I was surprised to discover this week that I actually like Gertrude Stein, the modern poet/essayist notorious for throwing off conventions of narrative and grammar. I remember sitting with my mother long ago, trying to read a Stein essay, and being unable to extract any meaning from it. My mother told me Stein practiced writing in stream-of-consciousness. Neither of us was impressed.
Now I'm five or ten years older and I've read hundreds more poems than I had read when I had my first taste of Stein. Perhaps more important, thanks to O., I've been learning about intuition, which seems more and more essential to me for enjoying (not understanding, but experiencing) poems. I used to feel uneasy with a poem until I had grasped it, decoded it, analyzed it. Like the students Billy Collins complains about in this gem.
Or, well, no, it wasn't that bad. More like: I used to think I couldn't derive meaning from a poem without first understanding it, being able to speak about it. Lately I have learned to be at peace with reading a poem and only feeling it, hearing it, seeing its images: not thinking about it.
My mother and I heard Li Young Lee read some of his poems at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in April. We both loved it, and each bought a volume of his poetry. I devoured mine: the first time I finished an entire book of poems for the sake of the poems rather than for the sake of finishing. His poems feel like the voice of my soul, the images in them like memories dusty from disuse.
My mother started reading her book of Li Young Lee and pronounced it incomprehensible. She asked me to explain a few of the poems to her, the ones I liked best. "Sure!" I said.
But I couldn't. I love the poems, but I can't say what they mean or how they mean it. I only know that they mean. I understand them through intuition, and I don't hunger for more than that. "You'll have to find your own / pictures, whoever you are, / whatever your need," the poet writes in "A Table in the Wilderness." He shows us his pictures, though, and they speak in a language that my bones know, though not my tongue. To speak, I need my own pictures.
Li Young Lee's poems have something of the fragment about them, something otherworldly, something best understood when they are heard on the breath, spoken aloud. Still, their images are coherent and their grammar is sound. Gertrude Stein's writing doesn't offer those comforts. Reading it aloud helps, but doesn't make its assertions any more sensical. Take a look at even one line from "Tender Buttons" and you'll see what I mean. The connections between words are tenuous; my mind can't construct the relationships they stand in. Is there a structure here, or is it a haphazard pile of ideas?
The structure present is the structure of water, flowing over stones, or the shape of clouds: meaningful, determined by uncountable factors, each simple and measurable but too numerous to calculate. Chaos results, when you try to fit reality into formulas. The clouds drift away into a new configuration and the sunset changes to a new hue before you can explain the old.
Still, I see the shape, a shape nameless but meaningful. A shape I could learn to name, if I listened to it long enough. Intuition lets me touch it, and I am grateful for the unexpected gift.