[Wgcp-whc] WG/Poetics--Minutes 11/11, time for Stein

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Wed Nov 23 00:42:37 EST 2005


Dear All,

On November 11, the group met to have a discussion of certain works of Gertrude
Stein.  The discussion was a follow up to the visit by Stein textual scholar,
Ulla Dydo.  We chose to discuss various texts that Professor Dydo had focused
on during the previous session, which included Stein?s ?portrait? of
Picasso, sections of the poetic sequence Stanzas in Meditation, and the essay
on poetics ?Composition as Explanation,?   which was one of the lectures
that Stein delivered during her tour of America in 1934-5 in the wake of the
success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. All of the selections we read
were drawn from The Stein Reader, edited by Dydo.

The conversation began with the setting of the two ends of the spectrum of
contemporary critical reception of Stein?s work.  We began by citing Michael
Davidson?s extremely short essay entitled ?On Reading Stein,? which first
appeared in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the journal edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce
Andrews.  Though not more than a note, Davidson?s essay summarizes the basic
situation(s) of Stein: ?[She] has been haunted by two antithetical
criticisms.  One that proposes that her writing is all play?.The other
proposes that Stein is a kind of hermetic symbolist.?Both view operate on
either side of a referential paradigm; one that wants her to mean nothing and
the other that wants her to mean intrinsically? (197).  That dichotomy is
problematic and yet prevalent throughout the growing field of Steiniana, from
exegesis to textual scholarship, and so forth.  We discussed the ways that this
dichotomy often relegates Stein?s work merely to ?play? or to a kind of
hermetic obscurity that also might foreclose any possibility of her texts being
?meaningful.?  In any event, the question of ?play? and the values
system that that challenges becomes one that stays close to discussions of
Stein?s work.

During the session on the 11th, we focused our attention on two texts in
particular: ?If I Told Him? (the piece dealing with Picasso) and
?Composition as Explanation.?  As one would imagine, we tried to trace the
ways that Stein?s repetitions and her disruption of syntax didn?t discard
meaningfulness so much as attempted to test its boundaries.  In discussing this
we mentioned Williams?s essay on Stein in which the poet puts the force of his
contemporary?s texts this way: ?Movement?the so-called search for truth
and beauty, is for us the breakdown of attention.  But movement must not be
confused with what we attach to it but, for the rescuing of intelligence, must
always be considered aimless, without intelligence.?  For Williams, Stein
recontextualized words, making their actual force on one another as much a part
of what is read as their transparent semantic meaning.  He goes on to say about
Stein: ?Writing, like everything else, is much a question of refreshed
interest.  It is directed, not idly, but as most often happens...toward that
moment not to be predetermined where movement is blocked (by the end of logic
perhaps). It is about these parts?that Gertrude Stein is to be found.?  For
some of us, Stein seemed to be literally experimenting with language in the
sense of it being a means of mapping the very movement of thought and cognition
in the ways that her language could be seen to gauge the distance between object
and subject, signifier and signified in order to make perception of language
itself more immediate.

We debated the value of saying that Stein?s repetitions emptied words of their
meaning, as that seemed merely simplistic and again avoids the issue of what
work it might do on language itself.  There was some concern too about the way
she used Napoleon as an icon of strength, and a positive sign of the Will to
Power.  The question was raised if repeating Napoleon several times could ever
rob the name (or word) of its historical and cultural force.  This allows
brought into consideration some of the ethically problematic implications of
some of Stein?s investments.

We linked Williams?s reading with Marjorie Perloff?s description of
Stein?s writing.  Repetition, variation, permutation,? writes Perloff,
?the miniscule transfer of a given word from one syntactic slot to another,
one part of speech to another, creates a compositional field that is in
constant motion, that prevents closure from taking place.?  This closure that
is forestalled may also be the closing off of meaning itself.  But this talk of
movement also led us to considering the cubist dimension of Stein?s work. 
She clearly saw what she was doing as akin to the work of Picasso and Braque
and so her experiments with language might be read as an attempt to present
multiple perspectives and timeframes within a more inclusive present.  Stein
writes in ?Composition as Explanation? of her attempts to work against
language?s intrinsic sequentiality: ?So then I as a contemporary creating
the composition in the beginning was groping toward a continuous present, a
using everything a beginning again and again and then everything being alike
then everything very simply everything was naturally simply different and so I
as a contemporary was creating everything being alike was creating everything
naturally being naturally simply different, everything being alike.? Stein,
some argued, is negotiating time and space, trying to create a ?here? that
is never ?there? and a ?now? that is never ?then.?  If this isn?t
clear, it is because it becomes hard in working with Stein?s texts not to slip
into her asystematic logic.

These negotiations, it was suggested, are a matrix of perceptions, decentered
and alternate to the systematicism of cause and effect.  Her language is thus
communicative, in that it requires the making of (a sort of discourse)
community.  To support this I will add a relevant passage (though not
explicitly discussed at last week?s session) from Stein?s Making of
Americans: ?I want readers so strangers must do it.  Mostly no one knowing me
can like it that I love it that every one is a kind of men and women, that
always I am looking and comparing and classifying of them, always I am seeing
their repeating.  Always more and more I love repeating, it may be irritating
to hear from them but always more and more I love it of them.  More and more I
love it of them, the being in them, the mixing in them, the repeating in them,
the deciding the kind of them everyone is who has human being? (289).  In any
case, as we discussed, the mixing comes from these negotiations.  She?s
calling her reader to do something: as James writes of ?the pragmatic
method? so can we say of Stein?s work: ?It appears less as a
solution?than as a program for more work, and more particularly as an
indication of the ways in which reality may be changed.?   If language is as
elastic as Stein shows it to be, then change is more then possible?it is
something primary within composition.  In fact communication?in the sense of
?inter-action??maybe necessitates and embodies change.

Clearly, this is the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliché and this gives some
sense of one of the most intense and freewheeling discussions that the group
has had.  We resolved that we would need to come back to her work again in the

The group has one more meeting scheduled for this semester.  At that meeting we
will discuss the work of Armand Schwerner.  A brief description of his work can
be found here: http://www.ume.maine.edu/~npf/cat57.html

A review of The Tablets, his major opus is available here:

And here:

It might be best to postpone our session to Dec 9th (rather than the 2nd) in
order to give people more time to read the selection, which will be available
this Monday at the earliest.  If there are any objections to this, please let
me know.

Next semester will be very exciting with visits by poet/scholar/translator
Jerome Rothenberg (very likely) and poet/translator/scholar/member at large
Paolo Valesio.  We will also be discussing the work of authors such as Charles
Olson (at last!), Basil Bunting, Emmanuel Hocquard, and others.

At this point, let me wish all a happy Thanksgiving?or autumn respite,
whichever applies best or whichever comes first.

?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

Your humble narrator,

Richard Deming, Erstwhile Amenuensis

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