Krzysztof Ziarek: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

In "Stanzas in Meditation" and "Patriarchal Poetry," Stein attempts to bring this interplay directly to the surface of language: "For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be . . ." (Yale 106). After the first paragraph of "Patriarchal Poetry" announces Stein's desire to unfasten and "carry away" the structures of patriarchal language, poetry, and culture, the second paragraph, quoted above, begins to mark a space "before" words, before language has to spell and to be (as signification or representation), and thus to spell "to be." Trying to retain the performative character of this linguistic occurrence, Stein not only excludes nouns but also undoes grammatical strictures to give her language more of a dynamic and a protean, ever-shifting, quality. The tireless repetition and variation of the same phrases—for, before, let it, to be—combined with the absence of punctuation marks, creates the impression of language in a melted state, free to combine and coalesce in ways unexpected, unacceptable, or even repressed by discursive practices. In order to spell what transpires "before to be before to have to be"—before language congeals into its historically and culturally authorized forms—Stein's texts engage, as it were, in their own form of cryptography, in the continuous process of transposing the space before words into the written text. As a form of intralingual or intratextual transposition, such writing aims to bring to words the erased, unknown, "language," often sought by feminist critiques of aesthetics—what DuPlessis provocatively calls the "Etruscan language."

"Patriarchal Poetry" makes clear that it is in this "semiotic" state or space that language possesses its most disruptive potential, one that Stein's texts induce in order to subvert, put into question, and play with not only literary or textual practices but also the culture and society that have instituted them. How to Write suggests that Stein's reimagining of literary language has as its specific purpose developing a new mode of thinking that would not only transform literary inscription but overhaul traditional ways of conceiving the world in terms of representation and signification. In "Poetry and Grammar," Stein proposes to subvert literary practice, its predilection for nouns and their definitional function, by means of writing as it were apart from substantives and thus gaining access to what she terms the "intense existence" of things and the world: "I had to feel anything and everything that for me was existing so intensely that I could put it down in writing as a thing in itself without necessarily using its name" (Lectures 242). For Stein, "intense existence" refers to things regarded in terms of the event—as the ever-shifting matrix of relations reconstituted into the singularity of its occurrence—rather than as objects endowed with an essence and definable by means of nouns or substantives. The intensity Stein has in mind describes the idiomatic character of each happening, the particularity of its configuration and circumstances, which are lost in the generality of linguistic naming. Existing intensely—as always singular events—things evade grammatical and semantic categories, and Stein's writing proposes to revise and adjust literary language accordingly. "Poetry and Grammar" offers then another way of formulating what in How to Write takes the shape of the poetics of event—focused on the unfolding of the world into language rather than on description, definition, and propositional statements—characteristic of the avant-garde's challenge to aesthetics. For Stein this difficult and elusive poetics has the task of finding what the last section of How to Write describes as "a vocabulary for thinking." This vocabulary comprises much more than just lexical items; it offers in fact a matrix for thinking the event that would be different from thinking in substantive forms: concepts, ideas, propositions, in short, "nouns."

Reimagining thinking away from concepts and definitions, away from its practices of nominalization/objectification, and toward its poetic form, makes Stein's work central not only to the avant-garde's revision of aesthetics but also to the critique of modernity and its cultural manifestations. The relevance of Stein's writing is less in terms of specific representations, images, or cultural practices and more with respect to the very elements—linguistic, conceptual, iconic—that make up the order of representation. Thus, in Tender Buttons, Stein's implicit critique of the exclusion of domesticity and ordinary language from high modernist art takes the form of undoing definitional and descriptive patterns in reference to everyday objects, utensils, meals, and living spaces. In "Patriarchal Poetry," it is not the images of femininity (with the exception of the sonnet) that Stein takes apart but instead the discourse of patriarchal culture: objectification, definition, possession through cognition, erasure of difference, linear progression, propositional forms of language. Stein often identifies these features with the "poetry of nouns"—the objectifying discourse characteristic of modern rationality—which, operating exclusively in terms of the name, the proper, property, identity, and substance, obliterates the event-character of experience. Stein appears to descend in her texts to this elemental level of engagement with language in order to put her critique into play at the roots of language, as it were, where it can most disconcert and put into question language practices that other radical discourses still have to follow, even if their "content" may explicitly disavow and criticize them. Beyond this, however, the elemental linguistic energy that Stein's texts produce, her playfulness and irony, serve purposes that reach across literary practice, into its cultural and social significance and into the critical potential inherent in the social functions of art.

In "Patriarchal Poetry," the declared literary, cultural, and, by extension, philosophical aim is the resistance to patriarchal culture and its dominant "poetry":


How do you do it.

Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.

Patriarchal Poetry at peace.

Patriarchal Poetry a piece.

Patriarchal Poetry in peace.

Patriarchal Poetry in pieces.

Patriarchal Poetry as peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry 

                                                                                at peace.

Patriarchal Poetry or peace to return to Patriarchal Poetry 

                                                or pieces of Patriarchal Poetry.

Very pretty very prettily very prettily very pretty very

                                                                    prettily. (Yale 133)


Ironically playing "piece(s)" against "peace," Stein indicates the desire and the possibility of withstanding Patriarchal Poetry and leaving it "in pieces" rather than "in peace." Although Stein's poem makes clear that we have to "return" to Patriarchal Poetry, since there is no easy exit from patriarchal forms of culture and writing, the trajectory of this return and the shape in which Patriarchal Poetry will find itself depends above all upon what kind of writing one performs and upon the use to which one puts language.

Works like "Patriarchal Poetry" suggest that Stein's literary practice moves toward uncovering the link between elemental linguistic configurations and their potential to both identify and explode the "patriarchal grammar" of the world—its matrix of the relations of difference, dependence, and power. As Stein indicates in How to Write, grammar holds the key to the order of discourse and representation that the tradition seeks to repeat and perpetuate. The repetitiveness of grammar, its insistence on following rules, reflects for Stein the cultural order that links stability with the figure of the father and with patriarchal power—the order of sameness, repetition, and predictability that erases difference. The last line of "Patriarchal Poetry" is one of the most telling examples in this context: "Patriarchal poetry and twice patriarchal poetry" (Yale 146). Stein's linking of this repetitiveness and predictability of grammar with the central role of nouns in language suggests that the everyday itself is "patriarchal"—structured and regulated by the hierarchical rules of representation that assure the dominance of the "more valuable" substantive forms of objectified knowledge.

At the same time, though, "Grammar is in our power" (How to Write 73)—it is open to revision, transformation, and rewriting, the operations that Stein's texts continuously perform on their language and inherited conventions. Identifying the phallocratic complicity of traditional grammar with the grammar of culture—"Grammar is contained in father . . ." (How to Write 99)—Stein counters the hegemony of this "patriarchal poetry" by bringing to our attention the disruptive and transformative power of language, especially of its "poetic" space. In this gesture, she points out the pertinence of the avant-garde revisions of aesthetics, even in their extreme, exploratory articulations, to the critical and transformative powers within culture; more, her writing allows us to identify the intersections of the "elementary" work that avant-garde artists undertake on the discourses of art (for example, Malevich in painting, Khlebnikov, Beckett, or Bialoszewski in literature) with the issues of power, domination, and cultural monopoly. One could argue that it is texts like "Patriarchal Poetry" that show us not only that literature is never, even at the apparent extreme of experimentation, purely formal or "for its own sake," but also how such elemental and seemingly confined literature in fact encodes subversive intent and practice into its very mode of writing.

. . .

One of the links between Stein's work and feminist critique is precisely this claim that there is no common knowledge or knowledge of the commonplace that would return us to some sense of a "substantive," even if only local, community. Stein's articulation of the everyday explodes the notion of common knowledge by turning her poetics of domesticity into the arena for the problems of gender, femininity, and lesbianism. In her texts the ordinary is precisely the locale where conflict, difference, otherness, and oppression mark themselves. In other words, the local is the locus of difference: of sexual, gender, and language difference. "Patriarchal Poetry" associates the local with gender difference, with the feminine subverting the masculine (patriarchal) hegemony of sameness through the parody of its "mean" practices of erasing differences and imposing the unity of meaning: "Patriarchal Poetry is the same. / . . . / Patriarchal Poetry connected with mean" (Yale 139).


Title Krzysztof Ziarek: On "Patriarchal Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Krzysztof Ziarek Criticism Target Gertrude Stein
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poetics of Event: Stein, the Avant-Garde, and the Aesthetic Turn of Philosophy
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