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Karren LaLonde Alenier

In the Zone: Was Gertrude Stein
Influenced by Guillaume Apollinaire?

The Steiny Road Poet has signed on for the fourth time to Al Filreis’ Modern & Contemporary American Poetry massive open online course (the ModPo MOOC) from Coursera. As a ModPo community teaching assistant, Steiny is again engaging in the study of Gertrude Stein’s long love poem Tender Buttons. The 2015 study of Tender Buttons takes place inside the discussion forum of ModPo where any of the thousands of ModPo students are free to participate or lurk. Steiny resumes work on Section 2 Food in early October when University of Pennsylvania professor Filreis opens the study to Gertrude Stein.




One aspect of Steiny’s study this year will be to look for signs of how the outside world influenced what Gertrude Stein wrote. This includes what affect the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) may have had on her. Apollinaire met Pablo Picasso in 1905 and quickly became part of Picasso’s circle of artist friends. From what Stein wrote about Apollinaire in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, it was apparent Stein greatly cared about and respected the intelligence of this man.


“Salmon [French poet André Salmon was also part of Picasso’s circle] and Guillaume Apollinaire both lived in Montmartre in these days. Salmon was very lithe and alive but Gertrude Stein never found him particularly interesting. She liked him. Guillaume Apollinaire on the contrary was very wonderful.


“… Guillaume was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.


“…The last time we saw him was after he had come back to Paris from the war. He had been badly wounded in the head and had had a piece of his skull removed. He looked very wonderful with his bleu horizon and his bandaged head. He lunched with us and we all talked a long time together. He was tired and his heavy head nodded. He was very serious almost solemn. We went away shortly after, we were working with the American Fund for French Wounded, and never saw him again.




“…The death of Guillaume Apollinaire at this time made a very serious difference to all his friends apart from their sorrow at his death. It was the moment just after the war when many things had changed and people naturally fell apart. Guillaume would have been a bond of union, he always had a quality of keeping people together, and now that he was gone everybody ceased to be friends.”




Stein wrote Tender Buttons beginning in 1912 and by spring of 1914, achieved publication—her first invited book as well as her first poetry collection. In 1913, she wrote this portrait of Apollinaire:


Give known or pin ware.

Fancy teethe, gas strips.

Elbow elect, sour stout pore, pore caesar, pour state at.

Leave eye lessons I. Leave I. Lessons.  I. Leave I lessons, I.


In A Stein Reader, editor Ulla Dydo comments that this portrait “becomes a bilingual eye lesson that is also an ear lesson in new reading.” Dydo says that the first line of the portrait sounds like the poet’s pen name Give known (Guillaume) or pin ware (Apollinaire). Dydo tells us the poet’s full name was Wilhelm Apollinaris Albertus de Kostrowitzky and that he was “a Pole, not a Frenchman” at the time of Stein’s portrait.




What particularly interests Steiny is that this 31-word portrait has 13 items of punctuation, including five commas. In her 1934 essay "Poetry and Grammar," Stein says, “a comma is a poor period that it lets you stop and take a breath.” In Tender Buttons, Stein employs many commas and periods such that Steiny believes Gertrude Stein was making some kind of statement about punctuation. The excess is particularly apparent in the way she punctuates the titles of her subpoems. For example, Section 1 Objects opens with “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.”.  Note that a period ends every Tender Buttons subpoem title.


In 1913, Apollinaire enjoyed publication of Alcools, his first major book of poetry. The poems are words only, without punctuation, and this lack shocked his readership. “Zone,” the opening poem of Alcools, is touted as cubist in style, possibly like the Orphic Cubist paintings of Robert Delaunay. Stein’s Tender Buttons, said to be influenced by the cubism of Picasso, therefore begs comparison. While Alcools, translating as Spirits (mostly alcoholic spirits), reflects on Apollinaire’s unsuccessful love relationships, Tender Buttons is Stein’s often deliriously drunk invocation of love for her secret wife Alice Toklas. Therefore, Stein’s heavy use of commas may be the way Stein brought visceral action to these poems. Steiny likes to say that the 87 words of “A Long Dress.” from Section 1 Objects with its eight commas results in heavy breathing, like the breathing one might experience in having sexual intercourse.





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. 



Apollinaire was also concerned about bringing action to his poem, that action that Stein called the present moment. However, he achieved this in Alcools with text unimpeded by punctuation. Take for example, the fluidity of this well know poem:




            by Guillaume Apollinaire


Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

      Et nos amours

   Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne

La joie venait toujours après la peine


      Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure

      Les jours s’en vont je demeure


Les mains dans les mains restons face à face

      Tandis que sous

   Le pont de nos bras passe

Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse


      Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure

      Les jours s’en vont je demeure


L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante

      L’amour s’en va

   Comme la vie est lente

Et comme l’Espérance est violente


      Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure

      Les jours s’en vont je demeure


Passent les jours et passent les semaines

      Ni temps passé

   Ni les amours reviennent

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine


      Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure

      Les jours s’en vont je demeure




        translated by Richard Wilbur


Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine

            Must I recall

     Our loves recall how then

After each sorrow joy came back again


            Let night come on bells end the day

            The days go by me still I stay


Hands joined and face to face let's stay just so

            While underneath

     The bridge of our arms shall go

Weary of endless looks the river's flow


            Let night come on bells end the day

            The days go by me still I stay


All love goes by as water to the sea

            All love goes by

     How slow life seems to me

How violent the hope of love can be


            Let night come on bells end the day

            The days go by me still I stay


The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken

            Neither time past

     Nor love comes back again

Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine


            Let night come on bells end the day

            The days go by me still I stay



Both Stein and Apollinaire employ repetition to create circularity. The beginning and the end meet such that time turns on itself, creating a fleeting sensation that time has stopped in the present moment. For Stein and Apollinaire, circularity is involved with cubism (seeing all sides at once) and the fourth dimension, which has its irrational aspect since the human eye cannot see it.


Apollinaire, as an art critic, spent time analyzing the new style of painting (cubism) developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Apollinaire said that Picasso and Braque were “moving toward an entirely new art which will stand, with respect to painting as envisaged theretofore as music stands to literature. It will be pure painting as music is pure literature.” (Marilyn Stokstad. Art History. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002. Page 1077) Apollinaire also coined the phrase Orphic Cubism when he wrote critical commentary on Robert Delaunay’s work.




While Stein and Apollinaire were capable of remarkable intellectual agility, they both had a tremendous sense of play that often drew on children’s literature. Take a look at Apollinaire’s “La blanche neige” from Alcools.



            by Guillaume Apollinaire


Les anges les anges dans le ciel

L'un est vêtu en officier

L'un est vêtu en cuisinier

Et les autres chantent


Bel officier couleur du ciel

Le doux printemps longtemps après Noël

Te médaillera d'un beau soleil        

        D'un beau soleil


Le cuisinier plume les oies

        Ah! tombe neige

        Tombe et que n'ai-je

Ma bien-aimée entre mes bras




            Translated by A. S. Kline


The angels the angels in the sky

One’s dressed as an officer

One’s dressed as a chef today

And the others sing


Fine sky-coloured officer

Sweet Spring when Christmas is long gone

Will deck you with a lovely sun

          A lovely sun


The chef plucks geese

          Ah! Snowfalls hiss

          Fall and how I miss

My beloved in my arms



In French, the fairy tale of Snow White is Blanche-Neige. So the reader, like Steiny, may have misread Apollinaire’s title “La blanche neige.” Yet the absurd characters of this poems—angels dressed as an officer and a chef who at Christmas time comes to decorate you with a medal of sun and cook you a special dinner seem, equally with Snow White, characters out of a child’s story except snow falls and the speaker of this poem is reminded that his beloved is not held close. Moreover, Apollinaire links that lack—the missing beloved—to the snow by way of a clever rhyme: neige/que n’ai-je.


In Tender Buttons, Stein delivers the punch of her nursery rhymes with abandon. Take for example, “A Dog.”:





A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.


With this Steinian ditty, Steiny thinks we may have entered into a Shakespearean forest (think A Midsummer Night’s Dream) where men or women are turned (literally or figuratively) into asses because they fall too hard in love.



     Having once this juice,

I’ll watch Titania when she is asleep

And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.

The next thing then she waking looks upon—

Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,

On meddling monkey or on busy ape—

She shall pursue it with the soul of love.

And ere I take this charm from of her sight—

As I can take it with another herb—

I’ll make her render up her page to me.

But who comes here? I am invisible.

And I will overhear their conference.


So Oberon, King of the Fairies, enchants Titania to make a fool of her as well as turn the mortal man Bottom into an ass.



Nothing, good monsieur, but to help Cavalery Cobweb

to scratch. I must to the barber's, monsieur; for

methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face; and I

am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me,

I must scratch.]






Apollinaire was a poet who was born in Rome of a single mother whose background was Polish. His father was most likely an Italian military officer. His mother moved him around in Europe and by the age of 18, he settled in Paris. Gertrude Stein was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States and as young child she and her family lived in Austria and Paris until they were settled finally in Oakland, California. She was given lessons along with her siblings in French and German.


What hanging out with the ModPo community, a very large international group, makes Steiny realize is that Gertrude Stein was not writing in a vacuum. She was communicating with artists like Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso. If Tender Buttons seems sui generis, it may be because we Americans have not studied literature in other languages.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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