The title of this piece “Poetry and Gesture” is intended to be a greeting to the American avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein who wrote in 1934 a famous lecture called “Poetry and Grammar” in which she elaborates on her strong feelings about language, punctuation and grammar and how they have shaped her poetry and prose. In the spirit of Stein’s lecture, the two books I am addressing, Cia Rinne’s Sentences (2018) and Anne Naukkarinen and Maarit Mustonen’s ikkööhäik – I’m ok (2018), both renegotiate in original ways the relation between poetry and grammar, but they are also, in an explicitly interdisciplinary vein, pushing their poetic practice from purely verbal language we normally associate with the concept of grammar towards the poetic potential held by gesture, hence “poetry and gesture.”
In this, they are addressing what I have elsewhere called the ambient poetics of Gertrude Stein (1). Hereby, I am referring to Stein’s practice of making the interface of her medium tangible. In this manner, Stein is pushing literature towards the medial boundaries in effect in the early 20th century, making the relationship between her oeuvre and the stable media platform of literature, the codex, a crucial matter of concern. By exposing the technological characteristics of the medium, Stein invites her readers to participate in the signification process on a concrete level. The word “ambient” is picked to stress how this practice always reaches beyond the printed page and into a wider environment. In her practice as well as her theory, Stein works consciously with adjusting the context surrounding the book as an artifact, affecting the relation between the flat space of the page and the surrounding three-dimensional space. This ambient space is at its core interdisciplinary, or “intermedia”, as it is tied to the literal space in which artworks are situated, the physical space in which different material practices may touch upon each other.
An interesting characteristic of Stein’s work that sets her apart from many of her modernist peers is that while her work was for many years very sparsely read and only sporadically dealt with by traditional literary institutions, it has been widely recycled and revisited by numerous poets and artists from all media all the way from her own time until today. In the proposition of reading Stein lies also an explicit invitation to collaborate with what she has written, to lift it off the page and reinstall it in another space. In previous research, I have studied how this invitation has been taken up by artists and poets from John Cage and Richard Foreman over Lyn Hejinian and Harryette Mullen to Laurie Anderson and Heiner Goebbels (2).
The work of Cia Rinne has been with me for many years where I have heard her readings and sound compositions and repeatedly returned to the visual joy of reading her exclusive poetry books Zaroum (2001), Notes for Soloists (2009), and L’usage du mot (2017). The work of Anne Naukkarinen and Maarit Mustonen I met for the first time in September 2018 when the intimate, collaborative, performative event that constituted the first stage of the present work took place. But both are artistic practices that have made a rare impact on me.
In all the years I have been hearing and reading Rinne’s work, I have held the expectation that she would someday finally address the writing of Gertrude Stein in the direct, concrete collaborative manner she does in Sentences, a work that is picking up and rearranging sentences once written by Stein. Naukkarinen & Mustonen, on the other hand, have no direct collaborative connection to Stein. They are coming out of an entirely different artistic tradition, one of physical performance and body art, but even this tradition has multiple and strong ties to Stein’s practice, and so does, as we shall see, the work in question (3).
Paratextually, the two works are evidently tied together by poetry and gesture as both were published by the Danish site specific exhibition concept and independent publishing house Forlaget Gestus (Gesture Press), and following the practice of this publishing house both works consist of another more ephemeral materialization beside their current, permanent book shape: Rinne’s of the exhibition Wasting my Grammar and Naukkarinen and Mustonen of the already mentioned performance event also entitled ikkööhäik – I’m ok. Conscious of the risk of tipping their delicate material balance, the following piece is adding a few more words in (digital) writing to the carefully selected blend of language, printing ink, paper, cardboard and bodily gesture that make up these two works.
Although both works have materialized in the shape of delicate, relatively thin booklets published by the same publishing house and released on the same date, it would seem that I am on a very challenging task to tie together two books that, within the framework of the contemporary artist’s book, appear to be almost as far apart from each other as is possible. Naukkarinen and Mustonen’s project is loaded with sonic as well as bodily production of presence and meaning whereas Rinne’s Sentences is a performance of the minimalist coolness inherent in alphabetic writing.
The title of Rinne’s work, Sentences, in a way coins this difference. In his theorization of the so-called “new sentence” that was so crucial to the American language poets of the 1970s–80s, one of them, Ron Silliman, addresses the impotence of structuralist linguistics towards poetry as a medium that rests upon writing as a material practice. This follows, in Silliman’s account, from the dependence of linguistics upon units like the ‘utterance’ and the ‘turn’ which can be used to structure speech, but are not suited for understanding writing (4). Silliman has to turn away from linguistics, and, just like Rinne, borrow his words from Gertrude Stein’s 1931 anarchistic anti-grammar treaty How to Write, in order to find a concept of the sentence as a linguistic unit specific to writing. And like Rinne, he ponders at Stein’s notorious discovery about writing, that “a sentence is not emotional a paragraphs is” (Stein 1973 : 15) and applies it in his favoring of the non-emotional unit of the sentence governed by grammar that he posits as the ideal horizon of language writing over the emotional unit of the paragraph governed by narrative sequence.
And like the examples of “the new sentence” from language poets like Robert Grenier and Carla Harryman that Silliman quotes to demonstrate his point, the sentences in Rinne’s book are very clearly units of written language, whether we hear them read out loud or not. But, as I shall return to shortly, the question of their emotionality appears a lot less clear cut than does Silliman’s ideal for language writing.
Naukkarinen and Mustonen on the other hand depart from language as utterances, and while the semantic message of these utterances is almost entirely absorbed by the intense noise of the intricate transmission channel, what remains is the pronounced presence of the material components of this channel: an ear accustomed to Finnish language picking up sounds made by Danish language tongues and mouths, transcribing them in letters while leaning on principles of Finnish orthography and translating them to formalized gestures of body language and even, in the last pages of the book, into suggested, whimsical scraps of English, and above all: the affective force of the communicative address, the sonic and gestural intensity of human interaction.
For an immediate gaze it could seem that the wrecked semantics of Naukkarinen and Mustonen left little common ground between their work and the grammatically strict, semantically clear and (unlike most of her previous poetry) exclusively monolingual writing of Rinne. After all, the semantic content is the aspect where written and spoken language is normally considered overlapping to a degree where we are allowed to confuse them on a daily basis: Whether I am reading five words from a shopping list, or, calling from the supermarket because I dropped the list, I am listening to the same five words spoken on the phone by the person who wrote them, I am likely return home with the same five items in my shopping bag.
But it is from an ambient rather than a semantic perspective that the two works are most tightly connected. And in my reading, this perspective relates to Gertrude Stein’s writings because one of the most important lessons I have learned from reading her is that for a sentence or an utterance to resonate, an ambient space is required.
In relation to the medium of the printed book or codex, this space is summoned by the way texts encode their inscription space: the blank spaces between the words, the margins of the flat page as well as the three-dimensional room surrounding us as we read, the physical and social environment of the reader, the attentive silence of the listener. The ambient space is the space that is not inscribed, neither by text nor gesture, but is surrounding the inscribed space. The impact, whether intellectual, emotional, or bodily, of an artwork is always dependent upon the presence of this ambient space. It is the site where both the ephemeral movements of our bodies and the social environment between our bodies occur. Those marks made that cannot be recorded or stored, but, in the realm of poetry and gesture, neither are they lost. They leave traces from which they can be reinvigorated, revived and reenacted, at another point in time into a new ambient space.
The presence of this ambient space is a general precondition of all sensorial communication, but it was reading Stein that made me realize it consciously, because she addresses it so persistently. And as suggested, it is this quality that has kept her, in itself, mono-medial work wide open to interventions from artists working in other media than literature. What is so curiously symmetrical about the two books I am presently addressing is that they are both approaching the ambient space existing between writing and bodily performance, but from opposite sides. And in the end, they meet up and join hands there.
To explain how, I must return, as promised, to the complicated question of the emotional. In her lecture “Plays”, Gertrude Stein writes:
“In a book I wrote called How to Write I made a discovery which I considered fundamental, that sentences are not emotional but that paragraphs are. I found out about language that paragraphs are emotional and sentences are not and I found out something else about it. I found out that this difference was not a contradiction but a combination and that this combination causes one to think endlessly about sentences and paragraphs because the emotional paragraphs are made up of unemotional sentences.” (Stein 1998: 244)
In her own work, Stein certainly did think endlessly about this discovery, approaching it and attacking it from different angles. As has been noted by Sianne Ngai, in The Making of Americans (1925), her repetitive long novel, Stein turned the seemingly essential difference between sentences and paragraphs into a modular one by writing very long sentences approaching paragraph length but not ordered in a clear grammatic hierarchy between subordinate and main clauses and thus defying the emotional buildup of the paragraph (5). And in How to Write, Stein experimented with installing in brief sentences the emotional balance of a paragraph. In her own explanation from “Poetry and Grammar” she was “trying to find out just exactly what the unemotional balance of a sentence is and what the emotional balance of a paragraph is and if it were possible to make even in a short sentence the two things come to be one.” (Stein 1998: 323)
This last endeavor is one that is continued in Rinne’s sentences. Here, a sentence may not be emotional in the narrative sense but it clearly has feelings, hopes and aspirations. For instance, as we can read in the first part of the book: “this sentence thinks it is very important” or “this sentence is in love with a sentence in another book” and in “I am very miserable about sentences” the collage of Stein sentences that constitutes the book’s second part: “this sentence hopes that you are very well and happy” or “this sentence would like to be taken away.”
In spite of their minimalistic design, their coolness and clearness, Rinne’s sentences reach out, or gesture, heavily towards their readers via the ambient space. The book’s sentences explicitly call our attention to their own printedness in a number ways. Not just via direct statements like “this sentence has a weight of 0,2 g” but also through the retro typewriter font used in the first part, the installation photos documenting the previous materialization of the book’s sentences in the exhibition context, and the photographical reproduction of an original page from Stein’s How to Write documenting some of the source material for the second part. Yet, simultaneously, the sentences are highly animated with affects, wishes and intentions. I quote from somewhere in the middle of the second part:
“a sentence is made up of whatever they mean.
a sentence says you know what I mean.
dear do I well I guess I do.” (Rinne 2018, no paging)
Thus in the end, what comes through the strongest in Sentences is not really what these sentences mean, but rather all the force they can apply to impose their will upon us. Very much like the case was in ikkööhäik – I’m ok it is not about semantics but about the gesture implied when making an address. How the technology of written sentences is working hard to shape our experience of the world.
In ikkööhäik – I’m ok Naukkarinen and Mustonen address verbal language from the departure point of sound and physical gesture, yet show how these material practices can be structured into alternative language systems not based on the rules of grammar and orthography of any single national language, but never the less functioning by way of technology and being open to structuring and systematization. Although their practice so clearly departs from the scale of the human body both their live performance and their book performance also challenge a simple ontology of presence. In the performance event this became explicit through the deadpan countenance of the performers and their systematic repetition of sounds, movements and gestures and was further enhanced by the contribution of the participating audiologist Alma Manley, who explained and demonstrated in technological and anatomical detail the functionalities of the human speaking and hearing organs. In the book, it is conveyed through the laconic, documentary method, for instance listing precise time and location of each situation, the medical-educational aesthetic of the anatomic drawings of hand gestures, and the apparently systematic deduction practice behind the translations. Like Rinne, Naukkarinen and Mustonen depict how media technologies are shaping our experience. Turning spoken language and body language into a technology by treating them in a technological, investigative way, they exhibit the gestural language of the human body as a technology among others.
In this perspective, grammar can also be described as a sort of technology. In “Poetry and Grammar” Gertrude Stein pins out the ways in which different grammatical units, from nouns, verbs and prepositions to her detested commas and question marks, function in poetry and prose (6). In Stein’s description grammar becomes like an algorithm of language: a functional protocol that tells words and sentences how to behave, and that structures them, not by chronological, narrative sequence, but by mechanical or even machinic principles. Grammar is what sets the language machine in motion in interaction with its surroundings.
To phrase it symmetrically, I would suggest that Rinne’s poetry exhibits the gesture of grammar while Naukkarinen and Mustonen are creating a grammar of gesture.
And in both cases, it is the material object of the printed book that is performing this mediation, and both works are built up around linguistic raw material that is picked up from addresses once made by others: Overheard utterances recently spoken in an unfamiliar language in ikkööhäik – I’m ok and the sentences written by Gertrude Stein almost a century ago in an entirely familiar one in Sentences.
And both works gently recycle their material, as it is rearranged and restructured into each work’s own address, which comes to us in the shape of a book that you can carry with you, inviting you, at any chosen time to engage in the intimacy of the reading situation, holding the book in your hands, close to your face, creating an intimate, ambient bodily space between you and the book.
Yet both works also impose themselves upon us, and want to interfere in this reading situation in ways that are very physical and not always entirely gentle. As I open Rinnes’s book I read that “this sentence is looking for the ideal reader” and wish that this reader would be me, but at the same time I cannot help fearing how my lack of idealness might reveal itself. And if I am tired, I may “return to sentences as a refreshment” as Rinne writes (quoting Stein), but I may also suddenly, like her, be “very miserable about sentences.” Especially when they impose themselves upon me so strongly: “this sentence wants to fly into your mouth” or reject me entirely: “this sentence does not apply to you.” Also the few sentences stating their own weight or temperature and the many sentences explicitly demonstrating their own performative force, or lack thereof (“this is a sentence”, “that is a sentence because it is a failure”, “this sentence feels misunderstood”, “this sentence should make an unambiguous impression” “this sentence hopes it can be erased again”) call our attention to their materiality both as printed matter and as statements uttered in an ambient space.
When reading Naukkarinen and Mustonen’s work the intimate situation of reading silently is both emphasized and challenged. The bodily investments of the reader are underlined when standard orthography is not respected, even down to the borders between the words so crucial for written language to function. When I do not understand the words I read I start to taste the words and speak the sounds, in my head or with my tongue, throat and mouth, and when I come to the gestural section I become conscious of the physical interaction of my hands with the book. I can read it silently, simply holding the book in my hands, carefully turning the pages, not speaking out the sounds and not imitating the depicted hand gestures. But not without noticing my own reading procedure: the not speaking and not gesticulating of reading suddenly becomes a conscious, active choice.
In this way, both works negotiate the intimacy of the address, and its vulnerability to domination. They carry a tension between the address as a tender gesture, a caring for and tending to an emotional relation, and the address as violent act, struggling for domination, for imposing an external will upon its addressee, as Rinne also writes, “This sentence is a lifetime sentence.” And this tension of course, as Gertrude Stein would have it, is “a combination and not a contradiction”. As are these two beautiful artist’s books reaching into ambient space from opposite sides.
(1) See Solveig Daugaard: Collaborating with Gertrude Stein. Media ecologies, reception, poetics, (2018), see especially pp. 22-23 and pp. 49-65.
(2) Solveig Daugaard: Collaborating with Gertrude Stein.
(3) For elaborations on Stein’s significance for developments in performance art, body art, dance and avant-garde theater see for instance Valie Export (1973), Bonnie Marranca (1996), Sarah Bay-Cheng (2005) and Laura Luise Schultz (2015).
(4) Ron Silliman: The New Sentence, 2003, pp. 63-93.
(5) Sianne Ngai: Ugly Feelings, (2005), p. 251.
(6) Gertrude Stein: “Poetry and Grammar”, in Writings 1932-1946, (1998), pp. 313-336.
Bay-Cheng, Sarah (2005): Mama Dada. Gertrude Stein’s Avant-Garde Theater, New York: Routledge
Daugaard, Solveig (2018): Collaborating with Gertrude Stein. Media ecologies, reception, poetics, Linköping University Press, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3384/diss.diva-147346
Export, Valie (1973): “Gertrud Stein/Virgina Woolf: Feminismus und Kunst” in Neues Forum: January, March, and June 1973
Marranca, Bonnie (1996) Ecologies of Theater, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press
Naukkarinen, Anne and Maarit Mustonen: Ikkööhäik – I’m ok, Copenhagen: Forlaget Gestus, 2018
Ngai, Sianne (2005): Ugly Feelings, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press,
Rinne, Cia: Sentences, Copenhagen: Forlaget Gestus, 2018 (no paging)
Schultz, Laura Luise (2015): “The Missing Link: Stein between American and European Theater” in Schultz and Posman (eds.): Gertrude Stein in Europe. Reconfigurations Across Media, Disciplines, and Traditions, London: Bloomsbury
Silliman, Ron (2003) , The New Sentence, New York: Roof Books
Stein, Gertrude: Lectures in America (1998) , in: Writings 1932-1946, Stimpson and Chessman (eds.), New York: Library of America
Stein, Gertrude (1975) : How to Write, New York: Dover Publications