Johnny Dracut

Gertrude Stein Inducted Into Poets Corner

So anyhow the last time I get into town it is an uptown thing - the induction of Gertrude Stein into the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine - up around Columbia, all the more literary NYC poets living in their 1950s coldwater flats know where I mean, and even the general public does these days, there was a fire there just before Christmas and in this world of 9-11 Manhattan jumpiness a fire in a public place gets everybody's attention, though the press says nothing about Poets Corner just goes on and on about the cathedral until the last spark's well doused and some other news item has them rushing off after the moment's latest alarm.

Anyhow never mind that it's the last time I was in Manhattan and to tell you the truth the only time I go to the cathedral is for these inductions, Christmas and New Years you'll find me steering way clear of the Big Apple, but when it comes to inducting poets I'm there, like just last year when it was Edna St Vincent Millay they were inducting into their little self-appointed American Poet nirvana - not that I'm complaining, mind you, it's not a bad idea at all, despite the solemn robewearing and titles like "electors" and other bureaucratic niceties, where else can you walk by cathedral light to stones immortalizing the likes of Walt Whitman Mark Twain Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson and now it's the turn of the 20th century types, anyhow now it's a year later Edna's safely immortalized in uptown Manhattan and this year they're inducting Gertrude - a pretty cool thing in my mind since just last year when Dana Gioia was in the middle of the process there was a big scuffle over who should get in that year, Gertie or Edna, and Edna the neo-formalist won not my favorite but neo-formalists should have their day in the limelight, and now it's the turn of language poet Gertrude Stein.

In fact I haven't been uptown like this since the night before the day they auctioned off Jack's On The Road scroll, a magnificent night in its own way in a scruffy college bar he and Hunke and Allen and Burroughs and the rest hung in back in the 1940s, strange place for a two and a half million dollar artifact to be displayed, but fitting I guess the bar itself is a kind of artifact of the original beat days when Jack typed hell out of the world two fists flying and slung life around in a backpack; as for the scroll a dog chewed off one end of it and who knows what other indignities it suffered but fifty years later it is a literary relic that they keep under luminous glass and only film stars and sports celebrities have a shot at buying it; which in fact happens, some football team owner who plays guitar and has stars in his eyes for bohemians buys the thing and for a hefty price; and all together I figure Jack's "Inner Catholic" would be pleased with the way the thing's handled, not his "Inner Buddhist," way too temporal for that, there in the bar near Columbia his beat up old scroll is being watched like a piece of some saint's skull or other relic by burly security guards who are trying to look inconspicuous; whether or not he wished for sainthood they are beginning to sanctify Jack's things and encrypt them in the literary holy places and churches for the benediction of all who approach and I for one have no doubt one day we'll see Jack's name among the other literary saints encrypted at St Johns; not just yet, however, they've only gotten so far and so radical and so enlightened and so twentieth century as Gertrude Stein.

It's about time for her, anyhow. Overdue maybe.

You could argue that but I won't, anyhow I get there early for a change and instead of sitting up in the pews where the papparazzi and their bored boyfriends sit I find a fold-up seat down among the dignitaries and reserved seats, how I slip past the Cathedral security guys I have no idea, but it is a ringside seat and I am within sizzle distance when they light the candles at the lectern. nice effect, but not particularly effective for reading, I think. And sure enough a moment or two later I notice off in a corner, just at the last moment before the thing is supposed to start, this maintenance guy shows up and flicks a tiny switch behind a curtain, and the reading lamp comes on.

Shades of Wizard of Oz, you say, but hang on. Immediately this crowd of Electors emerges, behind a procession of candlebearers and a choir, wearing their holy garb, and the show begins. There's a lot of nice singing, and some woman gets up and says what a cool lesbian Gertrude was. Some language poet gets up and says what a cool language poet she was. A woman with big earrings gets up and says they are Gertrude Stein earrings, and on the way over here tonight a guy in the subway noticed them and complimented them and asked if Stein wrote the Wizard of Oz, and how funny that was.

It's all pretty good but I get distracted a little because while all the official stuff is going on, meanwhile a small serious boy and his taciturn father are in front of me wrestling over a pencil. The boy is persistent, with an urgent whisper, trying to mark some spot on the program. The father, wearing a mostly plain gray suit under his big Elector Robes, whispers in his ear and pushes his hand away from the program.

It is an odd little scene, let me tell you, the father keeps slapping his son's hand away below the line of vision while he's smiling for the crowd, some secret silent struggle going on below the line of vision while everything appears normal and excellent on the outside, the boy squinting at the pencil and twisting at it, the father twisting at it too, trying not to squint, at first I think it is some sad lost unseen game going on, hangman or snap, but it's not that, I lean forward to catch the whispering struggle going on between them, the boy is saying the word over and over, I begin to make it out: "cue," he says, "the cue," what is the meaning of all this, I wonder; but put it aside, now the man has gotten up, it is his turn to speak.

Turns out it is not just a man - it is Charlie Bernstein. Distinguished Professor at Buffalo and all that, he's the keynote speaker or something for the event, and he starts to speak, and he's clever and intelligent and comprehends Gertrude Stein in a way that I'm pleased as punch to hear about; and after awhile I figure out what all the fuss was about over the pencil. It turns out Charlie has staged a nice little stageplay in the middle of his speech, the boy is supposed to come up and say something in the middle of his dad's speech, Bernstein has made the boy part of the academic trickery of the moment, something to raise the eyebrows of all the sleepy gray heads in the cathedral, and the kid is anxious because he doesn't know the cue he keeps saying to his dad "what's the cue!"

Anyhow they must have figured it out because the cue comes and the boy stands up and says "if I may interject," and he rushes up to the lectern to interrupt his dad, it is a little stale and lame but okay, it gets a rise out of the crowd, I don't mind. A rise is a rise is a rise.

So what's a rose? Something a little more radical than "what lips these lips have kissed," which is Edna's big line, but Gertrude has lots of big lines if you look closely at her stuff, which not a lot of people do - I mean some of it is pretty heavy going, and there's too much of it, and besides Gertude, well she was a person who deliberately went about smashing the architecture of language so that she could make it new again and quite often the effect was that of so much rubble to pick through. But for all that I always thought that Stein's wordplay moves past destruction to an oddly satisfying reconstruction and was satisfied with that and moved on. From the looks of things at the cathedral it is obvious that she continues to inspire iconoclasts and experimentalists to this day in their iconoclastic experimentalist white towers. Cool - at its best such wordplay transcends its own contrariness to achieve a state of aphoristic bliss.

Like one of the speakers says after Gertrude said "a rose is a rose is a rose" the rose was red for the first time in 100 years, Stein had to learn English as a second language, for her she was acutely aware of how old and tired the language was and felt it desperately important to figure out how to write with originality and importance in a tongue which was in its "late age," this smash and grab thing was her way, writing in the excitedness of pure being, syntactic equality which creates a continuous present, go ahead Just Do It, push the small shifting of punctuation and grammar and repetition, shake off the old connotations edge toward the new.

Yes, a beautiful thing and Gertrude Stein could do it and did. "Let Me Repeat What History Teaches," she wrote, "History Teaches." I like that. That's what it says on her stone now at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and if it is a little ironic to see an artist so bent on breaking apart history for the kernels of linguistic truth being enshrined in history, it is also one which we might imagine old Gertie smiling about in her secret musings. At least that's how I choose to think of her.


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