Gertrude Stein didn’t write her poem ‘Idem the Same: A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’ for Valentine’s Day. She wrote it in the winter of 1922. I have always liked this fact. Valentines don’t have to only be given in February. Nor was Sherwood Anderson Stein’s beloved. He was her friend and the author of the introduction to her collection Geography and Plays.
I love the recording (below) of Stein reading ‘A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson’. Listening to Stein read the poem you can feel the weight and texture of the words, which she speaks in a strong and clear voice as the poem changes rhythm – back and forth.
Stein’s ‘Valentine’ resonates with the research process in many ways. The body and shape of spoken words is so evident listening to Stein. As a researcher words are my currency, but I often think about how the words I deal with often remain silent and flat. Written on a page or screen, they rarely turn into voice. Formed in the mouth, heavy on the tongue.
But then I realize this is not strictly true. Outside a conference my thesis might not be formally spoken, but when writing I regularly read my work out loud. I sit at my desk and as I speak to myself, I listen for grammatical errors and awkward sentences. But in doing this I am striving for clarity, whereas Stein lets us revel in confusion. ‘Valentine’ is a perfect example: the content shifts like quick sand between legibility and incoherence, narrative and nonsense.
‘Valentine’ is also an exercise in repetition. Just as I go over and over the words I write and the notes I’ve taken, Stein moves around words in circles:
Very fine is my valentine.
Very fine and very mine.
Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.
Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.
Listening to, or reading, ‘Valentine’, you feel your way through Stein’s words, her tone and intonation. Groping between the poem’s fragmented perceptions, multiple viewpoints, the recognizable and distorted. ‘Valentine’ is, like much of Stein’s writing, a depository of disparate images. This is often how I experience my research. I fumble, arms outstretched, through a myriad mass of information, notes and words, trying to create a solid form from it all.
But each Tuesday I escape from this textual struggle. After a (relatively mute) day in the library, surrounded by noises hushed and muffled, I sing in a choir.
Last year, in February, our choirmaster composed a short piece from lines of Stein’s ‘Valentine’ and her poem ‘If I told him’ (below). Surrounded by 29 other female voices, I revel in the textures of words and voice. With drums sounding the beat, we repeat Stein’s words, overlapping them, altering them, taking pleasure in them, over and over, over and over.
Thalia Allington-Wood is currently in the second year of her PhD in the History of Art Department of University College London. Her research explores the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo, a sixteenth-century woodland of monsters and marvels carved from stone.