and speaking.
These experiments yielded examples of writing that appeared to represent "stream of consciousness," a psychological theory often attributed to James, which became the term used to describe the style of modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. In 1934, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in fact interpreted Stein's notoriously difficult poem, Tender Buttons, as an example of the "normal motor automatism" Stein had written about for the experiment at Radcliffe.

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein
According to a letter Stein wrote during the 1930s, however, she had never really accepted the theory of automatic writing, explaining: "there can be automatic movements, but not automatic writing. Writing for the normal person is too complicated an activity to be indulged in automatically."
These stream-of-consciousness experiments, rhythmical essays or "portraits", were designed to evoke "the excitingness of pure being" and can be seen as an answer to Cubism, plasticity and/or collage, in literature. Many of the experimental works such as Tender Buttons have since been interpreted by critics as a feminist reworking of patriarchal language. These works were loved by the avant garde, but mainstream success initially remained elusive.


Her use of repetition is ascribed to her search for descriptions of the "bottom nature" of her characters, such as in The Making of Americans where even the narrator's essence is described through the repetition of narrative phrases such as "As I was saying" and "There will be now a history of her." Stein used many Anglo-Saxon words and avoided words with "too much association". Social judgement is absent in her author's voice, as the reader is left the power to decide how to think and feel about the writing." Anxiety, fear and anger are not played upon, and her work is harmonic and integrative.

Gertrude and Alice B Toklas

Several of Stein's writings have been set by composers, including Virgil Thomson's operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, and James Tenney's skillful if short setting of Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose as a canon dedicated to Philip Corner, beginning with "a" on an upbeat and continuing so that each repetition shuffles the words, e.g. "a/rose is a rose/is a rose is/a rose is a/rose."

 


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