Gertrude Stein anew
A review of ‘Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition’
A Gertrude Stein renaissance is afoot. It is difficult not to think how celebrated Stein is, to paraphrase her Stanzas in Meditation. During the past two years, she made a cameo (played by Kathy Bates) in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and several exhibitions of her art collection circulated at major museums. One of them, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, spurred a hotly debated scandal about Stein’s so-called “war record,” richly documented on this site. Stein-related monographs, symposia, and panels have proliferated, and the scholarly Gertrude Stein Society is thriving. Paris France (1940) was just reissued to much acclaim for its enduring charm. And several newly edited volumes have appeared that promise to change readers’ view of some of her most crucial works. The freshly corrected edition of her longest work of poetry, a five-part, book-length poem in 164 stanzas titled Stanzas in Meditation (1932), does just that. This skillfully edited volume will help Stanzas take its place as an essential modernist poem.
Stanzas is also a poème à clef. It speaks of a past lover and the drama of choosing just one beloved companion: “The whole of this last end is to say which of two” (248). Although literature built upon thinly veiled, real-life drama has most often taken novelistic form — think of the romans à clef by Aldous Huxley, Djuna Barnes, or Jack Kerouac — some long poems such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock have also been composed around real-life incidents. But whereas Pope’s was distinctly meant to poke fun at contemporary society, it’s not clear that Stein intended her poem to be understood by the public at large as a meditation on one of her past lovers, May Bookstaver (May B.). For her most intimate reader, Alice B. Toklas, however, there was no doubt. Toklas, Stein’s lifelong companion and most privileged decoder (who typed up Stein’s prolific, cacographic manuscripts daily), was furious when she realized that May B.’s presence was deeply woven into Stanzas. Toklas demanded that Stein erase May from Stanzas. And May was erased — not just “May,” but also “may,” “maybe,” and every other form of the phoneme. As editors Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina point out, the most frequent change was to transform the word “may” into “can,” with the original word blackened out by hand, sometimes so vehemently that the typescript paper was torn. In an essay included in the new edition, Joan Retallack reads the “mays” as “sites of confession,” memorably referring to May Bookstaver as “the hypothetical incarnate,” representing all lovers denied — and more broadly, all that is not chosen in art and life.
Ulla Dydo discovered this biographical foundation to Stanzas years ago, as she explains in Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises, 1923–1934. Editors Hollister and Setina have followed up on her revelation, preparing a corrected edition that reinstates Stein’s original version of the manuscript. Now readers can enjoy the text as Stein first wrote it, plus the text as she and Toklas agreed upon, and savor the differences between them. The editors recommend “sustained, continuous reading” as a way to facilitate the reader’s work of detecting patterns within the poem (xiv). But they also provide clear notes on all the variants included in an appendix, so that the poem may be read “as the sum of its versions and the story of its textual history. Either way one proceeds, the possibility of another way matters in this poem, for its essential pair of themes — themes whose resonance is both biographical and textual — is the work of choosing and the persistence of other options” (xv–xvi). In addition to changes that relate to “may,” the appendices furnish some real gems of revision: “hate” is revised as “hat” (162), “frustrate” as “punctuate,” and “frogs” as “prays” (281). These could well be due to Stein’s thorny handwriting. But the line “Better have it changed to progress now if the room smokes” becomes the radically different, and rather wonderful, “Better have it changed to pigeons now if the room smokes” (272).
It is hard not to read Stanzas as a poème à clef, once one knows the story. It’s too delicious. Lines such as “This is an autobiography in two instances” (149), “Shall we be three I wonder now” (66), and “If I name names if I name name with them” (65) become revelatory, and the reader experiences the pleasure of puzzling out Stein’s allusions and catching her references to love triangles. In Stein and Toklas’s private idiom, a “cow” was an orgasm, as Dydo has clarified, and in Stanzas it’s worth staying alert for the erotic potential of the bovine: “Once every day there is a coming where cows are” (62). The poem offers insight about relationships that also relates to good writing: “Now that I have written twice / It is not as alike as once” (240). There are self-reflexive hints about Stein’s composition process. We know that she frequently “wrote into given spaces,” allowing the parameters of a notebook to determine the length of a composition. In “Poetry and Grammar” she explains, “An American can fill up a space in having his movement of time by adding unexpectedly anything and yet getting within the included space everything he had intended getting.” And in Stanzas, we find the rather wise reflection that
It is very difficult to plan to write four pages.
Four pages depend upon how many more you use.
You must be careful not to be wasteful.
That is one way of advancing being wasteful
It use up the pages two at a time for four
And if they come to and fro and pass the door
They do so. (168)
Stein drafted these lines in her working notebook just at the point when only five pages remained. A writer who enjoyed the challenge of material constraints and found them generative as she composed, Stein writes in Stanzas of constraining her desires and making erotic choices. And then there’s the spillover: the delectation of a half-ecstatic, half-anxious mantra of a woman yearning for a woman, “May she be mine oh may she may she be” (243). (Move over, Molly Bloom.)
Stanzas is a poem about numbers, about counting lovers and recounting love affairs, but it’s also a poem about time, about the verb tense of possibility (or the tense verbs of possibility), about hypotheticals and wishes — which in English we often express in the past tense, whether we’re articulating a wish for the future (“I wish I could get a job”) or the present (“I wish we were traveling by train”). But it may well have been more than just the play of numbers and tenses that irked Toklas. As the most initiated of Stein’s readers, she would certainly have been sensitive to the characteristic play of Stein’s function words (all words aside from nouns, verbs, and adjectives; as John Ashbery calls them, “colorless connecting words”). Linguists have recently shown that a useful barometer for intimacy in a couple (and between poets) is not just shared vocabulary and pet names (Toklas was Stein’s “birdie” and “little ball”), but also the couple’s level of linguistic synchrony, or how they converge with regard to a couple’s use of language — and language-style matching, in which the use of function words is particularly revelatory. Toklas would have noticed that Stein’s pronouns, which tend to be frolicsome in general, make particularly baroque arabesques in Stanzas. They do-si-do with such verve that their identities seem quite exchangeable. As Stein suggests in part 1, stanza 5, masking one’s identity on the page can be a way to restrain emotion (“We say he and I that we do not cry”), or perhaps, to camouflage real-life figures:
Why can pansies be their aid or paths.
He said paths she had said paths
All liked to do their best with half of the time
A sweeter sweetener came and came in time.
Did she mean that she had nothing.
We say he and I that we do not cry
Because we have just seen him and called him back
He meant to go away
Once now I will tell all which they tell lightly.
How were we when we met.
All of which nobody not we know
But it is so. They cannot be allied
They can be close and chosen.
Once in a while they wait.
He likes it that there is no chance to misunderstand pansies. (63–64)
After the nostalgia-tinged, yet cavorting, meditation, the final line of stanza 5 arrives with surprising and amusing clarity. This is one kind of humor to be relished in Stanzas: the jolt that arrives when what would otherwise be an absurd sentence rings with a crystalline tone. Pansies, which grow alongside roses and pumpkins elsewhere in the poem, create a tongue-in-cheek reference to the slang term for homosexual man, which had been in use since the mid-1920s. Which pansies are not misunderstood, of course, are not specified; and because of the pronoun play, the pansies’ “he” might well be an encoded “her.” (Toklas referred to Stein as her “husband” and “baby boy” in their private love notes.)
Stein plays with traditional rhyming forms, aphorisms, epithets, and nursery rhymes throughout Stanzas. She is often very funny. She half-jests at her own love of celebrity. She describes the already established success of the manuscript she is still in the process of writing (“I feel that this stanza has been well-known” ) and pokes fun at her own cult of genius and desire to be “new”:
I often think how celebrated I am.
It is difficult not to think how celebrated I am.
And if I think how celebrated I am
They know who know that I am new
That is I knew I knew how celebrated I am
And after all it astonishes even me. (170)
When Stein writes of second thoughts, the timing of her delivery does the trick. The pause mid-stride between two one-line stanzas (or monostichs) creates just the necessary delay:
Often as I walk I think
But this does not mean that I think again.
By now, faithful reader, you have probably read the above slender stanzas in light of the Alice vs. May story. What if you didn’t have it in mind? Not to worry, the themes would emerge even if one didn’t know the backstory and the proper names of those involved: the poem’s preoccupation is with wishing, reflecting, meandering, doubling-back, deliberating, and selecting, as one loves and as one writes. Stanzas is deeply engaged, as poems often are, in teaching the reader to come ashore on its rocky ledge and hear its siren song. One becomes inducted into its world through the process of reading. Or perhaps, to maintain the bilingual pun in the book’s title, one opens the door to Stein’s dwelling, and learns the customs of its rooms (stanzas in Italian), from vestibule to salon.
As one reads Stanzas, one discovers how even a brief line of verse can change between start and finish. Is there a caesura after “them” in the following line, for example? “Lengthened for them welcome in repose” (58). Part of the readerly pleasure is in parsing. As one proceeds more deeply past the antechambers, one begins to hear oneself reading, and to hear oneself echoing and rhyming: “Not only needed in nodding / But not only not very nervous / As they will willingly pass when they are restless” (59). Try those lines aloud and you will hear how the meter and alliteration carry you. One discovers the satisfying sensation of an aphoristic click at the end of a stanza full of lines made entirely of colorless function words, such as “Not any more than so” and “Or not at all or not in with it”: “Four leaf clovers make a Sunday / And that is gone” (60). Noticing this shifting and sashaying is one of the sensual satisfactions of Stanzas. One learns how to listen with a Steinian ear to how “the bird makes the same noise differently” (70).
After a certain number of pages, the same noise does reverberate otherwise, puns begin to sprout, and meaning unfurls. One begins to read lines like “Mine often comes amiss” (59) and “It is not only a mis demeanor” (62), with the suspicion that “a miss” is hiding within it (Miss May B., at times, or Miss Alice B. at others). These calembours cluster and press forward upon the reader — not only because of the poem’s themes, but also because Stein trains the reader to look for the revelations tucked into etymology, by crafting lines like “There should not be this use in uselessness” (67) and “they will be ought and autocratic / Come when they call” (68). Just as thoughts contain second thoughts (“I manage to think twice about everything,” 143) — which is also a theme of Q.E.D., Stein’s early book about May B. — words contain other words, which contain worlds. The play between “word” and “world” is particularly significant in a line from Part One, “Out from the whole wide world I chose thee” (41). Stein revised the line from its earlier version, “Out from the whole wide word I chose thee,” referencing William Wordsworth, as Retallack points out. Precise selection in writing is married to the apt choice of a romantic partner. The alternate titles that Stein considered for the book, including “Stanzas of Meditation” (mentioned in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) and “Stanzas of my ordinary reflections,” “Stanzas of commonplace reflections,” and the mysteriously evocative “Harness” (all handwritten on the covers of her working notebooks, 262–263), indicate a preoccupation with the growing poem as a space of daily deliberation about choices both momentous and minute.
One begins to detect glimpses of later poets’ work through the scrim of Stein’s. There is an intimation of John Ashbery in part 1, stanza 4, where an abruptly disjunctive, discursive voice ruminates. Things happen offstage, so that one has the impression of hearing a door open in an adjacent room for a significant but unexplained purpose:
Should they sustain outwardly no more than for their own
All like what all have told.
For him and to him to him for me.
It is as much for me that I met which
They can call it a regular following met before.
It will be never their own useless that they call
It is made that they change in once in a while. (62)
Ashbery, reviewing Stanzas in a 1956 essay titled “The Impossible: Gertrude Stein,” called it “a poem that is always threatening to become a novel.” But he noted that rather than presenting a sequence of events, Stein was interested in their “way of happening.” “The story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars,” he explains. “The poem is a hymn to possibility; a celebration of the fact that the world exists, that things can happen.”
Ashbery’s one-size-fits-all model brings us to the question of the particularities of particulars, and how indeterminate Stein’s work really is. Although Retallack agrees that for Stanzas, undecidability is a key component of the work, she maintains that its biographical basis doesn’t conflict: “composed indeterminacy doesn’t erase the personal but accommodates it in its complexities and inherent ambiguities.” The idea that Stein’s work is indeterminate, or not “grounded in a coherent discourse,” to draw on Marjorie Perloff’s definition of “indeterminacy,” renders her work either troublesome or progressively subversive, depending on the reader. While Stein’s oeuvre has been interpreted by many scholars as championing indeterminacy, others have shown that her style invites anything but that — and assert that she seeks complete authorial control over the text itself. They point out that for a work to be a “masterpiece,” according to her, it cannot be an open text. Liesl Olson has recently shown that Stein herself “wanted it both ways”: she not only promoted among mainstream readers the idea that each person interprets a text through the filter of his or her own personality, but she also advocated a model of “ideas and impersonality” among academic readers. More broadly, in twentieth-century literary scholarship, Stein’s ambiguity has become an emblem for the many ways in which she, as a figure, as well as her oeuvre, muddies the waters and does not fit a Manichean view of politics or social life.
Texts such as Stanzas are hard to describe as indeterminate, given the tight control the writer wielded over her texts and her desire to bend language to her “own interest.” “I think very well of my way,” she congratulates herself in Stanzas (145). As author, Stein creates a meaning that which will “force itself” upon the reader, as she writes in “Poetry and Grammar.” The complications that she creates “make eventually for simplicity”: “Why if you want the pleasure of concentrating on the final simplicity of excessive complication would you want any artificial aid to bring about that simplicity.” Excessive complication is certainly not the same as indeterminacy. And in this case, the complications are what make Stanzas excessively pleasurable to concentrate on.
Hollister and Setina describe the “principle of choice” and the “principle of accuracy” (of “even generic words”) at work in Stanzas. They write that the principle of choice is what “guides her poetics” more broadly. Stanzas, as well as Ida: A Novel (also recently republished by Yale University Press and newly edited by Logan Esdale) show Stein in all the deliberateness of her composition. These new editions of Stein’s work align with the approach of genetic criticism (critique génétique) which, in its emphasis on manuscripts and other archival documents, treats the published text as part of an unfolding process of composition. The Yale UP editions afford new insight into Stein’s published work and her archives, which, unlike the writer’s renowned biography, have too long been neglected. The current Stein renaissance promises to usher in a new stage in Stein’s ever-unfolding celebrity.
Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition will attract new readers to the delights of Stein’s work, and undoubtedly entice Stein scholars and fans with their revelations. It will also help make room for this significant poem on modernist reading lists, alongside large-scale poetic projects such as Ezra Pound’s Cantos, HD’s Trilogy, and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Stein referred to Stanzas as “a long narrative poem” in the vein of Wordsworth, and her version renovates the category of the long poem. It is a harbinger, too, of book-length experimental poems written by women later in the century, such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Lisa Robertson’s Debbie: An Epic, Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, and Haryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T. At a moment when some conversations in modernist studies are revisiting old clash-of-the-titanic-poets debates, weighing usual suspects such as Pound, Wallace Stevens, and W. H. Auden against one another, it is useful to see Stein anew.  Happily, today, “a stanza can be bought and taught,” as Stein wrote (197). “I wish to announce stanzas at once.”
4. Ulla E. Dydo, Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923–1934 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 40–41; Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” in Stein: Writings 1932–1946, Vol. 2 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 323.
8. Gertrude Stein and Kay Turner, Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 4; cited in Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation: Pressures and Pleasures of the Text,” 7.
9. Molly E. Ireland and James W. Pennebaker, “Language Style Matching in Writing: Synchrony in Essays, Correspondence, and Poetry,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99, no. 3 (2010): 549–571.
10. Retallack describes the book as “an enigmatically choreographed interaction of pronouns performing to a music of meditation so polyvalent it throws that very word/act into exploratory relief.” Retallack, “On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation,” 3.
11. “Pansy, N. and Adj.,” OED Online (Oxford University Press).
16. “The symbolic evocations generated by words on the page are no longer grounded in a coherent discourse, so that it becomes impossible to decide which of these associations are relevant and which are not.” Marjorie Perloff, The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 18.
17. Among the champions of Stein’s indeterminacy are Marjorie Perloff, Joan Retallack, Charles Bernstein, Michael Golston, Steve McCaffrey, and Barret Watten. For another line of interpretation, see Jennifer Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Annalisa Zox-Weaver, Women Modernists and Fascism (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Lisa Siraganian, “Out of Air: Theorizing the Art Object in Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 4 (2003): 657–676.
19.Olson argues for analysis of the historical and sociological factors undergirding this divide in the critical reception of Stein’s difficulty. Liesl Olson, “‘An Invincible Force Meets an Immovable Object’: Gertrude Stein Comes to Chicago,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 2 (2010): 333–334; Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York: Routledge, 2008).
20. Elsewhere, I complicate readings of Steinian style as indeterminate — and therefore either reactionary or politically subversive — by examining archival drafts of Stein’s 1942 translation of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s speeches.