Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is a Giant of Literature, so if you did your master’s thesis on Stein, or otherwise like her work, good on you. HOWEVER: For the first time, I truly read some actual words Stein wrote and published. And not something she dashed off on a napkin to pay the restaurant bill, but one of her most famous poems. And listen, she’s a literary train wreck.

Stein isn’t somebody I’d tell a student or new writer to 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.

Sacred Emily 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:

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. 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.

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


Listen, I get that Stein was being avant-garde, and purposefully deconstructing the stodgy old nature of poetry. I’m not ideologically opposed to literary and artistic craziness, if done well.

This poem isn’t done well.

If you told me a high school freshman turned this in and got an F from their English Comp teacher, I’d say yeah, that’s about right. Because it’s random, like they threw a bunch of words into some kind of spreadsheet and programmed javascript or whatever to compose sentences. Back in the old days, maybe they’d open random pages of the dictionary, pick a word, then riff off that word while stealing from Grandpa’s favorite bottle of gin and replacing whatever got drank with water so he never caught on.

When you’re already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, it’s seven separate kinds of self-indulgent.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: The fact that nobody can understand you doesn’t make you a genius.

Sure, you can become famous by going to extremes, then hopping on waterskis to jump the shark guarding the Outer Fringe of Extremes before you reach the Neutron Star of Complete Insanity.

The first man to paint a canvas black made some news. The second, third, fifth and 30th artist to paint a canvas black–or white, or whatever monochrome shebang you like–doesn’t shock us. And yes, the artist Banksy just had a painting sold that shredded itself as the sale concluded. New and shocking. What’s not shocking is now others will copy him, or come up with twists on the same idea, though none of those attempts will work half as well, or at all, because the surprise factor is gone baby gone.

I read that some of Stein’s later work is more accessible, which is literary jargon for “you might like this better, since it makes A LOT more sense.” That’s cool. I get that she was experimental. Here’s the thing, though: you do all kinds of experiments knowing 99 will fail and hoping for one to just rock. This doesn’t rock. Sure, it’s kinda interesting as a train wreck, in that you can see the pieces strewn about and think about why it’s a mess, and speculate on what she’s trying to say amidst all the wreckage. Yet when you really drill down on it, Stein’s poem is a lot like Bansky’s latest stunt: its only power is shock value, and only because Stein was rich and had all kinds of famous literary friends like Hemingway.

If a student or unknown writer had done this, we would never had known.

33 thoughts on “Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

  1. 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. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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!


    1. I have tried to read Joyce, to appreciate Joyce, and can’t get five pages in without chucking the book across the room. Trust me, reading Joyce this way is much more fun in paperback than on Kindle. I studied under someone who built his academic and professional career on the works of James Joyce (I shall not name him here, so as not to embarrass him – brilliant man, but he utterly failed in his efforts to make me see the merits in Joyce’s writings). I’ve never read Stein, to be honest, and now I’m thinking I did not miss out on much. I wish more literary critics were honest, rather than trying to find something smart to say about nonsense.


  5. 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.


  6. 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.


  7. 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?


  8. 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?


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


    1. Mary the Pope,

      Glad you liked it, and thanks for commenting.

      Next time, you can say tougher stuff. Start a literary fist-fight — it’s fun.


  10. 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.


    1. Hey, whatever floats your boat.

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


      1. 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.


  11. 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)


    1. I wasn’t a huge fan of Faulkner (I’ve since concluded that I went to college too young to appreciate his work). But I’d rather be forced to keep a dictionary at hand, and enrich my vocabulary, than to scratch my head wondering what I’m missing – what is everyone else seeing in authors like Joyce or Stein, that I can’t see – and wondering if I’ve had a stroke.


  12. 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…


    1. 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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