Okla Elliott

Okla Elliott: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Productive Dissonance

A dissonance
in the valence of Uranium
led to the discovery
(if you’re interested)
leads to discovery

—William Carlos Williams, Patterson IV (On the Curies)


“No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.” —Jacques Derrida, from an interview in Derrida and Différence


Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending (-obliterating? –inventing?) text, “Patriarchal Poetry,” seems primarily interested in creating what I want to call productive dissonance—that is, a dissonance that produces new cultural space or discourse. She does this by, to use Derrida’s phrasing, tampering with the language. One almost imagines she wanted it to border, in places, on the unreadable, or at least unpleasant, while in others it is quite aurally pleasing. Why would she want to do such a thing? There is no key that unlocks this text, but the long series of near-repetitions


Let her try.

Let her try.

Let her be.

Let her be shy.

Let her try. (65)


lends some insight into her project here. I count thirty-eight instances of the phrase “let her try” in this movement of the poem, by far the dominant phrase within the series of repetitions and near-repetitions; and it is quite telling that the stanzaic paragraph is completed as “let her try to be” (ibid). Stein’s text here refuses, even more than most poetic productions, any sort of clean interpretation, but it seems at least part of the text’s point that women who produce non-patriarchal poetry (especially at the time she is writing) must be allowed to try, must be allowed to try to be, as there is no poetic form in which women can be at the time she is writing.

And this is exactly what the formal dissonance of her text is trying to invent, a counter-discourse and then hopefully a new discourse beyond that counter-discourse, which is no longer tethered by that “counter-“ to the patriarchal discourse. Or perhaps it would be better to say that her text is trying to clear away and create the space for just such a new untethered and unfettered discourse, for her text itself does not quite achieve the Aufhebung stage of the dialectic of discourses I am imagining as its goal (conscious or un-). It is therefore a dialectical dissonance she has produced.

And so, since I have let Hegel into the conversation, how else might he be able to help us? I think perhaps recognition theory here plays a role in Stein’s project. If we apply Hegel’s recognition theory model, with its constant battle between subjects vying for recognition from and/or domination over other subjects, couldn’t we read Stein’s text as a bid for recognition, albeit a necessarily dissonant or destructive one (though dissonant and destructive for the purpose of creation or Aufhebung)?

We might also apply another great dialectician to the text. When Stein writes “Patriarchal poetry in regular places placed regularly as if it were placed regularly regularly placed regularly as if it were” (67), isn’t she doing a critique of ideology in the Marxian sense? The empowered normalize the place of patriarchal poetry by placing it regularly in the regular places (e.g., journals, anthologies, classrooms) where is it entirely normal (regular) to find such things. It’s that wonderfully ambiguous “as if it were” that cuts through the surface of naturalized ideology—as if it were normal or natural for this to be the order of things. But it isn’t, Stein seems to be telling us, either right or natural, but rather merely the effect of patriarchal power that ensures the placement of patriarchal poetry over competing discourses.

So far, however, I have only discussed what Stein’s poem is doing, but I haven’t answered the question I posed earlier of why she might have done this, purposely or not. I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s discussion, in his book Violence, of a considerably more recent event, the 2005 riots in France by Muslim French citizens. He incisively points out:

The Paris riots were not rooted in any kind of concrete socio-economic protest, still less in an assertion of Islamic fundamentalism. One of the first sites to be burned was a mosque…The riots were simply a direct effort to gain visibility. A social group which, although part of France and composed of French citizens, saw itself as excluded from the political and social space proper wanted to render its presence palpable to the general public. Their actions spoke for them: like it or not, we’re here, no matter how much you pretend not to see us…[T]heir main premise was that they wanted to be and were French citizens, but were not fully recognized. (Žižek 76-77)

Obviously the struggle for recognition in the two cases are not identical (are any such struggles?), but we can learn something here that is perhaps useful to understanding the abrasiveness of Stein’s style. She wanted to rattle cages. Writing in the dominant and accepted style, or writing in a pleasurable or easy one, would have caused the poem to go unnoticed, under the cultural radar. By creating dissonance, she announced a presence in literature heretofore largely ignored. She burnt down anything she could to register her presence and thus demand recognition (in the Hegelian sense).

Stein succeeds in demanding and thus creating the cultural space possible for a new discourse to emerge, and for that alone, she should be ranked among the foremost innovators of modern poetry.

Measured Chaos: Form in Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek”

When I see a Holocaust poem which is rhymed and/or metered, I am reminded of an anecdote about the Polish fiction writer and poet, Tadeusz Borowski. When he was first arrested by the Nazis, he was detained in a holding cell in nearly perfect isolation and without pen or paper to write. In order to pass the time, Borowski composed poems in his head, counting off the meter by pacing back and forth in his small cell. Isn’t this the classic image of the poet using his art to combat adversity? I am hesitant to turn it into an academic exercise, but there is something critically inviting about that detail of his composing metered—that is, regulated and controlled—verse to combat his external lack of control and the chaos his world had become.

There is an immediate conclusion one might come to. The poet creates some semblance of order in a world which no longer does. That is likely a part of the impetus (conscious or unconscious) to write formalist verse in the face of chaos, whether it is the chaos of genocidal violence or that other, more common, human chaos. Even though Anthony Hecht did not suffer detainment at the hand of the Nazis as Borowski did, his poems “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek” raise similar questions about the ordering of human chaos with poetic form, as well as certain other questions about the aestheticization of the Holocaust.

Let’s look first at “The Book of Yolek.” The sestina is a famously difficult form, often considered the most difficult, especially when one adds, as Hecht has here, the further constraint of meter. It is also often considered a showy form, one that is used to prove a poet’s mastery more than anything else. I would argue, however, that in this context, the rhetorical effect is quite different. The sestina’s reputation of showiness is precisely due to how difficult it is to write even a passable one. And again, Hecht adds meter to his versifying burden, thus making his effort all the more difficult. Here, the effort strikes me as respectful, almost as if Hecht is suggesting that writing about such material should not be easy—not in terms of content, of course, but also not at the level of form.

The poem also refuses the neatness form can give a subject matter, almost as if Hecht is additionally suggesting that while it should be difficult, it should not be clean and overly organized; not contained and utterly understood. For example, in stanza 6, line 4, we get an anapest, an iamb, an anapest, a trochee, and an iamb.  So, of the five feet, only two are iambs, meaning a majority of the line is not strict iambic pentameter (though it is pentametric, so it still attains the aforementioned ordering effect to a certain degree). This is set in notable opposition to the opening line of the poem, which neatly has five iambs. There are only a few other strictly iambic lines in the poem. One worth noting is the first line of stanza three—“The fifth of August, 1942.”  Is Hecht mirroring the precision of the date with the precision of his meter? I would argue that, at least in part, this mirroring of form and information is the effect we should see in the line.

“More Light! More Light!” is written in a less demanding poetic form, rhymed quatrains, but many of the same concerns obtain in this poem as do in the more formally complex “The Book of Yolek.” Hecht, widely admired as a virtuoso of form, purposely “messes up” his meter in both of these poems (and, given the many perfectly metered poems Hecht has published, it would be almost insulting to think this were mere error on his part). Writing about the Holocaust should be difficult, and damned difficult, he seems to be saying, but we must not delude ourselves that any perfect rendering of this material is possible. Also, I’d argue, this disruption of perfect meter is purposefully done in order to avoid putting a too perfect aesthetic veneer on such material.

Moving away from issues of form to issues of content, “More Light! More Light!” (supposedly Goethe’s dying words) is a title that invites multiple readings. Hecht is perhaps being ironic by using the dying phrase of the greatest German literary figure in a poem about the greatest German atrocity. Goethe was famously an avid humanist, an accomplished scientist, and a masterful writer. We could therefore see a dark irony in how far the German people had fallen from its ideal man, Goethe, to its most heinous man, Hitler. Another possible reading of the title is that it is an indictment of Goethe’s Enlightenment thought. Many consider Enlightenment thinking as the progenitor of the Holocaust, and so the irony of quoting Goethe would be quite different here. It’s not that Germany (or Europe) fell from some lofty height, but rather that the barbarism of the Nazis was always-already present in the humanitarian Reason of the Enlightenment. Yet one more useful reading is worth considering: Perhaps one of the poem’s messages is that Enlightenment humanism died with the Holocaust, just as Goethe died, and that the call for more light is in vain, as it was for Goethe. I am not concerned here with endorsing any of the above possible readings, but rather offer them as productive possibilities for reading the poem.

In closing, I want to return to my earlier point about the effort to battle chaos with artistic form. This makes immediate sense in the case of someone who experienced the Holocaust (or some other trauma), but in what ways is the rhetorical-aesthetic stance of someone who did not experience the Holocaust different in respect to form? Is it the subject matter that demands we try to re-order the universe, or is it the experience that demands it? Do both require it, but in different ways and with different ethical concerns? We could doubtless offer several answers to these questions, but no matter how we answer them, I maintain that they are among the questions that must be considered in regard to formal poetry and the representation of trauma.