Poetry & Grammar

This was one of Gertrude Stein’s 1935 lectures in America. At times hilarious, mostly serious, but always requiring a concentrated effort to read—a good thing in today’s world of puff pieces, clickbait, and surface text. She much prefers verbs, adverbs, articles to nouns (“any one can see that verbs and adverbs are more interesting than nouns and adjectives”) and has an outright terror/disdain for commas (“commas are servile and they have no life of their own”). Verbs are “on the move and adverbs move with them and each of them finds themselves not at all annoying…”

Pronouns are not as bad as nouns because in the first place practically they cannot have adjectives go with them. That already makes them better than nouns.

She loathes question marks as the most uninteresting punctuation, unnecessary because everyone knows you’re asking a question by the sentence itself, without the mark. Exclamation points are ugly.  She likes the look of periods and they don’t interrupt the flow of her writing.

So now to come to the real question of punctuation, periods, commas, colons, semi-colons and capitals and small letters.

I have had a long and complicated life with all these.

Since it is February, I leave you with her Valentine to Sherwood Anderson, used as an example in this lecture:


Very fine is my valentine.
Very fine and very mine.
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.

Tender Buttons

In a letter dated 15 April 1914 Gertrude responded to what the title should be: “Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book. On the title page after the general the three sub titles, Food, Rooms, Objects.” Abstract poems that are meant to be read aloud so you catch the sounds. Cubism in words (don’t forget she’d been palling around with Picasso and his milieu for years by then). Even the quasi sub-table of contents within food is poetic: ROASTBEEF; MUTTON; BREAKFAST; SUGAR; CRANBERRIES; MILK; EGGS; APPLE; TAILS; LUNCH; CUPS; RHUBARB; SINGLE; FISH; CAKE; CUSTARD; POTATOES; ASPARAGUS; BUTTER; END OF SUMMER; SAUSAGES; CELERY; VEAL; VEGETABLE; COOKING; CHICKEN; PASTRY; CREAM; CUCUMBER; DINNER; DINING; EATING; SALAD; SAUCE; SALMON; ORANGE; COCOA; AND CLEAR SOUP AND ORANGES AND OATMEAL; SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE; A CENTRE IN A TABLE.

Words are piled onto each other, spun around, made dizzy to topple and fall exhausted outside their normal meanings. Sounds are favored over logic, although it results in delights like “The sister was not a mister…. Replacing a casual acquaintance with an ordinary daughter does not make a son.”


Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.

And this:

South, south which is a wind is not rain, does silence choke speech or does it not.


Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

As much as I like Janet Malcolm, I’m a little suspicious of her biographical intent, peering into Gertrude Stein’s life with her microscope. Or maybe my hackles are raised whenever anyone attempts to summarize Stein and lacks appreciation (cf this work). At least Malcolm is honest in her appraisal, how reluctant she was to read Stein’s 1911 The Making of Americans, a whopping 900+ page experimental novel which hasn’t gotten its proper due (a fact Malcolm lays at the feet of Katz, the PhD student whose extensive interviews with Alice Toklas left tons of notebooks locked up and unpublished, which would have eased the scholarly notes and transitioned the work into something studied). Malcolm does tend to sneer at the pair, wrestling with how they (as American Jews) were able to live in the Nazi-occupied French countryside without harm. And yet she appreciates Stein’s genius: “Every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.” Her usual caveats about biography are evident throughout this, including “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”

Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company

I will never understand the impulse to write a biography about someone you don’t like. James Mellow has little respect for Stein’s genius and his disdain comes through in sneers throughout. Maybe his purpose was to sneak an encomium to Leo Stein into a book that people would be tricked into reading, much more interested about his stunningly talented sister instead. Snide comments about Gertrude’s girth start in the first paragraph and pepper the remainder of the text. The only reason I picked this up was because it was the source of a reference in Pat Highsmith’s bio about how much Stein and Picasso adored the Katzenjammer Kids comics. I’m taking a hard pass on the remaining hundreds of pages of this travesty of a biography.

Gertrude Stein: In Words and Pictures

A very handy book to push you quickly through Stein’s biography with the help of her own words and photos taken of her and Alice throughout their years. Of primary interest to me were her formative years early on in Paris, when she’s still living with Leo and he’s doing the talking while she’s doing the listening. Once he’s gone, she then finds her voice. There’s also that very ugly quote by Leo in his Journey to the Self, “Gertrude and I are just the contrary. She’s basically stupid and I’m basically intelligent.” Alas, poor misguided Leo.

1913 was a seminal year, one I keep tripping over wherever I look. This book claims that in this year she meets Carl Van Vechten and they “invent the story of having originally met at the tumultuous opening night of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.” This struck a bolt of remembering through me– I just finished reading Florine Stettheimer’s biography, who was pals with Vechten back in NYC, and who was most unabashedly moved by that very same opening night of the ballet by Diaghilev. So did Van Vechten concoct that story after hearing Stettie talk about it?

There is also the 1930 first and only meeting between Stein and James Joyce, someone she’s forbidden to be mentioned in her salon. Why the strong antipathy? It can’t be from jealousy, Stein didn’t seem to have that sort of constitution.

There’s a lovely 1929 interview with Jane Heap, who asks “What is your attitude toward art today?” and Stein’s response, “I like to look at it.” This closely mirrors all of the other answers to the ten questions, brief, Stein-ian.

Paris France

“Paris France is exciting and peaceful.” Reading Gertrude Stein is a must after coming off my high with Gail Scott’s My Paris. My unformed brain wasn’t ready for Stein a few decades ago when I first wrangled with her, but appreciation blooms anew. This book is essentially her “for those about to die, I salute you,” dedicated to France and England on the cusp of WWII in 1940, trying to capture the essence of France from her forty-year sojourn before it ends up in shambles under Germany’s heel. Knowing little to nothing about Stein, I was surprised to find that she grew up in San Francisco (ages 5-15? and her dad was the director of the Market St. Railway), where there were lots of French people… “A little later in San Francisco there was more french.” French actors came to SF and stayed long, so Stein saw several plays with French spoken. “It was then that I found out quite naturally, that french is a spoken language and English a written one.”

She jabs at Germany’s lack of quality art as a sign of a dying country, she explores why the French love saving money but to spend it is painful: “After the war there was the Americanisation of France, automobiles which kept them from staying at home, cocktails, the worry of spending money instead of saving it, because spending money is always a worry to French people, if they can save life is interesting, if they spend life is dull…” Dipping into the cycles of French cooking, the perfection of simple dishes, “sauces instead of being elaborate became simple and perfect, this was in the beginning of the twentieth century.” There is the mistake of Kiki Vincent (20 year old horse sent off to war), the death of Stein’s dog (Basket) and reintroduction of another dog named the same thing (to Picasso’s horror… “The Frenchman does realise the inevitability of le roi est mort vive le roi but the Spaniard does not recognise the inevitability of resemblances and continuation”), and the tales of Helen Button the village girl living in war-time. Stein worries that a century is not long enough, it does not take up enough generations. She thinks of writing a book that skewers false aphorisms, since familiarity does not breed contempt, “anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.”
Stein praises the respect given to writers and painters in France:

“But really what they do do is to respect arts and letters, if you are a writer you have privileges… I remember coming in from the country to my garage where I usually kept my car and the garage was more than full” but the man in charge takes care of her, “there is a corner and in this corner I have put the car of Monsieur the academician and next to it I will put yours the others can stay outside and it is quite true even in a garage an academician and a woman of letters takes precedence even of millionaires or politicians, they do, it is quite incredible but they do, the police treat artists and writers respectfully too, well that too is intelligent on the part of France and unsentimental, because after all the way everything is remembered is by the writers and the painters of the period, nobody really lives who has not been well written about and in realising that the french show their usual sense of reality and a belief in a sense of reality is the twentieth century, people may not have it but they do believe in it.”

Part II begins with a charming anecdote laced with philosophy:

When we were having a book printed in France we complained about the bad alignment. Ah they explained that is because they use machines now, machines are bound to be inaccurate, they have not the intelligence of human beings, naturally the human mind corrects the faults of the hand but a machine of course there are errors. The reason why all of us naturally began to live in France is because France has scientific methods, machines and electricity, but does not really believe that these things have anything to do with the real business of living. Life is tradition and human nature.
And so in the beginning of the twentieth century when a new way had to be found naturally they needed France.

The Frenchman’s attitude toward propaganda:

Propaganda is not French, it is not civilized to want other people to believe what you believe because the essence of being civilsed is to possess yourself as you are, and if you possess yourself as you are you of course cannot possess any one else, it is not your business. It is because of this element of civilization that Paris has always been the home of all foreign artists, they are friendly, the French, they surround you with a civilised atmosphere and they leave you inside of you completely to yourself. And their logic makes it impossible to be propagandists. If there is one thing in the world that is not logical it is propaganda, and also it is the one thing in the world that has nothing to do with fashion. The difference between propaganda and fashion is very interesting.

After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.