Just Too Very: Gertrude Stein and the Language of Excess

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
—Johnny Mercer

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:


       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 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 titleIdem: The Samewhere “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.


A Day Unlike Any Other: James Schuyler’s “February”  

In “February,” James Schuyler depicts a struggle central to his poetics: the struggle between language and perception, between what language makes of what is there, and what is really there. Another way to describe this struggle: between seeing and knowing. Schuyler seeks to return us to the difficulty of seeing what lies before us, to nuanced perception, without recourse to easy words or prior knowledge.

This struggle is already apparent in lines 2-4:

The sun, I can’t see

making a bit of pink

I can’t quite see in the blue.

With that comma, Schuyler interrupts what would have made short work of this skyscape. What he could have said: “The sun makes a bit of pink in the blue sky.” But instead he exposes what such language would have suppressed: that, while he knows the sun is there, he doesn’t actually see it; that however the sun is pinking the sky, it’s more subtle than the phrase “a bit of pink” would suggest.

That Schuyler wishes to help us see beyond the easily named is underscored by the date: “the day before March 1” which could be either Feb. 28 or 29, depending on the year. We’re being clued in that we’re entering a space where the systems we use to tame experience—be it the calendar or language—no longer fulfill that straight-forward function.

In the next two lines, Schuyler offers a failed simile and continues his exposé of language’s limited ability to represent by comparison: “The green of the tulip stems and leaves / like something I can’t remember.” Not able to summon the second term of the simile, Schuyler instead  drifts into the memory behind the failed comparison:

. . . finding a jack-in-the-pulpit

a long time ago and far away.

Why it was December then

and the sun was on the sea

by the temples we’d gone to see.

One green wave moved in the violet sea

like the UN Building on big evenings,

green and wet

while the sky turns violet. 

These 9 lines are a digression from the present of the poem, followed to figure out what, exactly, the the tulip’s green was like: it was like a “green wave” in  a “violet sea” which, in turn was like the green (?) of the UN building on big nights. You see the difficulties here: The green of the tulip steam is like the green of a wave Schuyler had seen, which in turn was like the “green” of the UN Building. The point of a simile is to make a description more vivid. I think it’s fair to say that, in this case, we are no clearer, or if anything, less clear on what sort of green Schuyler might mean. The green wave is from a personal memory, at an undisclosed location. There’s no way a reader can know what that green is. And the UN building isn’t green at all, but reflective:


We’re still no clearer on what green he has in mind. (Also notice the secondary simile, equally unhelpful: the violet of the sea was like the violet of the sky).

Schuyler completes the memory with another simile:

A few almond trees

had a few flowers, like a few snowflakes

out of the blue looking pink in the light.

I love how he uses the expression “out of the blue” in an almost literal way.  He also gives us more difficult-to-picture blue-as-pink! But this is not a flaw: Schuyler is simply demonstrating the complex reality behind the most basic words and the ways we use them. Schuyler then returns us to the present (and present tense):

A gray hush

in which the boxy trucks roll up Second Avenue

into the sky. They’re just

going over the hill.

This is almost the reverse of JS’s process so far: first he describes what he actually sees—trucks going “into the sky”—then corrects his perception  with the knowledge that they’re merely going over the hill. Schuyler takes final shot at describing the green of the tulips’ leaves:

The green leaves of the tulips on my desk

like grass light on flesh,

and a green-copper steeple

and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.

Her he employs another bizarre simile—“like grass light on flesh”—then describes more of what he presumably sees out his window: more green (in the steeple) and glowing clouds.

All told, the word “like” appears seven times in this poem—each time, it seems, only to initiate a failed simile. It makes its final appearance in the last line: “It’s a day like any other.”  This raises the stakes on the difficulty/insight poem confronts at every turn: that while our words compel us to speak in hazy approximations, reducing things to mere “likeness,” our experience tells a different—perhaps untellable—story: that no moment is ever like any other.


The Hand’s Becoming: Recent Art Criticism and Cy Twombly

Cy Twombly: Roman Notes (1970)

Simon Sharma has observed that “I have always thought ‘Twombly’ ought to be (if it isn’t already) a verb.” Roland Barthes claimed that Twombly’s work “does not derive from a concept (mark) but from an activity (marking). . . .” adding that the viewer sees “the hand’s becoming. . . . With each stroke [Twombly] blows up the museum.”

Yet many recent reviews of his exhibition In Beauty It is Finished at Gagosian Gallery describe Twombly’s work in strikingly static, verb-starved language. For instance, in her New York Times review, Roberta Smith describes Twombly’s work this way:

At some point toward the middle of the show oil paint settles in to stay, along with subjects like flowers and buds. Twombly is at his most free. In the largest work in the show, “Untitled (Gaeta)” from 1989, he paints mostly with his fingers, creating a small mountain of blacks and violets mixed with white. Their opulence is gorgeous, funny and not a little scatological.

The verbs are invisible, with Twombly merely “painting” and “creating” and the key terms naming colors and forms. The final sentence features a hazy, adjective-y noun, itself qualified by 3 adjectives. The description is functional, naming what’s there, but certainly does not convey the dynamic quality of the work or its impact on the viewer.

John Yau’s Hyperallergic review comes at the work by engaging the myths and literature referenced by Twombly’s titles or within the works. It’s a compelling angle, as many critics skip over the literary references (which is understandable, given the works’ relative lack of specific imagery). But beyond this extremely helpful decoding, Yau’s work is mostly an index finger, pointing at the specific elements of each work:

In the two drawings “Untitled (Toilet of Venere)” (1988), Twombly turns his attention to the classical subject of Venus gazing into a mirror held by Cupid, thus linking beauty and erotic love. Artists who dealt with this subject include Titian, Diego Velasquez, Peter Paul Rubens, François Boucher, and Twombly’s lifelong friend Robert Rauschenberg in the silkscreen “Persimmon” (1964), which incorporates Rubens’ oil painting “Venus at the Mirror” (1615).

Instead of depicting Venus looking into a mirror, however, Twombly stapled a smaller sheet of drawing paper to a larger one, creating a rectangle within a rectangle, or mirror. Onto this sheet of paper he wrote the work’s title and the date. In the space between the edge of the stapled paper and the larger sheet’s border, Twombly has painted the linear outline of a flower — a flower that in some cases seems to have erased itself, leaving behind a lavish smudge. Don’t the smudges suggest crushed flowers and scent? Along the bottom edge of the stapled sheet, Twombly depicts oversized versions of female sex organs in pinks, magentas, and fuchsias. Has Venus left behind this wet stain on a mirror? It evokes both sight and touch.

Like Smith, Yau’s verbs are functional: “painted,” “creating,” and “depicts.” The rest of the passage inventories the painting, informing us that the painting as a whole rather passively “evokes both sight and touch.” Reduced to these terms, the sum feels less than the whole.

In his review at Vulture, Jerry Saltz takes an entirely different approach. He does not address individual works, but catalogues specific details of many works:

Twombly’s fevered phosphorescent blooms of runny jellyfish chrysanthemums with elongated, pulpy, tentacle-like sacks dripping down; his iridescent storms of inchoate cryptographic scribbles, floral scrawls, jittery jutting lines; pustules rising and falling like raw nerve endings, flying vagina dentata, plaited anuses, priapic phalli spouting involuntarily or drooping defenseless, and what his closest reader, MoMA’s late Kirk Varnedoe, called “anteater tongues” — all of it metamorphosed into my own inner Kama Sutra of urge. Sensory networks lit up; a new barometer fluctuated. It was abstract yet explicitly erotic.

Fascinating: Saltz seems to intuit that naming is not enough: the expansive list sentence keeps trying to outdo itself with imagery that’s “graphic” in every sense of the word (compare Saltz’s “flying vagina dentata” to Yau’s clinical “female sex organs”) as well as assonance and alliteration.  The main verb—“metamorphosed”—is certainly more accurate and compelling than “depict,” but the true verb magic here happens in the present participles, each vivid and vigorous: “dripping . . . jutting . . .  rising and falling . . . flying . . . spouting . . . drooping. . . .” As a result, the sentence becomes the verbal analogue of the work itself.

There are, of course, limitations to Saltz’s approach. It’s impressionistic and perhaps a bit indulgent. But of the three approaches surveyed here, it’s by far the most respectful of Twombly’s own aesthetic exuberance.

Of Verbs and Vision: William Hazlitt’s Art Criticism

hb_24.45.1.jpgNicolas Poussin: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

One remarkable aspect of William Hazlitt’s art criticism is how he uses verbs to invigorate  and intensify his description of artworks. Contemporary critics stand to learn a lot from him in this regard. For instance, here’s a bit of his description of Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun (1658):

He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; ––you see his blindness, though his back is turned.

Of course, it could be argued that he’s merely describing a figure, which in “real life” would be exerting itself in accordance with these verbs. Yet Hazlitt does not reserve verbs for the self-evidently animate:

Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean.  

Mist almost begs to be described in passive terms, yet here mists “rise” and “veil the sides of the green forest” and even the quote from Milton (Paradise Lost, bk VII) animates the sky and stars.

Hazlitt concludes:

Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’ The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.

I’m especially interested in Hazlitt’s description of how the painting hits the viewer: “we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.” I’d argue that this serves as an analog for how Hazlitt’s masterful use of verbs works upon the reader. Nouns name and contain; they assign a static identity to things, rendering them somewhat passive. But verbs are dynamic and visceral; we feel them. When applied to a painting, they help it push beyond its frame.

Compare all this to a passage from a recent review of contemporary figurative painting (artist/work/reviewer omitted):

. . . a nearly six-foot-high canvas featuring two young men on a sofa, one with his head in the other’s lap, and a young woman sitting on a patterned carpet on the floor, gazing absently beyond the picture plane. The scene seems almost irradiated, with various components rendered in glowing oranges and pinks, and a T-shirt in blinding white. Looking closely, one notices that the faces are composed of mere suggestions: a few swift strokes add up to a likeness. Despite an atmosphere of relative contentment, things in L_____’s works often feel impermanent. Edges blend and passages are wiped or scraped away to reveal the canvas underneath. Such techniques convey the sense of fading memories.

The description is entirely serviceable, but any capacity the artwork might have to stagger or stun or entice the viewer is blunted by the verb-starved language.  The prepositions mark missed opportunities for compelling verb work; most of the actual verbs are art-review throwaways: “featuring,” ”rendered,” “composed.” The remaining verbs are a matter of the artist’s technique: “blend” and “scraped away.” Perhaps the most telling is the ghost of a viewer, masquerading as an abstract “one” who merely “notices.”—worlds away from  being “thrown back upon the first integrity of things.”

“Along the reaches of my nerve”: On Anne Truitt and Artistic Facility


At first, it may seem strange that facility and facile are cognate, the former connoting technical excellence, the latter, superficiality. But many artists learn the connection the hard way, discovering that that for which they fought—mastery of their medium and its techniques—comes at a cost: that facility tempts one to be facile; to ignore the rough edges of experience and to overlook the irregular and unpredictable; to name or render too tidily that which resists quick categorization.

As a result, many artists renounce their early mastery, and in some cases actively seek ways to hinder it.  For instance, after working for a couple decades in monochromatic, hard-edged minimalism, painter Brice Marden started painting with long sticks, which “destabilized his natural facility,” according to Roberta Smith, and helped him break out of stale habits that he’d fallen into. And critic and theorist Edward Said points out that one of the hallmarks of “the late style” in artists, is its “tears and fissures,” which testify to “finite powerlessness” of the artist. It’s this lack of facility that gives late works their power.

For some time on this blog, I’ve been collecting examples of artists who resist or renounce technique. For instance, Thelonious Monk played with the flats of fingers, to the chagrin of your childhood piano teacher. Fairfield Porter praised Jane Freilicher’s “clumsiness”; James Schuyler, in turn, called it an essential quality of Porter’s work. And Schuyler himself built a poetics out of search and stumble:

Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 11.31.46 AM.png

My latest encounter with artistic resistance to technique comes from an unexpected source: Anne Truitt.  I recently went to see her stunning show currently display in the tower of the National Gallery of Art.  In preparation for my visit, I re-read Truitt’s book, Daybook, a collection of journal entries from 1973-1980, and I came across this fascinating passage from June, 1978:  

The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadily along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.  As in any profession, facility develops. In most this is a decided advantage, and so it is with the actual facture of art; I notice with interest that my hand is more deft, lighter, as I grow more experienced.  But I find that I have to resist the temptation to fall into the same kind of pleasurable relaxation I once enjoyed with clay. I have in some subtle sense to fight my hand if I am to grow along the reaches of my nerve. (my emphasis)

Earlier in Daybook, Truitt worries that she’s “not good enough to be an artist,” especially given the seeming certainty with which others use the term to describe themselves. But in this passage, she comes to realize that the “idolatry” involved in such certainty is the opposite of being an artist. It’s not a matter of being “good enough,” but open enough, vulnerable enough to forego technical excellence—to “fight the hand”— let go of self-limiting labels, and embrace uncertainty.


Not Without Purpose: The Double Negative from Chaucer to Present

Though often considered a grammatical faux pas, double negatives are not unexampled in literature. For instance, defending their use in what he calls “the American language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Chaucer “used them with utmost freedom” in The Canterbury Tales, citing these lines:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight


[He never yet no vileness didn’t say

In all his life to no manner of man]

Google tells me that Shakespeare uses double negatives often, for instance in “As You Like It,” where Celia says “I cannot go no further.” And Paradise Lost abounds in double negatives, including this one, coming out of the mouth of the Almighty Himself, instructing Michael on how to boot the “sinful pair” out of paradise:

Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair,

From hallowd ground th’ unholie, and denounce

To them and to thir Progenie from thence

Perpetual banishment. Yet least they faint

At the sad Sentence rigorously urg’d,

For I behold them softn’d and with tears

Bewailing thir excess, all terror hide.

If patiently thy bidding they obey,

Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale

To Adam what shall come in future dayes,

As I shall thee enlighten, intermix

My Cov’nant in the womans seed renewd;

So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace… (my emphasis)

Allow me to justify God’s grammatical ways to humankind: it’s clear in this context that the double negative is not inappropriate. God is telling Michael to go easy—but not too easy—on the pair; He wants them to be neither “consoled” nor “disconsoled,” but somewhere in between: “not disconsolate.”

Then there’s this symphony of negatives from the opening four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

The negatives here culminate in the striking phrase that the speaker can “not choose not to be.” Hamlet seems decisive by comparison. This strikes me as a completely appropriate way to represent spiritual affliction—”pitched past grief,” as Hopkins puts in another of the “Terrible” sonnets—a loss of agency wherein the most one can do is not not exist. Extremity of situation calls for extremity of language.

Bringing things to the present: I recently read Cheryl Merrill’s essay “Wild Life,” included in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Merrill is interested in how we see “the nonhuman” other; her essay attempts to nudge us away from our all-too-human-centered ways of understanding “wild life.” In a brief, prose-poem-like section of the essay, Merrill looks into the face of an elephant.

I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.

Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears.  Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.

The face that is like mine looks back at me.

Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks.  She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.

Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 6 months.  Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?

I could. I could stand here forever, peering into an iris that has sun flecks and shadows in it.

The face that is not unlike mine looks back at me.   (my emphasis)

I love the modulation from “unlike mine” to “like mine” to “not unlike mine.” “Unlike mine” makes elephant purely other, unrelated to her human viewer. “Like mine” completely eliminates otherness, reducing the elephant to a human analogue.  “Not unlike mine” masterfully occupies the uneasy but essential space between—neither exoticism nor anthropomorphism, but acknowledgement. 


A Pathless Way: Sappho’s Poetic Bewilderment

I recently came across this insightful and suggestive essay by Emilia Phillips, in which she explores “the poetics of bewilderment” as discussed by Fanny Howe, Rebecca Solnit, and Kaveh Akbar. Building on Solnit’s’s and Akbar’s observations, Phillips comments on the possible poetic virtues of bewilderment:

[T]o be lost is to be fully present. To be bewildered is to have the senses confused so much so that they are fully heightened, alive…

[Bewilderment] allows the poem to have an unknown, but soon discovered, emotional effect on you as either the poet or the reader. It doesn’t set out into the world with set expectations, only a hot, molten glass globe of hope inside one’s chest.

The word itself is resonant, suggesting being lost or led astray, into the wilds/woods, without the guidance of pre-established paths. In a pathless wilderness, one has to find—or more accurately, make—one’s way step by step. Such a situation calls for awareness, care, and risk, all attended by a surrender to unknowing. For the poet, the parallels are clear: this is the fecund yet disorienting space where language becomes estranged from the poet, where each word feels spoken/written as if for the first time. Perhaps Rimbaud’s famous pronouncement is spoken from this place:  “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.”

Poetic bewilderment is probably as old as poetry’s first word, but an early discussion can be found in “On the Sublime” by Longinus, written around 100 CE. Longinus goes beyond traditional discussion of rhetoric, focusing instead on writing that brings about “not persuasion, but transport” in its audience. “On the Sublime” is the source for the famous long fragment from Sappho, “He seems to me equal to the gods,” and it’s Longinus’s analysis of that fragment that’s relevant to our discussion:

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Longinus comments:

Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, color? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death.

Here bewilderment knocks the language off its grammatical rails, as the speaker drops articles and pronouns:

no: tongue breaks and thin

fire is racing under skin

and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

The anaphoric “ands” suggest simultaneity, or at least some kind of temporal disturbance—a disturbance that’s enhanced by the tortured inversions and self-correction:

greener than grass

I am and dead — or almost

I seem to me.

The speaker loses herself, as her sense organs become estranged from their function—”in eyes no sight”—and her consciousness splits in two: “I seem to me.” This passage resonates with Rebecca Solnit’s observation, cited in Phillips’s piece: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”

Importantly, Sappho not only portrays bewilderment, but allows the reader to experience it, especially in the jumps and swerves of her language. Which brings me to my own present bewilderment. Reading over what I’ve written, I sense a certain ambiguity:  where to locate bewilderment—the poet, the poem, or the reader? Can we tweak Frost’s saying about tears and surprise: “No bewilderment in the writer, no bewilderment in the reader”?