June 2013

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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Stein's "America"

Every day in April on The Steiny Road to Operadom blog, the Steiny Road Poet celebrated National Poetry Month by selecting BPR40-crand reviewing a poem published Spring 2013 in the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40. Gertrude Stein would have loved this print journal that included beautiful and intriguing cover art (read day 15 for information on the art which was done by poet Debora Greger) and well-written book reviews (read day 1 for excerpts from the book reviews). The poems ranged from traditional approaches and styles like the work of the featured poet Claudia Emerson to others like Todd Portnowitz's "The Physiologist's Rebuke to His Lover," an out-on-the-edge poem in the manner of the Great Buddha of poetry herself, Gertrude Stein.

The Steiny Poet offers her review of Stein's poem "America" as a fitting cap to her thirty days" of close reads in the BPR, a poetry review worthy of your patronage, Dear Reader. Stein's "America" also figures prominently in the Poetry in Red Dress theatrical reading program the Steiny Poet did in collaboration with Mary Mackey, Evelyn Posamentier, and Margo Taft Stever.


Once in English they said America. Was it English to them.
Once they said Belgian.
We like a fog.
Do you for weather.
Are we brave.
Are we true.
Have we the national colour.
Can we stand ditches.
Can we mean well.
Do we talk together.
Have we red cross.
A great many people speak of feet.
And socks.
—Gertrude Stein

As an American living most of her life in France, Stein frames "America" from Europe, beginning with the first line. "Once in English they said America" might mean before the United States of America existed, an Englishman (or woman) vocalized the word America. Then Stein wonders if the English people considered the American colonies belonging to Great Britain. In the second and third lines, Belgians are described liking fog, which typically is associated with London, if not British, weather. Historically, England and Belgium, specifically the County of Flanders, were engaged in the wool trade as far back as the 10th century.

Line 4 "Do you for weather" could mean do you, the reader of this poem, like foggy weather. Stein said question marks (and commas) were unnecessary. The reader could always tell statement from interrogative.

The point of view in lines 5 through 11 is first person plural and the we self-exams about being brave and true, loyal to our national color (presumably Americans standing up pledging to our colorful flag), willing to endure war in a ditch as was done in World War I, and collegial with our fellow countrymen. During WWI, the Western Front, defined by its trenches, included Belgium, Luxembourg, and France.

At line 11, Stein references the Red Cross, a humanitarian organization founded in America in 1881 by Clara Barton who was inspired by the earlier Swiss-based global Red Cross. WWI was well known for afflicting soldiers with trench foot. The best remedy against trench foot was keeping the feet dry. In WWI, Stein ordered a Ford truck from America and turned it into an ambulance and distributed Red Cross supplies. Undoubtedly, she, in her truck Auntie, delivered many pairs of wool socks to soldiers at the front.


Stein's poem is organized in 13 lines, just one short of a sonnet by today's poetic standards that allow that classification without regard for exact meter and rhyme requirements. As is Stein's style, the words create sonic play with repetition and rhyme both exact and near. Use of mostly one-syllable Anglo-Saxon words like once, said, brave, true, stand, well, red, cross,feet, socks create an insistent cadence that adds to the overall musicality. One irregularity is Stein's British spelling of the word color (colour). That can be explained by European standards for English words depending on British spellings in English language literary journals published in Europe. To summarize about point of view and pronoun usage, lines 1, 2, 12, and 13 are third person plural (they), lines 3 and 5 through 11 are first person plural (we) and line 4 is second person (you singular but perhaps plural).

So there you have it, Dear Reader, 440 words to explicate a 60-word poem. Poetic compression is a wonderful feat of imaginative expression.

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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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