You’re much too much
And just too very, very
To ever be
In Webster’s dictionary
And so I’m borrowing
A love song from the birds
To tell you that you’re marvelous
Too marvelous for words
A glance at this blog shows my steady interest in defending the linguistically overlooked and maligned: I’ve made the case vagueness in poetry, propped up prepositions, argued how stammers, ellipses, footnotes, and digressions can be the most direct way to make a point. So it seems inevitable that I’d confront perhaps the most vilified part of speech: the intensifier—specifically, “very.” In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White argued that “Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” And strikingly, Milton gave us over 10,000 lines of Paradise Lost without committing a single very to the count.
And yet in 1922, around the same time that Joyce was punning and coining and mythologizing his way through a day in Dublin, and T.S. Eliot was footnoting himself silly, Gertrude Stein writes “Idem: the Same: A Valentine for Sherwood Anderson,” written in the simplest language at what an online readability checker tells me is the 4th grade level. Its opening paragraph is all monosyllables:
I knew too that through them I knew too that he was through, I knew too that he threw them. I knew too that they were through, I knew too I knew too, I knew I knew them.
Simple language, but hardly simple. There’s not a specific referent in sight—just verbs, adverbs and pronouns. No reader’s guide or footnote will spare Stein’s reader from confronting the DNA of language itself—the small but essential words. The word “very” occurs 26 times in its roughly 3 pages. For example:
A VERY VALENTINE.
Very fine is my valentine.
Very fine and very mine.
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.
WHY DO YOU FEEL DIFFERENTLY.
Why do you feel differently about a very little snail and a big one.
Why do you feel differently about a medium sized turkey and a very large one.
Why do you feel differently about a small band of sheep and several sheep that are riding.
Why do you feel differently about a fair orange tree and one that has blossoms as well.
Oh very well.
All nice wives are like that.
Typically, “very” is viewed as replaceable, something that can be absorbed into the word it deigns to intensify: “very smart” becomes “brilliant.” Grammarians see this as “taking the flab out of prose” by making words more precise. But I’d argue that “very” isn’t so much concerned with accuracy as it is with its speaker/writer’s feeling of excess, of something the exceeds her sense of things as they are.
Taken as a whole, this valentine—originally for Alice, Ulla Dydo informs us—is a study in comparative thinking, of sameness and difference, of the difference of seeming sameness, from the title—Idem: The Same—where “same” is literally said differently; to the comparisons of variously sized fauna, and how you can feel differently about the same thing, simply because of its size. What Stein may be getting at is that comparative thinking—thinking in terms of likeness—ultimately misses what overspills comparison.