Portraits & grammar

Gertrude Stein, a lesson play

Gertrude Stein with Basket and Pepe (1937)
image from Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

There are few things I love more than reading Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” with a composition class. I choose to focus on this poem (both as the class’s first interaction with Stein and as the topic of this post) because I think the repetition is irresistible and always suspect that when meeting Stein’s “Picasso” students might finally see writing as “play” instead of required task. In “The Difficulties of Gertrude Stein,” Joan Retallack reminds us that “there’s an intense need for play when one is in a particularly untenable situation like adulthood” (159). And, what situation seems more untenable in the moment as being a burgeoning adult in a required class that makes you write?

Once absorbed in a text that circles in and out of itself, I think students see that even written language has the potential for change and to change. And, in thinking about Stein’s repetition alongside their own processes of writing and rewriting and revising, students realize that no text needs to be permanent. As Stein writes in “Composition and Explanation,” “the composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living” (Selections 218). Similarly, Sondra Perl links the writing process to time and movement in “Understanding Composing.” Perl writes, “writing is a recursive process, that throughout the process of writing, writers return to substrands of the overall process…In other words, recursiveness in writing implies that there is a forward-moving action that exists by virtue of a backward-moving action.” By embracing the notion that writing is not a linear, or even normative process, students are opened up to the idea that the composing process— sentence, paragraph, essay—can be imbued with the same excitement as an adventure or journey.

“Who goes there, as they go they share” (Selections 191)

I always begin by handing out the poem (“If I Told Him”) and asking the class to read it out loud a number of times. Usually one student reads the poem from start to finish, then we read one line each, and then the students select the moments in the poem they are struck by and read those lines out at random. We also listen to Stein reading the poem. After each time we read the poem (or hear the poem), we pause to jot down "first thoughts" and then a few students volunteer to share their reactions. The “usual” trajectory of responses seem to move from resistance and confusion, to observations about the music (or drone) of the piece, and then finally to some level of “acceptance” (which often comes after hearing Stein’s voice).

I then usually ask the students to work in pairs—they have no more than fifteen minutes to take as much of Stein’s piece and turn it into a “correct” paragraph. They cannot change or add words—they rearrange Stein’s page, engage with her words as objects, adding in punctuation as needed. After fifteen minutes pass, each students does a short piece of process writing—usually in response to some incarnation of the prompt—“how did you approach this task?” We then hear from each pair—the groups read their “corrections” out loud and then share their individual process writing.

Sample “Correction”: “I told him he would like it. He liked it and I told him, Napoleon would like it. Now kings would like it for this exact resemblance.”

Sample Process Response: “We began by reading the beginning of the poem again. We underlined the parts of the poem that we knew did not make grammatical sense. We talked about what a sentence is supposed to do and then tried to make the words do it. Some of Stein’s ideas seemed backwards so we fixed them. We did not know what to do with Napoleon, so we decided to just include him as a neutral character.”

In preparation for the next class period, the class rereads “If I Told Him” and everyone writes a short response paper (never more than two pages) examining the language of the poem and how words (when isolated from linear meaning) can inspire emotion. What is a portrait? How do we write a “completed portrait”? Students think about what the parts of Stein’s lines, sentences, phrases, accomplish and why. This prompt gives the students the freedom to write about whatever associations they have to Stein’s piece, but to also respond to how words function in a given text.  

Excerpt from Student Response Paper:

There was a dry spell between us for about a month and I didn’t see or talk to him all of my spring break. So I approached him as spring break drew to an end. We made plans to hang out, but fearing that it would be awkward if it were just the two of us, I invited two of our mutual friends, with him knowing of course. I’m not sure what happened, but by the end of the day I honestly started thinking that I had done something wrong. It was almost as if I was making this kid’s skin crawl. It was so painful just and awkward, I didn’t think it was a good idea to ever hang out again. And then I think I started to go back and rethink EVERYTHING. “Was there was there was there what was there was there what was there was there there was there.” Was I mistaken from the beginning? Had I just thought so much that I made something that wasn’t there, there? I mean, if you repeat something enough, you start to believe it.

Excerpt from Student’s Process Write:

It was like I was reading the way my voice sounds in my head. Then I understood how to fix the words on the paper.

I’m always amazed by the student responses to Stein—it seems as though this particular poem engages students in a fantastically unpredictable way. As we see in the student response quoted, Stein has a magical impact on the way students relate to their own writing—their sense of purpose and investment in their own texts changes. I think a lot about why this is the case—and, I’m not sure I have an answer yet.  What I do know is that the writers in the room seem to gain a new understanding of a kind of grammar that exists outside of “rules.” There is also an amazing (unspoken) change in how the writing process is approached…as a process.


Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Perl, Sondra. "Understanding Composing." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 363-69. Print.

Retallack, Joan. The Poethical Wager. Berkeley: University of California, 2003. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. How to Write. New York: Dover Publications, 1975. Print.

Stein, Gertrude. Gertrude Stein: Selections. Ed. Joan Retallack. Berkeley: University Of California, 2008. Print.