Michael Davidson: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Stein explores the priority of male power and succession as a discursive possibility in "Patriarchal Poetry" (1927). In its opening lines, Stein invokes the close proximity of terms for ontological and historical validation: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away." The imperative "fasten it back" suggests the constructed nature of the historical narrative of filiation. The lines that follow blur the boundaries between precession and being:

For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be to having held to be to be for before to call to be for to be before to till until to be till before to be for before to be until to be for before to for to be for before will for before to be shall to be to be. . . .

Here the terms for temporal priority and spatial proximity ("before") merge with terms for being ("to be," "to be for"), creating a sentence whose grammatical structure embodies the difficulty of establishing a "place" for presence. "There was never a mistake in addition," Stein concludes, and in a world in which existence is based on having gained priority (having been here before), things will always add up to the same thing. In "Patriarchal Poetry," the sum of all equations is patriarchy.

I have spoken of the incarnational structure of Christianity by which an originating voice, or reason, is succeeded by a supplemental logos or word. In "Patriarchal Poetry," this narrative dominates Stein's structure of repetitions and is given explicit emphasis in the work's opening. "To change a boy with a cross from there to there" suggests ways that Christian incarnation ("a boy with a cross") inaugurates history and establishes the terms for repetition:

Let him have him have him heard let him have him heard him third let him have him have him intend let him have him have him defend let him have him have him third let him have him have him heard let him have him have him occurred let him have him have him third.

The sheer monotony of these lines illustrates the rule of succession being invoked. "Let him have him" defines the horizon of progress in terms of male succession. The variation, "let him have him third," neutralizes numerical sequence by the repetitions of male pronouns. The dialectical aporia, the "third" term, can never be anything more than a repetition of the same. The biblical incarnation in John, "In the beginning was the Word," is reconfigured by Stein as a conundrum: if the word is already gendered as male, can it engender anything other than itself again and again? The terms that interrupt the repetitions above - "third," "occurred," "intend," "defend" - are framed by the phrase "have him" so that all variation is a direct function of a "him" who permits it.

The priority of a patriarchal principle is based in language, specifically in a speech-based linguistics. Stein undermines such phonocentrism by pointing to the pragmatic contexts within which certain linguistic formulations occur. The form that her pointing takes is a satire of male rhetorics of proof and validation. By substituting the term "patriarchal poetry" for other substantives, she indicates the extent to which the proof and the subject-position that establishes proof are connected. In one case, she mocks the way that domestic life - specifically regimens of eating and cooking - is permeated by a patriarchal principle:

Patriarchal poetry and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday Patriarchal poetry and chickens on Tuesday patriarchal poetry and beef on Thursday.

Marianne DeKoven calls the repetition of the title motif "arbitrary," but I find repetitions such as these highly directed, suggesting that along with daily bread, one consumes an ordered logic as well. "Patriarchal poetry" refers both to the gendered basis of daily life and its dissemination through poetry.

The criterion upon which DeKoven evaluates Stein's work is its ability to sustain variation and change. Thus, she admires works such as Tender Buttons or "Susie Asado" because they constantly vary and reconfigure language in new and interesting ways. Long works such as "Patriarchal Poetry," on the other hand, suffer from redundancy. It is true that the latter makes for difficult reading, but redundancy is very much at issue in its critique of male discourse. By filling her paragraphs with the same words, often subordinated to the phrase "patriarchal poetry," Stein undermines the function of all series - lists, catalogs, and schedules - that appear to structure the quotidian. Far from organizing reality, Stein's lists point back at the rationalizing tendency itself:

Patriarchal Poetry sentence sent once.

Patriarchal Poetry is used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry in and for the relating of now and ably.

If the function of a list or a schedule is to distinguish and isolate, Stein's lists show the entropic nature of such a win to power. Within the logic of patriarchy all distinctions are moot. The difference between something "used with a spoon" and something "used with a spoon with a spoon" is only the illusion of difference.

I have said that "Patriarchal Poetry" foregrounds pragmatic frames for utterances. Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems:

Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations of this in as apt to be not only to be partially and as cautiously considered as in allowance which is one at a time. At a chance at a chance encounter it can be very well as appointed as appointed not only considerately but as it as use.

The humor of such passages lies in their mockery of professional or bureaucratic rhetoric, with all of its minor discriminations, parenthetical qualifications, and unqualified assertions. The glaringly absent term here is any referent for the "value to be placed upon the best." Patriarchal poetry is faultless because, as a structure of legitimation, it has permeated the very logic of value itself.

Where does woman exist within "patriarchal poetry" (the system, not Stein's text)? At one level, she is its object, that about which a male poetry is written. Stein satirizes the goals of traditional love poetry in a sonnet placed at the text's center:

A Sonnet

To the wife of my bosom

All happiness from everything

And her husband.

May he be good and considerate

 

Gay and cheerful and restful.

And make her the best wife

In the world

The happiest and most content

With reason ...

The poem concludes by hoping that the wife's "charms her qualities her joyous nature" will make her husband "A proud and happy man." The function of the sonnet, as Stein sees it, is not to celebrate the wife but to hope she will continue to satisfy her husband. This is patriarchal poetry with a vengeance, and although Stein was perfectly capable of aping the bourgeois structure of the family herself, with Alice as wife and herself as husband, this sonnet, with its Hallmark Greeting Card sentimentality, suggests how ironically she could treat this ménage. Furthermore, it suggests that what sonnets are "about" is ultimately a system of avowals, the human terms for which are socially determined.

The longest catalog in "Patriarchal Poetry" is one consisting of variations on the phrase "Let her try" ("Let her be," "Let her be shy," "Let her try"), concluding with the appeal

Never to be what he said.

Never to be what he said

Never to be what he said

Let her to be what he said.

Let her to be what he said.

In terms of Stein's biography, we could see this as representing Stein's attempt to be free of her brother Leo, not to be "what he said" but to "try" to be herself. This may help explain Stein's desire to live outside of patriarchal authority, but it does not address the material form in which this desire is expressed. By focusing on the grammatical and pragmatic contexts of negation ("Never to be"), of commands ("Let her be"), and existence ("to be"), Stein inverts the authority of patriarchal language and points to the discursive nature of subject production itself. That she performs her deconstruction with a great deal of humor and wicked wit makes her task all the more oppositional.

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Title Michael Davidson: On "Patriarchal Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Davidson Criticism Target Gertrude Stein
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word
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