On "Patriarchal Poetry"
In "Stanzas in Meditation" and "Patriarchal Poetry," Stein attempts to bring this interplay directly to the surface of language: "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 . . ." (Yale 106). After the first paragraph of "Patriarchal Poetry" announces Stein's desire to unfasten and "carry away" the structures of patriarchal language, poetry, and culture, the second paragraph, quoted above, begins to mark a space "before" words, before language has to spell and to be (as signification or representation), and thus to spell "to be." Trying to retain the performative character of this linguistic occurrence, Stein not only excludes nouns but also undoes grammatical strictures to give her language more of a dynamic and a protean, ever-shifting, quality. The tireless repetition and variation of the same phrases—for, before, let it, to be—combined with the absence of punctuation marks, creates the impression of language in a melted state, free to combine and coalesce in ways unexpected, unacceptable, or even repressed by discursive practices. In order to spell what transpires "before to be before to have to be"—before language congeals into its historically and culturally authorized forms—Stein's texts engage, as it were, in their own form of cryptography, in the continuous process of transposing the space before words into the written text. As a form of intralingual or intratextual transposition, such writing aims to bring to words the erased, unknown, "language," often sought by feminist critiques of aesthetics—what DuPlessis provocatively calls the "Etruscan language."
"Patriarchal Poetry" makes clear that it is in this "semiotic" state or space that language possesses its most disruptive potential, one that Stein's texts induce in order to subvert, put into question, and play with not only literary or textual practices but also the culture and society that have instituted them. How to Write suggests that Stein's reimagining of literary language has as its specific purpose developing a new mode of thinking that would not only transform literary inscription but overhaul traditional ways of conceiving the world in terms of representation and signification. In "Poetry and Grammar," Stein proposes to subvert literary practice, its predilection for nouns and their definitional function, by means of writing as it were apart from substantives and thus gaining access to what she terms the "intense existence" of things and the world: "I had to feel anything and everything that for me was existing so intensely that I could put it down in writing as a thing in itself without necessarily using its name" (Lectures 242). For Stein, "intense existence" refers to things regarded in terms of the event—as the ever-shifting matrix of relations reconstituted into the singularity of its occurrence—rather than as objects endowed with an essence and definable by means of nouns or substantives. The intensity Stein has in mind describes the idiomatic character of each happening, the particularity of its configuration and circumstances, which are lost in the generality of linguistic naming. Existing intensely—as always singular events—things evade grammatical and semantic categories, and Stein's writing proposes to revise and adjust literary language accordingly. "Poetry and Grammar" offers then another way of formulating what in How to Write takes the shape of the poetics of event—focused on the unfolding of the world into language rather than on description, definition, and propositional statements—characteristic of the avant-garde's challenge to aesthetics. For Stein this difficult and elusive poetics has the task of finding what the last section of How to Write describes as "a vocabulary for thinking." This vocabulary comprises much more than just lexical items; it offers in fact a matrix for thinking the event that would be different from thinking in substantive forms: concepts, ideas, propositions, in short, "nouns."
Reimagining thinking away from concepts and definitions, away from its practices of nominalization/objectification, and toward its poetic form, makes Stein's work central not only to the avant-garde's revision of aesthetics but also to the critique of modernity and its cultural manifestations. The relevance of Stein's writing is less in terms of specific representations, images, or cultural practices and more with respect to the very elements—linguistic, conceptual, iconic—that make up the order of representation. Thus, in Tender Buttons, Stein's implicit critique of the exclusion of domesticity and ordinary language from high modernist art takes the form of undoing definitional and descriptive patterns in reference to everyday objects, utensils, meals, and living spaces. In "Patriarchal Poetry," it is not the images of femininity (with the exception of the sonnet) that Stein takes apart but instead the discourse of patriarchal culture: objectification, definition, possession through cognition, erasure of difference, linear progression, propositional forms of language. Stein often identifies these features with the "poetry of nouns"—the objectifying discourse characteristic of modern rationality—which, operating exclusively in terms of the name, the proper, property, identity, and substance, obliterates the event-character of experience. Stein appears to descend in her texts to this elemental level of engagement with language in order to put her critique into play at the roots of language, as it were, where it can most disconcert and put into question language practices that other radical discourses still have to follow, even if their "content" may explicitly disavow and criticize them. Beyond this, however, the elemental linguistic energy that Stein's texts produce, her playfulness and irony, serve purposes that reach across literary practice, into its cultural and social significance and into the critical potential inherent in the social functions of art.
In "Patriarchal Poetry," the declared literary, cultural, and, by extension, philosophical aim is the resistance to patriarchal culture and its dominant "poetry":
How do you do it.
Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.
Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
Patriarchal Poetry a piece.
Patriarchal Poetry in peace.
Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.
Patriarchal Poetry as peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry
Patriarchal Poetry or peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry
or pieces of Patriarchal Poetry.
Very pretty very prettily very prettily very pretty very
prettily. (Yale 133)
Ironically playing "piece(s)" against "peace," Stein indicates the desire and the possibility of withstanding Patriarchal Poetry and leaving it "in pieces" rather than "in peace." Although Stein's poem makes clear that we have to "return" to Patriarchal Poetry, since there is no easy exit from patriarchal forms of culture and writing, the trajectory of this return and the shape in which Patriarchal Poetry will find itself depends above all upon what kind of writing one performs and upon the use to which one puts language.
Works like "Patriarchal Poetry" suggest that Stein's literary practice moves toward uncovering the link between elemental linguistic configurations and their potential to both identify and explode the "patriarchal grammar" of the world—its matrix of the relations of difference, dependence, and power. As Stein indicates in How to Write, grammar holds the key to the order of discourse and representation that the tradition seeks to repeat and perpetuate. The repetitiveness of grammar, its insistence on following rules, reflects for Stein the cultural order that links stability with the figure of the father and with patriarchal power—the order of sameness, repetition, and predictability that erases difference. The last line of "Patriarchal Poetry" is one of the most telling examples in this context: "Patriarchal poetry and twice patriarchal poetry" (Yale 146). Stein's linking of this repetitiveness and predictability of grammar with the central role of nouns in language suggests that the everyday itself is "patriarchal"—structured and regulated by the hierarchical rules of representation that assure the dominance of the "more valuable" substantive forms of objectified knowledge.
At the same time, though, "Grammar is in our power" (How to Write 73)—it is open to revision, transformation, and rewriting, the operations that Stein's texts continuously perform on their language and inherited conventions. Identifying the phallocratic complicity of traditional grammar with the grammar of culture—"Grammar is contained in father . . ." (How to Write 99)—Stein counters the hegemony of this "patriarchal poetry" by bringing to our attention the disruptive and transformative power of language, especially of its "poetic" space. In this gesture, she points out the pertinence of the avant-garde revisions of aesthetics, even in their extreme, exploratory articulations, to the critical and transformative powers within culture; more, her writing allows us to identify the intersections of the "elementary" work that avant-garde artists undertake on the discourses of art (for example, Malevich in painting, Khlebnikov, Beckett, or Bialoszewski in literature) with the issues of power, domination, and cultural monopoly. One could argue that it is texts like "Patriarchal Poetry" that show us not only that literature is never, even at the apparent extreme of experimentation, purely formal or "for its own sake," but also how such elemental and seemingly confined literature in fact encodes subversive intent and practice into its very mode of writing.
. . .
One of the links between Stein's work and feminist critique is precisely this claim that there is no common knowledge or knowledge of the commonplace that would return us to some sense of a "substantive," even if only local, community. Stein's articulation of the everyday explodes the notion of common knowledge by turning her poetics of domesticity into the arena for the problems of gender, femininity, and lesbianism. In her texts the ordinary is precisely the locale where conflict, difference, otherness, and oppression mark themselves. In other words, the local is the locus of difference: of sexual, gender, and language difference. "Patriarchal Poetry" associates the local with gender difference, with the feminine subverting the masculine (patriarchal) hegemony of sameness through the parody of its "mean" practices of erasing differences and imposing the unity of meaning: "Patriarchal Poetry is the same. / . . . / Patriarchal Poetry connected with mean" (Yale 139).
from "The Poetics of Event: Stein, the Avant-Garde, and the Aesthetic Turn of Philosophy." SAGETRIEB 12.3
Much of Stein's writing, as DeKoven has pointed out, has been devoted to demolishing and replacing the worn-out conventions and hierarchical orders of discourse invented by patriarchal society. But the long poem "Patriarchal Poetry" is not "about" this concern; rather it places the term "patriarchal poetry" into the multiple suggestive incoherent mode of discourse it is opposed to, where it stands out like a rock, meaning nothing and heard only as a drum beat. "'Patriarchal Poetry is not cubistic at all," wrote Virgil Thomson, who knew Stein while she was composing it, "not angular or explosive or in any way visual. It is rounded, romantic, visceral, auditory, vastly structured, developed like a symphony." Beautifully musical, the piece modulates through highly rhythmical interweavings of word motifs often reminiscent of the repeated squeakings and jerkings of a piece of machinery: "Is it best to support Allan Allan will Allan Allan is it best to support Allan Allan will Allan best to support Allan will patriarchal poetry Allan will patriarchal poetry Allan will patriarchal poetry is it best to support Allan . . . ." Its final lines resound with the long drawn-out cadence of the symphonic finale:
Patriarchal poetry has to be which is best for them at three
which is best and will be be and why why patriarchal poetry is
not to try try twice.
Patriarchal Poetry having patriarchal poetry. Having patriarchal
poetry having patriarchal poetry. Having patriarchal poetry,
Having patriarchal poetry and twice, patriarchal poetry.
He might have met.
Patriarchal poetry and twice patriarchal poetry.
From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 54: American Poets, 1880-1945, Third Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Ed. Peter Quatermain. Copyright © 1987 by The Gale Group.
In 1927 Gertrude Stein writes a long poem entitled "Patriarchal Poetry" that exactly measures her distance from the canon. A busy subject, patriarchal poetry is this, is that, is just about everything. It writes patriotic poetry: marches left right, left right. It writes sonnets: "To the wife of my bosom." It is the name and the character of the text, a comic mask. The poem ends with singsong, with Mother Goose, with a "Dinky pinky dinky pinky dinky pinky lullaby." It is a wicked thing to do to Patriarchal Poetry, to show its dinky pinky, not take it seriously.
Patriarchal Poetry not to try. Patriarchal Poetry and lullaby. Patriarchal Poetry not to try Patriarchal poetry at once and why patriarchal poetry at once and by by and by Patriarchal poetry has to be which is best for them at three which is best and will be be and why why patriarchal poetry is not to try try twice.
From Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature. Ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Neil Schmitz.
Ulla E. Dydo
In the world of Stein's writing the bonds that tie words to things are loosened and names split off from objects. Stein attempts to perceive everything fresh, as if she had never seen it before. She refuses to use words merely because they are associated with events or because grammatical habit prescribes their use in the construction of sentences. No class of words is more important than any other. Stein constructs with prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions as much as with nouns and verbs. There is no hierarchy of words or of usage. In 1927 she wrote a piece entitled "Patriarchal Poetry," which implied that patriarchal poetry, along with other hierarchical systems, was dead and needed to be laid to rest.
Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.
Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
Patriarchal Poetry a piece.
Patriarchal Poetry in peace.
Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.
Patriarchal Poetry as peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry at peace.
Patriarchal Poetry or peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry or pieces of Patriarchal Poetry.
She pays Patriarchal Poetry respect by capitalisation, but capitalisation of something that is already in pieces becomes a backhanded compliment.
Patriarchal organisation is vertical, hierarchical and fixed. The landscape of Stein's world is horizontal, democratic and fluid. In it, all things and all words are of equal value; nothing is more important than anything else nor are words permanently attached to things. To call hers a comic world means not that nothing is sacred but that everything is sacred, from small to large, from near to far, from word to word. Her meditations require slow reading, without syntactical assumptions. The pleasure of reading Stein is the pleasure of spreading out the words in a plentitude that creates not uniformity but fullness of possibility.
From Gertrude Stein and the Making of Literature. Ed. Shirley Neuman and Ira B. Nadel. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Ulla E. Dydo.
Harriet Scott Chessman
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. ("Patriarchal Poetry," YGS, 120)
In 1927 Stein returns to the question of creation from a new angle. In the earlier "Mildred Aldrich Saturday" she challenges the concept of a storyteller, whether female or male, a challenge heightened in A Birthday Book's eschewal of story or teller in favor of a mythos of continual and unordered linguistic birth. Although her 1927 prose poem "Patriarchal Poetry" continues this mythos, a new element appears in the annunciation of a writing primarilyalthough not exclusivelyattached to a female presence and landscape. This writing will find its fullest expression in the 1927 novel Lucy Church Amiably.
"Patriarchal Poetry" grounds its consideration of literary origination and ownership in manifold allusions to Genesis. In rewriting Genesis, Stein's meditation links monotheistic creation with a monologic and authoritarian literary form allied to historical and narrative linearity. We may enter into her meditation via a surprising riddle occurring halfway through "Patriarchal Poetry":
What is the difference between a fig and an apple. One comes before the other. What is the difference between a fig and an apple one comes before the other what is the difference between a fig and an apple one comes before the other. (YGS, 128)
At first glance, the answer ("One comes before the other") appears irrelevant. Although "fig" comes before "apple" in the sentence, this priority evinces a humorous arbitrariness, and indeed under- goes a sudden reversal as a second "fig" follows "apple," to be followed in turn by another "apple." The claim to priority itselfto being "before"becomes comically impossible to sustain.
Whereas the order of "figs" and "apples" in Genesis holds crucial significance for the conceptual shape of Western Judeo-Christian history, Stein blithely changes the original order in her first sentence. In the account of the Fall the apple "comes before" the fig, in that Eve and then Adam, in eating the apple, cause their own Fall, represented by their attempt to hide their nakedness in fig leaves. This story represents and explains the woman's "difference" in a negative sense. The price of Eve's transgression is the pain of childbirth and, as Stein may have interpreted it, the secondary status of women within patriarchal culture: "In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you."
The mention of "figs" and "apples" evokes a situation of Adamic naming grounded in the similarity of Adam to the original Namer. John's interpretation of Genesis in linguistic terms"ln the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"marks the originary power of God as the Word who, in naming, calls into existence and who continues to govern the world He has named. The story's sequence, from God's Creation to the creation of Adam and then to the creation and transgression of Eve, may be said to form an argument about the importance of priority in the establishment, from the beginning, of hierarchical relationships. Stein reveals the arbitrariness and changeability of such a sequence. Priority becomes a comic and even a useless issue, as the Word metamorphoses into words, composed of letters on a page: "f-I-f," "a-p-p-l -e." The order of letters in each word, although agreed upon by all speakers of the English language, manifests itself within Stein's writing as essentially arbitrary, just as the sequence of "apple" to "fig" exists simply through consensus: and who, Stein might ask, gives a fig for consensus? Eve's transgression against God's Word becomes in Stein's text a "mistake""Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake" (YGS, 124)to be reclaimed as Stein's project. By making mistakes"Patriarchal Poetry makes mistakes" (YGS, 132)Stein turns Genesis on its head. She reenters the "Garden," not of Eden (God's and Adam's garden), but of language itself, a field within which words may be loosened from the old order, the old stories and meanings. Eve's capacity to make "mistakes" (a significantly mild term) forms matter for celebration, as in "Poetry and Grammar," where Stein observes:
[Verbs and adverbs] have one very nice quality and that is that they can be so mistaken. It is wonderful the number of mistakes a verb can make and that is equally true of its adverb. Nouns and adjectives never can make mistakes can never be mistaken but verbs can be so endlessly, both as to what they do and how they agree or disagree with whatever they do. (LIA, 211-12)
Once words make "mistakes," leaping away from their traditional significances and contexts, "patriarchal poetry" may be "fastened back." "Patriarchal Poetry" suggests this fastening in its beginning: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away" (YGS, 106). If "it" signifies "patriarchal poetry," then Stein suggests that this poetry "took" a long time to make, just as Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" embarks upon a lengthy project of unfastening. This poetic tradition, however, may be kept "back," in the past, where it cannot harm the present text. As the patriarchal poet, or the poetic tradition, "he" may be carried away from the present, just as the pronoun "he" may be loosened from its freightedness as a signifier of dominance within culture.
Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" also represents a "fastening back," not to an historical point but to an imaginary one. She offers us the utopian possibility of becoming present "before" words became ordered by the Word. This place of "beforeness" may be under- stood as a transformation of the presymbolic relation of intimacy between mother and child, where words have not yet become participants in the Law of the Father, but present themselves as sounds, alive, unfastened to objects, and fascinating ("fasten-ating") in their ceaselessly changing nature. Language in its original and potential form, Stein suggests, transcends all our attempts to "fasten " it down. In Stein's redeemed version of the mother-infant relation, no figure claims priority.
Words spill with profusion into the opening of Stein's second paragraph, in a movement illuminating her assertion that paragraphs are "emotional":
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 for 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. (YGS, 106)
We hear a distorted echo of God's first Word here, his "Let there be. .." The "original" "Let there be. .." becomes dispersed: we see the words "let" and "be," and even an approximation of the whole phrase, now "let it be," yet their location in a sentence of divine significance has been made impossible. The word that originally might have meant God's (or the human author's) priority"before"becomes far more unstable, capable of breaking in two and coming together again: "to be for to be before." The Word, transformed into this cornucopia of words, has become a matter of spelling ("spell to be before to be before"), whose original "spell" ("Let there be. ..") may be unspelled by Stein's new incantation.
The beginning of this paragraph, "for before," represents a parody in small of the ideology of priority. "For" literally comes before "before": "For [comes before] before." This assertion attaches to a grander claim, as "for," signifying "because," marks the beginning of an explanation that might read: "Because [I came] before, [I have the right to claim power.]" "Before," in this sense, acts as the familiar agent, guarantor, and source of authority in Western culture. This "before," however, joins no complete sentence, divine or human, but opens onto a tumultuous series of words, "befores" scattered among them.
This deconstructive and demythologizing rewriting of Genesis, however, offers simultaneously a new act of origination, a call into literary and linguistic being. Unordered by sentences or syntax, the words in these paragraphs find a new order. As they jostle each other in a continual movement, coming together in a different form each time we attempt to read through them, rhyming, splitting in two and reuniting, repeating with seemingly infinite variations, these words plunge us into the immediacy and presence of language, where each word, even each sound, each letter, marks a birthnot a birth out of one coherent authorial presence, but a different kind, a sudden and delightful appearance of word after word, letter after letter, onto the whiteness of the page.
This continuous birth of language links with a "story" glimpsed but largely unwritten, one countering Genesis with an account of an utterly democratic creation. The "for" in one sense"let it be for"suggests a gift, an interpretation borne out further on:
Dedicated to all the way through. Dedicated to all the way through.
Dedicated too all the way through. Dedicated too all the way through.
Apples and fishes day-light and wishes apples and fishes day-light and
wishes day-light at seven.
All the way through dedicated to you. (YGS, 118)
Another presence becomes felt here, one that may in an immediate sense be "fastened" to Alice Toklas. "Alice" indeed comes in as a name within a few lines of this dedication: "Helen greatly relieves Alice patriarchal poetry come too there must be patriarchal poetry come too" (YGS, 119). "Patriarchal poetry" may be transformed to such an extent that it will "come" to these two women; or it may "come too," it may come along with other poetics, for Stein is establishing a democracy. In this sense, the opening passage ("For before") may represent a form of marriage vow, a statement of dedication: "to have," "to be," "to be for," "to be t[w]o" (an allusion to "Alice B. Toklas") "to having held," "to call to." All these infinitives suggest an infinity, an illimitability, of the love between these "two," as Stein vows that she "will" [love], just as she "shall" [ always love], "still," and for the duration of time ("while").
This allusion to Stein's relationship with an actual woman forms part of a larger revision of the concept of genesis, for in Stein's alternative "creation" at least two figures are present: the "we" of the "to be we" passage"To be we to be to be we to be to be to be we to be we" (YGS, 114). The unnamed "they" referred to throughout the piece may refer simultaneously to "patriarchal poets" and to the two whose "wedding""Not a piece of which is why a wedding left" (YGS, 113) [not a piece of wedding cake is left?]"Patriarchal Poetry" announces, and through whom the "poetry" comes into being. Together, "they have it with it reconsider it with it" (YGS, l08), where the "it" may be both their love and, incongruously, patriarchal poetry, which undergoes reconsideration in relation to ("with") "their" intimate creativity, their creation of intimacy. "They might change it as it can be made to be" (YGS, 112): through their doubled efforts, they have the power to change the very conception of authorship.
This half-articulated intimacy gives birth to an alternative language and literary form allied to the female, although open to an interplay of gender. Toward the middle of "Patriarchal Poetry," the birth of this new form is announced (and prayed for) more openly:
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. (YGS, 120)
This pronoun "her," open in its reference, may include Alice "B." Toklas ("Let her be" can be read as "letter b"), Stein herself ("Let her try": let her attempt to recreate patriarchal poetry by renaming and reclaiming it), and a discourse "more democratically inclusive of the feminine ("her try," or "her[s]t[o]ry," the opposite of an exclusive "his story"), for which the text wishes and prays through its rhythmic incantation. The word "shy," enfolding within itself both "she" and "I," emblematizes the doubleness of this writing. Furthermore, the plea to "let her" constitutes an invocation to the "letter" ("let her try": letter/herstory: a new form of literature), which, as the element composing written language, may be "rearranged," just as Stein's "Patriarchal Poetry" rearranges traditional "letters": "Rearrangement is nearly rearrangement" (YGS, 119). The letter, as a material sign, comes as close as possible to the literal, as the traditional place of the female, now drawn into language.
In the insistence upon language's materiality, upon its graphic shapes and designs as well as its presence as sheer and delightful sound, Stein attempts ("Let her try") to attach language to the body, especially to the realm of lesbian relationship, which be- comes her figure for the form of writing she (they) urge(s) into existence. Soon after the incantation of "Let her try," the sexuality that has been intimated but only obliquely described bursts into articulation:
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. (YGS, 121)
This passage "nearly" describes a lesbian erotics. The suggestive "wet inside and pink outside," although it is not "fastened" to any particular part of the body, hints at the female genitals, just as the numbers "one," "two," and "three" may refer to fingers. Stein's resistance to naming names here forms an essential part of her dismantling of traditional representations of the female body. Further, the limitlessness of this sexuality, as Stein evokes it, represents the basis for a utopian transcendence of history. Origin and priority have no hold here, for this erotics has no beginning and no end; it cannot be understood as a linear narrative, just as its participants, its "authors," cannot be identified. Each may be .'before" the other, in the sense of being present to the other, yet no one figure emerges as the primary creator of this ongoing event. In this sense, although the model for such dialogic creativity is that of lesbian love-making, the model opens out to a larger field inclusive of both genders, in which gender itself becomes a questionable category, since the hierarchy upon which it has been based becomes no longer possible.
from The Public is Invited to Dance: Representation, the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.
Stein sees patriarchy as dependent on a series of rigid distinctions (man-woman, culture-nature, mind-matter), classifications that form a fixed system as opposed to the mobile "system to pointing" intimated in "A Carafe." But to categorize and objectify things, and to devalue the "lower" term in each dualism (woman, nature, and matter), amounts to a sacrifice or quasi killing of the dignity, richness, and uniqueness of the thing. Yet the categories will always be susceptible to overthrow (or overflow) by the sacrificed terms. Woman and matter are always coming back to life in spite of the categories that bind and oppress them. Similarly, an anti-patriarchal or anti-sacrificial thinking is intimated in Tender Buttons: once we relinquish the absolute authority of our categories, we can examine and understand a thing without objectifying it. A "different" text is thus a feminist text.
. . . .
Univocal meaning, according to Stein, is one of the illusions ann oppressions of patriarchal thinking. . . .
"Patriarchal Poetry is the same" - the opposite, then, of "different." And the act that ritually fixes unitary meanings in place, as we will see in due course, is sacrifice. Yet the "difference" that sacrifice represses always comes back, in the form of semantic mobility. . . .
If patriarchal poetry is the same, anti-patriarchal poetry is different. Monologic meaning is created through ritual killing, but the materiality of words can always take us past that killing.
From Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis. Copyright © 1990 by Cornell University.
Patriarchal Poetry at best.
Best and Most.
Long and Short.
Left and Right.
There and More.
Near and Far.
Gone and Come.
Light and Fair.
Here and There.
This and Now.
Felt and How
Next and Near.
In and On.
New and Try
In and This.
Which and Felt.
Come and Leave.
By and Well.
Patriarchal Poetry indeed.
Opaque indeed, and covertly if not blatantly inviting the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium. The strategy here is to play transformations against the convention of the list, that is, against the reader's expectation of uniformity. For this list is a curious series of pairs, each member of which matches its partner differently. Best and most might but need not be contrasting terms - the decision is qualitative; long and short (like left and right? hardly!) are quantitative contrasts. It is difficult to see what the relationship is between there and more (though there's a more-or-less vague gesture toward rhyme). Position contrasted with quantity? But near and far are familiar, and perhaps afford us a relief that is reinforced by the equally familiar (but a reversal of the cliché) gone and come: Of course, the fact that we associate gone with farness and come with nearness means there's another reversal going on here, too. Most of these pairs are irreversible binomial idioms; Stein shows that reversing them does not indeed produce nonsense but, by breaking the conventional (patriarchal?) semantic construct, produces meaning. The next pair, light and fair, is conventionally of synonyms, but by now the reader no doubt suspects the conventional meaning, and, as Ulla E. Dydo remarks of Stein's language as a whole, "the bonds that tie words to things are loosened and names split off from objects." This notion has been strongly reinforced by the time we reach Felt and How, a line that radically departs from the conventions this list seems to have established: It pairs a participle (or is it a noun?) with an adverb (invoking the colloquialism "and how!" in the process?) in one of two unpunctuated lines in the list. Dropping the punctuation draws our attention to the aptness of the run-on pair How Next, and the writing begins to comment on its own procedures. So as we proceed through this list we turn more and more to the linguistic and not the referential relationships between the words in the list, only to be brought up short, perhaps, by the sequence of the last three lines I quote. For here Returned (playing puns, perhaps, on Leave and By/e) marks a return to the first line I quoted (Patriarchal Poetry at best), and leads to the utterly ambiguous Patriarchal Poetry indeed. Is this ironic or not? How can we possibly tell? To reflect that the uppercase version of "Patriarchal Poetry" is only one of several in this text and might refer to the poem's title simply complicates the matter. What we have is a list that establishes its own rules only to change them as it goes along; it also exhibits, however, the sort of movement I already commented upon in the sentence about "A lake" and in "Book." The list doubles back on itself, pointing perhaps to a generic patriarchal poetry "out there" in the (physical/social) world as well as to the poem of which these words are the title, as well as to the words themselves - which, by this stage of the poem repeated a very great number of times (I have not counted them), have begun to lose whatever precise lexical meaning they might have had.
To the extent that it is an attack on the authoritarian power of conventional, Anglocentric, and male literary values Patriarchal Poetry is a referential work. "Patriarchal poetry," says Stein,
makes it incumbent to know on what day races will take place and where otherwise there would be much inconvenience everywhere.
Patriarchal poetry erases what is eventually their purpose and their inclination and their reception and their without their being beset. Patriarchal poetry an entity.
"Patriarchal poetry," Stein says, "makes a land a lamb"; is "obtained with seize"; "Patriarchal Poetry connected with mean" - which in context means meanness as well as meaning; "Patriarchal Poetry deny why" - because "Patriarchal Poetry is the same." In this forty-page work containing a wonderful parodic eighteen-line verse entitled "Sonnet"; containing innumerable lists of phrases marching down the page; containing permutations and repetitions; containing seemingly endless sequences of non-sequiturs; the phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" comes to act as a kind of stabilising rhythmic force, a steady beat of recurrence, in a linguistic context notable for its multiplicity and unpredictability of meaning and suggestiveness. The repeated phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher: The whole poem is a form of deconstruction, then, in which the discourse demolishes the term - and the authority and stability of the cypher - embedded within it and shaping it, acting out as it does nonpatriarchal modes of writing. Here is a short passage:
Patriarchal Poetry to be filled to be filled to be filled to be filled to method method who hears method method who hears who hears who hears method method method who hears who hears who hears and method and method and method and who hears and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful is who hears is delightful who hears method is who hears method is method is method is delightful is delightful who hears who hears of of delightful who hears of method of delightful who of whom of whom of of who hears of method method is delightful.
This sentence is remarkable, among other things, for its method: a series of phrases repeated in threes, a series of grammatical patterns repeated in threes and fours, a variation from the pattern "who hears" to the pattern "who hears of," so that the preposition "of" comes to dominate a pattern earlier dominated by the pronoun "who," while at the same time the initial preponderance of the verb "hears" gives way to the conspicuous verb "is," and then reasserts itself. A cumulative pattern, gradually enlarging its field as the vocabulary expands.
What I find most interesting in this passage, however, is the syntax: The word "who" appears twenty times (and "whom" twice) in this sentence of 114 words. Do any of them introduce a relative clause (or are they interrogatives)? In order to make sense the mind seeks to subordinate elements, as in the sequence "and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful," but the subordination won't hold, not simply because that "who" is anaphoric (like the "it" in the opening of "Book"), but because, waiting as we are,(or would be in more conventional writing) for a verb signalling the main clause, faced with phrase after phrase and clause after clause, whose boundaries are so indistinct that we cannot easily or clearly differentiate one from its neighbour (like the identity of the speakers in Lifting Belly), we simply cannot assign priority - save in the most tentative way - to any given sequence of words: Are we to read "whom of of who," for example, the way we might read "among / of green" in William Carlos Williams's poem "The Locust Tree in Flower"? The syntactic data in the sentence are held in the mind virtually in an equivalence of value, since each moment of syntactic lucidity is immediately displaced by a subsequent word (often but by no means always a repetition). In such intense localisation of meaning we find ourselves rescanning the words to discern alternatives to the syntactic pattern we hit upon, and we are left sorting through a variety of reading strategies: Are these words in apposition, or are they subordinate to one another? What part of speech is this? And we find ourselves holding more than one reading in mind at once. The net result is that the hierarchies are ironed out, and we read the language paratactically, nonpatriarchally.
From Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge University Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Peter Quartermain.
"Patriarchal Poetry" is a 1927 poem that did not make its way into print until decades later. Yet it may be the only fully realized and rigorous deconstructive poem in American modernism.
Can the poem, the title questions behind its unruffled nominalism, be about patriarchal poetry, or is it to be an instance of patriarchal poetry? The parameters of that question are immediately ruptured. For the "poetry" referred to here is not just a literary genre but rather the poetics of everyday thought. "Patriarchal poetry" is the metaphoric logic ruling the meanings that make our culture what it is. The ambiguity of the title thus reflects Stein's judgment that everything one writes will be in some ways patriarchal. A critique of patriarchal poetry cannot be mounted from a position wholly outside the poetics it would critique. The only sure strategy of demolition available is a defamiliarizing burlesque from within:
Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.
Patriarchal Poetry at piece.
Patriarchal Poetry a piece.
Patriarchal Poetry in peace.
Patriarchal Poetry in pieces. (p. 281)
Using witty and strategically staged repetition, variation, and rhyme, Stein exposes hierarchical gendered biases built into the most unassuming usages. Repetition short circuits the sense that words and phrases can function as neutral syntactic units and frees us to recognize patterns of semantic association that all language carries with it in use: "They said they said they said when they said men. / Men many men many how many many many men men men said many here" (p. 280). "Men," we hear here is always a statement, always an assertion, always a cultural imprimatur. In patriarchal poetics "they said" always says "men" for "they" and always says "men said" for "said." In the poetics of patriarchy, difference is really the repetition of the same: "there is a very great difference between making money peaceably and making money peaceably" (p 259). Or as she writes at another point: "Made a mark remarkable made a remarkable interpretation made a remarkable made a remarkable made a remarkable interpretation" (p. 284). A re-markable interpretation is not remarkable at all. It is the honorific imposition of the law of male priority. It is "patriarchal poetry as signed" (p. 286), another interpretation that is marked and that we are linguistically prepared to remark.
Repetition and variation let Stein successively place a variety of words, phrases, and concepts under pressure so that all the components of a statement are shown to be individually permeated with the ruling assumptions of patriarchal poetry. This technique also isolates and decontextualizes words and phrases, seeming at first to turn them into unstable echolailic nonsense, but thereby severing them from their syntactical functionalism and making it possible to see them as counters in a very different semantic game. On the other side of nonsense is the broader ideology that patriarchal poetics continually reinforces: "Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake" (p. 263); "Patriarchal poetry is the same" (p. 264); "Come to a distance and it still bears their name" (p. 264); "Patriarchal Poetry is the same as Patriotic Poetry" (p. 264).
Patriarchal poetry is the poetics of unreflective reason and order, of officious segmentation and classification"Patriarchal in investigation and renewing of an intermediate rectification of the initial boundary of cows and fishes" (p. 258)often to comic effect: "Patriarchal poetry and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday" (p. 259). Patriarchal poetry is therefore a poetics of marching: "One Patriarchal Poetry. / Two Patriarchal Poetry. / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (p. 274). It is the signature of the authority of the nation state and of the corollary authority of the individual subject: "signed by them. / Signed by him" (p.274). Patriarchal poetry is the self-evident logic of culture transforming itself into natural fact: "If any one decided that a year was a year when once if any one decided that a year was a year" (p. 260). Extended in time, it is thus the reiterated story of our collective origin and the linear history that fictitiously unfolds from it: "Able sweet and in a seat. / Patriarchal poetry their origin their history their origin" (p. 263). And patriarchal poetry also cuts the other way, interdicting every impulse that deviates from the norm and its radiant myth of origins: "Patriarchal Poetry originally originate as originating believe believing repudiate repudiating" (p. 282).
Stein's poem does not proceed in any obvious linear way; to do so would be to adopt the armature she wants to disavow. So she works by indirection. But the poem does have signal moments of disruption and revelation. The first of these occurs as a serial eruption of the phrases "Let her be," "Let her try," and "Let her be shy." They are simultaneously pleas for space for women's freedom and commands disseminating differences through the language. "Let her be" is, of course, also the letter "b," whose supplementarity and secondary character Stein offers in place of patriarchal claims for priority and origination.
from Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.
Stein explores the priority of male power and succession as a discursive possibility in "Patriarchal Poetry" (1927). In its opening lines, Stein invokes the close proximity of terms for ontological and historical validation: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away." The imperative "fasten it back" suggests the constructed nature of the historical narrative of filiation. The lines that follow blur the boundaries between precession and being:
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 for before will for before to be shall to be to be. . . .
Here the terms for temporal priority and spatial proximity ("before") merge with terms for being ("to be," "to be for"), creating a sentence whose grammatical structure embodies the difficulty of establishing a "place" for presence. "There was never a mistake in addition," Stein concludes, and in a world in which existence is based on having gained priority (having been here before), things will always add up to the same thing. In "Patriarchal Poetry," the sum of all equations is patriarchy.
I have spoken of the incarnational structure of Christianity by which an originating voice, or reason, is succeeded by a supplemental logos or word. In "Patriarchal Poetry," this narrative dominates Stein's structure of repetitions and is given explicit emphasis in the work's opening. "To change a boy with a cross from there to there" suggests ways that Christian incarnation ("a boy with a cross") inaugurates history and establishes the terms for repetition:
Let him have him have him heard let him have him heard him third let him have him have him intend let him have him have him defend let him have him have him third let him have him have him heard let him have him have him occurred let him have him have him third.
The sheer monotony of these lines illustrates the rule of succession being invoked. "Let him have him" defines the horizon of progress in terms of male succession. The variation, "let him have him third," neutralizes numerical sequence by the repetitions of male pronouns. The dialectical aporia, the "third" term, can never be anything more than a repetition of the same. The biblical incarnation in John, "In the beginning was the Word," is reconfigured by Stein as a conundrum: if the word is already gendered as male, can it engender anything other than itself again and again? The terms that interrupt the repetitions above - "third," "occurred," "intend," "defend" - are framed by the phrase "have him" so that all variation is a direct function of a "him" who permits it.
The priority of a patriarchal principle is based in language, specifically in a speech-based linguistics. Stein undermines such phonocentrism by pointing to the pragmatic contexts within which certain linguistic formulations occur. The form that her pointing takes is a satire of male rhetorics of proof and validation. By substituting the term "patriarchal poetry" for other substantives, she indicates the extent to which the proof and the subject-position that establishes proof are connected. In one case, she mocks the way that domestic life - specifically regimens of eating and cooking - is permeated by a patriarchal principle:
Patriarchal poetry and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday Patriarchal poetry and chickens on Tuesday patriarchal poetry and beef on Thursday.
Marianne DeKoven calls the repetition of the title motif "arbitrary," but I find repetitions such as these highly directed, suggesting that along with daily bread, one consumes an ordered logic as well. "Patriarchal poetry" refers both to the gendered basis of daily life and its dissemination through poetry.
The criterion upon which DeKoven evaluates Stein's work is its ability to sustain variation and change. Thus, she admires works such as Tender Buttons or "Susie Asado" because they constantly vary and reconfigure language in new and interesting ways. Long works such as "Patriarchal Poetry," on the other hand, suffer from redundancy. It is true that the latter makes for difficult reading, but redundancy is very much at issue in its critique of male discourse. By filling her paragraphs with the same words, often subordinated to the phrase "patriarchal poetry," Stein undermines the function of all series - lists, catalogs, and schedules - that appear to structure the quotidian. Far from organizing reality, Stein's lists point back at the rationalizing tendency itself:
Patriarchal Poetry sentence sent once.
Patriarchal Poetry is used with a spoon.
Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon with a spoon.
Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon.
Patriarchal poetry used with a spoon.
Patriarchal poetry in and for the relating of now and ably.
If the function of a list or a schedule is to distinguish and isolate, Stein's lists show the entropic nature of such a win to power. Within the logic of patriarchy all distinctions are moot. The difference between something "used with a spoon" and something "used with a spoon with a spoon" is only the illusion of difference.
I have said that "Patriarchal Poetry" foregrounds pragmatic frames for utterances. Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems:
Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations of this in as apt to be not only to be partially and as cautiously considered as in allowance which is one at a time. At a chance at a chance encounter it can be very well as appointed as appointed not only considerately but as it as use.
The humor of such passages lies in their mockery of professional or bureaucratic rhetoric, with all of its minor discriminations, parenthetical qualifications, and unqualified assertions. The glaringly absent term here is any referent for the "value to be placed upon the best." Patriarchal poetry is faultless because, as a structure of legitimation, it has permeated the very logic of value itself.
Where does woman exist within "patriarchal poetry" (the system, not Stein's text)? At one level, she is its object, that about which a male poetry is written. Stein satirizes the goals of traditional love poetry in a sonnet placed at the text's center:
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 most content
With reason ...
The poem concludes by hoping that the wife's "charms her qualities her joyous nature" will make her husband "A proud and happy man." The function of the sonnet, as Stein sees it, is not to celebrate the wife but to hope she will continue to satisfy her husband. This is patriarchal poetry with a vengeance, and although Stein was perfectly capable of aping the bourgeois structure of the family herself, with Alice as wife and herself as husband, this sonnet, with its Hallmark Greeting Card sentimentality, suggests how ironically she could treat this ménage. Furthermore, it suggests that what sonnets are "about" is ultimately a system of avowals, the human terms for which are socially determined.
The longest catalog in "Patriarchal Poetry" is one consisting of variations on the phrase "Let her try" ("Let her be," "Let her be shy," "Let her try"), concluding with the appeal
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.
In terms of Stein's biography, we could see this as representing Stein's attempt to be free of her brother Leo, not to be "what he said" but to "try" to be herself. This may help explain Stein's desire to live outside of patriarchal authority, but it does not address the material form in which this desire is expressed. By focusing on the grammatical and pragmatic contexts of negation ("Never to be"), of commands ("Let her be"), and existence ("to be"), Stein inverts the authority of patriarchal language and points to the discursive nature of subject production itself. That she performs her deconstruction with a great deal of humor and wicked wit makes her task all the more oppositional.
From Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. Copyright © 1997 by the Regents of the University of California.
Many of the critics on MAPS astutely trace the deconstructive force of Steins "Patriarchal Poetry," crediting the poems form with radically destabilizing binary oppositions. Yet, they seem to take the specific discursive resonances of individual terms as somewhat irrelevant. Quartermain explicitly argues that the poem "covertly if not blatantly invit[es] the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium." He further claims that "The repeated phrase Patriarchal Poetry virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher;" thus the texts deconstructive project is enacted by denying "patriarchy" any power of meaning. Yearsley agrees, arguing that the poem "places the term patriarchal poetry into the multiple suggestive incoherent mode of discourse it is opposed to, where it stands out like a rock, meaning nothing and heard only as a drum beat." This supposed deconstructive draining of meaning is also seen as radically decontextualized. Davidson argues that "Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems." And, as Yearsley astutely points out, the sound of "systems speaking to systems" is "often reminiscent of the repeated squeakings and jerkings of a piece of machinery."
While these readings help account for the disturbing, compelling power of this text, I think they somewhat miss the mark. For it seems to me that the poems repeatedly insistent identification of what "patriarchal poetry" is describes the monumental and multiple meanings it may have as a repressive agent. Denying "patriarchal" discursive meaning does nothing to resist patriarchal oppression. If "patriarchy" is one name for a discursive system of power that aims for the illusion of totality for the panoptic internalization of its terms, then resistance lies in exposing the illusory nature of that seeming totality and externalizing the terms of oppression, both of which can be done by imagining an other to power. This imagining is what I think the text not so much describes as tries to enact. It is, however, a deconstructive enactment. Far from being de-contextualized and groundless, though, the text speaks from a fundamentally deconstructive place. The trouble in interpreting such a text, however, lies in the fact that this place can only be described metaphorically, not directly. It is the "outside" of discourse that cannot be spoken; we allude to it in an effort to resist repressive discourses. One productive way to approach Steins metaphorical gesture towards this impossible outside is by comparing it to other similar projects. I think two such examples are William S. Burroughss "cut-up" theory/aesthetic and Martin Heideggers proto-deconstructive philosophy.*
Burroughs characterized the discursively constructed "reality" inhabited by the subjects of discourse with the metaphor of a movie set. The way to resist the repressive power of discourse, then, is to move subjectivity off the set. In order to get off the "set" of language, Burroughs proposed that the physical cutting of the text. Based on an accidental dissection of a newspaper by a friend, the artist Brion Gyson, Burroughs began taking pages of both his own prose and the texts of others, cutting them (e.g. into four equal squares), rearranging the sections, and then transcribing the newly juxtaposed words and phrases. While Burroughs sometimes claims that this process is random, his own narrative/editorial control is evident in his "cut-up" short stories and novels. In juxtaposing a story from the New York Times or a text of Kafkas with his own satirical narratives of resistance to total discursive control, Burroughs uses powers own terms to deconstruct its repressive construction of subjectivity. In a similar manner, Steins re-juxtapositions of both the name and the self-representations of patriarchal power break them free from their usual effects. Without taking patriarchys terms off patriarchys "set," they would operate according to their usual roles even in Steins text. In both Burroughss and Steins text, the specificity of the discursive power "set" off of which they are trying to move is far from irrelevant, for the "outside" of discourse is only reached by dismantling specific, carefully chosen parts of the "set" and placing them in new, resistant configurations. Burroughs often claimed that he wanted to destroy the form of the novel. In destroying the (usual) form of poetry, Stein opens cracks in the discourse of (patriarchal) power that facilitate resistance; in the same way Burroughs tries to open cracks in the discourse of total governmental surveillance and control.
Another possible comparison for Steins metaphorical gesture towards the "outside" of discursive power is Heideggers late proto-deconstructive project. Heidegger locates the possibility of subjective meaning outside the determining forms of Western philosophical discourse in the space in-between subject and object. He called this place the "clearing" (as in a forest) where meaning can (re)present itself to the subject. This "clearing" is analogous to Burroughss space off the "set" of discourse. While this clearing is neither subjective or objective, both terms are fundamental to its being. This is closely related to the notion that in deconstructing the Cartesian mind/body split, neither term can be ignored (as many deconstructive models often do). Given this scandalously flattened account of Heideggers deconstructive impulses, I would say that "Patriarchal Poetry"s locus of enunciation may be compared to this Heideggerian "clearing." This is why we can recognize the terms but are somewhat at a loss for meaning, for while there is a subjective context, subjectivity is only one aspect. The reader is paradoxically given a foothold of subjective identification in the speaking voice of the poem while at the same time s/he is denied a stable subject position within the text to inhabit by its dislocating move beyond the conventions of subjective speech towards an impossible space of patriarchys objective representation. This "clearing" or space "off the set" is both comprised of and radically other than the subjective and objective.
Steins text, then, tries to enact a space (like Burroughss "off the set" or Heideggers "clearing) different from the totalizing potential of patriarchal discourse. One way in which it does this is through the recurrent presence of the number "three," suggesting a third way beyond the logic of "either/or." The frequent juxtapositions of "one" and "two" cumulatively suggest something beyond patriarchy, a discursive clearing in which one need not be subjectified by patriarchal discourse (e.g. 56, 58, etc.). Another way the text uses numbers to suggest something other than patriarchy is in the numbering of patriarchies: "One Patriarchal Poetry / Two Patriarchal Poetry / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (69). Thus patriarchal discourses illusory will to totality is exploded, for Steins text exposes it as a multiplicity rather than the naturalized, monolithic "way of the world" contained in its self-(mis)representations.
This "other" possibility is also suggested by the verbs which, in the absence of predication, take on an imperative nature. Commands such as "reconsider;" "Compare something else to something else" (57); "Reject rejoice rejuvenate" (59); "Leave it" (60); etc., far from draining the terms of power of all meaning, charge the reader to actively engage and transform the subjective, coercive meanings of patriarchal discourse. Closely related to the texts use of the imperative is the prevalence of subjunctive voice, e.g. in the repeated "might"s and "as if"s. By speaking in the subjunctive mode of possibility, the text undermines patriarchys declarative claims to necessity.
Far from denying the power of patriarchal discourse, then, the text warns that " There is no use at all in reorganizing in reorganizing" (77). One cannot resist patriarchy merely by recapitulating the terms of its power, as a simple inversion or denial would do. Despite Ruddicks claim that "[a] different text is thus a feminist text," Steins subversion depends on a recognition not only of the power of difference but also the power of patriarchys often stunning mystification of its own duality. The text warns of "Patriarchal poetry recollected" and "Patriarchal poetry relined" (69, 73), taking seriously the power of patriarchy to mutate around resistance, re-inscribing the rebel subject into its discursive policing. The text itself is not purely other than this patriarchal power, for while there is "patriarchal Poetry in Pieces," "patriarchal Poetry has that [reunion] return" (74). Part of the urgent breathlessness of the texts mechanized repetition is the anxiety over its own level of contamination in a discursive system that it can never wholly be outside. Subjects can approach the Heideggerian clearing, but will never reach it. "Patriarchal Poetry" both speaks from and tries to enact a space within that approach.
*My brief, admittedly flattened accounts of Burroughs and Heidegger rely on the following sources:
For Burroughss "cut-up" theories:
Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays. New York: Seaver, 1985.
- - -. The Burroughs File. San Francisco: City Lights, 1984.
Odler, Daniel. The Job: Interviews with William S. Burroughs. New York: Penguin, 1989.
For Heideggers proto-deconstructive philosophy:
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning the Thing: On Kants Theory of the Transcendental Principles. (1962). Trans. Thomas K. Trelogan. Privately Printed. (Translation of Die Frage nach dem Ding. Tubingen: Verlag, 1962).
- - -. Poetry, Language, Thought. (1971). Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
Jim Beatty © 2001
Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” and the Atonal Detour
Krzysztof Ziarek describes Gertrude Stein’s quasi-epic prose poem “Patriarchal Poetry” as an exemplar of the “poetics of the event,” embodying the “idiomatic character of each happening, the particularity of its configuration and circumstances, which are lost in the generality of linguistic naming” (MAPS). While I’m intrigued by this notion and its aura of teeth-gritting intensity, I want to deflate the pathos of the “event” and come to the poem armed with a less grandiose concept: tone. Usually defined as the poet’s attitude toward her subject or reader, tone can be understood more precisely (or more nebulously, depending on your point of view) as the mood or emotion of the poem. But what exactly is the tone or event-ness of passages like this: “Once or two makes that be not at all practically their choice practically their choice. / Might a bit of it be all the would be might be if it of it be all they would be”? (59). Approached from this angle, Stein’s poem appears tonally ambiguous and ultimately, I argue, atonal or seemingly lacking in any identifiable emotional content. Further, the poem’s atonal artillery forms part of Stein’s challenge to patriarchal poetry: to evade representing or expressing any emotion that can fall under the power of Adamic naming and to return to a pre-emotional state (or “pre-Symbolic,” in the psychoanalytic jargon) by way of a detour through atonality: “As we went out by the same way we came back again after a detour” (79).
Although the poem strategically evades emotion, it does produce certain effects. In fact, its effects are exceptionally strong (maybe even psychosis-inducing). However, these strong effects are not as easy to identify as, say, Claude McKay’s rage in “To the White Fiends” or Lucia Trent’s “unstable mix of anger, anguish, and contempt” (Cary Nelson, MAPS) expressed in “Breed, Women, Breed.” While anger and contempt may have motivated Stein’s composition of the poem, they are not in any way evident in the poem itself. By themselves, possibly angry commands presumably directed towards men, such as “let her be,” lose their emotive force through their excessive repetition: “Let her be. / Let her try. / Let her be let her let here let here be let here be let here be let her be shy let her be let her be let her try. / Let her try.” Although repetition deconstructs anger, these lines still command an atonal force that unsettles men’s familiarity with female anger-resentment and instead launches into a strange, pre-emotional affective register.
A practical distinction between “emotion” and “affect” will prove useful here. “Affect” refers to a sort of pre-cognitive intensity, a bodily resonance that gets “taken up” into consciousness as it combines with ideas or judgments. That is, emotion is the “species” of the genus “affect,” or to put it another way: affect is the detour through which we come back to emotion. To use an absurd but illustrative example: rocks can be affected in various ways (e.g. ground up into dust or thrown through a window), but they do not, like humans, have emotions like anger, shame, joy, or disgust. In other words, the poem’s atonality is the detour through a pre-cognitive, affective zone. The poem’s opening suggests such a detour: “As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away” (55). Quite literally, the poem seeks to “carry away” the (male) reader by fastening itself back to a new affective experience, namely a painful one, despite its occasional and inevitable “slippage” into melodious musical passages.
Rather, the poem’s atonality challenges the possibility that at some level the expression or representation of all emotion is inherently pleasurable, even when such emotions are negative, however anguished they may be. The pleasure derived from patriarchal poetry’s use of the logic of comparison to transfigure all things into beauty is subverted: “Compare something else to something else. To be rose. / Such a pretty bird” (57). Instead, the poem ensnares the reader in the circular logic of the same: “Patriarchal Poetry and left of it left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it as many twice as many patriarchal poetry left to it twice…” (70). The constant doubling and leftward turning produces a sort of dizzying effect, a nausea that decisively subverts pleasure yet also seems to take pleasure in this subversion. The poem, like atonal music, seems seductively turned away from the reader/listener, enjoying itself in its own alterity and actually being (rather than expressing or representing) a new tone, a new affect.
Copyright © 2006 by John Claborn
A dissonance—William Carlos Williams, Patterson IV (On the Curies)
in the valence of Uranium
led to the discovery
(if you’re interested)
leads to discovery
“No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.”
—Jacques Derrida, from an interview in Derrida and Différence
Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending (-obliterating? –inventing?) text, “Patriarchal Poetry,” seems primarily interested in creating what I want to call productive dissonance—that is, a dissonance that produces new cultural space or discourse. She does this by, to use Derrida’s phrasing, tampering with the language. One almost imagines she wanted it to border, in places, on the unreadable, or at least unpleasant, while in others it is quite aurally pleasing. Why would she want to do such a thing? There is no key that unlocks this text, but the long series of near-repetitions
Let her try.
Let her try.
Let her be.
Let her be shy.
Let her try. (65)
lends some insight into her project here. I count thirty-eight instances of the phrase “let her try” in this movement of the poem, by far the dominant phrase within the series of repetitions and near-repetitions; and it is quite telling that the stanzaic paragraph is completed as “let her try to be” (ibid). Stein’s text here refuses, even more than most poetic productions, any sort of clean interpretation, but it seems at least part of the text’s point that women who produce non-patriarchal poetry (especially at the time she is writing) must be allowed to try, must be allowed to try to be, as there is no poetic form in which women can be at the time she is writing.
And this is exactly what the formal dissonance of her text is trying to invent, a counter-discourse and then hopefully a new discourse beyond that counter-discourse, which is no longer tethered by that “counter-“ to the patriarchal discourse. Or perhaps it would be better to say that her text is trying to clear away and create the space for just such a new untethered and unfettered discourse, for her text itself does not quite achieve the Aufhebung stage of the dialectic of discourses I am imagining as its goal (conscious or un-). It is therefore a dialectical dissonance she has produced.
And so, since I have let Hegel into the conversation, how else might he be able to help us? I think perhaps recognition theory here plays a role in Stein’s project. If we apply Hegel’s recognition theory model, with its constant battle between subjects vying for recognition from and/or domination over other subjects, couldn’t we read Stein’s text as a bid for recognition, albeit a necessarily dissonant or destructive one (though dissonant and destructive for the purpose of creation or Aufhebung)?
We might also apply another great dialectician to the text. When Stein writes “Patriarchal poetry in regular places placed regularly as if it were placed regularly regularly placed regularly as if it were” (67), isn’t she doing a critique of ideology in the Marxian sense? The empowered normalize the place of patriarchal poetry by placing it regularly in the regular places (e.g., journals, anthologies, classrooms) where is it entirely normal (regular) to find such things. It’s that wonderfully ambiguous “as if it were” that cuts through the surface of naturalized ideology—as if it were normal or natural for this to be the order of things. But it isn’t, Stein seems to be telling us, either right or natural, but rather merely the effect of patriarchal power that ensures the placement of patriarchal poetry over competing discourses.
So far, however, I have only discussed what Stein’s poem is doing, but I haven’t answered the question I posed earlier of why she might have done this, purposely or not. I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s discussion, in his book Violence, of a considerably more recent event, the 2005 riots in France by Muslim French citizens. He incisively points out:
The Paris riots were not rooted in any kind of concrete socio-economic protest, still less in an assertion of Islamic fundamentalism. One of the first sites to be burned was a mosque…The riots were simply a direct effort to gain visibility. A social group which, although part of France and composed of French citizens, saw itself as excluded from the political and social space proper wanted to render its presence palpable to the general public. Their actions spoke for them: like it or not, we’re here, no matter how much you pretend not to see us…[T]heir main premise was that they wanted to be and were French citizens, but were not fully recognized. (Žižek 76-77)
Obviously the struggle for recognition in the two cases are not identical (are any such struggles?), but we can learn something here that is perhaps useful to understanding the abrasiveness of Stein’s style. She wanted to rattle cages. Writing in the dominant and accepted style, or writing in a pleasurable or easy one, would have caused the poem to go unnoticed, under the cultural radar. By creating dissonance, she announced a presence in literature heretofore largely ignored. She burnt down anything she could to register her presence and thus demand recognition (in the Hegelian sense).
Stein succeeds in demanding and thus creating the cultural space possible for a new discourse to emerge, and for that alone, she should be ranked among the foremost innovators of modern poetry.
Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
Copyright © 2010 by Okla Elliott
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