In Gertrude Stein’s 1935 lecture “How Writing Is Written,” she laid out the tenets of how to write successfully in one’s own timeframe. For her timeframe, this meant no reliance on the past and capturing the movement of the present moment. In the Twentieth Century, she said audience was interested in existence and not events. She also said she was not using repetition in the conventional sense because exact repetition bores everyone. Her approach was cinematic.
All my early work was a careful listening to all the people telling their story, and I conceived the idea which is, funnily enough, the same as the idea of cinema. The cinema goes on the same principle: each picture is just infinitesimally different from the one before.
Stein had studied automatic writing while she was doing research at Harvard University. She said what she learned was people “could not do anything with automatic writing, but I found out a great deal about how people act.”
That knowledge she used to write The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (written from 1903 to 1911). In this nearly 1,000-page novel, she began with conventional storytelling that unravels into vignettes of behavior. It’s a remarkable deconstruction of the novel which predates all other Modernist novels like Marcel Proust’s seven-volume set À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past was written from 1909 to 1922) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (conceived and written between 1914 to 1921).
She remarked that “followers are always accepted before the person who made the revolution.”
APPLYING SOME OF THE STEINIAN WRITING ADVICE
For some months, the Steiny Road Poet had been walking around puzzling how she would write a political poem. Her intention was to inform her late husband Jim, who passed April 2016, about the surprising outcome of the United States presidential election. Steiny finds political poems hard to write. She thinks the political poem is similar to the occasional poem and heavily reliant on an event or multiple events. According to Stein, to have a readership for your poem in the last century, you should never choose (an) event(s) for its theme.
By chance, a colleague made Steiny aware of The NY Times poetry contest on the theme of Donald Trump. This particular contest would be judged by the Poetry Foundation of Chicago, meaning poems would be held to higher standards than if the newspaper journalist who called for the contest was making the winning selections. So then the challenge was to write a political poem of substance and staying power, such that in 50 to one hundred years, the poem would still be read as a relevant work.
One of Steiny’s issues was that she did not want 45’s name to be in the text of the poem. To name this president, or any other, would take away the possibility of creating a poem with a universal message so she decided an acrostic form might be the solution. After all, The NY Times was calling for poems that pointed to Donald Trump. Much to her delight, she realized Trump’s first and last names contained eleven letters and that matched the line requirement for a short sonnet known as the curtal sonnet, a form invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The rhyme scheme is abcabc dbcdc and the last line is a spondee, two words with strong beats. In Hopkins curtal sonnet, “Pied Beauty,” he indents lines 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Sonnets are often love poems and in the case of “Pied Beauty,” the poet is praising God, a form of a love poem. Steiny’s thinking about an approach to her poem would also have an element of love—love for the poet’s late husband—and praise for her country’s form of government (democracy). Steiny felt this positive approach would fit the form. Steiny made five revisions. Three of the revisions used a different end word for line three. The end word used in line three is a critical element of the poem because it determines what the last word of the last line will be. Steiny advocates for writing the last line well before completing lines four through ten.
Here is the original version:
A WIDOW STARTS A LETTER TO HER BELOVED
D ear One since your quick transition something
O dious shocked the Nation our planet
N eeding time to heal I was slow to list
A ll aspects adding up to wrong doing
L ittle can be done to arrest the threat
D espite that I vow to achieve honest
T raction to pull democracy away
R esisting climate change denying debt
U nder the promise of jobs without grist
M edical care clean water air NO hey
P ump fists
Steiny was satisfied with the first three lines except in a subsequent version, she replaced “quick transition” to “sudden demise” which one of her readers said was cliché. So she kept “quick transition.”
In line 4, Steiny replaced “aspects adding up to” with “actions accruing to.”
Steiny decided the poem needed something more about the relationship between her and her late husband to strengthen the love poem theme. The resolution appears in a later version.
In this version, the last two lines are choppy and therefore do not read smoothly. However, in the final version, lines 5 through 11, were changed.
Normally, Steiny makes small modifications to a poem before deeming the work finished but this poem with its various constraints—special sonnet form, acrostic, ten syllables to the line except for line eleven—made radical changes more desirable. For the record, Gertrude Stein did not revise. She thought things through deeply before she applied pen to paper.
In case you are wondering, I am working these days without punctuation. Punctuation impedes the movement of a poem. Now Steiny is asking why Gertrude Stein bothered with punctuation at all. Finally, the bigger question is what is driving art, no matter the genre, in the 21st century? Maybe it is survival and energy transfer, such that speaking to the dead will take on more meaning.
Check The NY Times for contest results. This concludes Steiny’s experience with how writing is written.