Gertrude Stein and Sara Eliza Johnson

“The portraits were published as Tender Buttons, and they revealed Stein to be attacking the denotations of words: while the individual elements of her sentences were familiar. Their significance as a whole seems to have been stripped away. She repeated words, recast them, rhymed them, and strung them together in unusual combinations. She emphasized their musical qualities, favoring sound over sense. Confronted with such unexpected associations and willful incoherence, the reader is forced to question the meanings of words, to become reacquainted with a language that Stein thought had become dulled by long use” (Tender Buttons, vi).

Even though I read this paragraph within the note included before the text that is Tender Buttons, even though I nodded in understanding of the note’s articulation of Stein’s approach in Tender Buttons, when I started to read Stein’s words I was struck by discomfort. For, after reading each heading or title (not sure how to describe it) such as BOOK. on page 17, I fought a war within to make the words that followed “mean” BOOK. Maybe I should say that in a different way: I wanted and expected the words that followed the word BOOK. to mean, to describe that object. Why? I’m still trying to figure that out. Thanks, Stein.

Within the poem there are definitely words that I would directly associate with the word BOOK, like “papered,” “seam,” and “cover.” Moreover, lines like “it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned,” prompted me to think about a book placed on a shelf in a library and a book being returned to its place on a shelf or a library in general. However, Stein’s meaning, beyond as the note says, “attacking the denotations of words,” escapes me—hence the discomfort.

The poem “Vapor” by Sara Eliza Johnson also prompted me to think about the meanings of words. Johnson describes what she thinks will become of mankind when the world ends, explaining: “I have been fascinated lately by all the ways the world could end, and particularly the precise moment of an apocalyptic cataclysm: the asteroid hitting the ocean, the supervolcano’s pyroclastic flow. While writing this poem, I was thinking about the moment of nuclear annihilation, when the body vaporizes, its matter and person (seemingly) instantaneously transformed.” Unlike Stein, Johnson remains true to the meaning of the word (object?) vapor, not “attacking the denotations of words” as Stein does in Tender Buttons (vi).

 

“Vapor” | Sara Eliza Johnson
When it happens the rain
is not black but powder.
A noise bleeds from your ears
and everything quakes
alive inside you:
the circuits of the flowers
lighting up across a meadow,
the nanoglow
of a sea years from here
           —:And like the flash
across an event horizon,
your thought disappears
:—and then the mind
threshed, and then the brain
a perfume of proto-pollen:
a microscopic cloud
radiating in a geranium
in the meadow of another country:
 a powder the elk eat
in the sudden black rain.
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Gertrude Stein and Tony Hoagland

Before I began to read Stein this week, I resolved that I would read the assigned poetry aloud. Part of me is glad I made that decision when reading “Patriarchal Poetry.” For, reading aloud helped me read each word and hear the rhythm of the words together. When I tired of reading aloud—indeed, this fatigue occurred very quickly—my eyes flew across the page, past the individual words and phrases and sped to the next section of text. I can genuinely say that I enjoyed Stein’s arrangement of words in “Patriarchal Poetry;” its repetition and rhyme intrigued me and prompted me to the next section of text. Sometimes I felt that “DJ Stein” crafted her words in a way that replicates the contemporary “scratching” popularized with the Hip Hop music genre. I found that the words embodied that particular sound especially within part of the section near the beginning of her poem:

Ought ought my prize my ought ought prize with a denies with a denies to be ought ought to denies with a to ought to ought ought with a denies plainly detained practically to be next. With a with a would it last with a with a have it passed come to be with this and theirs there is a million of it shares and stairs and stairs to right about….

(Typing that wasn’t tedious in the slightest.) However, when I came up for air, coupled with the sense of enjoyment in experiencing Stein’s poem was a sense of mystification. My mind revisited the questions like Why these particular words here? Why are the words grouped as they are in this section? Why this specific variation, repetition, or rhyme? Needless to say, I did not answer those questions after reading the poem. But, after reading the introduction included in the anthology before Stein’s poetry, two sentences stood out to me as context to why Stein’s words do what they do:

Using witty and strategically staged repetition, variation, and rhyme, Stein exposes hierarchical and gendered biases built into the most unassuming usages (54).
AND
This technique also isolates and decontextualizes words and phrases, seeming at first to turn them into unstable echolailic nonsense, but thereby severing them from their syntactical functionalism and making it possible to see them as counters in a very different semantic game (55).

The writer’s use of echohailic seems a fitting description for the effect of Stein’s words as one reads them, especially as one reads them aloud. A video I found online of someone reading Stein’s poem has an echo effect set for the main voice reading the poem that provides a different echohailic effect on the text (I’m not sure if this was an intentional move by the reader or a recording mishap), an effect that was audibly quite disturbing but consistent with the mental instability one may feel after reading Stein for too long. Here’s a link to the reading, if you’re up for the psychological challenge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTUS4uLFHSA&spfreload=10

The repetition in Tony Hoagland’s “There Is No Word” gives much meaning to his poem, as Stein’s use of repetition drives her poem forward. Hoagland repeats two forms of the title “There Is No Word” in the lines of his poem. This repetition also drives Hoagland’s poem forward, asking the reader to continue reading and relating to the idea that words—for all their use of defining and labeling—cannot always be used to describe a feeling of a moment (or a lifetime of moments) in time. He accompanies this description of feeling with an exploration of the blessings and limits of language. Stein manipulates words through many means to also explore the limits of language.

“There Is No Word” | Tony Hoagland
There isn’t a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers
—so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching the thin
plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it’s only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.
There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you
as it exceeds its elastic capacity
—which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street
chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,
a person with whom I never made the effort—
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,
a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,
though to tell the truth
what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language—
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;
how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything—
how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the
misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.

H.D. and Sam Hamill

H.D.’s poem “Sea Rose” is a favorite of mine from this week’s reading. She utilizes sharp, unemotional words to describe a rose, often seen for its beauty and delicacy—a symbol for passion and love. She immediately paints such a stark picture in line 1: “Rose, harsh rose,” such an opposing description than what one would expect of this flower. When reading her poem, I found myself intrigued as to how she would proceed with her poem. Moreover, I found myself asking “to what end?”—“does she re-imagine this conventional image?”

H.D. continues this unexpected description, employing the negative descriptors “marred,” “meagre,” “thin,” and “sparse” in lines 1-4. However, line 5 takes a turn, with H.D. claiming the rose as “more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem—” This turn is indeed slight, for after the dash her positive pause for positing how precious the rose is, returns to the poet revealing the status of this flower: “you are caught in the drift” (line 8). The depressing descriptors resume as the alliterative “stunted” and “small” depict the rose that is harshly “flung” about in the “crisp” sand by the wind (lines 9-13). The fact that any description of color is absent from these lines is consistent with the lack of vibrant words to describe the rose in this poem. However, the lack of color does seem inconsistent with H.D.’s other poems.

The most intriguing portion of the poem for me is her closing rhetorical question in lines 14-16:

“Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?”

The question H.D. leaves the reader with seems a question of ability with the use of “can” in line 14. However, she seems to make a statement of being in the question, a statement about the fragrance the rose emits. I paraphrased the poem to read: “Even though the sea rose is not the prettiest or the most delicate flower, even though it is tossed about by the wind and damaged, the rose still has a fragrance.” Albeit an “acrid” fragrance, which seems consistent to the unconventional theme that H.D. crafts in the image of the rose, a fragrance still remains. Is not the fragrance one of the most important elements of a flower?

Sam Hamill’s “The Orchid Flower” reminded me of “Sea Rose” mostly because the subject of his poem is also a flower. 🙂 However, Hamill’s poem is decidedly different to H.D.’s poem because it focuses explicitly on the negative and positive feelings/realities enacted by the orchid flower. Hamill juxtaposes death and life, which could be loosely compared to the sea rose’s fragrance that “lives on” despite its perilous surroundings, but I think that comparison may be a stretch. Hamill’s poem describes the colors of the flower in question and contains a lyrical, flowing cadence, both features absent from H.D.’s poem.

 

“The Orchid Flower” | Sam Hamill
Just as I wonder
whether it’s going to die,
the orchid blossoms
and I can’t explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure
comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower
opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.
Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it’s
purely erotic,
pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful
of earth, and water.
Erotic because there’s death
at the heart of birth,
drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,
deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,
who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.

 

Ezra Pound and Alicia Ostriker

I remember when I first read Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”—two years ago. I remember where I first read Pound’s two-line poem—Lolley dorm. I even remember how I felt upon reading Pound’s words. For me, the words in the poem enacted a sense of familiarity, the feeling of which was quite surprising to me at the time because I had never stood waiting, as Pound wrote, for a Parisian subway to arrive.
But, I realized that I have stood waiting for an Asian subway to arrive. As Pound describes in his first line, I had seen the ghostly flash of faces time and again as I stood waiting. Moreover, the image that Pound employs to describe the faces “petals on a wet, black bough” ushered to my mind a specific image of the flowers I would regularly see in my Asian home. I realized that what I was feeling was a sense of the familiar crafted through an experience (waiting for a subway)/image (petals on a bough), a sense that resonated with me through Pound’s words.
Upon reading Pound’s poem again after two years, I still feel that same sense of familiarity and resonance. However, now I feel the emotion of familiarity mixed with a sense of nostalgia, especially as I now reflect on how I first felt. During this recent reading, the note in the anthology that houses Pound’s poem provided a new perspective of Pound’s motive in writing: “he attempted to find language ‘as worthy or as lovely as that sudden emotion’” (204).
Pound was seeking to put into words the moment that an external experience had manifested into an inner and personal emotion. The more I read poetry and especially when I seek to write it myself, the more that Pound’s motivation to write “In a Station of the Metro” makes sense to me. What he sought to do seems to be the very essence of poetry.
Alicia Ostriker’s “Insomnia” is, by far, my favorite poem by a living poet that I read this week:
“Insomnia”
But it’s really fear you want to talk about
and cannot find the words
so you jeer at yourself
you call yourself a coward
you wake at 2 a.m. thinking failure,
fool, unable to sleep, unable to sleep
buzzing away on your mattress with two pillows
and a quilt, they call them comforters,
which implies that comfort can be bought
and paid for, to help with the fear, the failure
your two walnut chests of drawers snicker, the bookshelves mourn
the art on the walls pities you, the man himself beside you
asleep smelling like mushrooms and moss is a comfort
but never enough, never, the ceiling fixture lightless
velvet drapes hiding the window
traffic noise like a vicious animal
on the loose somewhere out there—
you brag to friends you won’t mind death only dying
what a liar you are—
all the other fears, of rejection, of physical pain,
of losing your mind, of losing your eyes,
they are all part of this!
Pawprints of this! Hair snarls in your comb
this glowing clock the single light in the room
What makes Ostriker’s poem so lovely to me partly stems from my struggle with the topic she discusses and the relatable imagery she employs throughout her poem. I especially enjoy the final line, as this image of the glowing clock produces a haunting feeling of the unrelenting life of the insomniac’s condition. Similar to Pound, Ostriker seeks to find the words best suited to describe the moment (or, in this case, the long sleepless hours) that the external experience of insomnia had manifested very personal emotions of fear and failure within the insomniac featured in her poem.