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Monday, September 29, 2014

MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day: "A Long Dress" by Gertrude Stein

The MOOC ModPo Poem of the Day for September 29, 2014 is "A Long Dress" by Gertrude Stein.  The poem was first published in Tender Buttons in 1914 and is in the public domain and therefore legally reprinted here. 

Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946) (pictured) was an American expatriate who lived almost all of her adult years in Paris.  Her abode at 27 rue de Fleurus, where she lived with her secretary and life-long lesbian lover Alice B. Toklas, was known for its salons and soirees.  Among her frequent guests were Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson, upon whom Stein is thought by some scholars to have had no small influence. 

Said to be analogous to Cubism, Stein’s poetry, for the most part, eschewed narrative and literal meaning in favor of a language that used words in a representative rather than referential manner.  Exactly to what her words referred was and is a matter of some debate, and many critics found and find her work to be incomprehensible, bizarre ranting, or even gibberish.  Her work was largely self-published and was and is largely unread, despite her fame and influence.

Fellow writer and critic Katherine Anne Porter saw Stein’s work as four-dimensional in quality, showing what is, was, will be, could-have-been, and wasn’t—everything and nothing all at once.  Yes, that is a difficult concept to grasp, and I do not pretend to grasp it—but I would like to be able to grasp it.  To learn to understand Stein is perhaps to learn to understand language and meaning from every possible angle, to comprehend a kind of linguistic hypercubism.  Reference to this and additional biographical information may be found here:  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/gertrude-stein.

A Long Dress
Gertrude Stein

What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.

What is the wind, what is it.

Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

Analysis:  Stein perhaps used "what" in a way similar to how Dickinson used "this."  Supporting this is the lack of question marks and the use instead of periods to indicate statements.  So, Stein introduced a new, algebraic meaning for the word "what," in this case to represent "the current that makes machinery."  She could have written just as easily, "X is the current that makes machinery."  She went on to define "what" as "the wind" and as "it."

"Where" is used in a similarly representative manner.  "Where" represents the abstract concept of length.  Abstract, for what is "length," particularly if we accept a geometric definition as "an infinite number of zero-dimensional points strung between two distinct and separate theoretical points?"  For it is between these points that "a dark place is not a dark place."  It is between these points that define geometric length that there should be the complete darkness of no dimensions, but surprisingly there is no darkness as the zero-dimensional points coalesce into the "serene" uni-dimensional concept of line or length--"a line just distinguishes it."

Returning to "what," Stein may have meant "what" to represent the mysterious force, "current," or phenomenon in the universe that allows a series of zero-dimensional points to create "a long line" and a line able to represent a curve or "necessary waist."  Stein supposes a "wind," another kind of force, to be representative of this "what.

Finally, Stein offers an explanation of what colors are at an atomic level.  "A white and a red are black," in that each piece along something white or red (or any color) can be theoretically reduced to a colorless or "black" zero-dimensional point.   Pink, which is red (or "scarlet") mixed with white may be reduced down to scarlet at the atomic level.  "Yellow and green are blue," as any child knows, is a little mixed up, as yellow and blue make green.  However, this "mix up" causes the reader to think again at the atomic level--yellow and green (chartreuse) reduced to a near zero-dimensional state will reveal the blue in the green, despite the "extra" yellow.  And a bow?  Bows are bent.  White light that is bent, as through a prism, is split into "every color."