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Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein

Grab a party hat and a squonky horn, Dear Reader, you are entering the virtual birthday party for Gertrude Stein. February 3, 2008, marks the 134th anniversary of Stein’s birth. At this time of the year, the Steiny Road Poet has often hosted an actual salon in Stein’s honor by inviting poet friends to bring and recite one of their own poems to fete the great modernist writer.


This year thanks to Martha Dana Rust, author of Imaginary Worlds In Medieval Books: Exploring the Manuscript Matrix,Rust-covercr the Steiny Road Poet entered a prayer closet to meditate on To Do: A book of Alphabets and Birthdays, Stein’s so called children’s book written during the spring of 1940. When the Poet first emerged from her devotional [as in committed to some purpose] reading, she felt the same way she felt upon discovering a secret chamber behind her bed at the Castello di Montegufoni in Tuscany, Italy—that is, what was this chamber and what sense could be made of it? Shortly after discovering the hidden room, the Poet learned the secret chamber with one tiny window was part of the medieval castle fortress’s bell tower and not, as she feared, a cell for torture. Nonetheless, the Poet felt the need to claim the bell tower cavity lest it claimed her with nightmares. So she invited her group of fellow travelers, most of them poets, to enter the chamber to intone a few meditative rounds of the yogic Om. The Poet also thought that putting good vibrations into the hidden chamber during her stay might peacefully settle the ghosts of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dame Edith Sitwell (all past inhabitants of Castello di Montegufoni).

Reading Stein should never be a solitary event. Stein, as Professor Rust reminded the Steiny Road Poet, should be read aloud so that one can hear the music of her language. “Stein’s texts take you to a different place,” Rust stressed in an interview completed January 10, 2008, by the Poet. Rust said a reader must let go of the need to logically understand Stein’s texts. To illustrate, let the reading tribute to Stein begin in this opening passage from To Do.

    “Alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday.
       The thing to do is to think of names.
            Names will do

The Poet chuckled to herself when she first read this passage that opens quite seriously, and mostly logically, but is punctuated by the whimsical spoiler “mildew.” What follows this opening is a litany of names presented four at a time, starting with the letter A until ending with Z (i.e. “A. Annie, Arthur, Active, Albert”; “B is for Bertha and Bertie and Ben and Brave and a birthday for each one”… “Z is not the last but one it is the last one. Zebra and Zed, Zoology and Zero”), except for the letter C where Stein only offers the name Charlie (“Then there is C for Charlie”). With each new set of names, Stein presents short comments or stories about the names selected along with a discussion about birthdays. Professor Rust said what was important to note about Stein was her “philosophy of language.”

People who study Stein know that in part this philosophy of language deals with bringing meaning back to words that have been overused and made clichés. What comes to the Poet’s mind regarding Stein’s presentation of the letter C is the English grammar rule “i before e except after c.” So maybe Stein was having some clean intellectual fun showing the astute reader that here was a case of C where “i was before e as in C-h-a-r-l-i-e. But what if Stein was offering the name Charlie as code for something else? Certainly there are many slang uses of the word Charlie spanning centuries that involve night watchmen, prostitutes, enemies, and, more recently, major screw ups (Charlie Foxtrot). While meditation in one’s prayer closet can produce certain epiphanies, the Poet was certain this was the time to invite someone else into this celebratory study of To Do.


What ignited the Poet’s interest in Martha Dana Rust was not only had she written the article "Stop the World I Want to Get Off! Identity MarthaHeadShotcrand Circularity in Gertrude Stein's The World is Round" which referenced To Do: A book of Alphabets and Birthdays, but also she was a medieval scholar. The Poet’s first email message to Professor Rust asked her if she was still interested in Stein and, if so, did she see a connection between medieval lit and Stein’s style of repetition and simplicity of language that seemed to mesh with the oral tradition of the medieval troubadour? The professor’s response was that although she had not thought of Stein since graduate school, she would be glad to talk about her, particularly within the context of Stein’s “penchant for lists.”

What the professor loved about Stein’s lists was “how miscellaneous they can be. Like that first one in The World is Round: ‘Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there they were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals’—the way she groups animals as if it were commensurate with lizards: I love that!” The Poet had also noticed the amusing oddity of Stein’s lists. For example in To Do, her lists of names are not strictly names of people. For the letter A, Stein writes “Annie is a girl Arthur is a boy Active is a horse. Albert is a man with a glass.” The repetition of “is a” in the first sentence of Stein’s A list gallops from girl to boy to horse with surprising energy given that the verb to be is not what writers consider interesting. And just in case the listener thinks that Stein has gone off on a tangent, she brings the list back to people with a new energetic sentence that declares “Albert is a man with a glass.”

Professor Rust said that Stein’s lists in To Do are more “out there” than in The World is Round which has a more conventional style of storytelling much along the lines in the Steiny Road Poet’s mind to the 1943 classic for children Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The World is Round, like Saint Exupéry’s Little Prince, veers toward allegory. Both The World is Round and To Do deal with identity, a subject that always played an important role in Stein’s development as a writer. Stein was concerned about her existence because she said she and her brother Leo were replacement children after two siblings born before Leo died in infancy.

Stein’s well known line "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," which originally came from her poem “Sacred Emily” and which Stein used in variations in many other works including The World is Round and To Do points to the existence of things. In To Do, the rose variation is "A rose tree may be a rose tree may be a rosy rose tree if watered." Commonly people interpret Stein’s original rose line as things are what they are. However, Stein’s intention with the repetition was to make the reader slow down so that rose would be experienced anew. In Four in America, Stein said, “I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years." Respectfully the Poet ventures that the time span is greater than Stein envisioned since the rose also plays into medieval symbology. And clearly the complicated variation of the rose line in To Do addressing existence reflects Professor Rust’s observation that Stein’s lists in To Do are taking more risks.

Rust further explained, “Medieval lists tend to be more ‘orderly’—there are the 5 sorrows of Mary (and the 5 joys), the 7 deadly sins, the 7 works of mercy, the 4 cardinal virtues, the 9 orders of angels . . . on and on!—but sometimes they’re also miscellaneous in a way that’s similar to Stein’s, lists of relics, in particular. For instance, a famous reliquary in Paris contained, among other things, some of the Virgin’s milk, some blood from an image of Christ, a fragment of the crown of thorns, and ‘a large portion’ of the true cross—what kind of thing can hold that kind of mixture of ‘objects’ (besides a list)?”


Moreover, in To Do, Stein’s employment of list is anchored in the medieval preoccupation with works framed by systematic use of the alphabet. The professor said:

    “Abecedaria (the generic Middle English term was ‘abece’) were huge in the Middle Ages; people wrote them on all kinds of topics: religious, historical, in praise of specific people, on and on! A good percentage of the Middle English abeces allude in one way or another to the graphic arrangement of the alphabet in children’s primers, so they have a kind of implicit connection to elementary education even though they don’t ‘read’ as ‘for children.’ It seems as if medieval people just liked the alphabet—as a kind of pleasing form in itself—so it seemed like a good scaffold for poetry. Some books actually have alphabetical indexes that don’t include page numbers! It’s like these indexes were just for the pleasure of arranging the content of their respective books alphabetically, not for finding anything in the book.”

The first chapter of Rust’s book Imaginary Worlds In Medieval Books is devoted to medieval alphabet poems. One example of a medieval abecedarium is the poem “La Priere de Nostre Dame” by Geoffrey Chaucer. Like medieval writers involved with religious subjects, Stein who was not religious often employed a method of chant, repeating the same simple words again and again to effect her “continuous present” grounding of the reader in a singsong meditation. Professor Rust reemphasized that pleasure of reading Stein aloud mirrors a similar medieval experience:

    “I think there’s a connection to the oral tradition in that a person wants to read Stein aloud—because of her rhythm, the assonance and some alliteration (big in Middle English!). …In poetry that was to be performed orally, the repetitions were super formulaic and worked to give a performer time to remember what came next in the poem. It seems to me that Stein’s repetitions are more playful and spontaneous, each repetition flowing into something new and unexpected, the opposite, I think, of the use of repetition in medieval oral performances (ones that were to be memorized). Now that I think of it, though, the way that Stein’s work is kind of incantatory at times—and the way that that’s the pleasure of it and the way a person seems to be invited to let go of a need to comprehend it in the usual way—would resonate with a medieval person’s experience of the liturgy (another kind of oral performance!). Liturgy would always have been in Latin, of course, and probably even monks wouldn’t have understood it word for word, but would love it syllable by syllable...”


Another thread of the conversation the Poet pursued with Professor Rust was Stephen Nichols’ concept of double literacy. In medieval times, some people could read text but more people could “read” images. Biblical stories were told in the stain glass windows of medieval churches. According to Rust, medieval texts with their ornate lettering and decorated pages may have allowed medieval readers to experience books as “virtual realms.”

    “Those virtual realms would be brought into being by readers’ responses to both texts and books—by characteristic medieval reading habits together with medieval folks’ affection for books as material objects—and the virtual realms would be regions in which abstract texts and material pages function together to convey all kinds of meanings and stories that aren’t present in a given book or text when it’s considered by itself (or even in relation to each other but still with a view that book and text are radically separate or different from each other): so, for instance alphabetical characters can relate to fictional characters, a curve in a letter can contribute to a twist in a plot, and so on.”

Although the Steiny Road Poet has not entirely worked out how double literacy might apply to Stein, the Poet’s gut says that because Stein drew her writing style from Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, the modernist writer who approached her subject from many angles constantly offers a pictorial view within her text. For example, in To Do Stein, without resorting to the character “0,” paints this introductory portrait of Zero: “Oh dear oh Zero.” The entire portrait of Zero discusses ever-increasing numbers built with one and zero. Her discussion begins, “So Zero is a hero/ And why is Zero a hero./ Because if there was no Zero there would not be ten of them there would only be one./ If there was no Zero there would not be a hundred of them there would only be one./ So Zero is a hero.” She continues to build these numbers of one and zero (in computer speak, they are called binary numbers) until she arrives at a billion. Then she finishes To Do: A book of Alphabets and Birthdays as follows:

            “And if Zero was not a hero well if Zero was not a hero how could anything be begun if there was only one one one.

            So Zero is a hero and as Zero is a hero there are ten of them and each one of them has a birthday instead of only one.

            It would be sad to be all alone every birthday so that is what they all say the ten and the hundred and the thousand and the ten thousand and the hundred thousand and the million and the billion they say oh Zero dear Zero oh hear oh we say that thanks to the Zero the hero Zero we all have a birthday.


            And so that is all there is to say these days about Alphabets and Birthdays and their ways.”

Professor Rust wondered if Stein studied medieval literature, but the Steiny Road Poet wonders why To Do: A book of Alphabets and Birthdays has not been made into an illuminated manuscript. (The first publication of this work did not happen until 1957 when Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas managed to get it published by Vail-Ballou Press from Binghamton, New York.) An artistic rendering of the book would neatly resolve the discussion initiated by Toklas with Stein that To Do was “too old for children and too young for adults.”

So, Dear Gertrude, if “G is George Jelly Gus and Gertrude/ Nobody is so rude/ Not to remember Gertrude,” Martha Dana Rust and the Steiny Road Poet have joined together to rekindle the lights for To Do: A book of Alphabets and Birthdays.

Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein!

Dear Readers, please join in now by throwing your party hats in the air and sounding your horns!

Martha Dana Rust is an associate professor of English at New York University.  Her credentials include: Ph.D. 2000, University of California, Berkeley; M.A. 1994, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; B.A. 1983, University of Washington, Seattle; B.A. 1976, University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Imaginary Worlds In Medieval Books: Exploring the Manuscript Matrix, a book that establishes a comparison between medieval people’s intense and visceral interest in books and the current preoccupation of computer geeks with Internet virtual worlds like Second Life.


©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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february 2008

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