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With Apologies to Gertrude Stein

Renoir's engraving "Le Repos"

Gertrude Stein collected art from the Vollard Gallery in Paris. This is my one piece from the Estate of Ambroise Vollard, a Renoir engraving titled “Le Repos”.

Gertrude Stein was genuinely unique, a gutsy old gal who defied rules of sexuality to live as a lesbian, who defied rules of poetry to write new styled poems.

For years Ms. Stein has baffled me, and many others.  Her poetry was considered too obtuse, too unobtainable by mere mortals.

Then I “got” it.

Gertrude Stein simply loves the sounds of words.  The cadence.  The clippety clop of consonants.  The resonance of vowels.  Fun words.  Repeated words.  Words out of context.

I came to this conclusion because I wrote a little poem that I can only title “In Denny’s Parking Lot En Route to Winter Solstice”.  I had driven to Grant’s Pass, and was waiting in Denny’s parking lot for a friend to pick me up.  With a bit of time on my hand, I pulled out a scrap of paper, and with Gertrude on my mind, this is what I wrote:

 and if and when
and if and but
but now
and then
forever when

if you were she
and i were thee
then now
and then
but wherever and if
and if and then
but no

for I am she
and thee are we
and we are now
but then
forever was
forever will
but when
and if
and she

I stopped writing because my friend arrived.

I didn’t realize I had written a “Gertrude Stein” until later, when I re-visited this video of Ms. Stein reading her “Picasso” poem.  As irreverent as it sounds, it bears an uncanny resemblance to “Who’s On First”, that zany comedy routine.    (Oh, dear, now I’ve done it.  She will probably haunt me for the next 100 years.)  But here it is, Gertrude Stein reading “If I Had Told Him A Completed Portrait Of Picasso”:

Now if you search very hard I am pretty certain you will discover “meanings” attributed to the “Picasso” poem.  Darned if I could find any.  This is a poem bursting with sound energy.  I love it!  There is no “meaning”.  Just sounds.  Glorious sounds.  Based on this, Gertrude Stein probably has the drollest sense of humor in all of poetry land.

Reject letter to Gertrude Stein

Oh to be rejected so poetically!

My inclinations on my own poem were confirmed a few days later when I read it to my group of lesbian writers.  Everyone laughed heartily, and one woman kept insisting, “But I KNOW it means something.”  No, it doesn’t “mean” anything.  Honest.  It just is.  I was just playing with the words.

Just like Gertrude.


It was such fun to discover, too, that I am not the only one who has had the temerity to imitate Ms. Stein.  She received at least one reject letter in her own style, and had to smile, just a smidgen.

You just don’t know how pleased and honored I am to have broken the Gertrude Code.  And I feel like I’ve made a true breakthrough in my own poetry.  No, I will never be Gertrude Stein.  I may be a poet, and a lesbian, and a lover, but a rose is still a rose.  And Gertrude Stein is still Gertrude Stein.

This whole style of poetry feels like a carousel run amok.  All you can do is grab onto the reins and enjoy the ride.  And should you latch onto the gold ring, well, that’s a bonus.

The Deep Meditative Echo To Gertrude Stein’s Poetry

Sculpture of Gertrude Stein

Jo Davidson sculpts Gertrude Stein, his “modern Buddha”

As fun as Gertrude Stein’s poetry is, there is a component to it that echos deep meditation.

When Jo Davidson won the coveted gift of sculpting Ms. Stein, he knew that just sculpting her head would not be enough.  He needed to capture her “earthly essence”.  The result was what he came to call “a sort of modern Buddha”.  It is perfect.

In an article for Lambda Literary Magazine, Marcie Bianco talks about the eastern influnence that had become part of Ms. Stein’s life, and her meetings with Swami Vivekananda, a recognized spiritual leader of the 19th century.  Stein heard him speak formally on at least two different occasions, and likely spoke with him quite a bit informally.  Swami Vivekanada is credited with introducting the philosophies of Vedanta and yoga to the western world.

Bianco’s take on the Swami and his influence is a fascinating read, both about Stein’s creative process and the sapphic circle that evolved during that time.  Read the whole article here.

I think I was struck by it because it is complementary to the “word energy” that I felt, not contradictory to it.

Gertrude Stein and Cows

I do apologize, Ms. Stein, for including this snippet in a page about apologies to you.  But I have only just learned that your greatest inspiration often came from cows.  No kidding.  Cows.

Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.”

Stein says her best ideas came to her while she was driving around in her car looking at cows. She would write for only 30 minutes a day, driving around a farm and stopping at different cows until she found the one that most fit her mood.

I guess the moral is that if you look for inspiration in unusual places, you will discover unusual inspiration.  Bravo, Gertrude!

Cows aside, I would love to hear your take on The Gertrude Code.   Please do jot a note and share a snippet or two of your own!


3 Responses to With Apologies to Gertrude Stein

  1. susan fadem June 16, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

    Really appreciated your comments on my St. Louis Jewish Light story on Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera, “27.” Meant a lot. Ricky was a terrific interview. The other day, finally located my now-practically vintage copy of “Charmed Circle.”
    Your take on Gertrude’s poetry, above, seems right on. I, always befuddled by much of her writing, never before looked at it in light of her enthrallment with sounds. Yes! Brilliant!
    And, having just returned from a weekend road trip to Iowa, can vouch for the imagination unleash that comes from hundreds of miles of cows .. and red barns … and corn. Thank you! Look forward to receiving your future posts!

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