Mind, Mouth and Page – 28 (Gertrude Stein)

[Gertrude Stein (1874-1946]
Student: [“No ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams)]

– Can you observe words that way? Like, can words become objects?

AG: Yeah, I think we were talking about that at the end of the last sitting here, when somebody asked me – since Williams, what was done, since Williams, what has been accomplished in poetics? – or, what new thing has been added? – and I was talking about the practice of some poets working out of Gertrude Stein, for whom words were objects, and so it was like the building of little sculptures of words, or symphonic forms, or musical forms, or abstract forms, made out of words. Were you here for that at all?
Student: Yeah
AG: Yeah, so that was.. sure. And Williams does it too occasionally. He knew Gertrude Stein, and he’d been on to Stein. In fact, he wrote quite a bit on Stein, and one thing I’d like to recommend is some of the Selected Essays ((And) I did my homework on it also, checked through some of them, (I hadn’t read them in many years), and (I) went and found a few favorite statements in (t)here.
In the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell┬ánow that we have this, “No ideas but in things’, (but) to extend his practice out a little, (to) a little of his critical work, a little of his thinking.. just to take a (short) break from his poetry and…
Now Williams’ idea about “No ideas but in things”, of course, the reason it’s so interesting is that everybody says. “play Zen”, everybody says, “be grounded”, (but) very few people are able to (actually) practice it. Williams here has given you several decades of actual practice in observation and notation. So you know he’s sincere, you know he’s real, you know he’s grounded, you know (that) he knows what he’s doing and that the generalization “no ideas but in things” makes some sense. So for that reason it’s real interesting to see what he has to say when he generalizes, when he makes critical generalizations, because he knows what he’s practicing.
I think I referred to that little suggestion that he made in the “Prologue” to “Kora in Hell”, that if you’re sketching, if you’re looking, if you’re wandering around taking a walk in Boulder, looking at detail, how do you pick out the detail from the general mass of trees? How do you describe one tree out of many trees? (his phrase for that would be, “how do you find the true value of that one tree?”) – So, “the true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself”. I had at one time thought, and probably wrongly, that he had given specific directions (to) just pick out the aspect of the tree that makes it different from the other trees, and then using that detail to describe the tree. But, apparently, that was my interpretation of what Williams said, so I’ll claim credit for that invention or that particular practice.
If you want to describe a tree, don’t try and describe every atom, and don’t try and describe every leaf or every crinkle in the bark, you have to pick out that aspect of that tree, whether a broken branch (as I said in a long speech a week ago) or two horn-like limbs that come forth above the leaves, or a cluster of tent-caterpillar nests in one of the tips, or the scarlet and pink shoot tips waving delicately at the north end, whatever you want, whatever detail of the tree either strikes your eye first, or stands out in the tree, in order to describe the tree, the whole tree, or a person. “The guy with the big nose with the snot hanging down” – you’ve got the whole face there. In other words, most beginning writers have difficulty in describing a specific person because they don’t know where to begin, and they say, “Well, should I begin with the shoes, or what?”. Just begin with either the first grotesque thing that strikes your eye, or that particular detail of a person, a tree, a train, a car, which is most singular. Makes sense, yeah? – “The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself” – the true value – it’s a good way of saying that – “The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself” – that’s directions for how you go about picking out detail. Of course, it’s a larger generalization – The true value of Allen Ginsberg is that peculiar twist of mind, or voice, which gives me character by myself (like (my) paralyzed right cheek at the moment [Allen famously suffered from Bell’s palsy, after an allergic reaction to antibiotics])
(Williams) was writing in that preface about the difficulty of getting people to actually look at their own local detail, because everyone wants to write “poetry”, instead, so they’ll look for some gilded aspect of the reality. So [Allen quotes Williams] – “To me this is the gist of the whole matter. It is easy to fall under the spell of a certain mode, especially if it be remote in origin” – That’s like, say, Donovan’s lyrics (those of you who know Donovan) or Kahlil Gibran – ” It is easy to fall under the spell of a certain mode, especially if it be remote in origin, leaving thus certain of its members essential to a reconstruction of its significance permanently lost in an impenetrable mist of time, but the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things that lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value on all works of art and makes them a necessity” – So, “close to the nose”, or “No ideas but in things”, or “close to the nose”.
And a little on Gertrude Stein – his idea of what she was doing and what language can do. He was bugged that the poetry of his time hadn’t cleaned itself out from older associations with European work, and with European language and with European forms…How many here have had some experience with Gertrude Stein, or read Gertrude Stein? And how many have not? So the majority have now. In Anne Waldman‘s class, I think, she was teaching some Stein. Williams describes what Stein does, so I’ll just read this, without bringing up Stein texts for the moment – “It’s the disinfecting effect of the Stein manner, or, better said perhaps, its releasing force that I wish to dwell on. It’s this that gives listeners to the opera [“Four Saints in Three Acts”, which he was reviewing] his laughs. It’s the same thing that fascinates an attentive reader, especially if he knows something about the terrors of writing. For everything we know and do is tied up with words, with the phrases words make, with the grammar which stultifies, the prose or poetical rhythms which bind us to our pet indolences and medievalisms [like, at the moment, “What’s happening?”, “our pet indolences and medievalisms”, “What’s happening, man?”]. To Americans especially, those who no longer speak English – (those no longer speaking English-English), this is especially important. We need to offer a burst of air in the window of our prose. It is absolutely impossible that we get this before we can begin to think straight again. It’s the words, the words, we need to get back to, words washed clean. Until we get the power of thought back through a new minting of the words we are actually sunk. This is a moral question at base, surely, but a technical one also and first. But every time today anyone tries to use a word it’s like trying to get new nails out of an old box to fix something with. You have to smash and pull and straighten, and then what have you got? This is not too good a simile – similes never are. In writing, you can never pull out the words from the broken wood. They carry everything over with them. Unless. Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words ever had” (which is what you were asking about before, the construction, using words as building-blocks, without that direct descriptive thing) – “Stein has gone systematically to work smashing every connotation that words ever had, in order to get them back clean. It can’t be helped that it’s been forgotten what words are made for. It can’t be helped that the whole house has to come down. In fact, the whole house has to come down, it’s been proved over and over again, and it’s got to come down because it has to be rebuilt, and it has to be rebuilt by unbound thinking, and unbound thinking has to be done with straight, sharp words. Call them nails to hold together the joints of the new architecture”. So that’s his apologia for Gertrude Stein .

One comment

  1. I will keep the notion of "newly minted words" as a guide. To my thinking Stein places these new mints out on a stage naked & perhaps it's more effective to cajole them out just a few steps from their wearied aspect. More practically put, what nearby meanings live just beyond the grasp of the word as it's being used now. Jim Ruggia

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