Gertrude Stein is a literary TRAIN WRECK

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is some kind of Giant of Literature.

HOWEVER: For the first time, I’ve read some actual words Stein wrote and published.

Not even gigantic hits of marijuana chased with tequila shots would make her stuff (a) understandable or (b) enjoyable.

She isn’t somebody I’d tell a new writer to read and emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then DO THE OPPOSITE.

Check out one of her famous poems, Sacred Emily, which starts like this:

Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen.
Come one day.
A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor.
Egg in places.
Egg in few insists.

Here’s another chunk of that same great piece of lit-rah-SURE:

All the time.
A wading chest.
Do you mind.
Lizzie do you mind.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.
Next to barber and hurry.

This goes on and on. It doesn’t get any better. It just gets weirder, as Gertrude hits the bong pipe or drinks absinthe or does whatever the hell she’s doing. Here’s another section:

Cunning piler.
Next to a chance.
Apples went.
It was a chance to preach Saturday.
Please come to Susan.
Purpose purpose black.
Extra plain silver.
Furious slippers.
Have a reason.
Have a reason candy.
Points of places.
Neat Nezars.
Which is a cream, can cream.
Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine.
Near glass.
Put a stove put a stove hoarser.

And here’s my favorite part. She’s building to a climax or she’s losing her mind.

When a churn say suddenly when a churn say suddenly.
Poor pour percent.
Little branches.
Near sights.
Please sorts.

There are people who write their doctoral thesis about this woman, and dedicate their careers to studying her and dissecting her work. They probably go to conferences where other professors and Stein-a-maniacs deconstruct the genius she bestowed upon the world.

I say, “No.”

This wouldn’t be considered decent, interesting babble from an attractive English major (of whatever sex you prefer) on a Saturday night after they’ve had six glasses of port from Portugal and were whispering hot literary things in your ear.

The worst rapper on the planet is better than this. At least I know what he’s talking about, it rhymes and you can dance to it.

If you are already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, then you’re a jerk.

If you become famous for doing this sort of thing because it’s so “unique and fresh and daring” when it’s really just silly high-brow drivel, then you should go join stand next to Snooki, because yes, freak shows are fun to watch, but they’re not really what people need or want.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Random nonsense that nobody can understand doesn’t make you a genius. It makes you a PRETENTIOUS NANCYPANTS.

Extra-super bonus material: 

Amanda from Dead White Guys Lit wrote a glorious and educational post about Gertrude the Stein.


This is Guy Bergstrom the writer, not the Guy Bergstrom in Stockholm or the guy in Minnesota who sells real estate or whatever. Separate guys. Kthxbai.

Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday

33 responses to “Gertrude Stein is a literary TRAIN WRECK

  1. Joan Dawson

    Googled “Gertrude Stein, inane” trying to find a reality check after passing some of her pages before my eyes and my mind. Thank you. Perhaps you can answer a question. How did this ridiculous dreck find its way into print? Was there a rationale of some sort offered at the time of its appearance?


  2. Pingback: What doesn’t kill you makes you happy FOR MONTHS | The Red Pen of Doom

  3. If you were to look at works on Stein and her background in her own day with regard to Cubism in Paris, for example, you would immediately see what kind of pedestrian philistines you seem to be becoming and continue to be becoming – have you heard of a guy called Einstein? Well Stein in various important respects, concerning Time and Space or SpaceTime, got there ahead of him by a neck.


  4. oh – I say it can be a fun experience, but I’ve never actually done that. But I will say, I was just reading it out loud to my husband and he left the room :(


  5. Her stuff reminds me of the beatnick poets. I can just hear them reading her poems, or their own copies of her style, out loud at coffee houses, with lots of hash smoke being breathed. It’s like the main point is not to understand a story, there isn’t a story, but they like the sound of the echoes it makes in your language-mind. I like stories, so I don’t really enjoy READING her stuff, but it can be a fun experience hearing it read out loud, as long as you’ve taken the right mind-altering substance and are not going to be recklessly operating a motor vehicle. I’m not being sarcastic.


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  7. I personally like Stein, but I think her biggest contribution to ‘littrachure’ and ‘culchure’ is not so much her own work, but her being a supporter to other modernist writers and artists.
    And while I like Stein (and Joyce), I would NEVER emulate her. She experimented so that we (writers) don’t have to, haha. And there are plenty of ‘great’ canonical writers who I don’t understand why they’re so famous.

    If this is what you think of Stein, I would LOVE to see what you think of Joyce, (especially Finnigan’s Wake) and Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy. Both ridiculous. I enjoy them, but the fun is the debate they cause.

    On another note, I see how you said literary ‘fist-fighting’ is fun. I agree! That’s part of why I’m partway through my second English degree!


  8. Millie Neon

    Actually I think Rain Man meets Jim Morrison would be a great combo. Personally, I like Stein . . . she taught me a lot about rhythm and sound. Plus, it’s good to recall her particular historical epoch . . . the Dadaists, the Futurists, Cubists . . . in a way, her poetry is kind of Cubist. A lot of this art was in reaction to World War I and the vast industrialization of society, the sounds of machinery, the pace of urban life was speeding up . . . electricity, telephones, automobiles, faster boats. And World War I ripped conventonal meaning to shreds in a way . . . for these artists, the world had gone made . . . the incredible slaughter of that huge war, armed with the most fearsome weapons humankind had seen, and a communications system that allowed war news to travel fast. It was not an era for The Charge of the Light Brigade . . . For me, it isn’t necessary to worship Stein or to condemn her. I appreciate her place in the history of literature. And I appreciate her breaking through so many stale conventions.


  9. Pingback: Is this high-brow poetry — or pretentious garbage? | The Red Pen of Doom

  10. Thank God my college poetry teacher didn’t subject me to this. Give me the Charge of the Light Brigade. Now that’s poetry!

    After reading Gertrude’s hot mess (disguised as poetry or lee-trachure), I don’t think it was absinthe or a bong she took a hit of, but possibly a hallucinogen of sorts. Her work to me, is like Rain Man meets Jim Morrison. Not a good combination.

    Look, when Eminem writes he stabs with his pen and the lyrics come out like fists punching, but her stuff is nonsensical. A few alliterations here and there, but it’s not grabbing me in any way nor does it tell a story.


  11. THAT is Gertrude Stein?

    I think I’d kill myself after having to read an entire semester of her. Thank you for the warning….


  12. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Guy! For a long time I was sure it was just me; I mean, genius, right? But unreadable genius is still unreadable, and good prose or poetry–or the kind I call good–still conveys meaning and doesn’t require solemn head-nodding, chin-stroking, pretentious literari BS to proclaim it littrachure.

    Oh wait…was that my outside voice?


  13. Wrong, Guy. She was first, so that counts.


  14. I’m always fascinated by how people get excited about the rigidly regular use of perfectly ordinary English words in apparently well-formed sentences that don’t happen to convey anything as if it was radical or interesting. If people really cared about getting down to the ground they would dispense with words and–ideally–letters. It would read like a hymn to Cthulu out of HP Lovecraft, but that’s the point, isn’t it?


  15. I found all this very interesting–the premise and the comments. Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts.


  16. ohraesisstrakur

    I never understood why everyone loved Gertrude Stein so much until I was reading a book by Kenneth Koch and he mentioned that she was like an abstract painter who did away with meaning to show us how the sounds of the language we speak shift our perceptions. Read it aloud if you have to, and listen to how the repetition of words sound and how that same sound shifts when put next to another word. It’s surprising how much you can take away from her work when you dispense with meaning. No solid forms, no wise revelations, but something more abstract, like colors. It’s pleasurable – that’s what art is, and the exciting thing is to experience new things. Whenever I read Stein, I leave her work with a new understanding of how I perceive language and sound, and how my mind still attaches things to something that looks like babble. Also I happen to be a young writer, and I find great inspiration in her work. I’ve become more sensitive to how the poems I write sound, and how to use that sound to convey more meaning.


    • Hey, whatever floats your boat.

      I am not drunk enough to enjoy Gertrude the Stein, who is a Boring Babbler of Pretentious Pomposity.


      • Just as abstract art isn’t for everybody, neither is stream of consciousness poetry or literature. I feel like these unrestricted forms of expression enrich art and literature and broaden our ideas about what art can be. Even trying to understand poetry that you ultimately decide to be pretentious drivel is great exercise for your brain.

        I also love to hear other peoples’ criticism of art, and I enjoyed reading your post and the discussion that it sparked.


      • Thanks for reading and commenting, Gabriel the Chatterton.


  17. Amy The Anonymous

    This is Awesome. I’ve been killing time and brain cells this weekend and your blog has done a marvelous job at entertainment while I work at both.

    It’s great that I’m not the only one who thinks there are some writers who are supposedly God’s gift to English but to judge by the actual writing, would have been better suited to addressing envelopes. And to think that Gertude Stein lived before the era of copy and paste! How much less arduous her task would have been had her cutting edge work been published now? So much more time for ralling against the boring bourgeois and living it up in Paris in the middle of her angst and campaigning for gay marriage (oh, wait wrong time period).

    But she was a pioneer who paved the way for more freedom!! Right. Just like William Faulkner paved the way for novels Impossible to Read Without Consulting a Dictionary Every 30 Seconds. I’m soooo glad we’ve broken through those pesky readability barriers. We’re free!! (to have English teachers tell us we’re just too dumb to understand “Great” Literature)


  18. OMGROFL!!! What the heck??! Well, there is one way to look at it. There is hope for us yet. ;)


  19. Make fun of Gertrude Stein all you want. She paved the way for language to be used in any way we see fit–she was playing with language, making light of the way we use and abuse form. And she also helped pave the way for gay and lesbian authors in all genres to be more widely read and accepted in their time period. But just know that if she hadn’t been “a trainwreck”, there wouldn’t be any Eminem or any Lee Childs.

    Or, for instance, Outlander…


    • Great counter point, Rebecca, though it still looks like baby babble to me. ;-)


    • Gertrude the Stein did not pave the way for Lee Child — though that was a nice little debate trick you tried there, Rebecca the Lynn.

      God forbid any young writer read her junk and think they should emulate her. Being indecipherable and bizarre doesn’t make you a genius. It makes you incoherent. And yes, train wrecks of all sorts will get attention. But you can’t imitate them. Only the first train wreck gets any traction. The man who painted a canvas black — brilliant! — got somewhere. The 2nd, 211th and 8,594th people to paint a canvas black or red or purple got zippo.

      There ARE mad scientists of writing who young people should read and emulate.

      Kurt Vonnegut.

      Joseph Heller and Hunter S. Thompson, minus the insane amounts of drugs.

      Edgar Allen Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs and some other Edgar that I’m forgetting.

      That’s my rebuttal, Rebecca the Lynn. BRING IT.


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