If I Told Him


My first reaction to Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him: a complete portrait of Picasso” is one of absolute bewilderment. Immediately, I am drawn in by a conflict raging in the text. At first glance, the whole poem is almost gibberish, radio static, with barely a cohesive thought. However, just like the static, the words force you to listen more closely. It is almost an irony that the rough syntax increases your motivation to read between the lines. Nothing is given away easily in this poem.

However, there are certain words which can give a clearer view of what is taking place in this poem regarding the subjects of the poem (Stein and Picasso), specifically “Exact,” “now,” “history” and “Land.” I view them all as playing off each other. “Exact” seems to be the most obvious of all these. It seems to be giving a clear, ironic message about the work of Stein and Picasso. Both artists are capable of being exact. However, they actively choose not to be. Stein writes “Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact / resemblance” (21). One cubist notion is taking one small space of a portrait and expanding upon that. It is very precise, very exact, yet not at all. It is not exact resemblance, though it is so close. This is true in the poem as well. Everything is perfectly exact, yet not all. Everything is “wrong,” but at the same time exactly where it should be. The theme of “now” vs. the relativity of “history” (such as “Napoleon first [34]) adds to this lack of exactness. This is played with consistently throughout the entire poem. Of course Napoleon did come first. But that almost does not matter. “Now” is the moment that is crucial to the artist. The parallel is that although there exists a perfect exactness, it does not need to be imitated in it’s entirety. This is especially evident in the art of Picasso. Cubist artists were intent on the copying of still-lifes. They could have been the most mundane, easily interpret-able  objects. However, cubists chose not to project them this way. Even something as obvious as Napoleon coming first can be toyed with. Furthermore, I believe the concept of land that repeats itself for almost twenty line is laying a down another fundamental principle. Although the later works of Picasso became very abstract, his earlier work (as was most cubic art) was very grounded in reality. Yes, it took on other forms, but it kept returning to “land,” to a common ground. It did not stray so far from those original landscapes. There seems to be a secondary conflict of how far should an artist stray into the abstract. Stein certainly does, and breaks down many grammatical and socially accepted writing rules. Picasso does as well. But there is an apprehension.


Questions for the Class:

1) Based on the poem, to what extent can an artist’s work be relative or abstract before losing meaning?


2) Is this poem only a portrait of Picasso, or are there introspective elements as well?


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1 Response to If I Told Him

  1. Deborah Shteierman says:

    I would like to argue that this poem is not exclusively a portrait of Picasso, but rather, it contains “introspective elements” as well. Like Yoni said above, The repetition of the word “exact” seems to be giving a clear, ironic message about the work of Stein and Picasso. Both artists are capable of being exact. However, they actively choose not to be.” In that sense, this poem is not only reflecting on something characteristic of Picasso, but on something characteristic of Stein as well. Indeed just as Picasso rejected many of the art conventions in his art, so to Stein is rejecting many of the literary conventions typical of poetry up until then. In that sense, her poem is not only a portrait of Picasso, but of herself as well.

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