29 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 29

Most of the poems I’ve posted this month have been fairly straightforward in style and vocabulary, even if their implications are subtle and need to be teased out, and even if centuries have passed over some of their words. By contrast this short poem by Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946) may seem impenetrable, but let your mind soak in it for a while. There are puns (sweet tea / sweetie, tray sure / treasure, drink pups / drink cups / drink up), there is rhyme ("these are the wets, these are the sets") and verbal echoing (bobbles / bobolink), and metaphors that make perfect though perhaps unexpected sense (“a nail is unison” – indeed, nails do unite whatever is nailed together). A picture might emerge: sweet tea served by a sweetie, perhaps in the ancient light of an afternoon, on silver trays, perhaps with jelly for their treats, and the nice people drinking say “please”; there is a tea pot, and outside trees waving and trembling, maybe pet puppies lapping water: a scene from the Impressionists, done by a cubist. On the other hand – maybe you get a different picture, and maybe the picture isn’t the point at all; maybe it’s just about the sound and rhythm, breaking the words free of their usual associations and combining them in ways that might bring up other associations, or none at all. “It is a silver seller” chimes delightfully in my ear, even if its meaning remains elusive.

You will sometimes read discussions of Stein’s work that I think of as secret-decoder-ring interpretations; i.e., “cow” equals “female orgasm” so “as a wife has a cow” is a coded way of saying . . . well, you get it, which is the problem I have with that style of interpreting Stein: it’s very reductive, and it tends to favor autobiographical readings rather than her imaginative life as an actual poet, that is, someone entranced by words, moving them around to different effect. Even if she meant female orgasm as one of the implications of “cow,” that doesn’t settle the question of why she chose “cow” over all the other words available. The implications of the choices are what's interesting, though indeed her more hermetic works resist ultimate interpretation, and at some point people are simply going to cut their losses on this sort of thing: life is short. (Personally, I think of it as “reading Ulysses but not Finnegans Wake.")

Stein’s poem pushes to a radical extreme the general poetic requirement that you, above all things, slow down and pay attention, letting the words play in your mind. We all slow down for different things; that’s fine. Enjoy what you can.

Susie Asado

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado.
Susie Asado which is a told tray sure.
A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers.
When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly.
These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short for incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
Drink pups.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.

– Gertrude Stein

Perhaps due to the slipperiness of the language (sweet tea, sweetie!) and the elusiveness of its meaning, Stein’s work lends itself very well to musical treatment; the words melt into each other and you hear them differently, and they mean as music means. In fact today’s poem was set by Virgil Thomson as an early experiment in setting Stein, before he started work on their opera 4 Saints in 3 Acts. You can hear the piece on the recording Mostly About Love, sung by soprano Nancy Armstrong with Thomson biographer and New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini on piano.

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