Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

To Conform or Not To?

Notes towards Day 22
Critical Feminist Studies

Gertrude Stein and Marilyn Hacker
The Lesbian Poet: To Conform Or Not To Conform?

(Okay, so that's not actually the title for the class,
but it totally should be--

I. coursekeeping and announcements

--relevant Thanksgiving anecdotes regarding woman-ism, gender-construction, related topics?
WACK! @ NMWA (ugliness as pushing us away/apart; beauty as drawing us in/together?)
and setting aside time NOT to improve the world (on the orthodox sabbath)

--additions to "Seeing the Setting for the Voices"

--will work through your paper drafts over next weekend (only 9 received?!)

--Thursday's class continues our reading of poetry (and commentary):
3 selections from the "tradition" of Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, and Sandra Cisneros
--also: organize/prepare to sign up for final performances on Thursday

--related events:
Maureen Dowd, "She's no Morgenthau," NYTimes, 11/21/07:
"Hillary cloaks her nepotism in feminism....Obama has been closing the gap with women
and her ginning up of gender has lost her male votes."

Ann duCille, "Nobody's Darling': Periracism and the Truly Diss-advantaged,"
4:30 Fri, Nov. 30, Room 102, Stokes, Haverford College (guest of student
seminar, "High Contrast: Representations of Black Women in White America")

II. leftovers from The Book of Salt:
Mary Clurman '63, salt and feminism: this book verges on fanfic, in that it expands on an existing work....I am thinking about writing a "story" that consists solely of character exposition -- no action....I like descending into the character of another (something like figuring out why a person has reacted in a certain way, and then figuring out why I respond differently, to paraphrase, I think, Flora); writing it would allow me to go further, with practical consequeneces for me but no lecture for another person!

Anne asks at the end of this lecture what Salt has to do with feminism. It seems to me to be exploring the shifting sense of the feminine that we are all encountering....We are no longer in control, borders melt -- and so the book asks, who are we really? Men are no longer "men," women no longer "women." Hurrah for al that!

flora, salty feminism: I am struck by how very, very much The Book of Salt served as a contradiction to Stein's literary approach. If Stein wanted to eliminate narrative by continually calling you back to the moment of experience, Truong is attempting quite the opposite....

I don't feel comfortable calling this book a feminist novel....several feminisms...were not concerned with some of the themes of the book..the painful consequences of socioeconomic, ethnic, national and racial inequalities, imperialism and the protection of queer identities have not historically been at the forefront of feminist agendas....labeling the novel feminist...may box it into a system of theoretical tropes to which it does not subscribe. But certainly, its content and perspective resonates strongly with many third world, queer and third wave feminisms....

I hesitate to give it a label any less specific and complex than that which it is meant to represent....I don't think I can reflect on life as Gertrude Stein would have me to. I still find beauty in the reflected, not instaneous, complexities behind something as simple seeming as salt.

smigliori, Book of Salt, Round Two:
Four different ways (at least) that it could be construed as a feminist text
- way to get out of the gaze by focusing on the other senses
- lack of focus on the categories of gender/ example of what feminism should be striving for ...- a "normalizing of queerness"
- involving Gertrude Stein, whose noteriety for ignoring grammatical markers complicates the implications of race and gender markers
-Importance of "geographic circulation"
- novel is driven by Bihn's (Bao's?) desires for other men
- good sex has no narrativ - because if it's good fully in the moment?
- heteronormativity of gstein's and atoklas' lives - cultural/ socioeconomic implications

Which brings us to....

(Okay, so that's not actually the title for the class,
but it totally should be...)

should it?

What are your initial reactions to these two poets,
and to the differences between them?

the juxtaposition of Gertrude Stein's poetry with Marilyn Hacker's creates an interesting contrast. Stein creates a new form, apparently ignoring the literary tradition to create hir own poetry, defying grammatical conventions. Hacker, on the other hand, uses the form of the sonnet to express hir own experiences....

I dislike Stein's poetry. I am unable to process and understand it on even a basic level. On the other hand, I find Hacker's moving, erotic, filled with imagery and symbolism that speaks to me....

Stein’s removal of grammatical markers simply makes hir poetry difficult to comprehend....Hacker takes a basic form and makes it hir own. Ze uses a form which is “traditional” to describe an act which has been consistently erased from appropriation of a form considered to be gendered for hir own purposes....

Besides, Hacker’s poem is hot.

(And Stein's is not?)

First, I want to make you come in my hand

while I watch you and kiss you, and if you cry,

I’ll drink your tears while, with my whole hand, I

hold your drenched loveliness contracting. And

after a breath, I want to make you full

again, and wet. I want to make you come

in my mouth like a storm. No tears now. The sum

of your parts is my whole most beautiful

chart of the constellations—your left breast

in my mouth again. You know you’ll have to be

your age. As I lie beside you, cover me

like a gold cloud, hands everywhere, at last

inside me where I trust you, then your tongue

where I need you. I want you to make me come.
--from Marilyn Hacker,
Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons

--"Now that is a lesbian love poem. It's a Petrarchan sonnet..."

--what makes it a lesbian love poem?

--what keeps "Lifting Belly" from being one?

Break into groups of three to read select passages:
p. 65 (x2), p. 66, p. 68, p. 71, pp. 83-84, p. 91, p. 95...
and report back-->
what is going on here??

"Steinian texts produce in all readers bewilderment...."

Elizabeth Fifer, "Is Flesh Avisable? The Interior Theater of Gertrude Stein, Signs, 4, 3 (Spring 1979): 472-283.

Penelope Engelbrecht, "'Lifting Belly is a Language': The Postmodern Lesbian Subject,"
Feminist Studies, 16, 1 (Spring 1990): 85-114.

Susan Holbrook, "Lifting Bellies, Filling Petunias, and Making Meanings through the Trans-Poetic."
American Literature, 71, 4 (December 1999): 751-771.

--oddly contradictory critical responses: erotic, "explicit"...also veiled or coded
--decoding seems to miss the mark: the one-to-one equivalence that encryption presumes would deny the polysemnic, indeterminate trajectories of Stein's vocabulary
--the word can be erotic on two opposing conditions, both excessive: if it is extravagantly repeated, or on the contrary, if it is unexpected, succulent in its newness

--"insistence" draws our attention to the material of language, which is generally rendered a silent ferry to the signified....iteration invites us to engage sound and shape in a more intimate way--to enjoy close reading.
--[from "A Transatlantic Interview 1946:] "You had to recognize words had lost their value in the Nineteenth Century...they had lost much of their variety, and I felt that I could not go on, that I had to recapture the value of the individual word, find out what it meant and act within it."
--Stein's poetic interrogates the very surveillance of visibility....Error offers the promise of freedom in a language that would correct deviance, a language that...offered very little in the way of a lexicon for lesbian partnership
--the meanings produced are variable, multiple, and provisional....What drives this persistent variability is a radically paradoxical representational stance....Stein...repeatedly overturns moments of clear referentiality
--only by a sort of indirect treatment...we can hope to grasp the object...because as soon as we name it...our sense of a vital particularity is eclipsed in the generic blankness of the noun...
--nouns are the context of the genre that "is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns....that is poetry really loving the name of anything and that is not prose."

--Stein's ambivalence about naming resonants with more contemporary concerns about the limitiations of identity politics...the simultaneous exigency and liability of naming abjected sexuality. If a taxonomy is felt to be crucial for gays and lesbians as a means to facilitate community building and identification, it can certainly also serve the interests of state control, easing the regulatory mechanisms of, for example, homophobic legislaiion and medical pathologization.

"Can sexuality even remain sexuality once it submits to a criterion of transparency and disclosure, or does it perhaps cease to be sexuality precisely when the semblance of full explicitness is achieved?....I would like to have it permanently unclear what precisely that sign [the word lesbian] signifies....[to establish] the instability of the very category that it constitutes." (Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 1993)

An Interview with Marilyn Hacker, Frontiers 5, 3 (Autumn 1980), 22-27:
Any piece of writing thatat doesn't by definition propaganda for the status quo...Sloppy language is sloppy thinking. It's letting words fall together because one has heard them together too many times before....

the novel demands some kind of resolution. A poem, on the other hand, tends to take place in a given moment. It doesn't demand a novelistic denoument...It's the observation of a given moment in time....certain experiences...hone...attention to that intensity of observation that permits poetry....Poetry can...widen..the focus of that attention...

There is something in the construction of a work of art that permits resolution without there having to be a happy ending...

...the question "Do I like this?" will have to be the opening question and not the final judgement. An examination of our own feelings wil have to give way to an examination of the piece of work....It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too....When you say "This work has nothing to do with me," when you say, "This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/elitist etc."...the work [might fall] so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact you must deny the other world of the painting....True art, when it happens to us, challenges the "I" that we are....

for most of us the question "do I like this?" will always be the formative quesiton. Vital then, that we widen the "I" that we are as much as we can....

A poem, a piece of fiction of any value is not instantly accessible. The reader, like the writer, has to work, and as long as work remains a four letter word, the average reader will not understand why they should struggle through their leisure time....What we cannot do is judge a book by how little bother it gives us....

(Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery,1996)