Friday, October 08, 2004

Diagram This

I don't know who Kitty Burns Florey is, or what her website is all about, but when Arts & Letters Daily links to anything mentioning Gertrude Stein, I follow.

Florey's essay "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog" has got me thinking: to what extent could the practice of diagramming sentences explain Stein's peculiar, experimental style? Stein's alternation of simple, declarative sentences with wild, grammar-coming-apart-at-the-hinges exercises and variations are utterly crucial for the development of American modernist poetry. Or to leave Stein for a moment, consider William Carlos Williams's famous "This Is Just To Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams's poem is taken from a note left for his wife, but the way in which the simple sentences are rearranged, semantically and syntactically pressurized by their new graphical arrangement,
defamiliarized by their new poetic context is not unlike the grammatical/graphical gamesmanship of sentence diagramming. (Williams liked to describe his free-verse method as pressing words into pictures.)

Stein, less fond than Williams of white space, was especially fond of games of substitution and rearrangement, as in this short prose poem, "Any one doing something and standing":

Any one doing something and standing is one doing something and standing. Some one was doing something and was standing. Any one doing something and standing is one doing something and standing. Any one doing something and standing is one who is standing and doing something. Some one was doing something and was standing. That one was doing something standing.

My internal historical researcher stood up when I noticed that Williams and Stein, like many of the earliest modernists, were born in the 1870s/1880s -- in other words, almost exactly synchronous with the widespread adoption of handbooks of sentence diagramming in American primary schools.

It's always hard to show a direct correlation with something like this, but still -- I smell an article coming on.


Gavin said...

I love that WCW poem--the sense of transgression, the obvious affection and familiarity, the plea for acceptance, the whole "forbidden fruit" thing. I just love it.

And in a much more anecdotal, fin-de-siecle kind of way, I like the idea that those who born in the 70s and 80s are the adventurous ones, artistically, the ones who are in place at the turn of the century and ready to lead in new directions.

It just makes me feel better about me. :-)

Now to actually write something. . .

Tim said...

In response to Gavin: it's easy to forget that many of the writers we associate with the twentieth century were really very much the products of the decades previous to it -- which in turn leads to something I've thought a lot about in the past and have been thinking about again lately.

Someday very soon, "20th-century literature" or "20th-century art" -- both the ideas thereof and the texts and works subsumed under the ideas -- won't be seen as continuous with the art & literature of the present but will rather become, like Victorian, Romantic, or Renaissance literature, a conceptually and historically distinct period in its own right. Also -- this break signals both a scholarly/critical and creative imperative to rethink the role of 20th-century works with or against those of the present.

To a certain extent, the idea of postmodernism already posits such a break -- say, after World War II, or sometime in the 1960s, or wherever. But I think most people could agree that the notion of "postmodernism" (like that of "the end of history") overstates its case, arguing for not just a shift or break between the early and later parts of the twentieth century, but it some sense a break from the entire project of modernity or Enlightenment -- dating back to the 18th, 17th, 16th, or 15th centuries, depending on how you frame it. (For those of you scoring your modernity-start-dates along at home: that's the French Revolution; Galileo, Descartes, and the English Renaissance; the conquering of the Americas; and the fall of Byzantium.)

But the more subtle shift of a period and century may ultimably be, for scholarly and new creative purposes, the most decisive: the historical distance we now have on the late 19th and early 20th centuries (comparable to their own distance on the radically different late 18th and early 19th centuries) may allow us to return to this period with renewed vision.