[Wgcp-whc] WG/Poetics--Minutes 10/28, Ulla Dydo visit

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Tue Nov 8 18:13:33 EST 2005


Dear All,

First, my apologies for a much delayed installment of the minutes relating the
events of our last meeting. On Friday, Oct. 28th, the group met for a special
session held at the Beinecke Library (one of our group?s co-sponsors) for a
discussion with Ulla Dydo, the preeminent Gertrude Stein scholar.  Dydo is the
editor of The Stein Reader, the Collected Letters of Stein and Thornton Wilder,
and she is the author of the recently published The Language that Rises. 
Dydo?s book, written over her twenty year research into the Stein archives
housed at the Beinecke, pursues the genetic and textual history of many of
Stein?s most important texts, following their developments from notes to full
manuscripts.  What makes Dydo?s work especially impressive is that Stein made
things almost impossibly difficult for literary scholars in that her notes and
manuscripts were not systematically arranged and thus notes for manuscripts
were assembled from various places, virtually nothing was dated, and many of
her writing notebooks weren?t always strictly literary (nor were they always
strictly commonplace books either) and might as well include shopping lists and
addresses as fragments that would be worked up into larger pieces. Moreover,
sometimes she would reuse notebooks and so on one side of a page would be notes
for a manuscript written in the 1910s and on the verso would be fragments of
work being written in the 1930s.  But since usually the writing wasn?t dated,
the different timeframes had to be determined in terms of publication and by
references in other documents whose timelines were more easily determined.

At our recent discussion, Dydo began by showing the group a few pages from one
of Stein?s notebooks that served as an aborted beginning to Stein?s most
famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Dydo indicated the ways
that the paragraphs from that one particular notebook were an attempt by Stein
to simulate the voice and idiom of Toklas, her life-partner.  However, in its
sing-song repetitions and periphrasis, the language (and a puzzling yet
tantalizing reference to the Widow Bidot, a stock character from sentimental
literature of the 19th Century in America) is too much like Stein?s own and
is thus discarded.  The alternate opening that Stein improvises is reproduced
almost verbatim in the published manuscript.  Dydo?s argument is that once
Stein found the rhythm of Toklas?s voice, it came directly and easily after
that and so there is evidence that there were only minimal revisions.

Dydo pointed to Stein?s primary materials in the form of her daily notebooks
(the carnets) and the larger manuscript books (the cahiers).  The latter were
the places where Stein?s main composing took place and were the kind of
notebooks readily available to students, for example, and were easily purchased
at any stationary store.  The former, however, are far more heterogeneous texts
and were the repository of the notes, addresses, bad verse, and the kind of
nascent thinking mentioned before that might make their way eventually into the
cahiers and thus into an actual manuscript.  These carnets also include private
notes?sometimes banal, sometimes silly, sometimes sexual?between Stein and
Toklas.  There in the collaging of different fragments?literary, personal,
silly, profound, banal, sublime?one starts to discern the difference between
the public Stein persona and the private Gertrude, a distinction that Toklas
would fastidiously guard long after Gertrude?s death.

These carnets, available anywhere at the time as they are today, were small
enough that they could be carried in Stein?s pocket and brought with her
wherever she went.  There were indications from some of the examples that Dydo
shared with us from the archives that suggested Stein would sometimes write as
she walked, jotting down a running narrative of what she saw and heard as she
went.  Dydo believes that one advantage of the small size of the carnets was
that it diffused some of the anxieties Stein felt in starting projects and that
beginning this way, the notes allowed her to work her way into something larger
and so some of the works in Stein?s oeuvre were actually composed by way of
accumulation. We discussed the observation Dydo had made that the material
constraints of the carnet would sometimes affect Stein?s cadence or
composition.  For instance, Dydo points to a piece from Stein?s book
Reflections on the Atomic Bomb entitled ?Five Words in a Line.?  In this
piece, more or less a sentential etude, Stein uses small words and phrases and
arranges each to its own line.  What is immediately evident is that the line,
?five words in a line? is indeed five words in a line.  She returns to this
again later, writing, ?four words in each line? and thereby challenges the
form/content harmony of the earlier phrase.  What is more interesting, though,
is that in the notebooks Stein?s handwriting generally allowed her only
enough room to on average write five words on a line.  On one hand this
suggests that Stein, at least at times, was actually working with forms and
constraints, even if they aren?t traditional ones, in the materiality of her
texts; it also offers ways of thinking of Stein as a proceduralist, at least in
this one piece.

Dydo was insistent that the act of composition leads to insights into Stein?s
thinking and that by looking into the manuscripts and documents of the Stein
archive one can come to know the movements of Stein?s thinking as both a
private person and public persona and see that the world does enter into
Stein?s texts, only to be transformed by the act of writing.   As coda to
Dydo?s discussion with our group, I append this paragraph from Dydo?s
chapter on Stein?s essay ?An Elucidation.?  Dydo writes:

	In this chapter I am the reader of ?An Elucidation,? trying to enter the
black and white.  I start by facing the print from outside and follow     
myself slowly moving into the piece.  I speak in the first person of my reading
as I speak in detail of her writing.  I comment not only on the text but also on
what it is to read this text.  For Stein?s work, with its apparent gap between
what it says and what it is, makes me ask both what I am reading and what
reading Stein is, just as she, in writing, always ponders what writing and
reading are.  Her printed words remain mere black and white until my reading
makes the language rise from the page.  As Stein incorporated the act of
writing into what she was writing, I read that act in the manuscripts as a part
of the creative process of the becoming of her work.  At this point text and
context become enmeshed and are no longer easily separated.  Reading Stein
involves reading both. (43)

All agreed that it was a terrific opportunity to have Ulla Dydo come and meet
with us and give us just a sampling of her encyclopedic knowledge of this
difficult and at times obdurate modernist.  Speaking of which, our reading of
Stein continues.  I e-mailed already a tentative sampling of work that we might
focus on when we convene this Friday at 3 PM. I?ll include that here once

The following sections of the Stein Reader. The portraits running from 449-466;
"Composition as Explanation" 493-504;
selections from the poem "Stanzas in Meditation" 568-88; and "Description of
Literature" 471-5.  Of course, anything more is fine, but if we all cover at
least that much there should be common ground for discussion.  I'm also
including a link to a sound file of Stein reading her portrait of

?The Working Group in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics meets every other Friday
at 3.00 PM in room 116 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University to
discuss problems and issues of contemporary poetry within international
alternative and /or avant-garde traditions of lyric poetry. All are welcome to


Richard Deming, Group Secretary, Scribe, and Scrivener

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