Thursday, April 25, 2013

There is too a there there and I can prove it

When people of a certain age who grew up during a certain time think of Oakland, California, they probably think of the Black Panther Party and Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. We can’t help it. It’s who we are.

There are also people for whom sports is their life, their raison d’être, who might think only of the Oakland Raiders football team or the Oakland Athletics baseball team.

But mention Oakland, California, to someone of a literary bent (like, well, moi, for instance) and the writer Gertrude Stein comes to mind, and especially her famous statement about Oakland that “there is no there there.”

Ms. Stein said other odd things too, like “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (not “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” as some people think) and “Pigeons on the grass alas.” I recall that the American television series Northern Exposure once had an episode entitled “Cicely” (Episode 38, Season 3) in which someone parodied Gertrude Stein by saying, “A squirrel on a log, agog,” but I digress.

Here is that pigeon poem:

From Four Saints in Three Acts

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had
heard of a third and he asked about if it was a magpie in the sky.
If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the
grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.
They might be very well they might be very well very well they might
Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily
Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.

--Gertrude Stein

What I want to say about Gertrude Stein is that I don’t understand her poetry at all. It doesn’t make me think. It doesn’t fill me with awe and wonder. It doesn’t make me laugh or want to sing. It just makes me scratch my head and say, “Huh?”

In some quarters, that will make me forever persona non grata.

Be that as it may, a writer named Matt Werner recently wrote an online article entitled Gertrude Stein puts the “there” back in Oakland for Google Books. You really should read it if only to see some vintage photographs of Oakland and to find out exactly why Ms. Stein made that famous statement. Also, Mr. Werner proves that there really is a “there” there in Oakland, California, by including the following photograph in his article:

(photo by Joe Sciarrello)

See? I told you so.

So there.


  1. Concerning Ms. Stein's "poetry," I agree with you wholeheartedly. Alas. There!

  2. The poem may be odd, but your post was interesting. I think the poem is mostly about the pleasure of words that rhyme. But there could be more too.

    The problem I have, with my default accent, is that 'alas' does not rhyme with 'grass' for me.
    However, 'grass' DOES rhyme with 'arse', pardon my Klatchian.

  3. I think you should work Stein's poem into a church hymn by using the tune but replacing the words, but that's just me, and I don't even mean to be sacrilegious; it's just that I often think in ironies.

    Yes, I remember the Panthers as being from Oakland in the same way that I remember Sandburg as being from Illinois. I can't believe that I used to think those guys were cool.

  4. I thank you for your comments!

    Pat, Alas and alack.

    Katherine, we have a couple of commercials now on the telly featuring your countrymen. In one, a fellow says his saucepan is "the bist" because it has been "tisted" and a lady realtor on another channel shows a couple a house with three "bidrooms"...It always startkes me, but I find it charming! I can't (cahn't?) speak to grasses and arses, however.

    Snowbrush, now you have me trying to think of the right tune. So far I haven't thought of a single one from the hymnal. However, "London Bridge Is Falling Down" works nicely, as does "Mary Had A Little Lamb":

    "Pigeons on the grass alas,
    grass alas, grass alas,
    Piegeons on the grass alas,
    oh, what were they."

  5. Perhapswe could take the chorus of the old hymn, "The Church in the Wildwood" (you remember, "O come, come, come, come...) and use it:

    " O Lily, Lily, Lily, Lily," and so forth.

    It needs work.

  6. Not being of a poetic bent (or even being a bent poet) I often struggle to 'get' poems like these, so I'm glad it's not just me. To me it sounds more like a tongue twister of the Betty Botter variety,

  7. You're right. "London Bridge" does work better than "I Come to the Garden Alone."

  8. Oh, I overlooked your next comment, thinking, as I did, that you were done with me for the moment. Yes, I do remember "The Church in the Wildwood," although I wonderhow many hymns I have forgotten.

  9. For one nervous moment I thought you were sharing the Gertrude Stein poem because you admired it! To me it is sheer balderdash and doesn't deserve to be labelled as a "poem". Better to label it as "waste" to be picked up by the garbage truck on Friday. Gertrude Stein should have taken up a different occupation like hotel room cleaning or working in a laundry.
    (Apologies to any of Ms Stein's relatives who may be visiting this illustrious blog by accident or design.)

  10. Shooting Parrots, I agree with you even though I have no idea who Betty Botter is.

    Yorkshire Pudding, if Gertrude Stein had worked in a laundry, the movie "I Love You, Alice B. Toklas" would have to have been called "I Love You, Procter and Gamble"....

    I'm just sayin'.

    Snowbrush, we have to stop meeting like this.

  11. I love the poem. I am often overwhelmed with all the real stuff of life and poems like this make me grin, exhale, and remember not to take life so seriously..seriously. As for Gertrude Stein taking up another occupation, occupation, it was probably exactly her occupation that indeed inspired such poetry, poor poor soul. But, alas the pigeons in the grass helped the day to pass, to pass.

  12. Hilltophomesteader (or, as I shall think of you, Hilltop Homesteader, HH for short), welcome to my blog! I never said I hated the poem. I only said that I didn't understand it. I'm not sure that what we are supposed to take away from this poem is "not to take life so seriously." I see much more whimsicality in e.e.cummings's poem "Anyone lived in a pretty how town" than in "Pigeons in the grass, alas"....

  13. Well, I don't know how it rates on the Whimsy Scale - I don't know many whimsical poems...hmmm....what's that Alice in Wonderland one? There's usually no rhyme nor reason to what appeals to me. I LOVE James Whitcomb Riley, NOT classical music, HATE spiders and LOVE old sewing machines and Hymns. And dirt. I really like dirt. Outside, of course. Actual dirt, not the other stuff. But I digress.