poetry & the gertrude stein test.

In college, as part of my English degree, I took a class on writing and reading poetry. I approached the course the way a lot of young people approach poetry: with a mix of skepticism, uncertainty, and reluctance. I knew enough of poetry, I suppose, to know that it didn’t need to have a rhyme scheme, but I favored rhyming poems nonetheless.

The first poem I wrote for the course compared writing to running, both of them liberating and capable of breaking through internal barriers, both of them about untying knots. The first line was ‘Writing is a lot like running.’ The class’s response was clear: I had good ideas, but it didn’t move them.

What followed was actually my reigning favorite assignment in any course to date: Write the worst poem you can. “I mean it,” my professor said, smiling, “Write the worst piece of shit you can manage.” He didn’t give us criteria for ‘bad poetry.’ He said we already knew.

For me, the worst poetry I could fathom was the half-assed poetry that straight men write for their girlfriends at the last minute for Valentine’s Day. The kind of stuff with rhymes like ‘Your eyes are as beautiful as something so blue / I can’t wait to spend this Valentine’s with you.’ As I wrote it, I threw in a few lines implying that the narrator wanted his girlfriend to just have sex with him already. I signed it ‘Blake.’ I’ve never been so proud of an assignment or eager to read it in front of others.

After that, I thought less about the poetry I was writing. I became more daring in my descriptions. I abandoned the worry that I would write the worst poem they’d ever heard, as I’d already damn well tried.

One week, however, we paused to read the works of Gertrude Stein. Specifically, we focused in on a poem called ‘If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso.’ It is, at least to the average reader today, a challenging poem to make sense of, comprised of bent and repeated phrases twisted and reformed and interrupted again. (If you’re interested, you can find it here.) I read through it silently, furrowing my brow. What in the literal hell.

My professor watched us, his grin widening again. “It’s fun, isn’t it?” he insisted. “Read it out loud. Try not to smile.” And so we did, and – somehow – something clicked for me. The bits of meaning, maybe accidental (but probably not accidental), occurring in these broken, mashed phrases. The absurd wordplay. What a fearless poem to publish!

My next poem for the course related to my parents selling my childhood home. In it, I created a character named Carl who watched new people take over his old house, making changes to it. One night, he enters without their knowledge and explodes the home, opting not to let the house stand without him. I called it ‘The Boom Solution,’ and – to my surprise – Gertrude’s wordplay impacted two stanzas. I wrote that ‘His home was no home / was no home at all / and his no home, his old home / His no home at all home / Was no home, he decided, was no home at all.’ It sparked a little life, this poem.

Today, I like to have people read Gertrude’s work. I bring in my textbook, the very one from that course, and open it to ‘If I Told Him,’ and I ask them to read it out loud. How they move forward, I find, tells me a lot about them.

If they get disgruntled and give up, I feel like they’re the sort of person who goes to a museum and spends undue time griping that they ‘can do this shit at home’ at the abstract art. If that’s you: Maybe don’t go to museums.

My favorites are the ones who, the moment they realize it’s nonsense, smile and barrel through anyway. Usually they’re laughing as they try, sincere in their quest to conquer this mountain. These are people who don’t give up easily, maybe, or they don’t take themselves too seriously.

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