Poetry News

The Hidden Secrets of Stein’s Stanzas

By Harriet Staff

Christopher Schmidt at the Boston Review takes on the new, fixed-up edition of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas from Yale University Press. This notoriously difficult poem, Schmidt says, is ripe for closer scrutiny as it played such a large role in Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s relationship:

As Alice B. Toklas sleeps, Stein silently works her language into a rhythm, sometimes repeating a word, or choosing one and marching it through incremental shifts. Occasionally she will pick up a childish rhyme, then let it fall. When she finally finishes—often simply when she has filled a notebook—she leaves her writing for Toklas to type in the morning. It’s an act of wifely devotion that bonds the couple.

However, there’s another presence lurking in the Stanzas, a presence discovered in a Dan Brown-esque moment of inspiration by scholar Ulla Dydo. Before Stein and Toklas, there was Stein and May Bookstaver, the inspiration for the character Helen in Stein’s first book, Quod Erat Demonstandum. Schmidt proposes that this “other woman” tortured Toklas as she dutifully transcribed her lover’s work, to the point that Stein was forced to alter her poem:

Dydo has discovered violent corrections on the typescripts of Stanzas in Meditation used for Yale’s original 1956 edition of the poem. In an unusually heavy hand, nearly all appearances of the word “may” are scratched out and (mostly) replaced with the verb “can.”

… Dydo realized that the “may”s so forcefully excised from the poem were oblique, perhaps unconscious, references to May Bookstaver, the basis for the character Helen in Q.E.D., who was much on Stein’s mind during the poem’s composition. Or so they appeared to Toklas, who read Q.E.D. after she had finished typing Stanzas in Meditation and, in a rage, compelled Stein to return to the typescript to remove all traces of May, down to the verb.

More scholarly intrigue at the Boston Review.

Originally Published: June 21st, 2012