This essay explores ideas of materiality and affinity in poems through the kinds of things poets refer to or place into a poem, and how they place or structure things into poems. It considers three very different poets doing different things with things: Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara and Inger Christensen. It examines how these writers use things in their works to say something, variously, about connections and discontinuities, sensibilities and the indexical, and ideas of scale via the public and/or the private. These three writers do this via interpretative modes which raise questions about representation either by resisting signification, or by tracing materiality through objects either as systems of objects or as ‘found’ or encountered objects.
Keywords: Poetry – things – objects – materiality – Gertrude Stein – Inger Christensen – Frank O’Hara
This essay points to ways that three writers, Gertrude Stein, Inger Christensen and Frank O’Hara, have written about or towards objects or things. Of course, poems themselves are things and to some extent I will deal with this as well. But, mostly, I will consider how these poets:
resist, rethink or refresh materiality, representation and signification, as especially seen in Stein or trace materiality – as particularly seen in Christensen – through objects as systems of objects or locate things/objects as affinities within the present and social, as O’Hara does
I offer these thoughts as simply small points of contact in thinking about these much- studied writers.
Part of what I am doing may appear to relate, of course, to what has become known as Thing Theory, as particularly enunciated by Bill Brown (2001). Brown’s concern, however, is ‘thing’ rather than ‘object’, for, within his definition, objects are what we know, whereas things are uncooperative. He claims: ‘We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily’ (Brown 4).
In this essay, however, I am not observing this clear distinction between objects and things, and with respect to the writers I am talking about, things or objects exist much as you would expect in pieces of writing, in a mix of states, where things work as objects and where they don’t work or don’t cooperate.
In her portrait of Picasso, Gertrude Stein writes:
… the painters saw nature as everyone sees it and their preoccupation was to express that vision … Picasso was not like that, when he ate a tomato the tomato was not everybody’s tomato … his effort was … to express the thing as he was seeing it. (Stein 1959: 17)
By extension, presumably Stein was also writing not so that everyone would see or experience anybody’s carafe or tomato, but so that her work showed her experiencing of things. Her tomato, her buttons, are not everyone’s. Her work is not, then, a universal representation. This is a personal reference and Stein, in her own way, is very personal, despite the first person being almost absent in Tender buttons, the Stein text I wish to focus on.
In much of Tender buttons, as we know, Stein makes a kind of itinerary, an itemisation, a list, an index, it could be said, as well as a series of repetitions. For instance, the word ‘color’ appears often and in many ways across the text. Stein’s titles in Tender buttons indicate the household – the oikos (the Ancient Greek word for family, family property, and/or house from which we get economy and ecology) – but the text under the titles is not representational. Famously, the text begins:
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color
and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not
unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. (Stein 2018: 33)
So, there are the words ‘glass’, ‘a carafe, that is a blind glass’. And the text underneath refers also to glass, but in this case in a relational sense: ‘kind’, ‘cousin’. There is ‘an arrangement’, ‘a system to pointing’, a Steinian grammar you could argue, given Stein’s very specific approach to things grammatical (Stein 1935). The system in Tender buttons is ‘not unordered’ but not unordered ‘in not resembling’, likely a reference to the Stein/Toklas lesbian ménage. Thus, there is connectivity, but also difference. And this ‘it’, this thingness, is spreading. Certainly, it is a kind of erotics, an affective moment and movement within the text.
Even the use of nouns in poetry is connected for Stein, with a kind of passion. For instance, she writes in Poetry and grammar: ‘So as I say poetry is essentially the discovery, the love, the passion for the name of anything’ (Stein 2007) and she speaks of caressing a noun. Even so, she also states in the same text that ‘nouns … even by definition are completely not interesting’ (Stein 2007) and in various places in the text makes negative remarks about nouns. She states that the writing of Tender Buttons was a struggle with ridding the text of nouns, because ‘I had to feel anything and everything that for me was existing so intensely that I could put it down in writing as a thing in itself without at all necessarily using its name’ (Stein 2007). This seems to be a kind of key that links to her wish, noted more fully below, to ‘create a word relationship’ between language and things without using nouns, without placing names onto things, but instead ‘to express the thing as (s)he was seeing it’, to write ‘a thing in itself’. And this was something that was an intense process.
And thinking about particular namings, I wonder about that ‘single hurt color’. A single colour could be red, if it is wine in the carafe. I counted the word ‘color’ appearing 56 times in Tender buttons as a noun, modifier, or part of a verb. And ‘discolor’ once. Colour words appear frequently, white the most popular, then red, green, yellow, black, blue. Orange appears mostly as an object, an item of food, rather than a colour. Dust modifies colour in one instance.
Some titles in Stein’s text in the Food section, such as ‘chicken’ and ‘potato’, in various forms, appear more than once: ‘Potatoes’ (twice), ‘Roast Potatoes’, ‘Chicken’ (four times). That there was a lot of cooking with chook and taties in the Stein-Toklas ménage is inferred. If you check The Alice B Toklas cookbook (Toklas 1994), it contains more recipes for chicken than beef and there are just a few more recipes specifically involving potatoes than any other single vegetable. Stein herself insisted that Tender buttons was entirely ‘realistic’ in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert, as she recalls in an interview with Robert Bartlett Haas: I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen. (Stein 1971)
Stein’s work in Tender buttons is also personal. It is full of the stuff, the experiences of her life. Even though her writing resists representation, or it redefines representation, she is clearly making a claim about ‘getting a picture’, of making real and quotidian connections in her writing. In most of Tender buttons, of course, though Stein does not describe in a direct representational way, she does name, and she does assign certain ideas of form or action to these objects, certainly colour.
She uses a number of modifiers, descriptors, in the text as well, which may or may not attach to some nouns, things, in ways that are representative. Or not. For instance, ‘A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey … is monstrous because there is no red in it’ in the piece ‘A red hat’ (Stein 2018: 38) does reference the colour grey in relation to both another colour, ie red. It also seems to refer to some ‘thing’ which could be the red hat of the title. However, ‘A place in no new table’ in the piece ‘A piece of coffee’ (Stein 2018: 34) does not appear to directly refer to coffee but it is clearly a domestic reference that places the idea of coffee and a not/no ‘new table’ in a relationship, as we read on, to cleaning (‘soap’ and ‘silk’) and to ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ colour. Although it’s not my intention to elaborate on ideas of sexuality, intimacy and lesbian desire in this context, there is clearly something of the private or intimate in writing like this, particularly when it involves references to cloth and, therefore, clothing. A table is also, according to the interview quoted above, the place where Stein placed objects she wanted to study and write about as well as presumably the place where she actually did the writing.
Of course, it is possible to get caught up in any number of interpretative frameworks around this text as a huge amount of scholarship over many years demonstrates. To return to my specific framework, by naming and assigning form or movement to objects, Stein creates a relationship between herself and the reader and the objects, which are words in the text as well as descriptions of a kind, ‘getting a picture’, if we accept Stein’s version of her process.
If I take a look again at the famous opening of Tender buttons, I may well ponder on what ‘a cousin’ is and what ‘a carafe’ is; I may wonder what this particular ‘picture’ is. Though I may or may not own a carafe, or I may or may not feel much about carafes, or I may or may not feel something towards the words ‘a cousin’, Stein gets me to think in terms of a relationship which may have otherwise been absent or overlooked, or not, or might be, or may have been. Maybe I’ve broken a glass carafe (I never have, though I’ve broken much). Especially as the text does not involve me nor offer what might be called a ‘fully rounded description’, it is not caught up in the idea of ‘image’ – there is glass involved, for sure, but I don’t know the exact shape of the carafe, or indeed the cousin – there is, therefore, space for me to think about these things in my own way.
In other words, Stein leads me to think about the interrelationships that necessarily exist between thinking, or writing, about subjects and objects, or things. This is because the objects are there but also not there, except indexically, as indicators of something, a thereness or connection to many things, events, othernesses. It is a thereness where ‘the difference is spreading’ (Stein 2018: 33). Or a thereness that acts ‘so that there is no use in a centre’ (Stein 2018: 71).
Also, because Stein does away with the subject-object binary, she does not try to speak for things, objects. She writes around and about them but not represent them. Instead, as she tells Robert Haas, she ‘create[s] a word relationship between the word and the things seen’. In this, Stein refreshes the idea of writing ‘about’ things, and directs us to consider how language can trace relationships with objects in ways that move beyond direct representation and, indeed, human-centredness or directedness. And she also gets us to reconsider what it means to be ‘looking’ at things as a writer, especially in terms of ‘a word relationship’, ie the arrangements of language, as being more than the mimetic, or the pictorial.
Famous Danish modernist writer, Inger Christensen, was interested in the relationship between poetry, systems, and the world. She particularly worked with arbitrary systems of organising her writing, and her work often uses repetitions and mathematical structures in its formation. Her poems use sources from outside the literary field, particularly the scientific, broadly constructed.
Her most rigorously composed texts are it (det) and alphabet (alfabet), made up of an overall structure bringing together two systems of organisation. It relies on Viggo Brøndal’s theory of prepositions which Christensen connected with the number 8 (Christensen 2007). In alphabet, which is the text I will concentrate on, there is a combining of the alphabet (in this instance A-N) with the Fibonacci sequence. The double system in alphabet has been also likened, by her translator, Susanna Nied, to the idea of the double helix (Cushing).
Although her approach has been likened to that of the Oulipo group, Christensen’s work has an intentionality and focus that isn’t found typically in Oulipian writing. When discussing her interest in and then use of Brøndal’s ideas, she says: His attempt to analyze and categorize the words that languages use to show relationship can be read as applying to the network of relationships that writing builds up as it goes along. From his book I chose eight terms that could stay in a state of flux and at the same time give order to the indistinctness that a state of flux necessarily produces: symmetry, transitivity, continuity, connectivity, variability, extension, integrity and universality ... (Christensen 2007: xii)
‘Flux’ and ‘order’ appear to be two key axes around which Christensen’s work, particularly in it and alphabet, is made. In alphabet, things ‘exist’ in the poem actively in ecological systems, and are incorporated into the text’s formal structure, yet also reveal an elusiveness, and a potential, a surplus. For instance, in the fifth section (below), note both the inclusion of emotional states alongside things in the poem’s indexical structure, and the iteration of the word ‘future’:
early fall exists; aftertaste, afterthought;
seclusion and angels exist;
widows and elk exist; every
detail exists; memory, memory's light;
afterglow exists; oaks, elms,
junipers, sameness, loneliness exist;
eider ducks, spiders, and vinegar
exist, and the future, the future (Christensen 2001)
As I noted above, Christensen’s structure of stanzas for alphabet uses the Fibonacci numerical system, where each number is the sum of the two previous ones, i.e.: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 34, 47, 81, 128, etc. Thus the first section of the poem is one line long and starts with an ‘A’, the second 2 lines long, and starts with a ‘B’, etcetera).
apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist
bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries;
bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen (Christensen 2001)
Concerning the series, Christensen has said in an interview:
It was by accident that I found out about the Fibonacci series. These numerical ratios exist in nature – the way a leek wraps around itself from the inside, and the head of a sunflower, … By using a system you are trying to reveal the rhythm of the universe. In the creation story, first there is silence, and then come patterns ... a useful benefit of a system is that you can’t just write the first thing that comes into your mind; because of the resistance of the system you get onto the track of something that you wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. The gift is that you are forced to put much more of the world into the poem (Joris)
The Fibonacci structure determines the lines of each stanza and thus sets up a structure of statement, and produces, as well, an incantatory mode. The repeated phrase of stanza 1 of alphabet is: ‘apricot trees exist’, and this is both a numerical, and an associative procedure, which is maintained through the work.
Presumably, Christensen’s choices of reference to things is not random. For instance, apricot stones contain the poison amygdalin, organobromide compounds (ie from bromine) are associated with ozone depletion, dioxin (mentioned in the fourth section) is a toxic environmental contaminant, bracken is toxic and carcinogenic, hydrogen is associated with nuclear weaponry. alphabet is, therefore, not a benign pastoral but in fact suggests a sense of mortality that is more unstable. In other words, within the living there is death, and nothing is pure.
Thus, Christensen’s poem operates on many levels. In form, it is mathematical and works with a specifically developed syntax of repetition and accretion. Yet, this very form also creates a kind of litany of unfolding, particularly of ecological devastation, using the things of the world, particularly the chemical, botanical and zoological, focused through two specific systems, the mathematical and a particular kind of human cultural patterning, the western alphabet.
One thing that is very noticeable in Frank O’Hara’s work is the proliferation of things, of objects. Unless we’re reading one of his more surrealist poems, for the most part these are real situated objects, the kinds of things you would come across in 1950s and ’60s America, particularly New York, when post-war consumerism was most obvious, and this includes consuming art and its various objects, books, paintings. Thus, if you look at many of his well-known poems, you are met with things, often as lists. For instance, the poem ‘Today’ begins with lists as a form of praise:
Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All
the stuff they’ve always talked about (O’Hara 1995: 15)
The poems often contain very specific naming of things, sometimes accompanied by brand names. Even in the more surreal or campy poems, there is that feeling of thinginess, or realness, while in the ‘I do this, I do that’ poems such as ‘The day Lady died’ or ‘A step away from them’, you also get the sense of fragmentation, syntactically as well as mimetically. As Hazel Smith notes, O’Hara writes ‘between signification and its breakdown, absence and presence, representation and abstraction, the transcendental and the momentary’ (Smith 1995: 81).
Also worth noting is that these things in the poems will often be encountered during a narrative of walking. O’Hara’s writing about walking, very far from ‘Romantic sublime’ lake walking, reads as highly social and highly desirous. His ‘I’ is truly in the midst of things, of city life, such as in these lines from ‘A step away from them’:
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust. (O’Hara 1995: 257)
And, if O’Hara’s narrator isn’t walking, he’s at a party or an event, or about to meet a friend or lover, or go to bed with someone, or similar. That is, these things all exist in a social dynamic. The poems themselves, as things, are indeed dynamic, and what is described or enacted in the poems is dynamic. Also, this kind of energetic flux, this more than simple psychogeographic drifting, let’s call it purposeful strolling, calls into question the formal, sanctioned grid of the city. This city is full of desires of all kinds.
O’Hara’s famous mock-manifesto, ‘Personism’, much beloved of creative writing courses (and why not?) sets out his view of the poem as relational, and also as a ‘thing’, possibly even to be seen as a sexual object. He writes: ‘The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages’ (O’Hara 1995: 498). Most of ‘The day Lady died’ is about buying things while walking around:
… I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
(O’Hara 1995: 325)
These things, as they are named become solid things, that also affirm the living and the vital present (some of them are indeed gifts for friends). In a way, this acts as a sympathetic counterpoint to the poem’s famous end, the memory of a very specific Billie Holiday performance at the ‘5 Spot’ where the crowd and the poem stops breathing as, of course, the singer now has in the poem’s time scale. In other words, the poem presents life and death in both thingy realness and a breath, or in this case, unbreathed moment. The poem’s breath or thinginess.
In ‘Interior (with Jane)’, O’Hara addresses a concept of objects as a kind of poetics. The objects, in a sense, question what we are, what we see:
The eagerness of objects to
be what we are afraid to do
cannot help but move us Is
this willingness to be a motive
in us what we reject? (O’Hara 1995: 55)
As does language, the material of the poem. The poem’s narrator asks ‘what / do these things do to us?’ But what are these ‘things’ (given the poem moves between ‘thing’ and ‘object’)? Are ‘these things’ the words, or the things, the objects that the words are attached to? How do they relate to other objects? Some of the objects mentioned in the poem are grammatically modified in ways that imply some kind of affect – windows are ‘empty’, the sun is ‘weak’ and ‘slippery’, a sob is ‘coldest of the things we know’ – so there is a sense of melancholy, and maybe a shiftiness present in this writing, but what is the link? Is there one? Are we ‘getting the picture’ and what might it be? A large proportion of this short poem consists of two questions, more interesting than the ones I have just asked, and the poem ends with the cold sob, i.e. maybe the eagerness of these objects does move us. Or is it simply the coldness of a winter’s day? The poem doesn’t readily tell us.
In O’Hara’s work, things, objects, don’t have to have special poetic significance. They can be mundane, or kitsch. Yet, neither are objects simply ‘what they are’— they are eager ‘to be what we are afraid to do’. Nor do they exist in much of stable idea of ‘context’: ‘Interior (with Jane)’ refers to ‘a can of coffee, a 35¢ ear / ring, a handful of hair’. But whose hair, whose earring? They are things that resonate and change in use and exchange (gift, brand) within the poem. They are in plain sight but also layered. They are sites of ever-changing difference and desire, which is spreading.
These three writers provide a continuous source of ideas of how to do things with things. They show us ways of writing that move within and around the figurative but also beyond the figurative or an especially ‘poetic’ representation of things. They show us how to make poems that work with the over-thereness of things (rather than otherness) as well as beside-hereness of things, in their still life, in their other life, in their non-human-life and their part-of human life.
Christensen, in her essay ‘Silk, the universe, language, the heart’, says:
If we call things by their true names, that doesn’t mean that the names are being used to represent the things, and it doesn’t mean that language mimics reality as a thing that is separate from language. Rather, a kind of threshold condition arises, where language and the world express themselves with the help of each other. The world, with its natural extension in language, comes to a consciousness of itself; and language, with its background in the world, becomes a world in itself, a world steadily unfolding further. That’s why it can be said that by writing poetry, we’re trying to produce something that we ourselves are already a product of. (Christensen 2018)
Certainly Christensen, but the others as well, can be seen, variously, working with ideas of folding and unfolding of matter in systems, of the liveliness of things in writing, of thingly correspondences, patterns, and the contingent, rather than simply the metaphoric, of inscription rather than description alone. Their writings become systems within systems, with the composing poet a part of these systems, producing and being produced by them, as Christensen intimates.
In writing about things as well as treating their poems as things, as made, composed things, Stein, O’Hara and Christensen propose various kinds of compositional approaches that characterise writing as a site for refreshing signification, where things are not simply indicators or representations but are actual resonating affinities.
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