“If I Told Him”

The first aspect of this poem that obviously stood out to me was the speaker’s use of repetition. This is seen right at the beginning of the poem starting with the line “If Napoleon if I told him. Would he like it if I told him”(3-4). Furthermore, the lines are completely grammatically incorrect as the constant repeating lines do not make grammatical sense. I think the reason the poem was written this way is because the speaker is exhibiting her nervous excitement and a somewhat lack of confidence. She is unsure whether or not Picasso, who she clearly looks up to, will like what she will tell him. She seems to be having a conversation with herself, going back and fourth with her thoughts, trying to convince herself to have the confidence to approach him and say what she wants to. As the poem goes on, the repetition becomes more confusing with the repeating “He and He”(53). Similarly I found this repetition to add to her portrayal of being extremely anxious.

The four words that stick out most to me in this poem, are: Napoleon, king, first, and the repetitive “He”(53). These words show how stein viewed Picasso as a leader in his field; a king. Moreover, she views him as bold, comparing him to Napoleon since he is the “first” of his kind. The repeating He displays her nervousness. She sounds like a kid about to meet her favorite celebrity for the first time.

The way I see Stein relating her writing to Cubism is just like cubism, her poetry has an underlying beauty. At first glance, the poem looks like a mess; without any meaning. However with analysis one can see the meaning that underlies the apparent mess; just like cubism.

My questions I am wondering about are:

1) Why do you think she used repetition so much? Is it to give the poem a certain sound? Or is there an underlying meaning to it that I didn’t see?

2) From this poem what kind of relationship do you think Picasso and Stein have? Were they friends or was Picasso just Stein’s idol?


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9 Responses to “If I Told Him”

  1. Mika Katz says:

    When I initially read the poem I was truly at a loss of words. I felt confused, and quite honestly have never come across anything even remotely similar to that poem. I found myself struggling to pronounce words due to the excessive repetition in the poem. I think it’s pretty amazing that Gertrude Stein broke the rules in this way. This poem is as far away from traditional grammar syntax as one can get. I think that Stein intentionally meant for the poem not to make much sense. Some aspect of her relationship with Picasso may have been something that she wanted to remain completely ambiguous. I also noted that the pronunciation of the words is extremely important. The sounds themselves have more meaning than the literal meaning of the words, which seem to be random and meaningless. She was very clever with her words, although they seem to make absolutely no sense at all. The majority of the poem seems to be made out in a stutter, or a mixed combination of words without a pause. This could have meant that Stein was nervous because she idolized Picasso.

  2. Steven says:

    As with everyone else who read this poem, the repetition confused me and left me dumbfounded about the meaning she was trying to express. I like the four words that Marc has pointed out “Napoleon, King, First, and He.” These few words amongst all the others i think help bring out the point Marc was making, Stein is comparing Picasso to Napoleon. I think the he is Picasso and Stein praises him by comparing him to a king and claiming that he is the first of his kind. Another couple of words i would point out is the last line “History teaches.” I think this is also a statement to Picasso’s greatness and maybe even her own. They are making history with what they are doing and as we look back on it now, it teaches us that we don’t always have to stay to the tradition and ‘normal’ way of doing things. They teach us that it is good to break the pattern.

  3. Repetition is always used purposely. Proofreading is used to eliminate repetition as it can often sound childish to a certain extent. In reading this poem it is clear that the repetition is there for a very specific reason. Unfortunately after grappling with the repetition for some time I was unable to come up with anything because, as you said, it doesn’t seem to make any sense and the emphasized words are not anything special. I do like your thought that perhaps the repetition shows a a form of nervous excitement. This repetition of the seemingly unimportant words is characteristic of an excited nervousness where a person has trouble getting words out and is stammering along similar to the sense one feels in this poem.

  4. Debra Zarny says:

    The excessive repetition in this poem definitely worried me a bit when I first read it. I was really having a difficult time trying to make sense of it, as I have never seen something like that in poetry before. When I read the second line with the repeating “Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it” (2), I immediately thought of the tongue twister- “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.” When first heard, without seeing the spelling of the words, it is almost as if the same word is being repeated, leaving the line with little meaning. The next few lines that ask if Napoleon would like “it,” whatever that may be, also has a sing-song type of beat, just like the famous tongue twister of selling sea shells by the sea shore. It is possible that the repetition emphasizes the parts of the poem that Stein feels are most important, or could also simply indicate that she is debating/is nervous of what Napoleon would think of whatever she has to present to him.

  5. Max Richter says:

    After reading “If I Told Him” the first time, I wasn’t really sure what was meant with all the repetition. It just seemed extremely irritating and eventually after trying to figure out what each line actually said, gave me a massive headache. Marc brings a great point about how the repetition can be seen as nervousness from Stein which can answer the second question as well. The first line of the poem is “If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.” (1) This already shows the approval that Stein wants get from Picasso immediately from the first line. This shows that Stein certainly praises Picasso in a sense. Marc had a cool way of connecting the poem with cubism, but right now, I don’t exactly understand the poem at all. Hopefully soon the poem won’t look like mindless repetition, but a legitimate work of literature.

  6. My first initial reaction to “If I Told Him” was confusion. Reading it out loud, I had to re-read to make sure, I wasn’t the one messing up. At first thought, the use of repetition seems to be the speaker’s train of thought. As if the speaker is debating whether or not to tell the “he” of the poem. However, the line “Now actively repeat at all” suggests the speaker is trying to convince themselves of all of the previous thoughts. The very last line “Let me recite what history teaches” suggests that the poem is repetitive because history is repetitive. Steins admiration of cubism could also be the reason behind the repetition and awkward phrasings. Cubism breaks objects down into small geometric shapes and then uses those shapes to create a larger image. Similarly, Stein’s speaker breaks down his/her thoughts in to awkward fragments that create a larger story. As to the relationship between Stein and Picasso, it’s a bit hard to decipher. Clearly Stein is heavily questioning her actions before she comments, therefore whatever she must tell him is important and could change things. I enjoy Marc’s interpretation of Cubism and Steins writing. He says “At first glance, the poem looks like a mess; without any meaning. However with analysis one can see the meaning that underlies the apparent mess; just like cubism.” This is the type of poem that would need multiple readings and careful analysis to get at a possible interpretation.

  7. It seems to me that the relationship between Picasso and Stein was more of an idol relationship rather than a mutual friendship. I agree with Marc’s statement that one of the reasons for all the repetition could be that Stein was nervous and lacked confidence; it is almost as if her fear and nervousness caused her to stutter. Additionally, when she writes about “exact resemblance” and “actively repeat,” it sounds as if she’s trying to mimic Picasso, to copy and repeat what he’s doing. She wants to do exactly what he does because she idolizes him and his actions, and therefore wants them for herself.

  8. Bella Rubin says:

    Marc starts his response by telling us what the first thing that stood out to him was “The first aspect of this poem that obviously stood out to me was the speaker’s use of repetition.” The repetition is clear to anyone who reads the poem. At first I thought this tong twister- like poem sounds like Stein was trying to write like a person with a stutter. To answer Marcs first question I think stein uses repetition so much in order to paint a picture. Just like Picasso made actual art, Stein tried mimicking art in her literature. When I read the poem it sounds like the speaker is painting, stroking back and forth with the repetition.

  9. I took the repetition as more of a visceral reaction to Picasso’s art, rather than a trepidation to be in his presence. Picasso seems like a peer of Stein’s, and being that she was a “self-proclaimed genius” (biography in the readings), I do not picture her as the “fan-girl” type who gets easily frazzled by a talented artist. I think it has more to do with the art, and what the art Picasso created represents. The repetition, that almost sounds like a nervous tick or a stutter is the deconstruction of her rationale, of her personal and (perhaps as implied by the use “Napoleon”) societal conventions. It is grammatically incorrect because his art is beyond grammatical rules. I think that you are right, it is to give the poem a certain unique sound, and that the sound may hold (one of the) hidden meanings. The poems’s repetition of the “exact resembling” , the hard “ex” and “t” with the soft sounds of the word “resembling’ expresses a feeling of immediacy and intensity, as if the individual will explode. This is what the art makes her feel. I also think that there is a significance of starting the poem with the word “Now” and ending it with the words “History Teaches”. Almost seems that the poem is going back in time or that Picasso’s piece can transcend time. There are a lot of hidden messages, but I think that you are right about the sound being extremely important.

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