When It Gets Really Difficult You Want to Disentangle Rather Than to Cut the Knot

It is tempting, when reading Stein’s “On Poetry and Grammar,” to ask, “Yes, but what is she really getting at? What is she talking about when she talks about the uselessness of commas and the movement of verbs?” This is, I believe, an incorrect strategy, one that dismisses the complexity of Stein’s argument and reduces it to a code for something else, something that must be, we believe, more important, like nationalism or institutionalization or patriarchy. So I would answer the question this way: “She is talking about the uselessness of commas and the movement of verbs.” In other words, she is talking about language and how we use it and how the way we use language either limits or opens up the text to mean. Implicated in this discussion is, yes, the large concepts of nationalism and institutionalization and patriarchy, but only in how they are either sustained or subverted through language. Language is a location of power; consequently it can disrupt hegemonic institutions or it can promote them, depending on how we use language.

What results then, is a categorization of parts of speech into two classes: the first class is static, redundant, closed, and without any other purpose than to reify the status quo; the other class is dynamic, multiple, open, and disruptive. Stein much prefers the second class. In this class are verbs, adverbs, articles, conjunctions, prepositions and periods. The first class contains nouns, adjectives, commas, colons and semicolons, exclamation marks, quotation marks, and question marks. Then there are pronouns and apostrophes that, while they don’t constitute a third class, they don’t really fit into the other two. They float in and out of the classes depending on their contexts. Apostrophes can be useful in some instances and pronouns are better than nouns because of the open space between their representation of someone/thing and the name of someone/thing. They have a greater chance of being something “other” than the exact relationship between the thing and its name (this exact relationship is what Mallarme rails against, and there is a parallel between Mallarme’s solution in the sound of words and Stein’s focus on the sound of words as she composes).

And this openness is what Stein embraces in language. It is the verb’s ability to be mistaken, to be multiple and subjectively interpreted, that she loves about it. The vagueness of articles – the implication of otherness and multiplicity in “a,” “an,” or “the” – defies phallogocentric thinking. Conjunctions and prepositions determine that meaning is relative, and therefore dynamic and multiple, depending on context and relationships of things to other things. Periods, which may at first seem very closed and definitive are, in actuality, a connector in language that goes on and on. (Stein’s need for language to go on and on prefaces Cixous’ overflow). The period is not the end. In fact, it prolongs the end and has the potential to disrupt and to be arbitrary, and to be arbitrary is to opt out of the sensus communis that is dominated by heteronormative, phallocentric hegemony. The period, in other words, is a rebel.

Conversely, the comma is servile. It is dependent. Unlike the period, it does not have a life of its own. Unlike the period, it is not active. It does what it’s told to do: to hold the place and space and time, to signal the authoritative breath, to enfeeble language’s ability to break up a monolithic essentialism. Commas are essentialism’s patsy. Whenever language starts to go on and on at a breakneck speed tangling up meaning, comma’s hold it back and slows it down so that language can fall back into the singular rut of meaning the hegemony depends on. And so nouns and naming. Nouns are Stein’s real culprits. To name, as Adam did, is to create the exact relationship between the thing and its name. The thing becomes essentialized, and to repeat the name is solely to reify the objects’ assigned singular meaning. Meaning isn’t disrupted or created; it is simply thickened (on one hand) and lost on the other. The name gets repeated so often that the name replaces the object and then the name is meaningless.

What is Poetry and if you Know What Poetry Is What is Prose
Which is why Stein avoids nouns in her prose and makes it the focus of poetry. This is the difference between prose and poetry. Prose is dangerously ontological. In order for prose language to make meaning instead of depending on language’s meaning to merely be (and that being of meaning that is then invoked by the prose), it must avoid the trap of naming names. This may seem to directly contradict Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but she does make the distinction between the names of people and the names of everything else. Because people are constantly changing (often into their names), the names of people aren’t static. All other names, however, are “either adequate or they are not.” To repeat them is to rely on ontology, which changes and creates nothing. Poetry, on the other hand, must take the name as its object and deconstruct it through a process of renaming. Through an exploration of the noun, poetry revivifies the noun; recreates the thing that it names. It “refuses them (nouns) by using them.” It breaks down the old, empty structure of the noun, breaks up the foundation, tills the earth the foundation was laid on, and plants a new, fertile garden there. A hokey metaphor, but you get the picture. Poetry makes meaning by creating new and multiple associations, images, and connotations for the old noun.

As to why paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not; this one confuses me and it seems that Stein is unable to move beyond the idea of the axiom: “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. I can say that as often as I like and it always remains as it is, something that is” (talk about ontological). It seems that Stein moves beyond this idea to talk about balance – the idea that sentences must be separate and a part of paragraphs and that to approach a melding of the two, i.e. a sentence that approaches, in length and movement, the appearance of a paragraph, is not necessarily a good thing. Text should have a balance of the sentence and the paragraph, the emotional and the non-emotional. Stein points out that it is possible to have an emotional sentence, but I’m not convinced that she believes it is good.


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