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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"How do you spell critical eloquence" : investigations of poetry and prose in the theoretical writings of Gertrude Stein Elsted, Crispin

Abstract

Gertrude Stein's writing has not received an accurate critical reading. Critics have contented themselves with biographical studies, with attacks on her obscurity, and with philosophical or psychological theorizing which treats the writings as phenomena rather than as literature. A central preoccupation of Stein's writing is the difference between poetry and prose. Critics and readers have looked to Lectures in America, particularly to "Poetry and Grammar," for the clarification of her theories, but the complete answer to the problems of reading Stein cannot be found in the popular theoretical writings. In these she writes about her difficult work; Stein soon saw that she could only explain her most difficult writing in its own terms. In contrast to the "exegetical" Lectures in America and Narration, Stein created a remarkable body of "exemplary" writings, works which themselves exemplified the writing style they set out to explore. These "exemplary" works are concerned with the essential natures of poetry and prose. These works were written from 1923 to 1932, beginning with An Elucidation and ending with Stanzas in Meditation. The pieces collected in How To Write (1931) are concerned with prose. Through vocabulary, grammar, sentences and paragraphs, Stein explored the structural elements which make up prose. Her discovery that prose was inherently linear led her to suppose that the primary difference between prose and poetry might be that prose was progressive, and poetry, static. Her first attempt to "stop" poetry, in "Winning His Way," was mechanical and unsuccessful. It was only when she realized the use to which prepositions could be put that she was enabled to write Stanzas in Meditation, her greatest poem. In this, through her use of the relational elements of language, the sense of the writing moves between and among groups of objects, rather than from a beginning through a middle to an end, which is the basic movement of prose because of the linear quality of sentences and paragraphs. The poem's form, in closed stanzas, contributes to its non-linear effect. In Stanzas in Meditation, Stein unequivocally states her belief that the essence of the artistic object -- in this case, the poem itself -- can be realized by writing it "as a thing in itself without at all necessarily using its name." The struggles with language and form which make up the "exemplary" writings of Gertrude Stein enabled her to create a perfect marriage of technique and intention. Through this, she came to realize the importance of seeing that her subject was always in control" of its form, that her writing was "organic." Her final position on the subject was that "poetry and prose is not interesting. What is necessary now is not form but content."

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