You’ll have to excuse the title: I’ve been reading Gertrude Stein. Or rather I’ve been reading Diana Souhami’s engaging biography of Gertrude and her other half Alice B Toklas (perhaps her other three quarters, considering how much Alice did for her), and trying to read some of Gertrude’s own writing. There’s no doubt that in different places it is baffling, repetitive, excruciatingly tedious and sometimes screamingly funny – whether intentionally or not I’m not sure. Here is part of a piece from Tender Buttons (no, I don’t know what it refers to either, though some people have hazarded a guess):
A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION.
The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.
Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
So there you are. I’d like to be able to dismiss it completely but somehow I can’t. What Gertrude Stein is trying to do is to get below the ordinary rational level of consciousness into a place where language makes sense in a different way, if it does. She wrote poems as well as prose and the poems work similarly, except that they’re written down the page instead of across. But even if they don’t seem to make sense, what the poetry and the prose both have is rhythm and their own particular kind of music. Gertrude Stein is some sort of poet, even if not the sort that most of us would want to emulate. And she wrote regularly, dedicatedly and fluently. Sometimes she only wrote for half an hour a day, but those half-hours soon added up. She just kept on writing without worrying about it, and let whatever came find its own level.
On Sunday I went to a workshop with the poet Penelope Shuttle, whose beautiful collection Sandgrain and Hourglass I’d definitely recommend. Without making it seem too arduous, she got us to write six poems in the course of the morning and another one at the end of the workshop. We had time to read two of our poems to the group and I was blown away by the depth and quality of the work that had emerged in such a short time. I should say that many of the participants were published poets, some of them very well-established, and had obviously written a great many poems before. But even I, who have only just begun to take myself seriously as a poet and have not written nearly so much, found I was producing work that was better than I had expected. The message seemed to be: just write and don’t think too much about it; trust that it’ll be OK. We did have time to revise what we had written before reading it, but some people seemed hardly to have needed it. Sufficient unto the day were the poems thereof.
Until now I’ve often had to psych myself up to write a poem. Even if I have a half-formed idea – a phrase or an image or a vague sense of something – there will often be a gap between jotting it down and actually getting to work. Having a deadline – for a course, say – will usually push me into it, but even so I may well find myself hesitating, faffing around, writing a line and crossing it out, writing another line, looking at it and thinking it won’t do, blocking in the odd line or stanza further down and then thinking that won’t do either, and then leaving the poem for another time because it won’t come right. The trouble is that, much more than with prose, there’s something in me that feels any poetry I write has to be Very Good if I’m to be allowed to write it at all. I’m working on a novel at the moment and don’t mind churning out a not terribly good first draft which I will then revise, but somehow I have the feeling that even a rough draft of a poem has to show its quality in order to justify its existence. Which is why, of course, I’ve never written that many poems.
I’d like to hope this is changing. I’ve just joined an online poetry group where people are given a prompt every week for the subject. Some people post only one poem a week, some rather a lot, some possibly none. The quality – though very high – can vary as the aim isn’t to send polished poems but to get feedback and encouragement. And to keep writing poems. I didn’t do NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) this year, though I had thought that for the first time I might. The aim of that is to write a poem a day, just for the sake of writing poems. Some of them may be good and worth keeping, others possibly not, but like Gertrude Stein with her half-hour a day you keep on doing it and see what comes. I’d be very happy if I managed to write one poem a week, and if I do I’m hoping the emphasis may shift from This Is Poetry And It Has To Be Good (and therefore I have to get uptight about it) to simply writing poems as a natural thing to do. I write poems therefore I’m a poet; I’m a poet therefore I write poems.
This morning I was sitting in the garden of Gaia House retreat centre down here in Devon, drinking fresh ginger and lemon tea and watching the fountain in the pond. The water rose up inexhaustibly, spreading out and breaking into tiny droplets as it reached its full height. It’s not exactly an original image for the creative process, but I couldn’t help feeling that was how I wanted to write poems: one after another, letting them fall when they are ready. Keats said: ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ As far as I’m concerned that doesn’t mean don’t craft or don’t revise but it does mean don’t get too self-conscious about it. Poem is a poem is a poem is a poem. It has its own existence and needs me to get out of the way.