Gertrude Stein was not always revered as a muse of literature. Far from it. Her climb to fame was long and arduous. The English surrealist Huge Sykes Davies dropped this boulder in her path.
Narration. By Gertrude Stein. (The University of Chicago Press.) 11s.6d. [Eleven shillings and sixpence.] This piece was first published in ‘Books of the Quarter,’ in Criterion, UK, 15/61, July 1936, pages 752–5. It is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.
“In fact all Miss Stein’s old virtues have forsaken her. The trick of constant repetition which gave pleasure when it was used in prose with no rational end, for purely aesthetic purposes, has adapted itself very ill to the making of statements with meaning. It is bad enough to hear a silly theory advanced once, it is agony to hear it advanced twenty times in quick succession.”
"He had done so many things and played so many parts that you never felt you had come to the end of him. Some knew Hugh Sykes Davies as a wit, some as a lover, some as a teacher; and there were those who read his novels and even his poems. He also married a good deal. He had many wives, four of them his own; taught at Cambridge for nearly half a century — a communist for half the time; was a surrealist in the Paris of the mid-1930s; and finally, as faith and dogma ran dry, a structural linguist. He was once to have been a candidate for the House of Commons too, in 1940, in an election canceled because of invasion fears..... Lowry’s «Under the Volcano», when it finally appeared in 1947, meant nothing to Hugh. It was alcoholic fiction, he declared, though near the end of his life he was persuaded by Canadian television to make a program; and he did it on the symbolic condition they supplied a bottle of brandy in a Cambridge UK pub during the interview. That put him in a high good humor. As he walked home late he came upon a lonely policeman standing outside King’s College and approached him unsteadily. ‘Have there been any interesting fires in the colleges this evening, constable?’"
Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited by Adam Cornford. Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature, which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject: “What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it from the outset . . . Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase, “the mind determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind, most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.”
Free verse isn’t just for students. One of the most interesting practitioners of the line — perhaps the most — in Australia is Claire Gaskin. Gaskin’s use of the line is always working the line over other formal elements, even when she enjambs it:
suppose, for instance, that men were only
represented in literature as the lovers of woman
This is from the poem ‘Paperweight,’ just one more poem from Rabbit #1. Whereas other poets worth reading work the line to energise a stanza or their poem as a whole, Gaskin’s focus is on the line. This allows, I suppose, for readings of her work as dispersed, disjunctive blah blah, but such readings miss the point. Gaskin’s power is that of a haiku-inflected, feminist-charged, Surrealist fission. Not fusion, as a lazy music as soup metaphor might have it. (Because we who love to not love formalism have heard all that ‘line’ before.) There is a post-formal feel to such ‘free verse’ too; not the echo of metre, but the echo of the line-based form of, in particular, the pantoum, in the recycling of sentiments and the ‘soap in the stocking’ line. In the above, though Gaskin is making a point, a not perhaps startling one, the emphasis comes down on ‘says Woolf,’ giving her an authority that is common in many places, and yet in texts by men, generally subsidiary to the list of modernist men.