I paid little attention to my cinema studies. The course had been put together, logically, for the French. The use of a French built camera we would never use again, French editing equipment we would never handle, and laboratories with indecipherable developing fluids.
The course including screenings of the great films the French had made during the Occupation—but they hadn’t gotten around to sub-titles. We misunderstood Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, and didn’t get a coherent sentence of Jean Gabin’s performance in Quai des Brumes — “I think that means Pier of Shadows,” someone said. Our translators would shout lines of explanation above the dialog, but their English was often so heavily accented that it added to the confusion.
I had been designated the writer of a film which would have neither dialog nor sound. It was to be called The Sergeant Sees the City, translated as Le Sergent Voit Une Ville. Someone had persuaded Gertrude Stein to sit for our cameras and be seen.
In 1943 when I left Madison, Wisconsin for the Army, I left some wonderful professors. Helen C. White was my undergraduate composition teacher. She was one of the first women to head a large English department in a major university.
I knew nothing about her background, but a course she gave in contemporary poetry became useful to me in combat. What Professor White taught me was that speed-reading might be a way through a history course, but it was no way to read good verse. She suggested I memorize parts of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I did. She asked me to read A.E. Houseman aloud to understand the rhythms of Greek poetry. (The rhythms of rap are derived from Sophocles and Aeschylus.) So I memorized most of A Shropshire Lad. Unfashionable, but unforgettable.
She later wrote that among her students she admired the poems I wrote, and those of my classmate, Harold Moss who later became the poetry editor of The New Yorker.
Between the two wars the greatest influence on me was probably Ernest Hemingway. His excessive masculinity seemingly affronted Professor White, but she convinced me his short stories were far better than his novels. She made a comment, curious at the time, “He writes tersely, but he is difficult to read aloud.”
One of the sights of Paris was Gertrude Stein’s rue Christine apartment.
We set up lights, ran cables to a noisy generator, and loaded two cameras. She sat below the famous portrait Picasso had done for her.
Side note: I later did a film for PBS on the artist and I learned he had painted her stone face from archaic Iberian sculpture. Her hands were squarely on her knees, copied from Ingres’ portrait of a successful and fully dressed banker – seated on his toilet. Picasso caught her aggressiveness in 1907. As a college girl she was a boxer who hired a male welterweight with whom she sparred.)
At the time she said, “I don’t look like that.”
Picasso answered, “You will.”
In 1945, a year before she died, the small woman seated below the big portrait was pleased by the attention, but bewildered by the crew and the equipment.
She asked, “Who is the writer?”
I was pushed forward. She scared me.
“What have you written?”
“Why, with all the terrible things you did and saw, would you use so constricting a form?” I think that’s what she said.
During combat there hadn’t been anything to write on except the toilet paper I carried inside my helmet liner. I had found I could memorize one hundred and forty syllables in my head, so I composed sonnets until I could write them down. That’s what I told her.
“Very good”. That’s what Gertrude Stein said to me. I remember her words very clearly. “Very good.”
When the crew had finished, she asked me to come back the next day and talk about writing. She wanted to talk about her writing, not mine. I knew she and Ernest Hemingway had been friends, and then enemies, so I did not want to talk about my prose style.
But she brought him up. “Hemingway may be succinct, but you can’t read him aloud.”
For her there were two kinds of writing: words for the eye, words for the ear. “A rose is a rose is a rose” when read for the eye is not much. But read aloud with any emphatic feeling–sadness, or joy–a rose is a rose is a rose– can be a very simple declaration of an emotion. Incantation is the beginning of poetry.
I think—(it has been so many years)—she was then defending her essay “Narration”. Read for the eye, it is a jumble. Read aloud for the ear it makes good sense. She read to me for some ten minutes, I think.
But what I recollect clearly:
“I like your poem very much,” Miss Stein said to me
She even recited the first two lines from memory:
Cannoneer, rifleman, mortarman dead
What are the thoughts you retain in your head?
“Very good” she said again.
Then her companion, Alice Toklas entered with coffee. As others have reported, Alice didn’t like men around the house. It was awkward, and I left. We were two generations, far apart. I was anxious to get back to bed with Tina, but I went back to the brothel-cum-barracks and read everything aloud. I made changes.
I wrote a sonnet about being bored in Paris:
In the morning, in the morning,
When the whores are off the streets.
From the window I am watching
Drudges changing last night’s sheets.
We have talked of brave tomorrows,
Crosby leading to the Host,
Ellington for true love’s sorrows,
While we’ve smeared the buttered toast
Before our breakfast—make the choice—
Society demands our voice.
Let us spin the five franc coin
To see which dogma we shall join:
Heads is Marx and tails is Freud,
The milled edge is the Hebrew’s void.
I wrote no more poetry. The sonnets I had tucked away in my helmet liner were typed when I had the boring job of being in charge of quarters of a hotel that had mirrors on the ceilings over the beds.
Sometime in the middle of my Paris stay I woke up in the hospital, Hôtel-Dieu de Paris. I was told I had not been myself for a week, and had been put on sedatives. It was a case of what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder, then called battle fatigue. I was asked if I felt any pain. My right side ached. Someone I never saw diagnosed me with pleurisy and dismissed me. Maybe the clerk was kind. Psychological disorders were a sign of weakness and it might look bad on my service record.
For many years afterwards I tried to remember every place I had slept in Europe. First the tents in Normandy, then the bedrolls in an abandoned kitchen in Prummern, then the foxholes in Germany, the garage in Marche Belgium … but as the years passed I could no longer remember.
I know my mind is scarred, but the bleeding has long stopped.
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/47.106, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=705156