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Gertrude Stein, the Inaccessible Lesbian Poet

When I discovered that Gertrude Stein, that incredible lesbian writer, poet, and librettist, bought slews of art at Vollard’s gallery in Paris, I felt such a connection.  I actually have a piece from Vollard’s gallery.  Mine is but a litho, and Stein’s pieces were no doubt original oils, but still I felt this odd connection.  As I began to read her poetry, I had a very hard time holding onto that connection.

Woman with Hat by Matisse

“Woman With Hat” – Matisse
Part of Gertrude Stein’s collection of original art

As one critic notes, a lot of people talk about Gertrude Stein, but very few people actually read Gertrude Stein, except for perhaps “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, her most accessible work.

Stein’s poetry?  Well, it is simply more difficult to get a handle on.

With Stein’s long time relationship with Alice B. Toklas — over 35 years — one might expect that at least her poetry would speak of love, if not a lesbian love.  Well, it does, sort of.  But in truth, I could locate only one poem that used the word “love”, “Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded”, and that one portion of that is a lovely, lovely commentary on Stein’s relationship with Alice B. Toklas:

I love my love with a l

Because it is like that

I love my love with a b

Because I am beside that

A king.

I love my love with an a

Because she is a queen

I love my love and a a is the best of them

Think well and be a king,

Think more and think again

I love my love with a dress and a hat

I love my love and not with this or with that

I love my love with a y because she is my bride

I love her with a d because she is my love beside

Thank you for being there

Nobody has to care

Thank you for being here

Because you are not there.

And with and without me which is and without she she can be late and then and how and all around we think and found that it is time to cry she and I.

I am very certain that the letters that Gertrude Stein used — l, b, a, y, d — have some deep meaning, but for the life of me, I don’t know what they mean.  If you should chance to know, please add a comment on the bottom of this page so that we might all become a bit enlightened.

What I do know is that this is a charming love note to Alice B. Toklas.  The “thank you” is so simple, so elegant.  The references to “king” and “queen” speak on so many levels, not only Stein’s high regard of Alice, but also of their “regal” salon where they both sat as royalty, greeting the incredible artists and writers of their day.  And “nobody has to care” — this was a love for them alone.  That the poem ended with a heartfelt tear for “she and I” is just so perfect.

The more I read “Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded”, the more personal it became.  I hope you will grant it more than one reading too.

 Gertrude Stein and “Tender Buttons”

There is another set of Gertrude Stein poems that are noted to be more female-centered, primarily because they are loaded with innuendo and imagery.  These are the lyrical poems known as “Tender Buttons”.  They have been variously described as “brilliant”, “dastardly”, “incomprehensible”, “pure genius”, and lots of other things, some of which I wouldn’t print here.  These poems are not easy, either to read or to comprehend.

The selection titled “In Between” is typically noted for its lesbian oriented imagery.  Take a look and see what you think:

In between a place and candy is a narrow foot-path that shows more mounting than anything, so much really that a calling meaning a bolster measured a whole thing with that. A virgin a whole virgin is judged made and so between curves and outlines and real seasons and more out glasses and a perfectly unprecedented arrangement between old ladies and mild colds there is no satin wood shining.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein

The Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso. While Picasso was a member of Stein’s famous salon, it is said that guests went to the salon to see Stein, not Picasso.

Now, I know for certain that this poetic snippet has a whole lot to do with sex and lesbians, and perhaps even first time romance, but I’ll be fedozzled if I know how I know that.  The innuendo is there: “mounting”, “virgin”, “curves”, “seasons”, “out”, and, I am certain, many more.  But the meaning that ekes its way out of this innuendo is far more subtle.

One way to “understand” Gertrude Stein in terms of her sexuality is to understand that she wouldn’t permit the members of her illustrious salon to discuss sexual orientation, and certainly not her own sexuality.  It wasn’t proper.  If, within the context of her own home, her own salon, such topics were not considered proper, then certainly such discussions were not suitable for the printed page.  So she couched the discussions is allusions and imagery.  She was, in fact, the first person to refer to homosexuality/ lesbianism as “gay”, a code word that only the initiated caught onto.  There are, no doubt, dozens and dozens of such code words in her writings.  And that is what makes Gertrude Stein so inaccessible.

 

Image of book cover for "Tendert Buttons"

The 2014 edition of Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons”

There is a new edition of “Tender Buttons” published in 2014, marking the 100th anniversary of the original “Tender Buttons”.

This edition goes back to the original hand written notes of Gertrude Stein and incorporates her edits into the text.

It is hard to imagine that previous editors neglected to incorporate Ms. Stein’s personal edits, but apparently they did.

It is refreshing to have a definitive edition available.

I have not at this point compared this edition to prior editions, but if you have, I would truly appreciate your comments below.

 

Ms. Stein Reading Herself

This sound snippet is irrepressible.

For a fascinating glimpse into the world of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, do peek at the post titled “Personal Effects: The Material Archive of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Domestic Life”  It is by Ann Cvetkovich, the Ellen Clayton Garwood Centennial Professor of English and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

As difficult as she is, I did fall in love with Gertrude Stein.  Her emotions ran so deep.  Her influence still staggers the imagination.  She is worth every moment we take to comprehend her.

 Other Interesting Tid Bits About Gertrude Stein, The Lesbian Poet

Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, with friend. I like this image a lot better than Picasso’s much better known painting.

An opera about Gertrude and Alice?  Of course!  Their love was so deep, reaching over so many years, in spite of society’s mores and critics, that there must be an opera.

And so there is.

The title “Twenty Seven” is a nod to the Paris address of Ms. Stein’s illustrious salon, the one that brought Picasso and other luminaries to sit and chat with her  (oh, and what those conversations must have been!).

The St. Louis opera first presented this in the summer of 2014.  (See more here.)

I love the expression on Alice’s face in the picture at the left.  So often she is portrayed as a sombre, proper sort of person.  Since she loved, and lived with, Gertrude Stein for so long, odds are that she had an amazing sense of humor, and some guts of her own!

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4 Responses to Gertrude Stein, the Inaccessible Lesbian Poet

  1. MaryAnn December 7, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    There is a splendid new play about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas titled “Gertrude Stein and Companion”. It is a play for two women, with the storyline told mostly by Alice. The “ghost” of Gertrude Stein pops up for bits of dialog. The reviewer describes it as” a delightful story, played with total empathy”. I know it is too much to hope that it might be presented in Oregon at one of our many theatre venues, but that is indeed my wish. These are such incredible characters that they deserve to be seen.

    http://hispirits.blogspot.com/2013/12/gertrude-stein-and-companion-reviewed.html

  2. Alyson Taylor-White February 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    Could those letters stand for Love Beyond All Your Dreams? There was a nineteenth century custom of spelling your lover’s name in the text of a poem, but you could also send an amour a secret message as well. Come see us at the Poe Museum in Richmond and discover Virginia’s only literary museum, as well as fabulous facts and artifacts describing Poe’s life and legacy!

    • LavenderPoet February 22, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

      Alyson, thank you for that lovely suggestion! There is certainly no question of her love for Alice, so it could indeed be the key. The absolute joy of Stein’s poetry is irrepressible, and there are no doubt many such secretly coded messages.

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