Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce are the focus of vast scholarship; Stein changes too much to be a good scholarly topic. Who to compare her with? Does she have more in common with Duchamp than Joyce? More with Duchamp, in fact, than with Picasso? As much with Duchamp as with John Cage?
A good scholarly topic needs to be criticizable. Is Stein criticizable? To criticize or not to criticize: that is the question. Can you think of any other writer with a monumental output who shares this dilemma?
A new edition of her epic poem Stanzas in Meditation (1932) is planned, based on Stein scholar Ulla Dydo’s sleuthing research, with a foreword by Joan Retallack, highlighting text variations that permit insight into how Stein worked her work.
Stanzas in Meditation attacks the refined language of traditional (patriarchal) poetry, the “language under glass.” Wordsworth, for example. In the Stanzas, Stein sets out to write “a long dull poem” like Wordsworth’s. She is having fun with it. Making fun, in Perloff’s words, of the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of poetry in general” (thank you, Gertie!), taking on the “deconstruction of the poetic diction.” Stein’ herself (in “The Atlantic Interview”) called it “recreation of the word.” I get goose-bumps when I take this in…
There is always autobiographical context and subtext in Stein’s writing, as well as counter-text. In Retallack’s interpretation, the omnipresent pronoun THEY in the Stanzas echos the Greek chorus, the oppressive parental, patriarchal voices. Stanzas is “the murder of they and the exaltation of I — the I of self-love and self-doubt.” A thrilling analysis. I only partly agree. There is much more to they than meets the I.
In the anti-romantic strategy of Stanzas in Meditation, meditation becomes continuous present/ presence. Just what meditation is supposed to achieve, isn’t it? Repetition, of course, also creates continued presence — and, as Perloff reminded us, repetition always creates difference (as when a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose).
Does the “long, dull poem” make sense? Stein knew that it was extremely difficult NOT to make sense. Modern brain research explains why we always perceive patterns, meaning, rhyme and reason: in short, sense. Why do something if it can be done. Does she manage? I would say she sometimes comes close.
See for yourself in this excerpt from Stanzas in Meditation:
“Could anyone influence anyone
One and one.
If not why not.
Or if not would they not be more than
If they were changing which way any one
In which way any one would not need one
If not one and one.
Or not by them.
It is made why they do if they call them.
They could recognize the sun if there was another one
Or not at all by me
When this you see.”
Then, if you wish to see someone battle, seriously battle to enter this text, open Ulla Dydo’s Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises on page 519 and see what you think — and stay tuned.