Lew Welch



Words as Objects


from How I Work as a Poet

to Dorothy Brownfield, 28 September 1949

to Dorothy Brownfield, et al, 4 November 1950

to Philip Whalen, 7 July 1957

to Donald Allen, 18 December 1959

to Charles Olson, 9 August 1960

to Larry Eigner, 7 September 1961

draft of a letter to Robert Duncan, July 1962

to James Schevill, 16 October 1966

to Robert D. Wilder, 19 June 1969

from How I Read Gertrude Stein



Back to Main Page

"Strangeness always goes off very quickly.
but then the pleasure of looking if you like to
look is always a pleasure."    (Everybody's Autobiography 174)

Gertrude Stein's use of language has caused much merriment among reviewers and critics, but has achieved its intended purpose, as she notices in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: "My sentences do get under their skin. . ." (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas 70). This is, I suppose, one of the aims of every writer, but Stein has a rather special reason for wishing her readers to be conscious of the verbal level of her writing.

Much of her writing is, in a way significantly different from other literature, a demonstration of an abstraction (generalization) which has been derived from her analysis of literature, and she often uses the methods of literature to make the same points which critics make by means of expositionary writing. It is convenient, therefore, to begin with the critic's discussion of language, before investigating Stein's "demonstration" of the same point.


It is fairly easy to distinguish between the language of science and the language of literature. The mere contrast between "thought" and "emotion" or "feeling" is, however, not sufficient. Literature does contain thought, while emotional language is by no means confined to literature . . . the ideal scientific language is purely "denotative": it  aims at a one-to-one correspondence between sign and referent. The sign is completely arbitrary, hence can be replaced by equivalent signs. The sign is also transparent; that is, without drawing attention to itself, it directs us unequivocally to its referent.

. . .whatever the mixed modes apparent upon an examination of concrete literary works of art, the distinction between the literary use and the scientific use seems clear: literary language is far more deeply involved in the historical structure of the language; it stresses the awareness of the sign itself. . . . (Wellek and Warren, 12, 13)


This distinction is useful although, like any generalization about literature, it becomes difficult to apply at times. It is, for instance, not easy to maintain that the words of W. C. Williams, Wallace Stevens, or other "imagist" poets draw attention to themselves as signs. But like most generalizations, it is useful insofar as it gives us a way to discuss a phenomenon that undoubtedly contributes to our enjoyment of many, perhaps most, specific poems and individual poets.

It is certainly sensible to suppose that the writer of literature is more acutely aware of language than are most of his readers, whether he wishes his finished work of art to draw attention to its signs, or to the images to which those signs refer. Gertrude Stein has taken this position but instead of making the above kind of statement, has written a book entitled How to Write in which she attempts to force one into an acute awareness of sign. She does not teach one "how to write," but attempts to give one an experience with language that will enable one to write.

She does this by a treatise on language, sentence structure, and grammar which is presented almost exclusively by means of example. She includes only enough "exposition" to assure one that her point is the teaching of the elements of English, and uses the title to show the reader that her lesson and the way in which it is being "taught" has to do with the writing of literature. Her statements of "exposition" usually look like this: "here is a sentence" or "think in articles" or "successions of words are so agreeable it is about this." But perhaps her most explicit statement is: "It is impossible to avoid meaning and if there is meaning and it says what it does there is grammar." (How To Write 71)

But how is it possible for meaning to "do" with the result that there is grammar? An example is this sentence: "Grammar makes her name trout and love birds." It is possible to read the sentence to mean that her name is trout, but if one does this the phrase "and love birds" demands that one consciously change "name" from a noun to a verb. This sentence does not always elicit this response; I have tested it upon several people, about half of whom responded in the above way, and half just stared. The following sentence usually succeeds in making one conscious of syntax: "A seated pigeon turned makes sculpture."

She uses many such tricks with words, always to the end of making one conscious of the fact that the reader is enforcing the syntax upon each sentence, that syntax is not the obvious and passive thing that one had perhaps supposed.

To get back to the distinction between "sign" and "referent" by giving an example of the way in which she forces one to be conscious that words are "signs":


   And and they will go.
   A is an article.
   They are usable. They are found and able and edible. And so
they are predetermined and trimmed.

   The which is an article.
   With them they have that. What which, they have the point
in which it is close to the purpose.

   Think in articles.
   The the inclusion.
   The in inclusion.
   A fine finely in in fanning.

   A is an advice.
   A is an advice.
   If a is an advice an is a temporal wedding.
   If a is an advice an is an is in an and temptation ridden.
   Temptation redden.
   If a is an advice an is a temptation ridden. (How to Write 129)


It is interesting to notice that she makes one aware of the sign "and" by making it into a noun. Perhaps being conscious of "and" is not very important, but it seems to me that she had to do it this way because of all parts of speech articles and conjunctions have the least obvious referent, and at the same time are very rarely noticed as signs. It is, for example, very difficult to think of "pigeon" as a sign, for one always tends to see the bird. But once having been made aware of articles in the above way, the step to thinking in a like manner of all words is a short one.

It is also interesting to notice that although of course articles are not "predetermined and trimmed," by saying this she turns "predetermined" and "trimmed" into signs and at the same time one is entertained. The entertainment value of such verbal playfulness is extremely important in a work such as this, for unending examples of sentences could easily become terribly tedious.

I have tried it on many of my acquaintances, merely by giving them the book without comment, and have noticed that they usually become quickly absorbed and find it necessary to read aloud sentences such as these from the first pages: "Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art" and "When a dog is no longer a lap dog there is a temporary inattention." The first of these sentences, and perhaps the second as well, may have seemed interesting because of their content, but I hardly think that this is true of a sentence from the third page, which was read aloud to me by all of those who continued reading this far: "Apart disposed deposed that he went." This too was popular: "It was joined and generally resembled when it is and belongs to all which they rent."

We might compare a passage from a systematic presentation of this subject with a passage from How to Write, judging the two both for their ability to hold one's attention, and for their ability to make their point. I quote from English Grammar, selected and prepared by the editorial staff, United States Armed Forces Institute, page 47 — not a definitive work, but one which attempts to be very simple and very clear.




He hit the ball.

Hit is the verb, and he is the subject. But he hit by itself doesn't make a complete statement. You ask right away, "What did he hit?" The word that answers that question is ball. Ball, which receives the action of the verb, is called the object of the verb. The receiver of the action is the object of the verb.

Grammar. In enterprise without with whether revise prevision post when they bake. Grammar is not furtive. Round and about but they are cloudless. Grammar have useful blushes which are flushes. Have honey suckle which is of various colors, have rose daisies have orchids called Monsieur which is a name fame rename from interested them for her. How can grammar be nevertheless. What is grammar. Grammar is indwelling without a premonition of accomplishment but there is succor.

Think about grammar and a nightingale. It is very beneficent to hear four nightingales. This makes remarkably Arthur a grammar not at night but in the afternoon. Arthur a grammar, lady fingers and infusions and bother with apples.

A grammar consists in having more made maiden in eclipse. A tail of a comet is a memory. Grammar may be fortunately within a call. Consider grammar.

One two all out but you. This is a retreat.
Three four shut the door.
This is dotted. (How to Write 71)




The question she raises is not whether the soldier could learn anything from Stein, but is rather whether anyone can learn anything other than rules from the first manner of presentation. Stein makes a distinction between that which can be "taught" and that which can be "learned," which explains her method of presentation in her didactic works — her lectures and books like How to Write — but it will be more convenient to discuss this distinction in Chapters II and III. A hint as to the nature of this distinction is in this remark from Everybody's Autobiography:

    Ulysses Grant says in his memoirs all he learned when he was at school was that a noun is the name of anything, he did not really learn it but he heard it said so often that he almost came to believe it. (Everybody's Autobiography 200)


We can summarize the lesson of How to Write by saying that it forces one to be conscious of language as language, not as a transparent means to a "referent." The book does more than that, that is, it takes the implications of this way of looking at language to greater lengths than I have indicated, but I will discuss these extensions later when I analyze Tender Buttons. How to Write makes one aware of words as signs by means of heaping together a great many "referentless" sentences and phrases with the result of gradually reducing the importance of the referent, and gradually increasing the importance of the sign. It also forces one into a consciousness of the formal structure of the sentence, by including groups of words which are not sentences among ones that are, and by repeatedly reminding one of sentences by using the word "sentence," until one feels a conscious relief and sense of solidness when a balanced sentence appears.

Although she has achieved "opacity" of sign by destroying the referent, I do not think that a sign's drawing attention to itself necessarily means that it will do so at the expense of the referent. I am certain that Wellek and Warren do not mean to imply this in the general statement with which I opened. Actually, I think that the contrary conclusion would more nearly follow, since being aware of the sign only means that one is consciously aware of a correspondence of two things, whereas before he might only have been aware of the one — the referent. And when Stein herself desires to use language as a means to a referent, she very successfully achieves a one-to-one relationship between sign and referent and at the same time draws attention to the sign itself.

    Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between. . . . ("Composition," What Are Masterpieces? 27)


The highly specialized, but very clear, use of "classical" and "classified" is a good illustration.

However, if one does become in the habit of noticing the sign, and I think that every student of literature arrives at this kind of awareness, it also becomes possible to read only on the level of sign, or at least with very little concern for the referent. Recently a friend of mine delighted herself, and an entire group of word-conscious ones, with the sentence: "There is, then, no unanimity of sundials." The phrase "unanimity of sundials" not only elicited an immediate joyful response, but also became a phrase that could be mumbled to oneself with pleasure. Most of us have also known the pleasure of repeating lines from, poetry until they become only a chain of words. We do not exactly remove the meaning entirely, nor listen to them only as sounds, we simply enjoy them verbally. I think that the sentence from Stein that I have already quoted is an example of this sort of thing: "They are found and able and edible. And so they are predetermined and trimmed."

This is certainly not the end of a study of literature, but it is a common by-product of a serious and intensive study, and is perhaps a more important by-product than we usually admit. I would even go so far as to take the position that without having had the experience of recognizing language in this way, and of finding delight in the recognition, one is seriously hampered in the study of literature, whether he puts his study to use as a critic, an author, or simply as a reader. For if one of the characteristics of literature is that it tends to draw attention to its signs, and I think that this is undeniable, then being conscious of this is a very important part of the sensibility of reader, critic, and writer. It is not enough simply to be "told" to watch for this characteristic, one must have had the experience of noticing it, and of finding delight in the noticing.

A statement like Wellek and Warren's is valuable to the reader who has already had the experience, but is meaningless to those who have not. Wellek and Warren can show the experienced reader that he should be even more aware of this sort of thing than he has been, and their distinction between "sign" and "referent" might, as it has for me, offer a way to explain why certain writing is the way it is. These are the functions of systematic writing, and must not be undervalued, but neither should we undervalue the importance of Stein's way of making the point. It will be Stein's method that produces more conscious readers; it will be Wellek and Warren's method that provides a more coherent way of talking about that which one has read.

I have admitted that almost every student of literature has had this experience with language, then why is Stein's book necessary or useful? Why not gain this experience simply by reading literature in general? The answer is that Stein accomplishes the job, entertainingly, in slightly less than four hundred pages, thereby forcing one into a greater realization of implications, a more intensified awareness, than one would be apt to gain if he left it to chance and time.

But what are the implications of this experience aside from those I have mentioned? They can best be discussed, I think, by using examples of Stein's writing, for she has experimented in this area more than has anyone with whom I am familiar.

As I have said, if you become hyper-conscious of language as sign, it becomes possible to read on this level almost to the exclusion of content. Usually we do not go very far with this, but at times, as with unusually obscure poetry, it is more or less forced upon us. I, for instance, read Eliot’s The Waste Land so many times that I almost memorized it, but for nearly a year I had no idea what was going on in it. Now that I have a general notion of what Eliot is trying to do, I still read the poem more or less as I did in the beginning because his "meaning" simply does not interest me. His poem does.

It seems most sensible to explain my past and present fascination [with The Waste Land] by saying that the "mechanism" of the poem holds my attention, and did so even though the content was not clear to me — that is, that I was enjoying the poem on the kind of verbal level I have been describing. And I do not mean that the words are being read as nonsense syllables. I have said this to many people who are convinced that such a thing is impossible, since words do have meanings and since they cannot conceive of the possibility of separating the two. And when I say that they are not exactly separate, they have no idea what I mean.

But I know that this is possible, and I know what I mean, because I know that I have done it with certain of Stein's books which operate only on this level. The best of these is Tender Buttons. The following passage in entitled "Cranberries" but actually you should just think of "Cranberries" as being its name. Do not try to make the words "mean" cranberries.



Could there not be a sudden date, could there not be in the present settlement of old age pensions, could there not be by a witness, could there be.

Count the chain, cut the grass, silence the noon and murder flies. See the basting undip the chart, see the way the kinds are best seen from the rest, from that and untidy.

Cut the whole space into twenty-four spaces and then and then is there a yellow color, there is but it is smelled, it is then put where it is and nothing stolen.

A remarkable degree of red means that, a remarkable exchange is made.

Climbing altogether in when there is a solid chance of soiling no more than a dirty thing, coloring all of it in steadying is jelly.

Just as it is suffering, just as it is succeeded, just as it is moist so is there no countering. (Selected Writings 486-87)


This passage uses words in about as "opaque" a way as is possible, yet it would be not at all interesting if the word meanings, the referents, were not functioning. It is difficult to assign to the referents their precise function, yet it is obvious that "Count the chain, cut the grass, silence the noon and murder flies" functions as much on the level of referent as it does on that of sign. So it becomes obvious that we cannot think of my experience with The Waste Land as being one of sound alone. It seems better to say that I had difficulty making the referents of the words add up to a coherent "total referent." There is no such complication in Tender Buttons. Here you have to read to a more extreme degree in the same way that I read The Waste Land before I could figure out its "total referent."

This "explanation" of Tender Buttons is an example of the astonishingly simple explanations that are usually the answer to Stein's writing. The first impression is usually the right one in this case: "Why, these are only words." But it is possible to arrive at very interesting things if one is willing to look at words as words and as words in combinations. I realize that this sounds terribly esoteric and sterile, but it really is not. In this chapter I shall continue to show the general applications of the experience to be gained from How to Write, and will leave the closer analysis of Tender Buttons to a later chapter.

I shall assume that I have made clear what I mean by reading on a verbal level, for actually if you read even the short passage from Tender Buttons and the extracts from How to Write and read them just for what they are, it will be obvious that this is what I mean. But I am sure that I must show what a recognition of this sort of thing can lead to before it will cease to seem nothing more than a pointless game. It is a game all right, but it is not at all pointless.

It is apparent that the basic thing about How to Write and Tender Buttons is that in these works Stein objectifies words, thus implying that she is insisting upon their intrinsic value. The next step from this, if you are a writer, will be the insistence upon the intrinsic value of a poem — a group of words artfully arranged. Here again one might expect that such a writer will be more interested in what a poem is — as a form, as an object — than in what that poem can convey.

    As I say a motor goes inside and the car goes on, but my business my ultimate business as an artist was not with where the car goes as it goes but with the essence of its going. ("Portraits," Lectures in America 194-95)


This is the position that Stein has taken as the result of a very common line of argument. If it is true, as it seems to be, that a paraphrase of the "meaning" of a poem is usually ordinary, usually something that anyone could have said, then perhaps the "poem," in its essence, is not what is said, but is the manner of the saying. We can ponder this forever and never get further than the above formulation, for it is quite obvious that words do have meanings, and that all of the poetry that we have read takes advantage of this fact. It is therefore impossible ever to demonstrate, wholly to one's satisfaction, the point at which the meaning ceases to function and the "mechanism" begins.

But the artist can be obstinate. He can set about to build a poem that is only "of the essence of its going" in order to demonstrate the lengths to which this argument can go. The academician cannot do this, for he can only formulate from the poetry that has been made. It is perfectly obvious that if no one had made a poem, there would be no concept of "poetry" that begs a formulated definition.

Tender Buttons puts us again in the position of him who saw the first object that elicited the response: "that is a poem." For if Tender Buttons elicits the response, "That is a poem, or is at least disarmingly like other poetry," then we must call it a poem and attempt to discover what it has in common with other poetry. That is, we must if we are academicians, for that is our job. The artist need only present us with the object that he has built.

In this particular discussion I make no distinction between prose and poetry, but call "poetry" any writing written with artful intent or which gives the impression that it is artful. I define poetry as we usually have to admit that we define it, as that which elicits the response, "That is a poem." The fact that there is a great concordance of opinion as to which pieces of writing are poetry and which are not, is what I shall rely on in order to assume that what I am talking about will be understandable to my readers, or at least communicable.

Stein, then, has written in Tender Buttons a group of poems which are intended to be only "of the essence of the going" of poetry. To her, this essence is a matter of interrelationship of parts, with the "movement" of those parts, the rhythm, being the most important effect of the interrelationship.

    Now then came the domination of mechanical things and art which always has to see what the contemporary sees had to see in this way, that is to say had to see that a thing moving automatically made another thing move exactly in the way it did move. . . . It is still happening. Only now it is not any longer very interesting. (Everybody's Autobiography 59)


This passage was written in 1936, when the idea no longer excited Gertrude Stein enough so that she felt the need to create anything out of it, but it is still interesting to the reader who has never experienced this kind of writing, and from all indications, very few have.

It is "still happening" today, in the painting that is called "non-objective" and which is only now beginning to have very much of an audience. But the activity in painting that is based upon this idea has become less and less, for it really is "not any longer very interesting" to the artist. I will go into this in Chapter III. But there are still a great many people who have not experienced these paintings, and there are a great many more who have seen them but who are unable to refrain from putting objects and stories into them. Just as with Tender Buttons the idea basic to "non-objective" painting is not realized by the vast majority of its audience. The paintings are still annoying, at times irritating, and to some stimulating; to Gertrude Stein this means that they ought to be "interesting" to their potential audience.

The cubist painting of Gertrude Stein's day bears a close relationship to the writing in Tender Buttons. The cubist painter demands that his painting be looked at as a painting, as a demonstration of the idea "painting," not as a demonstration of what ideas a painting can convey. What must be looked at is the formal analysis of the objects in the painting — not the objects as objects, but the formal analysis that has gone into their making — and the relationships of form to form, color to color, and line to line, within the bounds of the frame. I say "within the bounds of the frame," for the fact that Juan Gris, for instance, painted hundreds of still lifes all of which have the same objects in them, vase, guitar, pipe, newspaper, should indicate that after all these objects cannot be important. That is, they are not important as they relate to real objects, but they are important as objects within the frame — painted objects. They exist only in relation to themselves.

    But the strange thing about the realization of existence is that like a train moving there is no teal realization of it moving if it does not move against something . . . ("Portraits," Lectures in America 165)

  But she sees her generation as one which conceived of an "intensity of movement so great that it has not to be seen against something to be known" with the result that:

    So we have now, a movement lively enough to be a thing in itself moving, it does not have to move against anything to know that it is moving . . . ("Portraits," Lectures in America 171)


It must be emphasized that she is not speaking of paintings that depict moving objects, she is speaking of paintings that are concerned with internal "rhythms" of line, color, and form. This gets us back to the objects in the paintings, or the "subject matter."

We can put into the terminology I have been using elsewhere in this discussion, the kind of treatment of objects that is to be found in cubist painting. A painted vase can be a sign with a one-to-one relationship to its referent, a ceramic vase, or the painted vase can be a sign that only draws attention to itself. The vase in a cubist painting tends to be an "opaque" sign, which means that the painter is insisting upon the right that his paintings be looked upon as paintings, and the objects within the painting simply as objects in a painting — signs.

Gertrude Stein speaks about the painter's way of looking at the subject matter of his art in a way that might well be applied to the subject matter of her writing. I am using "subject matter" to mean what the writing talks about, and what objects are painted, without considering to what end they are talked about or painted.


Really in everybody's heart there is a feeling of annoyance at the inevitable existence of an oil painting in relation to what it has painted people, objects and landscapes. And indeed and of course as I have already made you realize that is not what an oil painting is. An oil painting is an oil painting, and these things are only the way the only way an oil painter makes an oil painting.

One might say almost all oil painters spend their life in trying to get away from this inevitability. They struggle and the result is what everybody naturally likes or dislikes depending upon whether they think the struggle is hopeless or whether it is not. ("Pictures," Lectures in America 84-85)


Analogies between arts can easily be pushed too far, but this relationship is especially appropriate since Stein was so very interested in twentieth-century painting. She writes in Picasso: "I was alone at this time (1909) in understanding him, perhaps because I was expressing the same thing in literature . . ." (Picasso 16).

For some time this sentence seemed only cryptic to me, but I now see that, as usual, Stein meant what she said in the most literal possible way. I have spent a good deal of time looking at and thinking about the paintings of this century and have talked to a great many painters who are struggling, more or less successfully, with the general ideas expressed above. As I began to know this painting and as I came to know Stein's writing, the relationship I have described became clear to me. The determining factor of the relationship is to be found in their similar ways of analyzing their arc, and in the fact that both Stein's writing and cubist painting are essentially analytic — that is, the finished products are analytic.

The analytic procedure upon which both arts are based can be briefly described as one which insists upon the validity of a painting as a painting, a poem as a poem, almost as if they were being regarded as objects like any man-made object — like a clock for instance. The painting and writing of past centuries are analyzed to see what makes each work, and what makes each be what it is. Then an example of the conclusions thus derived — which will be abstract — is made into an object which is offered for the considerations of others. You might say that it is only different from any other man-made object — a clock — because a conscious intelligence has attempted to make it be a very interesting object, a complex object, a pleasing object, a beautiful object. The process is not quite so cold-blooded and so "conscious" as it appears in this brief abstraction. In Chapters II and III, I shall go more deeply into the factors which are not fully "understood" by the artist, while he is creating. However, the above is essentially correct as I understand it, with the analytic process being an historically determined "way of seeing" of which the artist is more or less conscious.

    . . . as I say when you have looked at many many faces and have become familiar with them, you may find something new in a new face you may be surprised by a different kind of a face you may be even shocked by a different kind of a face you may like or not like a new kind of a face but you cannot refuse a new face. You must accept a face as a face. And so with an oil painting. ("Pictures," Lectures in America 84-85)


And so it is with Tender Buttons and with much of the writing of this century. The interesting thing is that the critics of today, in general, have this attitude but are prevented from stating it flatly because of a concern for "historical perspective." The artist is able to flatly say that he is of the twentieth century and sees things in a certain way, but the academician must attempt to be able to see past art as it was seen when it was made.

Even so the critics of the past day — Wellek and Warren are good examples — repeatedly insist that to experience poetry you should look at the poem, not asking to what use it can be put, or what kind of a man wrote it, until after you have first seen what it is. It seems sensible to say that critics are influenced by their century's "way of seeing" just as the artist is, and that the growing acceptance of this position is due to temporal factors.

Questions of genre [and related matters of critical study] become unimportant when one is faced by writing like Stein's, by painting like Picasso's and Gris', by writing like Williams' and Stevens', because it is so obvious that one is being faced by something that is so undeniably an object, and so undeniably artful, that all one can do is ask: "What is it?" The tendency is not to give it a name (novel, poem, portrait) but to attempt to describe it as it is. The fascinating thing is that when one asks these questions, when one describes in this way, one is quickly led to very basic theoretical questions: "What has it to do with art in general?" "What is painting?" "What is poetry?"

It is important to realize that we of this century do tend to look at art in this way. We should admit it, and we should admit that one of the reasons for the tendency is that the artists of the century have demanded that we look at their art for what it "is." Stein demands this more insistently than does anyone else. From reading even a very small amount of her work we learn the importance of relaxing all standards until the experience of the work has been realized. We also learn that this can be done even if we have a large erudition, some very settled habits, and remembered responses. We learn it because we are forced to do it. It has always been true that we derive theories of art from experiences we have had with art. From Stein's "difficult" writing, and it is difficult to learn to be simple enough to accept the fact that she means what she says, and that she says it as simply as it can be said, from Stein's difficult writing, then, we can learn to depersonalize ourselves when we look at a work of art, so that the experience is not at once related to or rejected by other experiences, but is an additional experience that realigns, perhaps, our earlier perspective. It is from the experience that we derive the theory; and the experience to be gained from How to Write and Tender Buttons is one that leads to very exciting things, and is one that can only be gained, in an intense way so that you "know yourself knowing it," from Gertrude Stein.