Gertrude Stein: lessons for research

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s masterpiece TENDER BUTTONS. and this week Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) participants have been studying the work of Stein as well as other modernist poets.

In the introduction to Stein on the ModPo site – the course leaders have written:

The difficulty of deriving any sort of conventional semantic meaning from the short prose-poems that comprise Tender Buttons turns out to be, for many readers, a helpful inducement to read for other kinds of signifying. As we hope you’ll see from the video discussions in this section, such difficulty need not excuse us from close reading. Stein’s poems really can be interpreted. They might eschew representation, but by no means do they turn away from reference.

I, with many others, recognise the difficulty of understanding Stein’s work. I have decided not to agonise too much. My experience tells me, that whilst the value of hard work cannot be disputed, there also needs to be a readiness for learning.  As Charles Bernstein said at the end of the special live webcast broadcast to celebrate the 100th anniversary…

‘The key is not to puzzle it out, but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out. This work is not invested in pre-determining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning.

Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it and the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own process.’

 

In this video, nine poets each talked briefly about Tender Buttons:  Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, Angela Carr, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ryan Eckes, Jason Mitchell, Juliette Lee and Charles Bernstein.

It was fascinating to hear how they each approached the difficult task of reading and interpreting Gertrude Stein’s work. Three of these poets, in particular, caught my attention.

Lee Ann Brown read Glazed Glitter with such a lively passion and love of words that it was contagious. If you want a lesson on how to close read and glean multiple interpretations, her reading starts at 11.40 in the video.

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Juliette Lee read just one sentence from Rooms in Stein’s Tender Buttons.

Star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of the time.

Juliette starts talking about about 46.30 in the video.

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She related this sentence from Tender Buttons to a passage from Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space .

Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect.  Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. xxxvi)

Juliette questioned what constitutes rooms and space and suggested that space invites authorship. Her interpretation of Stein was a personal one related to her own search for understanding, and her questions about ‘space’ resonated with my ongoing search to understand space in relation to learning.

Charles Bernstein. I, who know very little about Gertrude Stein’s work, would have found it helpful to listen to him first. He starts speaking at about 51.00 mins into the video.

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Charles explained that Tender Buttons is ‘the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of ‘wordness,’ where word and object are merged.’

‘It is a work of textual autonomy…. Words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed. The meanings are made in and through composition. Meaning is not something to be extracted or deciphered but something to be responded to…. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meaning, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of this work.’

At the time of listening to this webcast, I am steeped in my own research, analysing data and searching for meaning. These discussions about Stein’s work have made me realise that essentially she was a researcher too, a researcher into the origin and influence of words – the influence of words on words, as well as the influence of words on us.

Perhaps all researchers need to be aware of the influence of words, the multiple interpretations and narratives that can be told and that they can hold, and the potential for divorcing words from their meaning.

Lots to think about here. I am still miles off being able to understand Gertrude Stein’s work but I feel that I am one step forward from last year when I wrote about what I was learning about learning from Gertrude Stein. So that’s progress!

Learning about learning from Gertrude Stein

Gertrude_Stein_by_Alvin_Langdon_Coburn Link to source of image

ModPo moves on at a furious pace – a bit too fast for me!  Week 5 has started (with the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts), but I am still thinking about Week 4 and Gertrude Stein –  and what I can learn from her about teaching and learning. Of course, this was not her objective. According to one of the poets who presented with Al Filreis in the great live webcast  this week….

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/DuPlessis.php
Bob Perelman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Perelman.php
Ron Silliman: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Silliman.php

….. I think it was Rachel Blau DuPlessis – Stein was the total proponent of discovery. ‘She was not concerned about the future and her legacy, instead her focus was on the excitement of an opening present’ – how refreshing.

But despite this I think Stein has a lot of messages for teachers and learners, never mind poets and authors – so a legacy in spite of herself.

I will try and gather my thoughts into some sort of order, although in doing this I contradict my first point and Gertrude Stein!

1. Thinking spatially, instead of linearly.

A ModPo participant phoned in to the live webcast to say that last year she couldn’t make sense of Stein’s work. This year she had an ‘epiphany’ when she realized that Stein’s work cannot be thought of linearly –  she realized she had to think of Stein’s poetry in terms of spatial relationships. According to one of the guest poets (apologies for not remembering who) Stein’s work proceeds rhythmically. Her writing is very clear but very abstract. For Stein the continual present is what is important – things don’t add up.

For me thinking spatially instead of linearly describes the learning process. We like to think we are working through a curriculum/syllabus linearly, and pretty much everything in education is presented to us in this way (even ModPo!) – but in fact our learning, even the learning of very small children, does not proceed in a linear orderly fashion, but goes forwards and backwards and from side to side – in fact in every direction. This relates to Stephen Downes’ thoughts about learning being the recognition of patterns (connectivism) and Dave Cormier’s work on rhizomatic learning.

2. The role of multiple perspectives

Picasso and the Cubists wanted to see and present different sides of an object – to see the object from multiple perspectives. Stein tried to do the same with words.  Here is a video of her reading her Portrait of Picasso –

There is also a video in which we can see how she goes even further than Picasso. The video puts her poetry to dance (which relates to the point I make about embodied learning below). (This video has been made private, since I initially wrote this post).

For Stein each word was an event. Any word in Stein’s work is a frame. It could mean a lot of different things. Learning in MOOCs has exposed us to a greatly increased number of perspectives in terms of the people we could come in contact with (34 000 in ModPo), than was possible in the small classes and limited access to texts of the past.  It is interesting to think of the different ways in which learners can be exposed to multiple perspectives and the effect of multiple perspectives on learning. For Stein it was about liberation from traditional ways of thinking and writing – putting her mind through a different way of thinking.

3. Risk and transformative learning

It was suggested in the webcast that without the Cubists there would have been no Gertrude Stein as we know her. The effect of the Cubists was to completely disrupt her existing way of thinking and writing, moving her irreversibly into a new relationship with words. The Cubists changed her ‘frames of reference’. As Meyer and Land  would describe it, she passed through a portal

a threshold  has always demarcated that which belongs within, the place of familiarity and relative security, from what lies beyond that, the unfamiliar, the unknown, the potentially dangerous. It reminds us too that all journeys begin with leaving that familiar space and crossing over into the riskier space beyond the threshold. (p.ix)

Stein was seeking a new kind of community and meaning making. She embraced the unfamiliar riskier space. Learning is not always ‘safe’ .

4. Embodied learning

I have always thought of embodied learning in terms of using the whole body. Little children do this through play as a natural part of their every day learning and there are some disciplines, such as dance, sport and some of the arts subjects where embodied learning is an easily recognizable element. It is harder to think about embodied learning in relation to text-based disciplines, but I think Stein shows us how this might be done. Stein treats words as impressionist brush strokes. See for example

Water Raining – from Tender Buttons.  (scroll down to find it)

Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke.

Stein paints poetry and writes poetry as music. It was suggested in the webcast that she uses words for self-pleasuring – a form of intellectual eroticism. She plays a game with herself, not a game with us – enjoying the mechanisms of her mind – pleasuring herself – enjoying herself. Stein threw herself into her world of words as Jackson Pollock threw paint onto a canvas.

There is more, much more, I could learn from Gertrude Stein, but I want to keep up with the linear flow of the ModPo syllabus 😉 – so I’ll have to come back to Stein another time. Would Stein have been a ModPo participant?  I wonder. Maybe too linear for her?