168. Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair: Jackson Mac Low

In a meeting where we discussed when we were going to have other meetings and what those meeting agendas would be, our administrator mentioned getting together as “data teams”.  I laughed, thinking he had said “dada teams”.  For a good ten seconds I actually imagined what that was before I realized I had misheard it.

For those who have yet to be crushed by the current wave of assessment generated pedagogy, data teams are groups of teachers that try to make sense of all of those assessment scores we gather about students (as one book I read stated: there is no lack of good data, just a lack of people who can use it well).  I love data–embrace it!  Yet, there are a lot of ninnies not in the classroom who seem to exist to muddy the statistical waters.  They cannot read it very well, yet generate action plans based on data.

After realizing my mishearing, I wondered if I had closer to the truth than I thought. Our coordinators and literacy leaders and the host of people I know by email only at the supervisory union level are all good people, but I sometimes wonder if they see the absurdist theater they perform at meetings and in-service (if Dada came via Powerpoint).  If only they wore bowler hats, or a monocle.

Note: I had never thought of wearing a monocle, but here’s a place where you can buy one easily and inexpensively.  I’m on the fence, but you might be ready for it.  The excellent Warby Parker site has this, and other 1950s poet glasses, here.

Perhaps our data team should follow Tristan Tzara’s method of “chance operation” and see the results (it sometimes seems like we do).  For those who have not tried this poetry method with students, I pass this on.  Chance operation is creating a poem through random selections. In one section of Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love,” he offers the following instructions to make a Dadaist poem:

Pour faire un poème dadaïste

Prenez un journal.
Prenez des ciseaux.
Choisissez dans le journal un article ayant la longeur que vous comptez donner à votre poème.
Découpez l’article.
Découpez ensuite avec soin chacun des mots qui forment cet article et mettez-les dans un sac.
Agitez doucement.
Sortez ensuite chaque coupière l’une après l’autre.
Copiez consciencieusement dans l’ordre où elles ont quitté le sac.
Le poème vous ressemblera.
Et vous voilà un écrivain infiniment original et d’une sensibilité charmante, encore qu’incomprise du vulgaire.

Tristan Tzara: Part VIII of “Dada manifeste sur l’amour faible et l’amour amer”, La Vie des Lettres, 4 (April 1921), 434-443. Reprinted in: Oeuvres complètes, Vol.1, Paris, 1975, p. 382.

My little Dada joke.  Here it is translated from the original French by Barbara Wright:

“Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.”

The kids like it because it’s random and easy.  The results are often funny.

What I hate about such poems is not their form or content or lack of content, but it emphasizes the idea that students already have in their mind that great things are random, and luck and talent is ultimately the engine that drives success. Everything I have read in the past few years states that hard work and practice is the key (read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Daniel Coyle’s “The Talent Code” for some good stuff, especially the latter).  Writing poetry is hard.

Still, some random whimsy is always appreciated.

Discuss if, in the end, this matches a poem they like.  From there, have them discuss form and the work that goes into creating something worth reading a second time.

Random is fun…. for a class.

Then, turn to the results of hard work. 

To further the discussion, have your students try what Jackson Mac Low did with the work of Gertrude Stein.  He discusses his method after the poem, but he basically threw a Stein poem into a blender.  In doing so with their favorite poem, your students might get an appreciation for it by seeing a) the importance of word choice (this does not change) and b) how important structure is (this changes radically). 

At the very least they will have been more intimate with a good poem as they take scissors to it.

Note: It is difficult to determine the enjambment as I transferred Low’s work here.  In the spirit of “chance operation” I left it as it fell, but you can see my source here.

Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair
Jackson Mac Low

A feather table: reckless gratitude.
It is that-there that means best.

White the green grinding trimming thing!
The disgrace, like stripes.
More selection, slighter intention.

Rosewood stationing is use journey: curious dusty empty length.
Winged cake: the cake, the plan that neglects to make color certainly.
Time long could winter: elegant consequences monstrous.
So much and guided holders garments are–and arrangements.
Staring then that when sudden same time’s necessary, that circular
same’s more necessary, not actually aching.

And why special?
Not left straw, the chain’s the missing, was white winningly and
occasion’s entirely strings.
Reason is sullenness: it’s there that practices left when six into
nothing narrow, resolute, suggests all beside that plain seam.
Pencils, mutton, asparagus: the table there.
There reddening is not to change that in such absurd surroundings.
Considering clearly, a feather’s large second heat is there.
There that thing which smells that whistles that there’s denial,
difference, surfeit-dated choices–everything trembling

Imitation?–imitation is a joy gurgle.
Best bent, likely disappointed.
Cake season’s not more than most.
That cake makes no larder likely.
Not a single protection is even temporarily standing.
Sugar and lard there are sudden and shaming.
That single set comes orderly.
There the remarkable witness made no more settlement than
Increase the way steak colored coffee.
Wheatly that music half-noisy.
Reason’s decline is not a little grainy.

This means taste where toe-washing is reasonable.
Salmon carriage?–action hanging.
Scene bits and this nervous draught don’t satisfy elevation,
There is no change.
Much was temporary behind that center and much was formerly
Then the then-triumphant showed their disagreeable hidden worries.
The chair asked the speech be repeated, supposing
It is just summer.
Another section has a light likeness to pedestrianism.
Which is light?
That used this there.
The chair’s justice: nothing-colored mercy.
No, perhaps some is likely.

That is not a genuine bargain.
There preparation so suits white bands’ singing and redness that the
same sight’s a simpler splendor.
No, not the same.
Wishing the same is not quite the same as a different arrangement.
Any measure washed is brighter than an occasional string set.
A precocious nothing discolors that extract sooner than showing its
A bag place chain room winningly reasons with shining hair.
What with supposing without protection, no wound is sudden.
Coloring sullenness rushes bottom reason in gilded country.
What if it shows?
Necessarily, the whole thing there is shining.
Is that anything?
More single women stitch tickets.
To show difference exudes reliability.
Inside that large silver likeness, Hope tables thick coal.
Coal makes morning furnaces darker,
Joy and success are exceptions.

Four suggest a sadder surrender.
Pretence and cheaper influences are staining tender Pride there.
Sort out that little sink.
Why is the size of the baking remainder something that resembles
light more than cutting?
This cheese is more calm than anything solitary.
It is still an occasion for bottom anticipation.
Reason’s season cracked that which was ripe.
Nearly all were neglected by blessing, not without nervous actions.
He’s readily beginning to seed the cheese and estrange the Whites.
The celery curled its lashes at the slam.
Not-so-heated reason will be little able to satisfy another.
This was formerly much used as a charming chair.
Pedestrianism showed itself triumphant and disagreeable.
That which was hidden worried them.
They asked that her speech be repeated.
Summer light bears a likeness to justice.
Then the light is supposing attention.
That section has a resemblance to light.
Is it a likeness of the justice chair?

Author’s Note:
Eight strophes initially drawing upon the whole text of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.  I sent the entire text through DIASTEX5 (Charles O. Hartman’s 1994 update of DIASTEXT [1989],  his automation of one of my diastic text-selection procedures [1963], using as a seed text the fifty-third paragraph of the book (exclusive of titles, etc), which begins, “A fact is that when any direction is just like that, . . .” I selected the paragraph by random-digit chance operations using the RAND Corporation’s table A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. (The Free Press, 1955).

My source and seed texts came from the first edition of Tender Buttons, issued by Donald Evan’s publishing house Claire Marie (1914), as posted online in The Bartleby Archive (1995) and The New Bartleby Library (1999), both edited by Steven van Leeuwen, with editorial contributions by Gordon Dahlquist. However, I incorporated in my file of Tender Buttons fourteen corrections written
in ink in Stein’s hand, which Ulla E. Dydo found in Donald Sutherland’s copy of this edition, now owned by the Special Collections of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

I “mined” the program’s output for words which I included in 117 sentences (several elliptical and each one a verse line) by changes and/or additions of suffixes, pronouns, structure words, forms of “to be,” etc. and changes of word order. Initially, in making these sentences, I placed lexical words’ root morphemes near others that were near them in the raw output–in fact I included many phrases, and even whole verse lines, of unedited, though punctuated, ouput, mostly in early strophes–but I was able to do this less and less in the course of writing the poem.

While composing the 117 verse-line sentences, I divided them into eight strophes that successively comprise numbers of sentences corresponding to the prime-number sequence 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19.


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