Scene4 Magazine-inSight

March 2011

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

A Trinity of Influence

Early on before the Steiny Road Poet found Gertrude Stein, she enjoyed what the average culture vulture liked in poetry—Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," Gerard Manley Hopkins "God's Grandeur," and Carl Sandburg's "Fog." With the help of her favorite college professor Rudd Fleming, she found her first true poetic love, Wallace Stevens. Then she created her own "Anecdote of the Jar" with this poem:


    came to
    a party
    last night
    in the form
    of a jug
    jig, jig.

    you came, too.
    I was the girl
    with a jug
    jig, jig.

    The atmosphere
    was blue
    and the jug
    was brown.
    I wonder what
    Wallace Stevens
    would have heard
    had he hallooed
    in the jug
    as I did
    jig, jig.

    From The Dancer's Muse
    Copyright © 1981 Karren LaLonde Alenier


In the Summer of Love plus one (1968), she flew for the first time. That trip was to San Francisco where she stayed with friends, communal style, in Haight-Ashbury. There she visited City Lights Bookstore where she bought books by Allen Ginsberg. Her number one favorite Ginsberg poem "In a Supermarket in California" had its effect (although she didn't know it then) and she wrote her own version of "lost America" in this poem:


    my brother
    who gently
    makes me do
    who provides
    when I am
    only weak
    who shows me
    how straight
    a steady leg
    will be
    away from home
    so long ago
    I am not sure
    I ever knew
    his name.

    From Wandering on the Outside
    Copyright © 1975 Karren LaLonde Alenier


As the Steiny Road Poet has chronicled in the first column of this series, she fell under the spell of Gertrude Stein in the late 1970s. In 1982, she had the rare opportunity to work with Paul Bowles on her poems about Stein. Except, that she also, without being consciously aware, became a disciple of Paul Bowles. In Bowles, the S. R. Poet found a poet at the crossroads of words and music, serenity and violence, Western and Middle Eastern cultures, religion and atheism, emotion and indifference, truth and lies. With poems like "Stories: On the Nature Of Poetry," the S. R. Poet has tried to enter the psyche of Paul Bowles as he has gotten under her own skin.

Since reading a biography of Allen Ginsberg, the S. R. Poet has been thinking about how connected and antithetical these writers are. SteinBowlesGinsberg-crUnlike Wallace Stevens who was a Connecticut insurance executive, Ginsberg, Bowles, and Stein made their way in the world as Bohemians and outsiders. Occasionally Ginsberg worked as an itinerant Merchant Marine or held some socially "respectable" job in advertising or a grunt job like working in a restaurant. Stein never held a job but Bowles was a working composer often hired to write music for theater and film. Unlike Stein and Bowles who came from upper middle class families, Ginsberg's father was a financially struggling high school teacher who had a mentally ill wife and she was in and out of medical care, which caused the family a huge financial burden. But as Bohemians, Ginsberg, Bowles, and Stein lived pretty frugally despite Stein's art collection and Bowles' years as an owner of a Jaguar. While Ginsberg traveled the world, he remained based in the United States. Stein and Bowles lived as expatriates respectively in France and Morocco, where in their days, it was relatively cheaper to live there than the United States.

All three were life-long learners and read prolifically, but only Stein and Ginsburg had college degrees and these degrees were Ivy League—Harvard for Stein and Columbia for Ginsberg. Could it be that each had that Jewish proclivity for education? While Stein and Ginsberg were culturally Jewish (Ginsberg became a Buddhist as an adult), Bowles was raised as a Christian. However, as a young adult, Bowles learned that his mother, much to his surprise, came from Jewish stock and certainly it was she who encouraged her son's interest in literature, and specifically, Edgar Allen Poe.

Also, all three had strong influences from or with French artists. Arthur Rimbaud inhabited Ginsberg's ars poetica. The French Surrealists initially influenced Bowles and that influence sufficiently irritated Gertrude Stein enough for her to tell Bowles to quit writing poetry. However, his fiction was clearly influenced by Albert Camus' novel L'Étranger and the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. Bowles' translation of Sartre's play Huis Clos (No Exit) stands as the definitive translation. Stein drew her style for Tender Buttons from the Cubists artists Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris (actually Spaniards transplanted to Paris for most of their adult lives like Stein). Perhaps she bested the French Dadaists because her work with a positive spin and discernible meaning has and had more staying power than theirs.

Sexual proclivities also played an interesting role in these three writers' identities as people and artists. Stein had a life-long partnership with another woman. Stein considered herself to have a male outlook and that she was the husband in her "marriage" with Alice B. Toklas. This shows up in some of her writings, which are veiled love letters to Toklas. However, Stein did not take on physical manifestations of being male nor was she a Feminist. In the shadow of penalties imposed on Oscar Wilde, Stein and Toklas, despite living in Paris where life was freer than other places, hid their intimate relationship. Bowles who was married to the Lesbian writer, Jane Auer Bowles, until her death in 1973, went both ways but according to his closest males friends was mostly asexual. Like Stein, he was reticent to discuss his sexual interests. His novels and short stories are filled with people who have trouble expressing their emotions, let alone love. However, Bowles made it clear that he was devoted to Jane and that her early death was a profound loss to him. Ginsberg was a gay man who preferred straight men but also had occasional affairs with women and gay men. Unlike Stein and Bowles, Ginsberg became more and more vocal about sexual politics and helped establish with his openness the tradition of gay pride in the United States. Despite having had a partner for 40 years before his death in 1997, Ginsberg did not have a loving or successful sexual relationship with anyone. Ginsberg was a loyal human being and completely undaunted by rejection. Mental illness, particularly his mother's, played a huge role in how he related to other people. Ginsberg's work is filled with over-the-top confessions about his emotional life. 

One other area of importance that should not be skipped with these three is politics. Stein was conservative and Republican. She got herself in trouble with some of her American friends and colleagues during WWII when she supported Maréchal Pétain. Academics who have studied Stein suggest it was a survival strategy since she and her partner were Jews living under Nazi occupation. Bowles tainted himself as a young man when he joined the Communist Party as a rebuke to his parents. That brief membership had long-lasting negative consequences, causing him to lose many American honors. Mostly he tried to stay under the radar of politics wherever they arose including with the U. S., Morocco, and Ceylon, where he once owned an island but felt forced to sell because he feared the Ceylon government would seize it. Ginsberg was a socially active protestor, even coining the concept of "flower power." He went after the Central Intelligence Agency for what he said was their participation in drug trafficking. He protested the Vietnam War, use of nuclear weapons, environmental issues, and other causes.

Finally, the Steiny Road Poet seems to be particularly interested in these three writers because of their connection to the artistic discipline of music. Stein's work needs to be sung/read aloud to fully appreciate its lyricism. Bowles said Stein had no ear for music whatsoever but certainly her work moved many composers who have set her words to music. Let it be said that the texts of Gertrude Stein are to composers  as snake charmers are to cobras who can not hear anything—it's just the movement and flow that captures the snake. Like his mentor Aaron Copland and Gertrude Stein's prime opera collaborator Virgil Thomson, Bowles wrote accessible tonal music. Some of his art songs are based on letters from writers such as Gertrude Stein and Jane Bowles. Bowles had a good ear for how words should be laid out in sentences. Ginsberg had an elaborate strategy for meter and rhythm in his long-lined poetry. Ginsberg put live music into his readings. He played the harmonium and chanted. His biographer Bill Morgan said Ginsberg wanted to be a rock star and Ginsberg made recordings with some big name music stars like Bob Dylan.

The final thought is that Rudd Fleming set the Steiny Road Poet's literary path when he came to class one day, tapped on his desk with a pencil and said, "Listen to the music, now write."

Photos of Gertrude Stein & Paul Bowles:
Yale Collection of American Literature,
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Photo of Allen Ginsberg:
Ishmael Sundarban


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2011 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

March 2011

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