On his excellent blog, Fluid/Exchange, Steve Halle has put up an intriguing post on Gertrude Stein‘s lecture “Poetry and Grammar.” I won’t rehash it here. But I will draw attention to one passage that is fraught. Halle is too good a writer to make it seem fraught, but it is, and its fraughtness says a lot, I think, about the influences (good and bad) that Stein has had on poetry various avant-garde movements. Here’s Halle’s statement:
Stein begins the essay by exploring the writer’s relationship to words, and this is important because writing is made out of words. It sounds simple to say that, but many writer’s do forget this, thinking rather that writing is made out of ideas or feelings or something else. Stein is right to point out that words are the fabric of writing and all the ideas, feelings and something elses don’t count for anything if we lack awareness and are unable to deliberately use words in relation to their sounds, meanings, and feelings. If there is a disjunction between how we respond to words internally, it will show up when we deploy words externally in the act of writing.
What I want to draw attention to here is the notion that “writing is made out of words” in the same way that clothes are made out of fabric. They are the material of writing. They are to writing what clay is to pottery, stone to sculpture, paint to painting, simple sounds to music. Can we all agree to this? I don’t see how we can’t. And, as Halle argues, it’s hard to pretend that writing is “made out of ideas or feelings or something else.” No, writing is made out of words.
But Halle goes on to confuse the issue by noting that “all the ideas, feelings and something elses don’t count for anything if we lack awareness and are unable to deliberately use words in relation to their sounds, meanings, and feelings.” This confuses the issue by avoiding it—the issue being that words do have attributes beyond their sounds, which constitute their material nature: they always have meanings (ideas), they always produce feelings (sensations and/or emotions) in both the writer and the reader, and they always embody “something else”—what I would call “imaginality.” I don’t want to define the last term or promote it or defend it here, because it deserves discussion at length. But I do think we can focus now on the fact (it is a fact) that words are quite unlike fabric or clay or stone or paint or simple sounds. The problematic “lack of awareness” for writers exists in their misunderstanding what this difference between the material nature of words and their content (mental and emotional) is all about.
Because Stein suffers from the same confusion as Halle, she focuses on the lowest level of language: punctuation and parts of speech. She thinks, as Halle explains, that poetry is all about nouns; prose, she says, is all about balance. In other words, Stein (if I understand her correctly) views poetry and prose as being distinguished by the mechanics of their use of words. I can’t understand why Halle thinks this is more profound that the notion that the difference between poetry and prose is that the former is written in lines while the latter is not. Both views leave out the essential difference, which is a difference in the way poetry and prose deal with the meaning, feeling, and imaginal aspects of words.
If one focuses, as Halle approvingly says that Stein does, on the mechanics of language, one is naturally led to the opinion he attributes to Stein: “Language is not a mediator but an object, a thing. It is the emotion, experience, or thought itself.” But the language of poetry is no more unmediated than the paint in a painting; the painting is not the paint, I mean, just as poetry is not its language. Any art is more than its material, and this is even more true of writing because meanings, feelings, and imaginality are built in to words; imaginality, I would argue, is also built in to the cadences of language: the more it strikes us as “musical,” the more imaginal the language.
So if Stein is wrong about the nature of writing and therefore about the difference between prose and poetry, what is the difference between prose and poetry? I would say that it all comes down to this: poetry cares more that prose does about the imaginal dimensions of words. Poetry essentially exists in order to plunge the reader into the wild imaginality of language, while prose exists to let the reader experience the imaginal at a distance. This is why good poetry is more imaginal than good prose, why we call prose “poetic” only when it becomes imaginally heightened, and why we have a “form” called the prose poem.
I realize that my argument can’t fully make sense without a discussion of imaginality. But I want to take that up in a later post. For now, I hope this is enough to clarify why Stein’s influence strikes me as so negative: it cons writers into viewing language as “an object, a thing,” when it is in reality a medium for creation of imaginal spaces. This objectification of language produces the very “disjunction” Steve Halle warns against.
But if language is not an object, what is it? Tomas Tranströmer, in his poem “The Couple,” writes:
Their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
The couple is like the writer and the reader, whose secret thoughts “flow into each other” in the imaginal space of the poem. Treating language as an object blocks the reader’s access to that space and therefore blocks the sense of communion that for me is the only reason to read and certainly the only reason to write.