Commentaries - June 2012

Gertrude Stein, a lesson play (part 2)

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein

My last commentary on Gertrude Stein focused on “If I Told Him,” particularly in the context of thinking about how language has “the potential for change and to change.” I also really focused on a particular “lesson” or sequence of writing prompts that ask students to really engage with this text and write themselves into and out of Stein’s grammar. What I am most interested in is the way that Stein’s work really changes the way students approach writing and relate to their own writing. But, what is it about Stein? Why is it that Stein (semester after semester) proves to be an invitation for students to write? And, how does engaging with Stein demystify the moniker of “writer” for students?

In a 1935 interview with John Hyde Preston, Stein states,

you will write…if you will write without thinking of the result in terms of a result, but think of the writing in terms of discovery, which is to say that creation must take place between the pen and the paper, not before in a thought or afterwards in a recasting…It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.

What is striking about this passage, beyond the fact that it is a remarkable insight into Stein’s own creative process, is the way she pinpoints the notion of “writing to discover”—something that will become synonymous with freewriting (which arguably does not enter our pedagogical vocabulary until that late 1960’s with Ken Macrorie’s Writing to Be Read). And, Stein is also speaking before the publication of Williams’ 1936 essay, “How to Write,” in which he urges, “Forget all rules, forget all restrictions, as to taste, as to what ought to be said, write for the pleasure of it--whether slowly or fast--every form of resistance to a complete release should be abandoned…” Again, Williams seems to be describing the process that would later become dubbed “freewriting,” and again, his phrasing echoes Stein’s—“if you will let it come.”


I love to teach Stein’s “word portraits.” I begin by asking students to write about the word “portrait”—and we explore some of the common definitions of portraiture (i.e. visual, realistic, focus on a person from the shoulders up, etc.). We then write about what a “completed portrait” might be—delving into the implications of Stein’s title, “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” A “completed portrait” often reminds us of a finished painting, something housed in a museum, yet students are often baffled by Stein’s rendering of Picasso. They ask—where is “he” in this portrait? My response—what do we really need to make a portrait out of words? What is the goal of a portrait—for you, for Stein?

In “Portraits and Repetition,” Stein describes her turn to portraiture as “I was creating in my writing by simply looking” (113). For students, this statement underscores the value of detail and description in formal writing. But, it also provides students with an example of how one can trust what he or she sees/hears and then translate that into words, rather than rely on outside research and ideas that belong to others. Just as Stein draws a clear distinction between “entity” and “identity,” writing, “I created something out of something without adding anything” (121), students too need to realize that writing centers around one’s own ability (and willingness) to “[make it] contained within the thing I wrote that was them” (118). In other words, Stein’s portraits open the doors for students to understand what it means to look and record—from one’s own lens, painstakingly.

When teaching “If I Told Him,” a colleague of mine asked his class to write their own “completed portraits,” of the student in the room they each knew the least. I often ask my students to write their own self-portraits (or auto-portraits). They then exchange auto-portraits anonymously (if possible) and write a new “portrait” of what the reader thinks the writer learned from Stein. Is there a way to write a portrait of the learning process? Can we write to discover what it means to write to discover? Or, "do you do you do you really understand" (Stein 107).


Preston, John Hyde. "A Conversation with Gertrude Stein." The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California, 1952. 164-72. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures, 1911-1945. London: Peter Owen, 2004. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. “How to write.” New Directions in Poetry and Prose, 1936. Ed. James Laughlin. New York: New Directions Books, 1986.

Kendrick Smithyman, ‘If I Stepped Outside, in May ’93’ (2002)

Margaret Edgcumbe
Study, typewriter, banana palms - photograph: Margaret Edgcumbe (1996)

My good friend and fellow-poet David Howard writes in to question my use of the epithet “unquestioned Top Bard” for Bill Manhire in my previous post. He also comments that “we weren't 'all' lost in the postmodern forest of the 1980s” …

I did wonder (as I said in my reply to him) if anyone would react to my canonisation of Manhire:

I can't say I think Top Bard an enviable job, but it does seem to me to have passed from Rex Fairburn to Allen Curnow in the 50s, and thence to Bill Manhire in the 2000s -- I'm speaking of influence and cultural dominance, you understand, not necessarily poetic merit ...

And as for those thickets, I guess I was thinking more of Academics than poets (the principal audience for the website). Again, meant to be a bit teasing ...

So I think I’d stand by the description. It doesn’t equate with saying that Bill Manhire is the best poet in the country (though I myself would certainly put him among the very best) – such value judgments are too fickle to depend on. What I am saying is that he’s overwhelmingly the most important in terms of “culture-power.”

What I am rather more embarrassed by is the fact that I appear to have misdated Ian Wedde’s “Barbary Coast” – while it was indeed included in his 1993 book The Drummer, it was actually reprinted there from an earlier volume, Tendering (1988). Never mind. It’s clearly a poem about the 1980s, which was the reason for including it in the first place.

Kendrick Smithyman

In any case, this oversight gives me an excuse to do a bit more fancy footwork with the dates. When meditating the 1990s, I remembered this piece, by the late great Kendrick Smithyman, our Kaipara Cavafy, our Northcote Neruda (seen here in a photograph by Kenneth Quinn)… Kendrick died in 1995, and this, one of his very last poems, was written in 1993.

It wasn’t actually collected in bookform till Last Poems (2002), though, so I’ve decided to use that as an excuse for including it in my stepladder of poems. After all, I ended up putting in two poems from the 1970s, Baxter’s and Tuwhare’s, so why not two poems about the 1980s, that most feral of decades in New Zealand’s recent history, when the wolves were living on wind in the streets of the city (Que les loups se vivent de vent – Villon), and our fat insular people suddenly felt the icy breath of the outside world?

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

So said A. E. Housman, in his “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” which has always struck me as one of the wisest and most insightful of all poems about the First World War.

Everything seemed to be for sale in those days. We’d elected, in 1984, what we fondly thought would be another vaguely socialist, vaguely centrist Labour government, only to realize with a shock that the Monetarists had invaded the temple – that these ideologues of the New Right were quite prepared to entertain the notion of no government at all.

Sector after sector fell to their ruthless cost-cutters, one at a time, and the cries of pain rose up on all sides …

Until 1987, that is, when the bubble burst, the Stock Market crash, worse in New Zealand than most other places because virtually anyone could play in our deregulated market, regardless of capital reserves or any financially prudent controls whatsoever.

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled ...

Who am I speaking of? Who “held the sky suspended … / And saved the sum of things for pay”? I guess it was us, really. No heroics, nothing but everyday business, really, but it was our artists, our teachers, our mothers, our family-men, who kept things moving along while the Richard Prebbles and Roger Douglases and other donkeys screeched their nonsense from the Beehive.

Kendrick’s poem comes from the depths of suburbia, but his eschewal of the grand gesture, his quiet acceptance of the small beauties of the everyday are what makes it (for me, at any rate) a perpetual joy:

If I stepped outside there would be no light to surprise
           my body making demands.
Without given notice rain surprises, rain tilts headlong
into fall, past rata, past silvery gum, oleander, Norfolk pine,
a few minutes filling spaces which may wait on apology;
they want light at the moment. 

One notes the adroit blending of the language of the marketplace (“making demands,” “without given notice”) with the noble names of trees, native and introduced species alike: “rata … silvery gum, oleander, Norfolk pine.”

The poem now shifts gears, moves closer to the heart of its author / protagonist:

                                      I crouch in my cave   
under the house, basement solitary. Anachronist,
on the look out:

Not an anarchist (“I am an Antichrist / I am an Anar-chyst” as the Sex Pistols so memorably warbled), but an anachronist: someone out of his time.

That description of Kendrick's cave of making is only too accurate, actually. I spent many hours down in that basement, with his wife Margaret Edgcumbe’s permission, looking through the immense series of boxfiles which constituted his life-work (they’re now in Special Collections in the Auckland University Library).

it cannot be like this downtown in the city.
Mirrorglass towers squinting all ways into themselves
discover they are heartless, at best coldhearted,
never forthright, only arrogant. Darkness at noon.

My God, how they raped and pillaged our city in the deregulated 80s! It was like the unleashing of the Jacquerie, or the Sans-culottes of the French Revolution. What had been a pleasant –  if not particularly distinguished – colonial city became a nightmare of building sites and mirror facades.

Why this mania for reflection where there had been none? Why did they all resort to mirrorglass as the architectural dernier cri? Were they conscious of their own poisonous vapidity, their lack of substance? Did they realize that any memorable images would have to be lent from elsewhere? We literally had to link hands in front of it to save the Civic Theatre from the wrecking ball. A cunning developer managed to gazump everyone and tear down His Majesty’s Theatre during a long weekend – then promptly went bust and left a huge pit where a treasure had been.

Who will expect a veil of a temple to be rent,
the money makers driven out? Showers lacking any winds
           to play at motives
give up and go away. We simply guess at what happens
between one investment opportunity and its others
as their murk, pulsing, stands brightened.

Kendrick knows that we can’t expect a Deus ex Machina to save us from the consequences of our own folly every time. Christ drove out the moneylenders in order to teach us how to do the same. We haven’t learnt our lesson sufficiently well to expect a repetition.

Market reports are broadcast, stocks look good
for those with a knowledgeable eye. Nothing goes
visibly traded between pine, lemon and silver dollar.
When I go outside light flows, pure enterprise.

“Nothing goes / visibly traded” – but an exchange is taking place nevertheless: light, water, soil combining into life and energy.

The poem’s rebuke is most telling because it’s not pompous. Kendrick was never afraid of a pun, and he doesn’t see them as detracting from a heartfelt message. The “pure enterprise” of photosynthesis just is more impressive and more interesting than that pathetic crawling heap of traders “yelling like beasts on the floor of the Bourse” (as W. H. Auden put it in his elegy for W. B. Yeats).

That we’ve allowed them free rein is our shame. The trees refute their dark dogmas without even trying. How can it be that twenty years on we’ve allowed the whole madness to happen again? Do we never learn?

Apparently not. Hence the continuing need for one of the very last poems that Kendrick Smithyman, one of the enduring masters of New Zealand poetry, ever wrote.


[NOTE. This text in our projected anthology follows an image from the paleolithic cave at Trois Frères in France, with accompanying meditation or commentary on thefigures in the dark& the nature of writing/drawing outside/beyond the normal human space. Or as our friend Robert Duncan had known it for himself in his last great work:

                                             in the dark this state

that knows nor sleep nor waking, nor dream

      – an eternal arrest.]


The Dead King Hunts & Eats the Gods


The sky is overcast,
The stars are darkened,
The celestial expanses quiver,
The bones of the earth-gods tremble,
The planets are stilled,
For they have seen the King appearing in power
As a god who lives on his fathers
And feeds on his mothers;
The King is a master of wisdom
Whose mother knows not his name.
The glory of the King is in the sky,
His power is in the horizon
Like his father Atum who begot him.
He begot the King,
And the King is mightier than he.
The King's powers are about him,
His qualities are under his feet,
His gods are upon him,
His uraei are on the crown of his head,
The King's guiding serpent is on his brow,
Even that which sees the soul,
Efficient for burning;
The King' neck is on his trunk.
The King is the Bull of the sky,
Who conquers at will,
Who lives on the being of every god,
Who eats their entrails,
Even of those who come with their bodies full of magic
From the Island of Fire.
The King is one equipped,
Who assembles his spirits;
The King has appeared as the Great One,
A possessor of helpers;
He sits with his back to Geb,
For it is the King who will give judgment
In company with Him whose name is hidden
On that day of slaying the Oldest Ones.
The King is a possessor of offerings who knots the cord
And who himself prepares his meal;
The King is one who eats men and lives on the gods,
A possessor of porters who dispatches messages;
It is Grasper-of-topknots who is Kehau
Who lassos them for the King;
It is the Serpent with raised head
Who guards them for him
And restrains them for him;
It is He who is over the blood-offering
Who binds them for him;
It is Khons who slew the lords
Who strangles them for the King
And extracts for him what is in their bodies,
For he is the messenger whom the King sends to restrain.
It is Shezmu who cuts them up for the King
And who cooks for him a portion of them
On his evening hearthstones.
It is the King who eats their magic
And gulps down their spirits;
Their big ones are for his morning meal,
Their middle-sized ones are for his evening meal,
Their little ones are for his night meal,
Their old men and their old women are for his incense-burning.
It is the Great Ones in the north of the sky
Who set the fire for him
To the cauldrons containing them
With the thighs of their oldest ones,
Those who are in the sky serve the King,
And the hearthstones are wiped over for him
With the feet of their women.
He has traveled around the whole of the two skies,
He has circumambulated the Two Banks,
For the King is a great Power
Who has power over the Powers;
The King is a sacred image,
The most sacred of the sacred images of the Great One,
And whomsoever he finds in his way,
Him he devours piecemeal.
The King's place is at the head
Of all the august ones who are in the horizon,
For the King is a god, older than the oldest.
Thousands serve him,
Hundreds offer to him,
There is given to him a warrant as Great Power
By Orion, father of the gods.
The King has appeared again in the sky,
He is crowned as Lord of the horizon;
He has broken the backbones
And has taken the hearts of the gods;
He has eaten the Red Crown,
He has swallowed the Green One.
The King feeds on the lungs of the Wise Ones,
And is satisfied with living on hearts and their magic;
The King revolts against licking the...
Which are in the Red Crown.
He enjoys himself when their magic is in his belly;
The King's dignities shall not be taken away from him,
For he has swallowed the intelligence of every god.
The King's lifetime is eternity,
His limit is everlastingness
In this his dignity of:
"If he wishes, he does;
If he dislikes, he does not,"
Even he who is at the limits of the horizon forever and ever.
See, their souls are in the King's belly,
Their spirits are in the King's possession
As the surplus of his meal out of the gods
Which is cooked for the King out of their bones.
See, their souls are in the King's possession,
Their shades are removed from their owners,
While the King is this one who ever appears and endures,
And the doers of (ill) deeds have no power to destroy
The favorite place of the King among those who live in this land
Forever and ever.


Translation from Egyptian by R.O. Faulkner



SOURCE: The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (tr. R. O. Faulkner), Oxford University Press, 1969.

Another work of poesis consigned to darkness, the texts (also called “utterances”) inscribed on the walls of burial chambers, to be read by no living eye, but to accompany the dead, as words to be uttered, actions to be achieved, on the journey into death. The “pyramid texts” themselves (arranged by Kurt Heinrich Sethe into 714 “utterances,” over 2000 lines) come from eight pyramids “constructed, and apparently inscribed, between the years 2350 and 2175 B.C.,” with many of the verses still older, perhaps 3000 B.C., writes Samuel A.B. Mercer, “perhaps long before.” Again, while the utterances were probably not unknown in oral tradition, their presence here testifies to an act of concealment & deliberate outsiderness that lasted for four or five millennia – a poetry whose written form & function were clearly meant to be outside/beyond the world of the living.

Sometimes called “the cannibal hymn,” the present text is made up of Utterances 273 & 274 in Sethe’s ordering. Mercer indicates too that the texts consist of a series of shorter utterances; the method of bringing them together & the resultant feeling of the poems are very reminiscent of later African praise-poems & suggest a continuity that is, but shouldn’t be, surprising.



Via Skype from New York to Helsinki. Feb. 20, 2011, Levi Lehto's 60th birthday celebration.
Poems read: "The Moment Is You" (excerpt) and "Sane as Tugged Vat, Your Love" – homophonic translation of a poem of Lehto's.

Matvei Yankelevich and Bernadette Mayer read at St. Mark’s Bookshop on East 3rd Street on June 11, 2012. Lewis Warsh hosted. Our favorite literary photographer, Lawerence Schwartzwald, was there and took this shot of Bernadette during her performance.

(c) Lawrence Schwartzwald.