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:
Next to a chance.
It was a chance to preach Saturday.
Please come to Susan.
Purpose purpose black.
Extra plain silver.
Have a reason.
Have a reason candy.
Points of places.
Which is a cream, can cream.
Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine.
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.
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.
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.