An Essay on "Patriarchal Poetry" by Karen Ford
Though Stein's extensive writings on art and composition issue an elaborate poetic theory, the task of reading a Stein poem remains formidable. Her aesthetic of excess, which renders most of the poems long and difficult, places heavy demands on the reader. An example of the kind of writing Stein's theories produce is the crucial poem about aesthetics, "Patriarchal Poetry." This poem is her counterpart to Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos, Williams's Spring and All and Paterson, Crane's The Bridge, and HD's three long Trilogy poems in that it is at once a rejection of the Western literary past and an attempt to erect a new literature on the ruins of that demolished culture. Written in 1927, it falls between the hermetic lyricization of daily life and love that Tender Buttons inaugurated and the gradual return to referential language and conventional narrative during the thirties and forties - especially after World War II when she recognized the urgency and necessity of the literal. This forty-page poem, consisting of more than a thousand lines and hundreds of "paragraphs," troubled readers from the beginning. In the preface to Bee Time Vine, the volume in which it appears, Virgil Thomson admits "I have not the slightest idea what it means." In the next breath, however, he is more optimistic: "Perhaps one day I may find the meaning in it. Gertrude Stein's lines do sometimes give up their secrets over the years."
Unfortunately, few of her lines have imparted their secrets in the years since they were written, principally because Stein's poetic canon has been shrouded under the critical assumption that it is not - and was not intended to be - readable. Even a book on Stein's experimental language claims that "[m]ost of "Patriarchal Poetry" not only defies interpretation, it defies reading" (DeKoven 138). Others have suggested that "Patriarchal Poetry" is not about patriarchy at all and that the pun in the title and throughout the poem on "patriarchal" and "patriotic" is too pointed actually to mean anything. Still others have guessed that Stein chose the title of the poem because she liked the alliteration of the p's or because she "found the phrase both amusingly pretentious and suggestively absurd" (DeKoven 168) as though any of these motives for the title would also preclude its meaning something.
More recently, Harriet Scott Chessman makes her way well beyond the title to offer a stimulating reading of the poem as a revision of Genesis: "In rewriting Genesis, Stein's meditation links monotheistic creation with a monologic and authoritarian literary form allied to historical and narrative linearity." Chessman's analysis gives us the best indication so far of what reading a poem like this entails and also of the rewards for doing so. My analysis will in some respects amplify Chessman's study, but in treating much more of the poem, I hope to demonstrate that "Patriarchal Poetry" offers a grand aesthetic program that includes a revision of Genesis but does not stop there.
In fact, this poem is at the center of Stein's poetics. "Patriarchal Poetry" is a treatise on male-dominated Western literature and Stein's problematic relationship to it. It offers an exposé of literary history and a critique of literary convention at the same time that it advances her own revisionary poetics. Indeed, "Patriarchal Poetry" makes clear that excess is the only remedy for an ailing literary tradition. The poetics of excess revitalize a calcified literature, create space in an overcrowded literary history, disrupt literary tradition, and restore the excluded feminine to language and literature. Further, these stylistics carry forth an argument about patriarchal poetry that analyzes its failures, parodies its conventions, and dismantles its forms in order to prepare the way for new literatures.
"Patriarchal Poetry" is a kind of mock epic, launching itself, as Joyce, Pound, and even Eliot's works had done, back toward the beginnings of Western poetry where the heroic quest for a new literature might logically be taken up. Stein's journey will not retrace the footsteps of this literary history but will instead strike out from that starting point in an entirely new direction. Her allusions to the beginnings of patriarchal poetry are far more oblique and fragmented than her contemporaries' references to earlier literary odysseys because she is not attempting to recapitulate literary history by shoring fragments against ruins or trying to write Paradise. What Stein captures in her muted echo of Homer in the opening verse paragraph is the sense of backward movement, a gesture that for her, quite unlike for them, represents the closed, predictable, repetitive nature of patriarchal poetry: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away, he would be, carried away as long as it took fasten it back to a place where he would be carried away as long as it took." The vague phrase "he would be carried away" obliquely suggests Odysseus's departure from Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War, his captivity on Calypso's island, and his escape and return journey home. That Stein uses the same pallid phrase for different adventures suggests that they are of a piece. Several features in the passage suggest an allusion to the Odyssey, the opening in medias res, the passiveness of being "carried away" like Odysseus at the mercy of the gods, the sense in the opening phrase "as long as it took" that a great deal of time passing does not weaken the plot's backward imperatives, and allusions elsewhere in the poem to later literature all indicate that Stein is beginning with Homer. The repetitions of the opening, in, fact, reproduce what for Virgil was the problem with the Homeric plot: the validation of the homeward journey, the return to origins rather than progress toward a new destiny.
If indeed this passage can be associated with the Odyssey, it is an Odyssey stripped of plot and character, an archetypal story of male adventure in which the hero is inevitably carried away and, however long it takes, inevitably carried back again. The curious word "fasten" links this obsessively repeated tale with any attempt to think about or write literature, as though literature itself were inextricably connected to such structures of ritualized masculinity. The second stanza appears to break out of this narrative grasp by unleashing poetic excess in the form of "lively words" and insistence. "For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be to having held to be to be for before to call to be for to be before to till until to be till before to be for before to be until to be for before to for to be before will for before to be shall to be to be for to be for to be before still to be will before to be before for to be to be." "Lively words" - prepositions, verbs, adverbs, and conjunctions - are, for Stein, words that are "on the move" ("Poetry and Grammar" 212) because, unlike nouns and adjectives that are tyrannical in their naming functions, these words are easily mistaken, shifting, flexible. Thus, the lively words in the second stanza cause a kind of verbal flood that dislodges the more "fastened" language of the opening. Further, once the words are in motion, insistence renders them even more capable of change since words are never merely repeated but altered with each reiteration. And these are not just random words being set free here, but echoes of the static literature - "let there be" from the Bible and "to be [or not] to be" from Hamlet. Even isolated words, like "spell" and "tell" (and possibly "call") appear to concern literature in their reference to verbal communication.
The frequency of the word "before" reveals that Stein's epic will sweep back further than these fragments of Western literature can take us - perhaps even before "spell" (language) and "tell" (literature). Yet "before" is in counterpoint with "until" and "till, " creating a sense of history (spanning from "before" to "until") that involves both past and future literatures in this great upheaval of words.
These first two stanzas of "Patriarchal Poetry" introduce one of the sources of the poem's volition: her revisionary poetics act as a powerful verbal flood. In this surge of words we see allusions to the dislodged dominant literature bob to the surface as they are swept along by the tremendous energy and movement of excess - insistence, lively words, noninstrumental language, and the omission of punctuation. The detritus of this tradition is recycled as the raw material of the new poetry when Stein puts into play the word "leaving," which will come to be the root word for a cluster of related terms that all address her role in the process of renewing language: "Little pieces of their leaving which makes it put it there to be theirs for the beginning of left altogether practically for the sake of relieving it partly."
The poem's most obvious attack on the received literary tradition employs these pieces in the form of parodic allusions to patriarchal poetry. While allusions to Western literature are never permitted to distract us, one senses the presence of Odysseus, Hamlet, and Macbeth; hears echoes from the Bible and fairy tales; catches references to Homer, Shakespeare, the Romantics, and even the Moderns. Most of these references are fractured and oblique, and rightly so, since the new poetics has demolished such literary monuments. Normally, it is only their pieces that Stein employs - elemental, purified bits that can be used for the new literature without polluting it. At one point, however, the poem encounters a parodic representative work of patriarchal poetry en masse, ironically permitting its totality to enact its own deficiency. "A Sonnet" appears midway through the poem as one such artifact of the exhausted tradition, intact but fossilized:
To the wife of my bosom
All happiness from everything
And her husband.
May he be good and considerate
Gay and cheerful and restful.
And make her the best wife
In the world
The happiest and the most content
To the wife of my bosom
Whose transcendent virtues
Are those to be most admired
Loved and adored and indeed
Her virtues are all inclusive
Her virtues are beauty and her beauties
Her charms her qualities her joyous nature
All of it makes of her husband
A proud and happy man.
The poem, of course not technically a sonnet, is reminiscent of that form in its celebration of love, obsession with the female object, and valorization of the lyric speaker. The content of the poem, in fact, is what is at issue, and thus its refusal of form is what makes the deficiencies of content so glaring. In it a male speaker praises his wife's beauty and virtues. She is the charming woman who makes him proud, yet he credits himself with her qualities, believing his own worthiness makes her "the best wife in the world." This "sonnet" reveals that love poems of this sort celebrate unequal relations between men and women and exploit the female object of love as a means of validating the male speaker.
Yet the tensions of sexual difference, if we can call them tensions here, obviously need not produce such flat poetry. Indeed, in the tradition of sonnet sequences to which this poem weakly refers, the pretext for the poem is desire - not satiation. Such sonnets were inspired by and addressed to a woman one could not have, an ideal, unattainable lover who served as muse rather than as mistress. The state of desire that frequently engenders the sonnet, then, is replaced in Stein's poem by contentment bordering on torpor. Complacency, rather than desire, motivates this speaker, and his stasis embodies the larger poem's charge that the conventions and concerns of sonnets are trite, abstract, and empty. It is striking, especially since Stein considered poetry the noun's genre, that the speaker in "A SONNET" uses almost no concrete nouns: instead, he deals in empty abstractions like "happiness," "virtues," "beauties," "charms." Even his string of superlatives is lifeless - "best wife," "happiest," and "most content" - and his explanation for them, "with reason," is utterly flaccid. Similarly, inert generalizations like "everything," "transcendent values," "all inclusive," and "all of it" reveal their speaker's profound lethargy. The language of this sonnet, like its form, has disintegrated almost completely. Stein's parody ridicules patriarchal poetry, revealing that its forms, conventions, and concerns have become a parody of themselves.
Since Stein is no traditional sonneteer, she can allow the poem to function both as a parody of patriarchal poetry and as a ditty to Alice B. Toklas (Toklas typed Stein's handwritten manuscripts every morning when she had retired after a long night of writing; here and elsewhere, Stein sprinkles her work with little messages and greetings to Toklas). That Stein feels free to make an analogy between their unorthodox lesbian relationship and the traditional heterosexual one depicted in the poem suggests how unconstrained she felt by the patriarchal model. Indeed, it is ironically only in the context of an unconventional marriage that these orthodox abstractions once more have some force. Here, for instance, lines like "[May he] make her the best wife / In the world" ring with playful ambiguity: Stein as husband (she in fact referred to herself as such) is vowing to be a good wife as well as to celebrate the goodness of her wife. That even a parody of love poetry can function, in Stein's revisionary practice, as a romantic ditty indicates the potential of such "leavings" of the exhausted literary tradition. Everything is reusable in Stein's poetic vision.
But Stein's critique of patriarchal poetry goes deeper than these parodic allusions can suggest. Her analysis uncovers two related problems. Broadly speaking, the first concerns patriarchal poetry as a closed system; here she argues that the noun's tyrannical urge to define and delimit words is reciprocated in the poet's (and publisher's and reader's) attempts to define "good" poetry and delimit the literary canon. The second issue also formulates patriarchal thinking in terms of what Stein perceives as the problem of poetic language. Stein contends that metaphor - the cornerstone of poetic language - has lost its ability to figure difference. The metaphors of patriarchy have become predictable and hollow and thus fail to put words into new relations with each other, fail to vitalize poetry.
There is no doubt that Stein intended "Patriarchal Poetry" to refer to patriarchy, as phrases like "following dukedom duke," "first it was the grandfather then ... the father ... and then she ... not as good as that" suggest. "Signed by him," and "Men many men many how many many many many men men men said many here" establish the patrilineal character and the sheer maleness of literary tradition. Likewise, "patriarchal" implies "privileged," as many other phrases make clear: it is a poetry that has been "having an advantage all the time," that even from a distance "still bears their name," a poetry that "makes it be theirs" only when it is "Allowed allowed allowed."
Because these grandfathers, fathers, and sons have privileged access to the canon, it has become a closed, inbred system that enfeebles itself with its own lack of diversity. One stanza formulates this problem through the rhymes "chose" and "close," two words that suggest selection and exclusion: "Patriarchal poetry means and close patriarchal means and chose chose." When such a system chooses its members so selectively, it naturally closes itself to others. Thus, Stein acknowledges her own position late in the poem when she asserts that "Patriarchal Poetry includes not being received," an ironic turn of phrase that says she is "included" in the tradition only in the sense that it "includes [excluding]" her. Throughout the poem she has commented on the dominant literature's exclusion of unorthodox poetries: "they please themselves indeed" (275) by "not letting half of it be by"; or "If he is not used to it, this is the beginning of their singling singling"; they will only "include cautiously" and their "selecting ... is very well thought out" because patriarchal poetry is "their place their allow" that they have "filled to method" and "obtained with seize."
The word "seize" signals that patriarchal control of the canon has been achieved and maintained by force. This point is connected to the theme of militarism that surfaces several times throughout the poem. But the militarism, though obliquely menacing (the ominous sound of marching in "patriarchal poetry left left left right left" or the hint of war in "Patriarchal Poetry is the same as Patriotic poetry," is distinctive for its stiltedness rather than its violence. We first hear the arid monotony of traditional poetry early in the poem when one of the many definitions of "patriarchal" sounds like a textbook description or field report: "Patriarchal in investigation and renewing of an intermediate rectification of the initial boundary between cows and fishes." Indeed, another section confirms that patriarchal poetry is reasonable, administrative, reserved, "interdiminished," and regular; and a few pages later, it is again described as usual, accountable, and reasonable. In such passages, lines that register its monotonous qualities are interwoven with lines that count numbers to suggest further the tedium of the closed system:
Patriarchal poetry makes it as usual.
Patriarchal poetry one two three.
Patriarchal poetry accountably.
Patriarchal poetry as much.
Patriarchal Poetry reasonably.
Patriarchal Poetry which is what they did.
One Patriarchal Poetry.
Two Patriarchal Poetry.
Three Patriarchal Poetry.
One two three.
One Patriarchal Poetry.
Two Patriarchal Poetry.
Three Patriarchal Poetry.
In addition to this almost bureaucratic stiffness and monotony, patriarchal poetry has become weak and ineffectual because of its refusal to include poets and poetries that would invigorate it. She seems to associate this failure to develop with a fundamental childishness or immaturity. When Stein says that "Patriarchal Poetry is used with a spoon," she suggests that it has become a kind of pabulum - the bland, smooth diet of readers, writers, and publishers who prefer sameness to difference, who "never like to bother to be sure." The numbers, then, convey not only the repetitive, mechanical, measured nature of such poetry but also its elementary, primer-like sensibility. Passages like "One divided into into what what is it" or "Three thousand divided by five" associate patriarchal poetry with a schoolboy's lessons. Still others give it the sound of nursery rhymes or children's counting games: "Two make it do three make it five four make it more five make it arrive and sundries" is reminiscent of the rhyming jingles that aid children in remembering their numbers; "One little two little one little two little one little two little" recalls "One little two little three little Indians," another counting game; "Forty-nine more or at the door" echoes counting rhymes like "Not last night but the night before, twenty-four robbers came knocking at the door." She considers catering to infantile tastes in order to perpetuate the status quo "negligence" and insists "they do not do it right," "Patriarchal Poetry does not make it never made it will not have been making it."
Given what we know of Stein's theory of language, the poem's most condemning assessment of patriarchal poetry may be that it "makes no mistake" - it is a poetry of convention that worries about making mistakes, a poetry dominated by its rules. If we recall that prepositions are Stein's favorite type of words because they can be mistaken, then the many references to the fact that this literature makes no mistakes confirm its lack of spontaneity and its inflexibility. This rigidity in poetry is, of course, parallel with the canon at large; the same kind of thinking that appreciates static language also prefers a stable canon. Thus, this authoritarian sensibility protects its own interests by defining and conserving the canon. Not surprisingly, the "best" work is that which is most static: "Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations" (emphasis added). The measured certainty and predictability of the numbers, as well as their suggestion of something very elementary, capture this complex paradoxical portrait of a literature that is at once childish and tyrannical, that squanders all its energies on monitoring itself and reserves nothing for continued growth and innovation.
Stein's most devastating argument against patriarchal poetry, however, is her critique of metaphor. She had rejected using metaphor as a staple of literary language years before, of course, in the famous rose line, but this poem constitutes an unrelenting diatribe against it. The argument is pursued in the form of a question that asks, "What is the difference between [A] and [B]." In the space of forty pages, the question is raised at least thirty times. The poem often answers the question, but sometimes it does not; and, in any case, the answers are rarely the same since the question is intended to provoke investigation into figurative language, not to resolve the issue.
One point the poem makes in asking this question is that figurative language is often completely detached from its literal foundations. In their concern with being "poetical," writers have lost touch with the original meanings of words. In her word portraits Stein had used words in such a way that would restore a sense of "their weight and volume complete"; here, too, she emphasizes the word as elemental entity. For example she asks, "What is the difference between right away and a pearl there is this difference ... a pearl is milk white and right away is at once" or "What is the difference between a fig and an apple. One comes before the other." The first answer suggests that each word must be recognized independently from other words; the pearl is a concrete noun and can be described in figurative language - it is "milk white" - but the phrase "right away" is abstract and less susceptible to figuration. On the other hand, the pearl is static because it is a noun, while "right away" suggests movement and speed. To ask what the difference is between these two words (a question that always also assumes a similarity) is to link two different species of words. For the purpose of creating a metaphor out of them, there is little to be gained from asking what their difference is: they are too obviously different. However, setting them side by side accentuates their limits and possibilities, forces a reappraisal of their "weight and volume," their potential as elemental words. The second answer focuses attention on context; from this perspective, the most superficial difference between this fig and this apple is that "fig" appears first in the sentence and "apple" second. In using these two particular words to illustrate the authority of context, Stein is disregarding (or implicitly denying) the powerful literary precedent that links them - in Genesis, Adam and Eve must cover themselves with fig leaves for the sin of eating the apple (in that context, of course, the apple comes before the fig). By denying their intertextual lives, Stein is forcing the issue of context, insisting that this very sentence bears upon their meanings. Each time a word is "reused," its other associations must be "refused"; the trick in understanding this is to remember that to refuse a word means both to reject it and to recycle it (the double entendre on the noun "refuse" allows the leavings of one word to be the raw material of the new). These two examples warn that the elemental meaning of a word can be suppressed by its association with other words. Stein's overly literal answer to the question "what is the difference" removes the two terms from their metaphorical context and restores their independent significance.
Another problem with metaphor is that it encourages poets to see difference where there is none, to create artificial or even tortured relations between terms. The poem asserts, "There is no difference between having been born in Brittany and having been born in Algeria," and asks "What is the difference between Elizabeth and Edith. She knows. There is no difference between Elizabeth and Edith that she knows" or "What is the difference between two spoonfuls and three. None." Of course, one can find any number of differences between these pairs, but Stein is asking us to consider whether marking their differences gets us anywhere. Moreover, the differences between Edith and Elizabeth result, as that passage continues, from changes in syntax. The stanza operates as an exhibition of sentence diagramming in which "What is the difference between Elizabeth and Edith. She knows" becomes "What is the difference between Elizabeth and Edith that she knows" (there may be differences between them, but it asks for the particular difference that she knows). She mockingly refers to poets who contrive useless metaphors as the ones who "know the difference between instead and instead." And, in a more troubled passage that may touch on her "differences" with her own brother, she asks, "Does she know how to ask her brother is there any difference between turning it again again and again and again."
Ironically, certainly for Stein there is a difference between "again again" and "again and again"; the first phrase is akin to her style of writing in which the omission of the conjunction allows each word to push its meaning forward independently and permits the two words together to operate on the principle of insistence; the second phrase, however, functions within a traditional syntax in which the conjunction signals mere repetition. Similarly, "the difference between ardent and ardently" is that "ardently," an adverb, is a lively word, while the adjective is not. Thus, just when she persuasively shows that it is silly to tease out the difference between "instead and instead," she just as convincingly shows that it is useful to consider the difference between "ardent and ardently." Clearly her purpose is not to eradicate the metaphor's preoccupation with difference but to render it more subtle and attentive.
Related to this interrogation of difference is the recognition that "Patriarchal poetry is the same" - the most condensed, devastating, anticanonical line in the poem and one Stein repeats intermittently. Metaphors should figure difference, but patriarchal poetry (in addition to its problems apprehending difference with keenness and insight) has degenerated into mere repetition. The following example adroitly shows not only the formulaic quality of traditional figures but also the difficulty of distinguishing them from each other: "A hyacinth resembles a rose. A rose resembles a blossom a blossom resembles a calla lily a calla lily resembles a jonquil and a jonquil resembles a Marguerite a Marguerite resembles a rose in bloom a rose in bloom resembles a lily of the valley a lily of the valley resembles a violet and a violet resembles a bird." In patriarchal poetry, all the various flowers blur into the unitary concept of Flower because they are all used in exactly the same way. And even worse, the staple images of poetry (especially birds and flowers) have become indistinguishable from one another: "a violet resembles a bird." Patriarchal poetry is all "the same" because it slights the crucial distinctions that would give comparisons life. Instead of providing visual and thematic vitality, these images slide automatically into the catchphrases of Western literature such as "rose in bloom" and "lily of the valley." Yet one of the ways Stein assures language will be excessive is to prevent the passage from being wholly constrained by the limits it is describing. It also works affirmatively (like the rose line does) to "refuse" and "reuse" the enervated images of the dominant literature. The flowers transforming into women's names, the aural and visual interest the words themselves exude (as words - hyacinth, calla lilly, jonquil, marguerite - these are all unusual and sensual words), the staggered gait of the repetitions (a equals b, b equals c, c equals d), and the final comparison fluttering from flora to fauna all affect the passage in an entirely different way. One comes away from a Stein poem - when she writes like this - struck by both the hopelessness of patriarchal poetry and the potential for a new literature.
The final stage of figurative exhaustion comes when the second term of the comparison drops out (perhaps because it has become indistinguishable from the first term) and the literature simply obsessively repeats its own weary images. Stein mimics this degeneration when she urges, "Compare something else to something else" and then answers with a block of words that repeats "Such a pretty bird" over sixty times instead of drawing a real comparison. Stein's excessive repetitions of "such a pretty bird" capture the childish monotony of patriarchal poetic practice; yet like those four roses, or the flowers in the previous passage, the repetitions eventually become (or inherently are) "insistent" and can in the end work to reclaim the image of the bird for literature. Stein's "ode" to a pretty bird rattles numbingly toward unexpected renewal:
. . . and such a pretty bird and to and to and such a pretty bird and to and such a pretty bird.
Was it a fish was heard was it a bird was it a cow was stirred was it a third was it a cow was stirred was it a third was it a bird was heard was it a third was it a fish was heard was it a third. Fishes a bird cows were stirred a bird fishes were heard a bird cows were stirred a third. A third is all. Come too.
Rhyming questions disturb the monotony of the "such a pretty bird" litany with fresh cadences and complete syntax, as though the poem itself "come[s] to," emerges from exhaustion and stupor in these suddenly more pleasing lines. The questions don't, of course, achieve conventional meaning, but they do break the spell of the preceding block of words and suggest that significance is possible. Excess seems to provide the last means for regenerating figurative language.
Finally, "what is the difference" also functions as a rhetorical question: it asks "who cares" or "what does it matter." In Allegories of Reading Paul de Man discusses the contradictory meanings this question produces: "'What's the difference' [does] not ask for difference but means instead 'I don't give a damn what the difference is.' The same grammatical pattern engenders two meanings that are mutually exclusive: the literal meaning asks for the concept (difference) whose existence is denied by the figurative meaning. . . . we cannot even tell from [the] grammar whether he 'really' wants to know 'what' the difference is or is just telling us that we shouldn't even try to find out." Stein exploits both the literal and figurative sides of this question in "Patriarchal Poetry," insisting that writers attend to each possibility. Asking "what is the difference" restores the literal weight and volume of words even in figurative contexts. And for Stein, asking the question repeatedly is the only way left to register it with writers and readers who are indifferent to difference.
Stein's critique of metaphor, like her analysis of the tyranny of naming, has political as well as rhetorical implications. Each stylistic point provides an illustration at the level of poetic language of the overarching problem with patriarchal poetry: its suppression of difference. "Thank you for the difference in me" is Stein's declaration, spoken to Toklas as lesbian lover and to herself as experimental writer, that "It will never be Common - more." Above all, Stein does not want to become like the patriarchal poets; her repeated attacks on their poetry are only partly a corrective aimed at them. She is also speaking for her own benefit and must establish again and again her separateness from them - because she has read and enjoyed them all her life, she has defined her work in relation to them, and she recognizes the aesthetic appeal of their tradition. In its parody of Western literature, "Patriarchal Poetry" is her "How Not-To-Write," a poetical counterpart to her treatise on writing, How To Write, a key intertext for this poem. Like her notion of refusing by reusing, Stein's rejection of the dominant literature is not a disengagement from it but rather a deeply ambivalent engagement.
Her ambivalence is overwhelmingly clear: she both "Wish[es] for Patriarchal Poetry" and "Wish[es] to be ... not like the rest." These contradictions offer another implication of that reiterated question, "What is the difference?" The poem repeatedly questions its relationship to the dominant literature and admits its powerful connections to it: "It was not without some difficulty," "Not only requested but desired," "To like patriarchal poetry as much as that is what she did," "To never blame them," "Patriarchal Poetry tenderly," "This is mine left to them in place of how very nicely it can be planted," "Did she patriarchal poetry," "feeling at once to be in the wish and what is it of theirs" are just some instances of the nagging concerns throughout the poem that reveal tenderness and longing. She confronts her own reluctance to dissociate herself completely from them: "Patriarchal Poetry if patriarchal poetry is what you say why do you delight in never having positively made it choose." And she admits from the outset that she bears a tenderness for patriarchal poetry that it does not reciprocate: "These words containing as they do neither reproaches nor satisfaction may be finally very nearly rearranged and why, because they mean partly to be left alone. Patriarchal poetry and kindly, it would be very kind in him of him of him to be as much obliged as that." Her refusal to join the dominant literature must be viewed in the context of her ambivalence about it.
Given Stein's ambivalence about her relationship to patriarchal poetry, it is not surprising that she employs excess as a means of rejecting the tradition as well as a way into it. In many lines she appears to refuse it categorically. She expresses "a wish to be not like the rest" and determines "never to have followed farther there," "never to be sent," "never to think of patriarchal poetry at one time." Recognizing that "Patriarchal poetry might be withstood" and that "Patriarchal poetry might be what is left," she can assert "this is mine" and distinguish her work from theirs. She uses lively words and insistence to carry her work past that depleted canon because "Once sleepy one does not need a lullaby." "Letting it Letting it Letting it alone" puts gerunds to work on unfastening that crucial concept signified by the cluster of words around "leaving(s)" - leave, let, left. Similarly, insistence gives force and vitality to her determination "Never to do never to do never to do to do to do never to do ... to be certain to let to let it to let it alone."
At the same time, however, Stein deploys the techniques of excess in order to storm the castle of patriarchal poetry and get inside. Her style becomes "louder louder to be known," and she is "determined determined ... re-entered which means entered again and upon." The recurring phrase that articulates her contradictory relation to traditional literature is "Patriarchal poetry in pieces," a line that expresses her paradoxical goal to dismantle the literature and to contribute to it. Breaking apart the word "Masterpiece" in order to reveal how the received tradition authorizes itself, Stein proposes to renew poetry by unfastening its "pieces" from its "masters": "Patriarchal Poetry should be this without which and organisation. It should be defined as once leaving once leaving it here having been placed in that way at once letting this be with them after all. Patriarchal Poetry makes it a master piece like this makes it which which alone makes like it like it previously to know that it that that might that might be all very well patriarchal poetry might be resumed." Here as elsewhere, the leavings theme connects the demise of patriarchal poetry to the exclusion of different poetries; yet this, in turn, can be used (reused) to revitalize it. The pieces, here and elsewhere in the poem, are surely the "leavings" of patriarchal poetry that she will reuse "for the sake of relieving it partly" - that is, in order to unburden literary history of itself. Breaking patriarchal poetry down into elemental pieces and then using those pieces to create a new poetry constitutes one wave of her revisionary poetics released in this poem.
"Leaving" is one inflection of a verbal paradigm Stein develops to formulate the relationship of her words to those of patriarchy. The cluster of words associated with "leaving" is complex. First, it refers to the "leavings" of traditional literature, both its own remainders (metaphors and symbols that have become clichés, and language uses it has never even imagined) and the pieces left over after she has demolished it. Second, it signifies the verb "to leave," a word that cuts two ways, in one direction toward the dominant literature that leaves her out and in the other toward her own work that, in turn, leaves traditional literature behind. This inflection generates the related word "left"; again, they have left her out and she has left them behind.
Further, "leave" sometimes means "allow" and when it does, it refers to the complex causal relationship between the fact that literary history excludes her, yet she wants it to give her "leave" to create her own kind of literature. That these contradictory meanings find their expression in one and the same word perfectly and economically captures her ambivalence about a literary tradition she wants to be both recognized in and liberated from. This manifestation of the "leavings" theme builds slowly through the first fifteen pages of the poem - in phrases like "She might be let it be let it be here as soon," "leave her hear she leave her hear," "Leave it with it let it go able to be shiny so," and "Leaving left which is why they might be here be here be here" - until it escalates into one of the rare crescendos of the poem. In a burst of repetition that depends significantly upon the imperative form of the verb, "let," the poem demands a place for her in literature through an overwhelming display of verbal excess. Only the full passage can demonstrate the effects of the repetition and resolution of the sequence:
Let her be to be to be to be let her be to be to be let her to be let her to be let her be to be when is it that they are shy.
Very well to try.
Let her be that is to be let her be that is to be let her be let her try.
Let her be let her be let her be to be to be shy let her be to be let her be to be let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be let her be let her be let her be to be to be let her be let her try.
To be shy.
Let her be.
Let her try.
Let her be let her let her let her be let her be let her be let her be shy let her be let her be let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be.
Let her be shy.
Let her be.
Let her be let her be let her let her try.
Let her try to be let her try to be let her be shy let her try to be let her try to be let her be let her be let her try.
Let her be shy.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be.
Let her let her be shy
Let her try.
Let her be.
Let her let her be shy.
Let her be let her let her be shy.
Let her let her let her let her try.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be.
Let her be let her
Let her try. Let her to be let her.
Let her be let her let her try.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be shy.
Let her be.
Let her be shy.
Let her be let her try.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her let her try
Let her be shy.
Let her try
Let her let her try to be let her try.
Let her try.
Just let her try.
Let her try.
Never to be what he said.
Never to be what he said.
Never to be what he said.
Let her to be what he said.
Let her to be what he said.
Not to let her be what he said not to let her to be what he said.
Never to be let her to be never let her to be what he said. Never let her to be what he said.
Never to be let her to be never let her to be what he said.
Never let her to be what he said.
Never to let her to be what he said. Never to let her to be let her to be let her to be let her what he said.
The sequence begins as the feminine pronoun erupts between the stuttered "to be to be" that carries over from earlier in the poem. Behind this phrase, of course, is Hamlet's dilemma, "To be or not to be," which, though it represents his problem, at least also admits of a choice. The female to whom the "her" refers, on the other hand, has clearly never been allowed such a choice. "To be" she must be given an opportunity to try, as the lines make utterly clear, "Let her be. / Let her try." The repetitions tell as much as the words themselves, for the passage conveys above all the necessity of verbal excess: it is the only way she will be heard. The two-page litany constitutes an argument made eloquent more by its size than its sense.
But even this revisionary language has internalized a dismissive view of women that the lines deploy against "her": "Let her be shy." This point of view is momentarily disrupted as the passage reaches its culmination, when the poem seems almost to spit out the lines "Just let her try. / Let her try" with a vengeance. Supporting this attempt to speak for herself are the three repetitions of "Never to be what he said," presumably refusals of the stereotyped definitions of "her" that are abbreviated here in the word "shy." Again, however, the demand to be self-defining is undermined: "Let her to be what he said." But this, in turn, generates a new effort to repudiate that point of view, "Not to let her be what he said." The next two lines record the continuing struggle over definition as "Never to let her to be" (possibly meaning, "he will never let her be what she wants to be") is elaborated into "Never to let her to be what he said" (a line that vacillates between meaning "he will never let her be what she wants to be" and "she will never allow her [herself or another woman] to be what he said"). And throughout the section the words "let her" blur into a pun on "letter" that provides a suggestive background hum: all of the verbal shiffings in the passage occur because of the malleability of language's little pieces, letters.
This shouting match between herself and the dominant discourse is at last ended when the intrusion of female erotic imagery disrupts the male/female dialogue with a wholly female discourse:
Near near near nearly pink near nearly pink nearly near near nearly pink. Wet inside and pink outside. Pink outside and wet inside wet inside and pink outside latterly nearly near near pink near near nearly three three pink two gentle one strong three pink all medium medium as medium as medium sized as sized. One as one not mistaken but interrupted. One regularly better adapted if readily readily to-day. This, this this readily. Thursday.
This part the part the part of it.
And let to be coming to have it known.
As a difference.
The "his/her" binarism that has given this section its tension and volition is replaced here with a new opposition that resolves that tension yet still generates energy for the poem. "Wet inside and pink outside" introduces a binarism (inside/outside) that locates femaleness on both sides of the opposition, for it is obviously a description of a woman's body. Likewise, the color pink represents female sexuality both literally, as descriptive of her body, and figuratively, as a color traditionally associated with femininity and as a color that Stein in particular associates with the feminine. The erotic tensions upon which much of Western literature is predicated and the creative energies that such conflicts generate for art are unfortunately the same gender conflicts that tend toward the exclusion of women's artists; here, however, those tensions are superseded by an erotic paradigm that makes women central.
The imperative form of the verb, "let," that gave force earlier in the passage to her demands for inclusion shifts in this section to its other inflection, "allow," and signals the easing of tensions. "And let to be coming to have it known. / As a difference" conveys some cluster of meanings that includes permission (the fulfillment of her request to "let her try"), arrival (both in coming into existence, into the canon, and "coming" in sexual orgasm), recognition (being acknowledged by "them" and being known carnally), and difference. Everything she wanted that she could not get from "them" is supplied in this passage where the sexual and the textual permit and even generate sustaining differences that patriarchal poetry lacks.
The intrusion of a female voice, ordinarily excluded by the dominant literature, occurs elsewhere in the poem. One large repetitive passage ends with "Settle it pink with pink. / Pinkily" as though the introduction of something female "settles" or interrupts the stream of words that characterizes patriarchal poetry. Elsewhere, a play on the word "ruffle" links the gathered edging of a feminine garment to the disruption (ruffling) of the dominant literature: "Return Patriarchal Poetry at this time. / Begin with a little ruff a little ruffle." Many lines simply exude the warmth and tenderness that Stein often associates with women. "She says I must be careful and I will," "it is very warm here," and "It is very nearly a pleasure to be warm" (280) are just a few of the lines that convey this dimension. Her connection to women emerges in more overt ways as well: "to be which never separates two more two women," "having decided not to abandon a sister," and "All the way through dedicated to you" declare this commitment. Further, Hamlet's "to be or not to be" goes through another revision in a long passage that builds upon the phrase "to be to be we," a change that implies that "not being" can be overcome by "being we" with another woman.
Similarly, passages of sheer nonsense (verbalizations that are not actual words) also signal the intrusion of an antipatriarchal voice that is expressly female. Near the end of the poem, for example, a block of lines all tediously beginning with "Patriarchal Poetry" is finally interrupted by a stanza of pure nonsense:
Patriarchal Poetry left.
Patriarchal Poetry left left.
Patriarchal poetry left left left right left.
Patriarchal poetry in justice.
Patriarchal poetry in sight.
Patriarchal poetry in what is what is what is what is what.
Patriarchal poetry might to-morrow.
Patriarchal poetry might be finished tomorrow.
Dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky once and try. Dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky lullaby. Once sleepy one once does not once need a lullaby.
Significantly, the assertion that patriarchal poetry might be finished tomorrow is followed by the eruption of nonsense, as if to enact its decline by articulating something decidedly unpatriarchal. But, of course, Steinian nonsense is always rich in significance. The "dinky pinky" that follows the fatal prediction might just be the first symptom of its decline - the diminished phallus - or a mocking recitation of its refusal to grow, a baby-talk translation of patriarchal poetry. "Dinky pinky" is a term poised between the poem's rigid masculinity (recalled here in the militarism of "left left left right left") and its playful femininity. The "pink" in "dinky pinky" calls up the female sexual imagery that "finished" patriarchal poetry earlier in the poem.
"Patriarchal Poetry" does not proceed by structured argument or causal organization. It contains few moments where its tensions reach a peak and then resolve. Instead it progresses by uneven, contradictory rantings and ruminations. These contradictions do not exactly negate one another because they proceed from different sources and argue conflicting perspectives. For instance, one line asserts that "patriarchal poetry makes no mistake," and this is apparently an indictment against its inflexibility - in addition to being its own inflated claim. Later, though, another voice will say that "Patriarchal poetry makes mistakes," speaking just as critically. The second instance does not reverse the first, but clarifies it: any literature that prides itself on not making mistakes is in fact woefully mistaken. These contradictions emerge because the poem is attempting to understand the problems of patriarchal writing while it is in the very process of writing itself.
Perhaps the single most revealing line, very near the end of the poem, that captures Stein's ambivalence toward such an endeavor comes when she says, "I defy any one to turn a better heel than that while reading." One imagines the speaker approaching patriarchal poetry and then coyly turning a heal on it at the last moment. To admit that she does so "while reading" is to acknowledge her engagement with the very poetry she is rebuffing. Certainly the many allusions to the dominant literature throughout the poem have confirmed that she had read it; yet to reproach patriarchal poetry in the same motion as she approaches it reveals a continuing engagement with it. This involvement is what gives her "leave" to "refuse" it, but the genteel, playful tone of her rebuff gives a whole new cast to her refusal.
The final line of "Patriarchal Poetry" compresses this tone of contrary commitments into a resounding, high-spirited, good-humored affirmation of the poem's success in getting the best of the dominant literature: "Patriarchal poetry and twice patriarchal poetry." Here, in its last repetition, the poem achieves a satisfying balance between refutation and celebration. This terse little line says, "two cheers for patriarchal poetry," as though praising it, and "patriarchal poetry, going once, going twice," as though auctioning it off. It is at once the belligerent battle cry and the patronizing pat on the back. Technically, in its brevity and its contracting repetitions, the line closes the poem with a snap of finality. This one line provides emphatic closure to a poem that seemed, for nearly 1,500 lines, to have no shape at all.
While Pound, Eliot, and Williams were "breaking the pentameter," Stein was much more radically "breaking the noun." Their project eschewed literary conventions, as the reference to English prosody reveals; it did not challenge the whole cultural order. Stein desired to do much more - to dismantle literary form and language as a means of renewing culture. Her revolution was meant to disrupt the primacy of patriarchal poetry - not to recur to it. Her arsenal consisted of poetic excesses that would prove relevant for later literary revolutions as well.
From Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi.
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