Skip to main content

"Patriarchal Poetry" is a 1927 poem that did not make its way into print until decades later. Yet it may be the only fully realized and rigorous deconstructive poem in American modernism.

Can the poem, the title questions behind its unruffled nominalism, be about patriarchal poetry, or is it to be an instance of patriarchal poetry? The parameters of that question are immediately ruptured. For the "poetry" referred to here is not just a literary genre but rather the poetics of everyday thought. "Patriarchal poetry" is the metaphoric logic ruling the meanings that make our culture what it is. The ambiguity of the title thus reflects Stein's judgment that everything one writes will be in some ways patriarchal. A critique of patriarchal poetry cannot be mounted from a position wholly outside the poetics it would critique. The only sure strategy of demolition available is a defamiliarizing burlesque from within:

Patriarchal Poetry might be withstood.

Patriarchal Poetry at piece.

Patriarchal Poetry a piece.

Patriarchal Poetry in peace.

Patriarchal Poetry in pieces. (p. 281)

Using witty and strategically staged repetition, variation, and rhyme, Stein exposes hierarchical gendered biases built into the most unassuming usages. Repetition short circuits the sense that words and phrases can function as neutral syntactic units and frees us to recognize patterns of semantic association that all language carries with it in use: "They said they said they said when they said men. / Men many men many how many many many men men men said many here" (p. 280). "Men," we hear here is always a statement, always an assertion, always a cultural imprimatur. In patriarchal poetics "they said" always says "men" for "they" and always says "men said" for "said." In the poetics of patriarchy, difference is really the repetition of the same: "there is a very great difference between making money peaceably and making money peaceably" (p 259). Or as she writes at another point: "Made a mark remarkable made a remarkable interpretation made a remarkable made a remarkable made a remarkable interpretation" (p. 284). A re-markable interpretation is not remarkable at all. It is the honorific imposition of the law of male priority. It is "patriarchal poetry as signed" (p. 286), another interpretation that is marked and that we are linguistically prepared to remark.

Repetition and variation let Stein successively place a variety of words, phrases, and concepts under pressure so that all the components of a statement are shown to be individually permeated with the ruling assumptions of patriarchal poetry. This technique also isolates and decontextualizes words and phrases, seeming at first to turn them into unstable echolailic nonsense, but thereby severing them from their syntactical functionalism and making it possible to see them as counters in a very different semantic game. On the other side of nonsense is the broader ideology that patriarchal poetics continually reinforces: "Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake" (p. 263); "Patriarchal poetry is the same" (p. 264); "Come to a distance and it still bears their name" (p. 264); "Patriarchal Poetry is the same as Patriotic Poetry" (p. 264).

Patriarchal poetry is the poetics of unreflective reason and order, of officious segmentation and classification—"Patriarchal in investigation and renewing of an intermediate rectification of the initial boundary of cows and fishes" (p. 258)—often to comic effect: "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" (p. 259). Patriarchal poetry is therefore a poetics of marching: "One Patriarchal Poetry. / Two Patriarchal Poetry. / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (p. 274). It is the signature of the authority of the nation state and of the corollary authority of the individual subject: "signed by them. / Signed by him" (p.274). Patriarchal poetry is the self-evident logic of culture transforming itself into natural fact: "If any one decided that a year was a year when once if any one decided that a year was a year" (p. 260). Extended in time, it is thus the reiterated story of our collective origin and the linear history that fictitiously unfolds from it: "Able sweet and in a seat. / Patriarchal poetry their origin their history their origin" (p. 263). And patriarchal poetry also cuts the other way, interdicting every impulse that deviates from the norm and its radiant myth of origins: "Patriarchal Poetry originally originate as originating believe believing repudiate repudiating" (p. 282).

Stein's poem does not proceed in any obvious linear way; to do so would be to adopt the armature she wants to disavow. So she works by indirection. But the poem does have signal moments of disruption and revelation. The first of these occurs as a serial eruption of the phrases "Let her be," "Let her try," and "Let her be shy." They are simultaneously pleas for space for women's freedom and commands disseminating differences through the language. "Let her be" is, of course, also the letter "b," whose supplementarity and secondary character Stein offers in place of patriarchal claims for priority and origination.