Date: Sun, 17 Oct 1999 11:13:49 -0400 (EDT)



Below I respond to Tovah and Sara and then offer an interpretation of
"What Do I See" in relation to the modernist revolt against portraiture
and in relation to the feminist potential of this revolt. Sara's comment
takes us a long way toward such a conclusion.

Okay, first, I responded to Tovah with this:

| > Tovah: Thanks. I do think this gets us somewhere. Let me put
| > my question another way:
| > 
| >         Does this poem have anything to do with
| >         Williams's "Portrait of a Lady"?

Sara then wrote:
| I think Stein is saying the exact same thing William's says in his
| poem.  
| However, Stein almost seems to be ridiculing those poets who have tried
| to generalize an object, while Williams only shows how impossible it is
| to paint a true portrait with words.
| I think Stein is saying--"A nice wife is like that??" "What?? Your(other
| poets) representations of a nice wife are as pathetic as my using the
| word "that"...It is impossible!"
| This is probably way off, just a shot in the dark...

Al now adds the following:

No, Sara, not a shot in the dark; good, very helpful. Williams knows he
will fail in making the portrait, though he tries earnestly and only
slight mocks himself and/or the idea of the portrait. Stein makes the
whole enterprise an irony. 

At one point in his attempt to make a portrait, WCW tries this simile:

		Your knees
	are a southern breeze--or
	a gust of snow.

But then immediately he realizes how wrong and off this is: "Agh!" he
says, temporarily abandoning the effort.

Stein offers examples of what she does see. The examples are (seemingly)
random. "I am attempting a portrait," she says in effect, "but I know that
I don't want a portrait. So I try a little snail. No. A turkey. No. A band
of sheep. No. Well, this really *is* a portrait of the nice wife. They are
all like *that*."

"That" of course, as Joan and others have said, is ironic. But then we
think further: the examples of what she does see have in common smallness,
slightness, little-ness. Nice wives are like *that*. Now let's hear them
roar! Can you hear them? You can't? Hmmm. I wonder what's wrong with
describing the wife now.

This is a feminist poem, if interpreted in such a way. I would say that
there's something implicitly feminist about the anti-portraiture attitude
in modernist poetry. This is even the case with Williams's refusal to do
the standard portrait of a lady. The self-consciousness about saying
outright what you do see tends to resist the

			easy objectification

of traditional poetry. (And one of the most frequently used motifs in
traditional lyric poetry is indeed the poem about the "nice wife" or
lady. The object of desire.)


navigate 88v: schedule | key | home | PAPERs | | m a i l the s t a f f