Seagulls on the Grass

I have traditionally categorized Gertrude Stein as an important figure in the arts of her time but a lousy, self-centered writer. Way back in college I read a good deal of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas but probably only to get a good recipe for brownies. Through the years, though, I have run across praise for Stein, soon followed by literary conclusions that her prose was laughable. I suppose it’s confusing but I tend to lean towards bad writing.

Today I was messing around on the iPad and ended up reading the entirety of Tender Buttons (which is quite short). I know that this is considered one of Stein’s hermetic works, usually described as a collection of sound and little sense but somehow captivating. As I read I realized that this was a very different form from the standard concepts of novel, poem, essay, etc. At first I considered it a collection of thoughts, often very strange thoughts, and began to consider it a form of Journal. I know I have a couple of old Bell Labs record books where I scribble down little thoughts, quotations, etc. and I suppose that would also be a journal. But as I neared the end of Tender Buttons I considered that Stein was actually writing little prose poems.

These poems are very different from the expository prose they seem to mimic. Consider this one:

A Centre in a Table

It was a way a day, this made some sum.
Suppose a cod liver a cod liver is an oil,
suppose a cod liver oil is tunny,
suppose a cod liver oil tunny is pressed is china
and secret with a bestow a bestow reed,
a reed to be a reed to be, in a reed to be.

Next to me next to a folder, next to a folder some waiter,
next to a folder some waiter and re letter and read her.
Read her with her for less.

Rather than have the prose run-on I formatted it more like a poem. It looks like a poem, sounds like a poem … what is it?

Reading the collection of passages I began to associate them with two other literary styles:  first with Alain Robbe-Grillet in his Snapshots collection and second with John Dos Passos in his experiments with automatic writing. Or is Gertrude Stein truly original, alas.

By the way: has anyone else noticed the resemblance between Gertrude Stein and Raymond Federman?

Note: I first heard it as “Spiders on the Grass, Alas.” To my ear ‘spiders’ is superior to ‘seagulls’.

What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s