Peter Quartermain: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Patriarchal Poetry at best.

Best and Most.

Long and Short.

Left and Right.

There and More.

Near and Far.

Gone and Come.

Light and Fair.

Here and There.

This and Now.

Felt and How

Next and Near.

In and On.

New and Try

In and This.

Which and Felt.

Come and Leave.

By and Well.


Patriarchal Poetry indeed.

Opaque indeed, and covertly if not blatantly inviting the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium. The strategy here is to play transformations against the convention of the list, that is, against the reader's expectation of uniformity. For this list is a curious series of pairs, each member of which matches its partner differently. Best and most might but need not be contrasting terms - the decision is qualitative; long and short (like left and right? hardly!) are quantitative contrasts. It is difficult to see what the relationship is between there and more (though there's a more-or-less vague gesture toward rhyme). Position contrasted with quantity? But near and far are familiar, and perhaps afford us a relief that is reinforced by the equally familiar (but a reversal of the cliché) gone and come: Of course, the fact that we associate gone with farness and come with nearness means there's another reversal going on here, too. Most of these pairs are irreversible binomial idioms; Stein shows that reversing them does not indeed produce nonsense but, by breaking the conventional (patriarchal?) semantic construct, produces meaning. The next pair, light and fair, is conventionally of synonyms, but by now the reader no doubt suspects the conventional meaning, and, as Ulla E. Dydo remarks of Stein's language as a whole, "the bonds that tie words to things are loosened and names split off from objects." This notion has been strongly reinforced by the time we reach Felt and How, a line that radically departs from the conventions this list seems to have established: It pairs a participle (or is it a noun?) with an adverb (invoking the colloquialism "and how!" in the process?) in one of two unpunctuated lines in the list. Dropping the punctuation draws our attention to the aptness of the run-on pair How Next, and the writing begins to comment on its own procedures. So as we proceed through this list we turn more and more to the linguistic and not the referential relationships between the words in the list, only to be brought up short, perhaps, by the sequence of the last three lines I quote. For here Returned (playing puns, perhaps, on Leave and By/e) marks a return to the first line I quoted (Patriarchal Poetry at best), and leads to the utterly ambiguous Patriarchal Poetry indeed. Is this ironic or not? How can we possibly tell? To reflect that the uppercase version of "Patriarchal Poetry" is only one of several in this text and might refer to the poem's title simply complicates the matter. What we have is a list that establishes its own rules only to change them as it goes along; it also exhibits, however, the sort of movement I already commented upon in the sentence about "A lake" and in "Book." The list doubles back on itself, pointing perhaps to a generic patriarchal poetry "out there" in the (physical/social) world as well as to the poem of which these words are the title, as well as to the words themselves - which, by this stage of the poem repeated a very great number of times (I have not counted them), have begun to lose whatever precise lexical meaning they might have had.

To the extent that it is an attack on the authoritarian power of conventional, Anglocentric, and male literary values Patriarchal Poetry is a referential work. "Patriarchal poetry," says Stein,

makes it incumbent to know on what day races will take place and where otherwise there would be much inconvenience everywhere.     Patriarchal poetry erases what is eventually their purpose and their inclination and their reception and their without their being beset. Patriarchal poetry an entity.

"Patriarchal poetry," Stein says, "makes a land a lamb"; is "obtained with seize"; "Patriarchal Poetry connected with mean" - which in context means meanness as well as meaning; "Patriarchal Poetry deny why" - because "Patriarchal Poetry is the same." In this forty-page work containing a wonderful parodic eighteen-line verse entitled "Sonnet"; containing innumerable lists of phrases marching down the page; containing permutations and repetitions; containing seemingly endless sequences of non-sequiturs; the phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" comes to act as a kind of stabilising rhythmic force, a steady beat of recurrence, in a linguistic context notable for its multiplicity and unpredictability of meaning and suggestiveness. The repeated phrase "Patriarchal Poetry" virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher: The whole poem is a form of deconstruction, then, in which the discourse demolishes the term - and the authority and stability of the cypher - embedded within it and shaping it, acting out as it does nonpatriarchal modes of writing. Here is a short passage:

Patriarchal Poetry to be filled to be filled to be filled to be filled to method method who hears method method who hears who hears who hears method method method who hears who hears who hears and method and method and method and who hears and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful is who hears is delightful who hears method is who hears method is method is method is delightful is delightful who hears who hears of of delightful who hears of method of delightful who of whom of whom of of who hears of method method is delightful.

This sentence is remarkable, among other things, for its method: a series of phrases repeated in threes, a series of grammatical patterns repeated in threes and fours, a variation from the pattern "who hears" to the pattern "who hears of," so that the preposition "of" comes to dominate a pattern earlier dominated by the pronoun "who," while at the same time the initial preponderance of the verb "hears" gives way to the conspicuous verb "is," and then reasserts itself. A cumulative pattern, gradually enlarging its field as the vocabulary expands.

What I find most interesting in this passage, however, is the syntax: The word "who" appears twenty times (and "whom" twice) in this sentence of 114 words. Do any of them introduce a relative clause (or are they interrogatives)? In order to make sense the mind seeks to subordinate elements, as in the sequence "and who who hears and method method is delightful and who and who who hears method is method is method is delightful," but the subordination won't hold, not simply because that "who" is anaphoric (like the "it" in the opening of "Book"), but because, waiting as we are,(or would be in more conventional writing) for a verb signalling the main clause, faced with phrase after phrase and clause after clause, whose boundaries are so indistinct that we cannot easily or clearly differentiate one from its neighbour (like the identity of the speakers in Lifting Belly), we simply cannot assign priority - save in the most tentative way - to any given sequence of words: Are we to read "whom of of who," for example, the way we might read "among / of green" in William Carlos Williams's poem "The Locust Tree in Flower"? The syntactic data in the sentence are held in the mind virtually in an equivalence of value, since each moment of syntactic lucidity is immediately displaced by a subsequent word (often but by no means always a repetition). In such intense localisation of meaning we find ourselves rescanning the words to discern alternatives to the syntactic pattern we hit upon, and we are left sorting through a variety of reading strategies: Are these words in apposition, or are they subordinate to one another? What part of speech is this? And we find ourselves holding more than one reading in mind at once. The net result is that the hierarchies are ironed out, and we read the language paratactically, nonpatriarchally.


Title Peter Quartermain: On "Patriarchal Poetry" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Quartermain Criticism Target Gertrude Stein
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 21 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe
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