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Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” and the Atonal Detour

Krzysztof Ziarek describes Gertrude Stein’s quasi-epic prose poem “Patriarchal Poetry” as an exemplar of the “poetics of the event,” embodying the “idiomatic character of each happening, the particularity of its configuration and circumstances, which are lost in the generality of linguistic naming” (MAPS). While I’m intrigued by this notion and its aura of teeth-gritting intensity, I want to deflate the pathos of the “event” and come to the poem armed with a less grandiose concept: tone. Usually defined as the poet’s attitude toward her subject or reader, tone can be understood more precisely (or more nebulously, depending on your point of view) as the mood or emotion of the poem. But what exactly is the tone or event-ness of passages like this: “Once or two makes that be not at all practically their choice practically their choice. / Might a bit of it be all the would be might be if it of it be all they would be”? (59). Approached from this angle, Stein’s poem appears tonally ambiguous and ultimately, I argue, atonal or seemingly lacking in any identifiable emotional content. Further, the poem’s atonal artillery forms part of Stein’s challenge to patriarchal poetry: to evade representing or expressing any emotion that can fall under the power of Adamic naming and to return to a pre-emotional state (or “pre-Symbolic,” in the psychoanalytic jargon) by way of a detour through atonality: “As we went out by the same way we came back again after a detour” (79).

Although the poem strategically evades emotion, it does produce certain effects. In fact, its effects are exceptionally strong (maybe even psychosis-inducing). However, these strong effects are not as easy to identify as, say, Claude McKay’s rage in “To the White Fiends” or Lucia Trent’s “unstable mix of anger, anguish, and contempt” (Cary Nelson, MAPS) expressed in “Breed, Women, Breed.” While anger and contempt may have motivated Stein’s composition of the poem, they are not in any way evident in the poem itself. By themselves, possibly angry commands presumably directed towards men, such as “let her be,” lose their emotive force through their excessive repetition: “Let her be. / Let her try. / Let her be let her let here let here be let here be let here be let her be shy let her be let her be let her try. / Let her try.” Although repetition deconstructs anger, these lines still command an atonal force that unsettles men’s familiarity with female anger-resentment and instead launches into a strange, pre-emotional affective register.

A practical distinction between “emotion” and “affect” will prove useful here. “Affect” refers to a sort of pre-cognitive intensity, a bodily resonance that gets “taken up” into consciousness as it combines with ideas or judgments. That is, emotion is the “species” of the genus “affect,” or to put it another way: affect is the detour through which we come back to emotion. To use an absurd but illustrative example: rocks can be affected in various ways (e.g. ground up into dust or thrown through a window), but they do not, like humans, have emotions like anger, shame, joy, or disgust. In other words, the poem’s atonality is the detour through a pre-cognitive, affective zone. The poem’s opening suggests such a detour: “As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away” (55). Quite literally, the poem seeks to “carry away” the (male) reader by fastening itself back to a new affective experience, namely a painful one, despite its occasional and inevitable “slippage” into melodious musical passages.

Rather, the poem’s atonality challenges the possibility that at some level the expression or representation of all emotion is inherently pleasurable, even when such emotions are negative, however anguished they may be. The pleasure derived from patriarchal poetry’s use of the logic of comparison to transfigure all things into beauty is subverted: “Compare something else to something else. To be rose. / Such a pretty bird” (57). Instead, the poem ensnares the reader in the circular logic of the same: “Patriarchal Poetry and left of it left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it as many twice as many patriarchal poetry left to it twice…” (70). The constant doubling and leftward turning produces a sort of dizzying effect, a nausea that decisively subverts pleasure yet also seems to take pleasure in this subversion. The poem, like atonal music, seems seductively turned away from the reader/listener, enjoying itself in its own alterity and actually being (rather than expressing or representing) a new tone, a new affect.

Copyright © 2006 by John Claborn