American Sonnets (Part XIV: Stein’s Sonnet)

Dora Malech
February 12, 2018
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[Continued from “American Sonnets (Part XIII: The Hinges)”]

In my last post, I thought a bit about how Gertrude Stein first opened up (or rather, unhinged) some of the doors (particularly syntactic and grammatical ones) in American poetry, rendering her relevant to our thinking on American Sonnets. Earlier, I mentioned the interview in which Terrance Hayes said, “I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein’s bed we’ll find a sonnet or two.” So is there a Stein sonnet on hand? In a way, yes. The only sonnet of Stein’s I can actually find is right in the middle of 1927’s forty-page poem “Patriarchal Poetry.” It begins:

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. 

It ends:

Her charms her qualities her joyous nature
All of it makes her husband
A proud and happy man.

The poem is not fourteen lines (it is eighteen). It is unrhymed. It is unmetrical. There is no turn. There is no figurative language at all. The language lacks all specificity, using abstract nouns (virtues, beauty), lists of vague adjectives, and verbs that are just variations of “to be” and “to make.” All that’s left of a sonnet is a bland sentiment of love, though even love isn’t present as an active verb, just a deeply passive descriptor:

To the wife of my bosom
Whose transcendent virtues
Are those to be most admired
Loved and adored and indeed

It’s not even the husband actively loving the wife or vice versa, but her virtues loved in passive voice. This is a bad poem. Aggressively bad. Karen Ford writes:

[I]ts refusal of form is what makes the deficiencies of content so glaring . . . The state of desire that frequently engenders the sonnet, then, is replaced in Stein’s poem by contentment bordering on torpor. Complacency, rather than desire, motivates this speaker, and his stasis embodies the larger poem’s charge.

But Ford notes “the potential of such ‘leavings’ of the exhausted literary tradition” in “Stein’s revisionary practice”: “Everything is reusable in Stein’s poetic vision.”

Though Wanda Coleman, when asked about “Eliot, Pound, Stein” in a Poetry Society Q & A about “American Poetry,” said, “If I have read one more thesis boiled down to book review or revisionist critique of these icons I will go up in cobalt stink,” please permit me this one moment, in considering the formally subversive American sonnets of Coleman and Hayes, Mayer and Berrigan, Simonds and Wallschlaeger, Bervin and Silem Mohammad, to look back and wonder if Stein’s 1927 “A SONNET” in “Patriarchal Poetry” was the first to make this move – titling a formally subversive sonnet with the full weight of a tradition behind her, as an invitation (or dare) to the reader to start asking questions.

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