A Pail Of Clover, A Beauty Pageant: The Stein Way

Michael Farrell


‘The Almonds
Buy Me With This’

— from ‘More Grammar For A Sentence’ (The Yale Gertrude Stein)

John Cage — like Gertrude Stein — like any artist — provoked controversy. After an audience protested at a performance of a musical work created using chance operations, Cage targeted self-expression. The protest was self-expression and ugly, he said, whereas the music lacked self-expression and was beautiful. I believe him. I also think his statement beautiful (his acrostics beautiful, his quotations beautiful).

Beauty is the reader’s job.

Is it interesting?

Beauty as aesthetic criteria has scraped its way to the late twentieth century through being an effect of the mind.

Gertrude Stein — like John Cage — is a cerebral artist, concerned with new reading possibilities, and humour. Read me, you can read me, she is saying. She is not concerned with emotion, reader’s emotions are not her business. Characters and situations become structural rather than rhetorical effects: Stein herself drew the analogy of her writing with Cubism. Her writing is beautiful to the reader who experiences English as beautiful in itself, rather than as a means of description, a crutch for imagination. A reader’s imagination is not Stein’s business.

‘Climbing in tights climbing in tights climbing bits of button.’

‘Pail of clover.’

‘Later exchange no pet is stolen oh the lovely cool satisfactory on when on when.’

‘Clouds of willing seen in the bird day.’

‘A personal survey of frost.’

‘White eye glasses, white eye glasses and a ribbon a real ribbon a glow a glow a gone gather a little seed spell and a natural gas. Piles of strange piles of strange in a special reason. If it is warm it is an hour glass, if it is cold it is a saddler glass if it is rain if it is rain, if it is rain it is a celebrated glass, if it is rain if it is rain if it is rain it is a safe in last old solid, last old solid grain last old solid grain of trained lips.’

‘Red in eye lamb red in parlor notes red in eye lamb red in parlor notes precious precious precious precious.’

(All quotes from ‘Emp Lace’ in The Yale Gertrude Stein)

Stein’s ambition is that of Shakespeare or Whitman: to contain everything. Her everything is not historical or social, but linguistic and geographical, that is, the present. Stein’s oeuvre is an encyclopedic handbook of avant-garde writing. Her repetitions, syntax, semantics, rhymes and rhythms are explosive ground. Stein’s writing is closer (clover) to modern thinking than anyone before her in English, and her writing creates a new thinking in her/my mind: language is having its own adventure: the reader is invited, like an apostle, to throw off ego and take a ride. She is closer to zen than to Sophocles or Brecht. Now is happening now, and is happening again. Are you happy?

Stein is an image machine: in her writing the image has the inevitability of decor, it is post-symbolic and post-narrative. Her flowers appear in rivers. This outrages readers who want their flowers served on tea trays.

What Stein offers is democratic writing that avoids privileging character, description, plot or imagery. This avoidance of the garden path is more radical — revolutionary — than the marxist writings of the surrealists, for example, or Pasolini.

Stein is a bulwark; time.

Is this beautiful and who cares?

It’s as beautiful as reading, as neutrality or freedom. A one woman revolution in prose with a brilliant girlfriend, a succession of poodles and a smirk. I care.

Postscript: Beauty Tactics for the Avant-Garde

  1. The punk, or ugly way: negate beauty as a bourgeois, reactionary trapping which keeps the reader in a chair.

  2. The Auden, or futurist way: locate beauty in industry or progress (discredited; has new possibilities with progress reconfigured as technology or information).

  3. The Breton or Pasolini way: inflame the reader with surreal/transgressive examples of beauty.

  4. The Cage way: identify beauty in avant-garde work: beauty as idea.

  5. The Stein way: beauty becomes just another cord/chord in an ongoing rope of music. It becomes the music. Beauty as what we have or choose.


BIO: Michael Farrell lives in Melbourne and is the Australia editor of Slope. ode ode (Salt Publishing 2003) is his first book. You can read his review of Clutch: Including Hockey Love Letters by Sawako Nakayasu in this issue’s Alerts section.

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