Gertrude Stein (1935) / Wikimedia Commons
1932. Paris, France. At the sturdy table dominating her studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein writes late into the night, filling page after notebook page with lines of spiked script. As Alice B. Toklas sleeps, Stein silently works her language into a rhythm, sometimes repeating a word, or choosing one and marching it through incremental shifts. Occasionally she will pick up a childish rhyme, then let it fall. When she finally finishesoften simply when she has filled a notebookshe leaves her writing for Toklas to type in the morning. Its an act of wifely devotion that bonds the couple. Although Stein famously declared, I write for myself and for strangers, it is Toklas who, since 1908, has served as Steins primary audience. Her unwavering support has fueled Steins practice and buffered her against the waves of scorn and rejection that will only abate when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is published the following year. (Its authorial legerdemainStein writing about Stein through Aliceis itself a testament to their complicated relationship.)
To reciprocate the devotion, Stein folds love notes into the notebooks for Toklas to discover as she types: Baby precious I write with my babys / pen but it makes blots. The communication between the couple isnt confined to the notes, but spills over into the notebook writing as well. Out of the whole wide world I chose thee, Stein writes in her latest notebook, lines of which will eventually become Stanzas in Meditation. (Later, she revises this line to read, Out of the whole wide word I chose thee, a minor revision compared to the radical ones the poem will undergo.) Even when Stein and Toklass bond is coded or edited, the texture of the poets language is alive with erotic pleasure: pleasure for Stein as she writes, pleasure for Toklas as she types, and pleasure for the reader, against whose inner tympanum the beat of Steins words continues to sound.
Stanzas in Meditation will emerge as one of Steins most important projects, but also one of her least understood. The landscape of Stanzas is more arid than many of Steins writings, its rhythms less pulsingly erotic. In her letters, Stein herself describes it as a long dull poem like the ones of Wordsworth. The nouns that Stein elsewhere caresses into new luminescence (I repeat nouns are poetry, she explains in Poetry and Grammar) are here crowded out by a host of pronouns, especially the vaguely oppressive they. Neutral words such as that and there proliferate. And what should account for the recurrence of the verb may?a word suggesting possibility, yes, but also a remote, almost bureaucratic, equanimity. A suspicious number of mays, if you ask Toklas.
Will Stanzas become another of Steins unpublished projects, the sort that William Carlos Williams, seeing stacks of them collected in a cabinet during a 1927 visit, unkindly suggested she burn?
Despite the success of The Autobiography, which would land Stein on the cover of Time magazine, Stanzas would remain unpublished until 1956, when it was included in Yale University Presss posthumous series of Steins works. That version of Stanzas, later circulated in a popular edition from Sun & Moon Press, was notoriously corrupt, deranging a difficult poem into occasional intelligibility (can they shall be spared reads one damaged line). Although restored excerpts have appeared in more recent collections of Steins work, the entire poem is now available in a handsome new corrected edition issued from Yale UP, edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina, with an introduction by Joan Retallack. Steins original intentions for the poem have been duly honorednot a default goal for textual scholarship, but the right one in this instance. Most importantly, with Yales re-release of Stanzas and its pendant re-release of her 1941 novel Ida, a new era for Stein scholarship has been inaugurated. Facsimile, variorum, and, most crucially, accurate editions of Steins work have been issued. Because Stein wrote so many words, and because she was often desperate to send them out into the world, even in adulterated form, it may take decades to correct the vagaries of flawed and hasty publication. The care lavished on Stein in this edition lifts her at last to equal status with her enshrined male Modernist peers, whom she in many ways now outshinesin her influence over contemporary writers and as a philosopher of the everyday.
The overwhelming interest of Stanzasand, indeed, much of Steins worklies in the innovative ways she disaggregates and re-patterns ordinary language dulled through overuse. The words Stein uses are commonplace, the original title for the project. But the ways she rearranges commonplace words can defamiliarize readers, forcing even those well-practiced in her textual perversities to see words anew.
Or no Come to couple spelling with telling, Stein writes in Stanzas. Such textual play may delight us greatlycasting its spellwhile telling us little. Steins indeterminacy has led some critics to decry biographical approaches to her work as impertinent: the brilliant texture surface points nowhere but to itself, and certainly not to Steins own life, goes the argument. But grasping the significance of this new edition of Stanzas requires deep biographical delving, particularly because Steins travel through her own archivesand her rediscovery of an earlier autobiographical textaffected its publication.
The Stanzas are a kind of writerly utopia all the more alluring for being imperfectly possible to realize.
Traditionally, it is The Autobiography that is used to explain the significance of Stanzas. The difficulty of Stanzas is framed as a kind of psychic and stylistic counterbalance to the audience writing of the memoir. If the Autobiography was one for themthe irresistible bait to bring Stein the public readership she desiredthen Stanzas was one for her, a private meditation providing freedom to be as hermetic in her play as she pleased. Reading Stanzas with this paradigm in mind helps elucidate the poem considerably. Steins fears about the wages of audience writingthe troubling nexus of fame, writing, and identity that the Autobiography would force Stein to negotiateare everywhere evident in Stanzas and account for the poems resistance to easy comprehension. In Stanzas, Stein does not capitulate to her audience one bit.
Yet recent scholarship has brought to light how another, earlier text impinged on the production of Stanzas even more acutelynamely, Steins early autobiographical novella Quod Erat Demonstandum, rediscovered in the spring of 1932. Written soon after she dropped out of John Hopkins Medical School to become a writer, Stein would come to refer to this early, banally realist novella as the first thing that was written. Joan Retallack convincingly suggests that Stein, reading Q.E.D. again in 1932, was drawn back into the psychic traumas it depicted. The mature Stein was certainly a very different creature from Adele, the novellas insecure young protagonist. But the criticisms levied against her by Helenmodeled on Steins real-life lover May Bookstaverstill resonated in this period of career frustration and growing friction with Toklas. Q.E.D. is a fictional meditation on what it means to love, and what prevents Adele/Stein from loving successfully, in Helen/Mays view, is that she is too reflective and cerebral in nature. Love should be active, Helen/May claims, not meditative.
Was Helen/May right? Confronted anew with this criticism in 1932, might Stein have wondered if the meditative nature of her writing was to blame for her small readership? Stanzas wouldnt change that; as its eventual title suggests, the poem is stubbornly meditative, as if Stein were embracing Helen/Mays criticisms rather than responding to them. But a more important question confronting Stein may have been whether she had forged with Toklas a love adequate to quell previous and current romantic storms. Throughout Stanzas, we see Stein returning to the question of union, which would seem to implicate her bond with Toklas and to reassure herself of its succor: They find one in union. / In union there is strength. Not only had Stein and Toklas been domestic partners for years, they had also been collaborators, working together to build Steins writing career. What other evidence for love is necessary?
Yet the manuscripts for Stanzas contain ample evidence that Stein and Toklass relationship was at that moment encountering serious turbulence. In pioneering textual research at Yales Beinecke Library where Steins papers are held, scholar Ulla Dydo has discovered violent corrections on the typescripts of Stanzas in Meditation used for Yales original 1956 edition of the poem. In an unusually heavy hand, nearly all appearances of the word may are scratched out and (mostly) replaced with the verb can. What could have led the writer to make such deleterious and at times sense-deranging alterations to an already difficult poem?
In a stunning fusion of scholarly detective work and speculative brio (the answer occurred to her in a dream), Dydo realized that the mays so forcefully excised from the poem were oblique, perhaps unconscious, references to May Bookstaver, the basis for the character Helen in Q.E.D., who was much on Steins mind during the poems composition. Or so they appeared to Toklas, who read Q.E.D. after she had finished typing Stanzas in Meditation and, in a rage, compelled Stein to return to the typescript to remove all traces of May, down to the verb. Toklass sense of betrayal was acute: earlier in their relationship, the couple had undergone a reciprocal confession of all previous lovers, with the exception of one person, May Bookstaver. (That Stein kept this relationship secret is evidence, perhaps, of its continuing power over her.) It is understandable that a humiliated Toklasconscripted to transcribe her partners infidelity, however fantasticalwould want to punish her for the transgression. (In one notable instance, This May in unison, suggesting perhaps an alternative to Stein and Toklass union, was revised to This day in unison.) While the poem undeniably suffered from Toklass ire, the annals of literary history are richer for it.
Was Toklas right? Did all those mays really encode references to May Bookstaver? Answering the question takes us right to the heart of a dilemma in Stein criticism. Do we take Steins experimental language as indeterminate textual play that cant be parsed against the real world? Or is her difficult writing a code we can crack, with each Steinian signifiermay, cow, babypointing to some real-world object: a lover, a bowel movement, an orgasm?
Retallack advises a middle course. For example, she argues, although Steins work contains references to lesbian sexuality, they are not so much encoded or hidden as they are performed in the perversely exciting texture of her writing. While Stanzas couldnt possibly be construed as a retelling of the Bookstaver affair, Toklas was right in suspecting that Steins play with the word may was a way of working through questions reanimated by her reading of Q.E.D.: What is the nature of erotic union? And what is loves relationship to writing, success, and self-realization? While Q.E.D. depicts a love triangle quite literally, Stanzas does so obliquely. By bringing May into Stanzas field of associations, Stein was silently inserting a third lover into the closed circuit of writing–transcribing within the chambers of 27 Rue de Fleurus:
Two think I think I think they will be too
Two and one make two for you
And so they need a share of happiness
How are ours about to be one two or not three.
In Steins language play, we see the poet teasing herself with the thought of a union consisting of not two but [t]wo and one, and finally one two or not three. While Steins writing is rarely determinatewhether she decides on a fantasy threesome or not three is unclearit is undeniably meaningful. Even when that meaning cannot be traced back to a source, we can be certain that it springs from commonplace subjects: from love, from encounters with ones friends (in her word portraits of Picasso, Matisse, and Carl van Vechten, for example), or even from the contents of ones kitchen (in Tender Buttons). An emphasis on the commonplace distinguishes Stein from more high-minded Modernists like Eliot or Pound, who collaged into their work allusions to mythology, Italian poetry, French poetry, Chinese poetry, etc.
One reason for restoring and republishing Stanzas in Meditation is the wager that it stands with The Cantos or Finnegans Wake as a difficult Modernist masterpiece that will reward multiple visits. Does it? Ambitious in its design, challenging for the reader to make cohere, the Stanzas can seem impossible, as John Ashbery titled a 1957 review of the poem reprinted in this edition. Yet it is precisely the difficulty of Steins work, and its unfolding availability to new readings, that make it what Ashbery memorably, and only somewhat paradoxically, described as a hymn to possibility. The new edition of Stanzas is a pleasure to read. Yet even with all the scholarly apparatus filling in the blanks, these Stanzas remain a pleasure to imagine as well. In their difficulty, the Stanzas are a kind of writerly utopia all the more alluring for being imperfectly possible to realize.