September 2012

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

On Stein, the Beach, and Stupidity


The Steiny Road Poet has had little opportunity to get stupid this summer by sitting on the beach. A friend who read Great Books at St. Johns College of Annapolis for her undergraduate degree once told the Poet that the beach makes you stupid. It's that "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" thing, that light's on, nobody home state when you get happy because you have nothing on your mind.


While the Steiny Poet has not been indulging in Homer, Plato or Lucretius, she has been cracking the spine of Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation: The Corrected Edition edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina. The Poet will talk more about this edition of Stein's most impenetrable work with its introduction by Stein scholar and poet Joan Retallack and older essays on this work by Donald Sutherland and John Ashbery, but not without putting this book within the context of what else the Steiny Poet has been reading this summer.

Here's her reading list of published works:
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho as translated by Alan R. Clarke
Art and Artists: Poems edited by Emily Fragos
The Coal Life, poems by Adam Vines
The Fair Fair Ladies of Chartres Street, short stories by
    Christopher Blake
Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr,
    the Most Beautiful Woman in the World
by Richard Rhodes
Our Lives Are Rivers, poems by Mark Smith-Soto
Richard Wright: The Life and Times by Hazel Rowley

and her list of unpublished manuscripts:
Laurel Blossom, Longevity
Annie Boutelle, The Desire Path
Melanie Braverman, The World with Us in It
Jessica Cuello, My Father's Bargain
B. K. Fischer, St. Rage's Vault
Myles Gordon, Recite Every
Christine Hamm, Landscape with Burning Bridges
Bern Mulvey, When I Was at My Most Beautiful
John Palen, Mnemosyne's Tenor Sax
Anne Pelletier, Notes on Water
Thomas Russell, Power
Hayden Saunier, Sideways Glances in the Rearview Mirror
Sharron Singleton, While We Have Time

Works by Christopher Blake:
5 Rue Christine, play
"The Bride Chewed Gum," short story
Fugue for a Typewriter, novella
Tryptych, play
The Umbilical Chord (A Fantastic Comedy in Three Act), play


Since over 60% of this list is poetry (including Stanzas in Meditation), the Steiny Poet will best make sense of this wide-ranging set of titles by disclosing that she was one of four judges of The Word Works Washington Prize in July. The winning manuscript, B. K. Fischer's St. Rage's Vault, is inspired by visual art—paintings and sculpture. 

Fischer's manuscript, about creativity in the most vital form—motherhood, moved the Steiny Poet to read Emily Fragos' new book Art and Artists, which is an anthology of poems also inspired by art and also artists. The poets published in Fragos' book range from Homer ("The Shield of Achilles" taken from the Iliad) to contemporaries such as John Ashbery, Rita Dove, and the lesser known but accomplished Kevin Young. What's audaciously heady about this book is that every poet's name comes with information about year of birth and, if appropriate, year of death. Measuring close to the size of a postcard, this little book is quite a handy reference tool as well as an aesthetic pleasure.  

Art and Artists, The Coal Life, and Our Lives Are Rivers came to the Steiny Poet's attention because all of these authors were scheduled to read in the Joaquin Miller Poetry Series sponsored by The Word Works. (The Steiny Poet started this series in the mid-1970s at Joaquin Miller's cabin located in Washington, DC's Rock Creek Park. This program runs weekly during June and July and may be another reason why she avoids getting happily stupid at the beach.) The Coal Life, a finalist of the 2012 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, interested the Steiny Poet for several reasons. The subject, which explores the culture of Arkansas coal-mining camps, reminded her of Peter Blair's Last Heat, the 1999 Washington Prize winning book dealing in part with the Pittsburgh steel industry. The editor for Vines' book was Enid Shomer. Shomer was the 1985 Washington Prize winner and the first winner of this Word Works prize to be published in book form because, from 1981 to 1987, this prize was for a single poem. For all her years as leader of a literary organization publishing contemporary poetry, the Steiny Poet remains deeply interested in how a book is put together and who influences its development.

What cinched wanting to read The Coal Life and Our Lives Are Rivers was hearing these authors read aloud. Mark Smith-Soto's poems from Our Lives Are Rivers contain references to music and culture both high and low. Both books take snapshots of compelling human psychology.


The Alchemist and The Fair Fair Ladies of Chartres Street are the closest kinds of books one might toss into a beach bag. The Alchemist, which was lent to the Steiny Road by her son, has been on The New York Times Print Paperback Best Seller list for 229 weeks (as of the writing of this essay). It's a deceptively simple novel of under 200 pages that evokes the flavor of such allegoric stories as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Voltaire's Candide. What the Steiny Poet particularly remembers about this book is that it subscribes to Gertrude Stein's tenet about staying focused in the present moment. Therefore the protagonist, an Andalusian shepherd boy, manages to overcome various setbacks in his quest to find treasure buried in the Pyramids of Egypt by staying appreciative of current circumstances.

Reading Christopher Blake's The Fair Fair Ladies of Chartres Street, an out-of-print short story collection published by a small press in 1965, is part of the research the Steiny Road Poet has been doing to better understand the relationship this author had with Gertrude Stein during her last year of life. "Without a Library of Congress Number and too early for the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), which was approved for use in the U. S. in 1970, Blake's book flies under the radar, except Library Journal gave it favorable review.

"La Femme au Bidet Rose," English text, is one of 10 delightful stories about New Orleans in the first published book by a talented author. …His descriptions of the "Quarter" and some of its people vibrate with life and reality. … Blake has been compared with O. Henry as far as surprise endings go and to Eudora Welty for wonderful Southern characterizations but he maintains his own distinctive style and flavor. Recommended for public and college libraries. —Joseph N. Whitten, Ln., SUNY Maritime Coll., N.Y.C. Library Journal, April 1, 1966

The ten stories that comprise this collection are all set on Chartres Street in the French Quarter or Vieux Carré of New Orleans. All the fair fair women depicted are outré. For example, the antique seller who spurns her one true love because he is too generous with his money, the ageing wife who discovers her sexuality (and her husband's) through voyeurism, the New Orleans interloper who gains notoriety by installing a bidet in her house, and the oddest duck of all—the throwback in time who always wears white dresses and carries a St. Anthony doll in the crook of her arm even as she is courted by a man who wants to marry her. It's a wild ride through New Orleans where anything goes—from a boarding house mistress evicting all her tenants and filling their rooms with birds to a human head rolling down Chartres Street.

Connected to the research the Steiny Poet is doing on the life and work of Christopher Blake, she is reading Hazel Rowley's biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times. Rowley's research indicates that Christopher Blake was responsible for Stein cutting off her friendship with Wright. Because Blake has some impressive unpublished work and has vivid recall of his year spent with Stein and the people who surrounded her, the Steiny Road has become deeply interested in this aspect of Stein's life.


The Steiny Road Poet is a sucker for stories about smart women whose ideas are dismissed by ignorant men. Hedy's Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World is definitely not a book one can dig into while absorbing the heat of the beach. This is one complicated story that puts together a superstar of the silver screen Hedy Lamarr with the bad boy of new classical music George Antheil. Antheil is famous for his brash and blaring Ballet méchanique that caused a riot at his Paris premiere. Antheil introduced Virgil Thomson to Gertrude Stein but failed to get another invitation to Stein's home after that. Richard Rhodes who is author of Hedy's Folly and The Making of the Atomic Bomb (which was used as resource material for the libretto Doctor Atomic) blends together gossipy tidbits about Lamarr and Antheil while imposing detailed scientific information about the inventions Lamarr created with support from Antheil, including her frequency-hopping remote-controlled torpedo. The invention was offered to the United States Navy during WWII when such a device was sorely needed, but it was rejected and buried in secrecy for decades only to surface in other devices without recognition to the inventor.


Imagine this set of reading experiences—published and unpublished works; best seller and out-of-print books; poetry, fiction, biography, history with a dash of science—rolled into a giant spliff. A good way to ease into Stein's Stanzas in Meditation!

Stanzas in Meditation, written between 1929 and 1933 by Gertrude Stein, is a book-length poem divided into five "Parts." Within the Parts are consecutively numbered Stanzas of varying lengths, some as little as one line, others running under 200 lines. Like long poems of the 18th century written in English, each line begins with a capitalized word, but unlike the "long dull poems" (Stein's words) of William Wordsworth and George Crabbe for which Stein in 1928 professed to Lindley Hubbell a youthful passion, conventions for punctuation and sentence structure are ignored.

The Corrected Edition of Stanzas begins with a set of literary hurdles that include a short preface by Stanzas editors Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina, a 27-page introduction by Joan Retallack entitled "On Not Not Reading Stanzas in Meditation: Pressures and Pleasures of the Text," the original Stanzas preface (22 pages) entitled "The Turning Point: Preface to the 1956 Stanzas in Meditation" by Donald Sutherland, and the 1956 review of Stanzas by John Ashbery entitled "The Impossible Gertrude Stein." 

Editors Hollister and Setina reveal straight forwardly that the new release of Stanzas comes about primarily because Stein expert Ulla Dydo discovered that Stein's partner Alice B. Toklas, in a fit of jealousy, edited out most of Stein's use of the word may. In 1932 after Stein revealed a hidden novel called Q.E.D. about her undisclosed affair with a woman named May Bookstaver, Toklas believed that Stein was making coded reference to Stein's first lover.  Since Alice was the typist and Stein was emotionally dependent on Toklas, Toklas' edits prevailed. This was especially true since Stein assigned Toklas the responsibility for getting this work and others published after Stein died in July 1946.

In reading Sutherland's 1956 preface, the Steiny Poet wished that she had sat with her friend at St. John's College and paid close attention to Euclid or later heavy hitters like Dryden, Pope, Tennyson, and Pound. Stanzas editors Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina quote Sutherland from letters he wrote Alice Toklas before and after his first draft of his "very articulate preface" [to Stanzas] "my language is as ravaged as my nerves." 

Reading Ashbery's review made the Dresser want to stick pins into her eyelids and take a long hard pull on her literary spliff. See if these phrases, Dear Reader, make you want to read this Steinian tome: 

"plenty of monotony in the 150-page poem..but…the fertile kind, which generates excitement as water monotonously flowing over a dam generates electrical power." 

" austere 'stanzas' made up…of colorless connecting words…though now and then Miss Stein throws in an orange, a lilac or an Albert to remind us that it is…our world that she has been talking about."

"Stanzas in Meditation is no doubt the most successful of her attempts to do what can't be done, to create a counterfeit of reality more real than reality."

The Steiny Poets thinks that Ashbery is saying to read Stein's Stanzas is to become stupid in Stein's counterfeit reality. This kind of review sure made the Steiny Poet wish she were on the beach with a murder mystery.


So what can Joan Retallack possibly say to assuage the anxiety and convince the Steiny Poet that Stanzas in Meditation not only can be read with understanding but also enjoyed? Before the Steiny Poet can affirm that this essay opened the right doors for reading Stanzas, it is necessary to say that Retallack writes for a very small and select crowd, the greater majority of whom are academics indulging in "an exhilarating rite of passage to wrestle with the literary monster (flip side of masterpiece?) in pursuit of something more than career-making CVs." It's clearly phrases such as "imbricated text," "pronouns performing to a music of meditation so polyvalent it throws that very word/act in exploratory relief," "a field of fluidly indeterminate meaning," "intertextual reading," and "complex textual ecologies" that cues a nonacademic reader that the essayist is not writing for a general audience.

So gathering up her renewed familiarity with the thrills of rite of passage journeys (The Alchemist), the challenges of new poetry both unpublished and published by small presses, the sexually oriented stories of Christopher Blake (oh yes, Dear Reader, more on this aspect of Stanzas in a minute), and the influence of biography, history, and science (Rowley's Richard Wright and Rhodes' Hedy's Folly), the Steiny Road Poet waded into these deep waters. 

Retallack argues that Stein put meaning in this work as she does with her other creations. Check, says the Steiny Road Poet, there is nothing random about her method of choosing words. The Poet does not buy into the accusations that Stein writes nonsense.

Retallack allows that the two leading puzzle-solving approaches for reading Stanzas—biographical and formalist (think language play)—are not mutually exclusive. Check, says the Steiny Road Poet again, makes sense to me. Stein is a master of intermingling the details of her life with unusual linguistic presentation not to mention an ontological universe exploring why do any of us exist.

Retallack indicates there are echoes of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Check, check, says the Steiny Road Poet, I can hear these literary giants as I read Stein's lines out loud

And Retallack injects some poetic fun into her challenging essay by referring to the perplexing abundance of the word they, to which Stein never gives attribution, as  "a murder of crows? A pride of lions? A school, a drift, a host…? Or, is their presence more like that of a Greek chorus sporting megaphone masks in a refusal of identity, perversely projecting their silence?" More seriously she conjectures these theys "behave linguistically like feared parental figures, fathers in particular." Retallack's discussion which ties the theys plausibly to Stein's difficult relationship with her father sure beats the heck out of Ashbery's "What a pleasant change from the eternal 'we' with which so many modern poets automatically begin each sentence, and which gives the impression that the author is sharing his every sensation with some invisible Kim Novak." How did lobbing in that Hollywood bombshell help a reader understand Stein? The Steiny Poet would understand this reference better if Ashbery had referenced Hedy Lamarr.

Without fanfare, Retallack also slips in references to Wittgenstein's "language games," complexity theory, and Emmanuel Levinas' philosophical concept of "otherness," which he named alterity. In Retallack's essay, it's easy to slip down an intellectual rabbit hole without realizing what happened, but the Steiny Road Poet finds these kinds of challenges valuable and pertinent to understanding Stein. Maybe what Retallack is offering is something akin to what happens in the film Being John Malkovich where a puppeteer finds a portal into the mind of the real life actor John Malkovich. If the Steiny Road Poet enters into the mind of Gertrude Stein can she control the fluidity of Stein's nowness and thereby master the masterpiece?  Just for grins, take these lines that speak to Stein's meditation on her life and who she considered herself to be:

That so few people are me.
That is to say in each generation there are so few geniuses
And why should I be one which I am
This is one way of saying how do you do
There is this difference
I forgive you everything and there is nothing to forgive.
No one will pardon an indication of an interruption
[Part Four, Stanza I] 

However, the line in Stanzas that the Steiny Poet loves the best is:  "I won one" [Part Four, Stanza II]. Here Stein's word play hits hard on the symbology of the number 1 (one). The first person singular pronoun "I" in English is also the Roman numeral  "I" easily translated in Western culture as the Arabic numeral 1. Won, the past tense of the verb to win is a homophone of the word one. "I won one" within the context of these lines: "I come back to think everything of one" [Part Four, Stanza II] and "Count how do you count" [Part Four, Stanza III], puts a heavy emphasis on the verb won. Does one win by existing? Part of what Stein does in Stanzas is mediate on what it means to exist, to count for something. Stein does not just trot out symbols, she studies them.


So where is the sex in Stanzas? Part One, Stanza I, Line 1, Stein writes, "I caught a bird which made a ball." Who was The One love partner for Stein? Alice Toklas. Retallack points out "Stein's pet names for Alice were 'birdie,' 'love bird,' 'little ball,' 'lively ball.' These names can be seen in Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes Between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas edited by Kay Turner. Take for example, 

Baby precious my own delight, my
sweet my tender my always right, my
love my wifie, my all and all my sweetest
baby my little ball, my everything always…
Baby Precious Always Shines, p. 115. [2925-3]

My baby is a birdie sitting on a
bough, and the bough is hubby.
Baby Precious Always Shines, p. 134. [2926-1]

The 'erotic display,' as Retallack calls the sexual material, runs throughout the poem. The Steiny Poet sees the following lines depicting the tension between Stein, her first love May Bookstaver and her life long partner Alice Toklas.

Not while they do better than adjust it
It can feeling a door before and to let
Not to be with it now not for or
Should they ask it to be let
May they be sent as yet
For may they may they need met
Way and away in adding regret to set
And he looks at all for his ball.
I thought that I could think that they
Would either rather more which may
For this is and antedated a door may be
Which after all they change.
He would look in the way
Of looking. …
[Part Three, Stanza IV]

The lines "adding regret to set/And he looks at all for his ball" especially seems to note the lost first love ("regret") and how he (Stein who refers to self as a male persona, the hubby per Stein's love letters) must set this in perspective for his "ball" (a pet name for Toklas). Shedding light on the 1956 version of Stanzas, the 2012 Corrected Edition includes an appendix comparing the 1956 version to the 2012 text. Therefore the line "For may they may they need met" in the 1956 version read "For can they can they need met." One might think of the corrected line being interpreted as "Except for May [Bookstaver], Gertrude and Alice may (Stein pauses here worried about what is happening now}, Gertrude and Alice were fated to meet." In an impressionistic fashion, Stein indicates choices were made ("adjust," "a door before," "not to be with it now," "antedated a door," "after all they change," and "he would look in the way of looking."

The Steiny Poet could continue in this way but she will close by taking a brief look at the closing stanza.

Why am I if I am uncertain reasons may inclose.   
Remain remain propose repose chose.   
I call carelessly that the door is open   
Which if they may refuse to open   
No one can rush to close.   
Let them be mine therefor.   
Everybody knows that I chose.   
Therefor if therefore before I close.   
I will therefore offer therefore I offer this.
Which if I refuse to miss may be miss is mine.
I will be well welcome when I come.   
Because I am coming.
Certainly I come having come.
             These stanzas are done.
[Part Five, Stanza LXXXIII]

Perversely the Steiny Road Poet will say Stein is talking about her Second Coming—the more perfect love she had with Alice Toklas over May Bookstaver—the love from Alice that backed up Gertrude's identity as a genius, a super-human if you will, a Messiah of sorts. In this closing stanza, Stein asserts "Everybody knows that I chose." If the reader backs up to the last line of Stanza LXXX, Stein writes, "I wish once more to say that I know the difference between two." Backing up to the last line of Stanza LXXVIII, "I can I wish I do love none but you." So indeed, Stanzas in Meditation is certainly a love poem, but it comes within the context of a huge metaphysical conversation that Stein is having with herself about existence.

More can be said about Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation but here the Steiny Road Poet stops, except she must thank professor Joan Retallack for making her see that reading The Impossible Gertrude Stein would not make her, like a trip to the beach, stupid. Thank you.

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©2012 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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