Articles - April 2011
When discussing poetry in the year 1960, there’s perhaps no volume more important than Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.  However, I’d like to argue that there’s another anthology that, in terms of both prescience and precedent, sketches out a blueprint for Allen’s collection and in some ways even supersedes his achievement. Nearly forgotten half a century later, A New Folder and its editor, Daisy Aldan, are certainly deserving of a greater critical recognition. 
A child star of the CBS radio program, Let’s Pretend, Aldan was first published in the pages of Poetry by age twelve. After taking degrees at Hunter College and Brooklyn College, she spent thirty-five years teaching at New York’s School of Industrial Art, where her students included Art Spiegelman, Tony Bennett, Calvin Klein and Harvey Fierstein, as well as Warhol associates Gerard Malanga and Jackie Curtis. She cofounded the Tiber Press and the journal Folder with Richard Miller, releasing four issues between 1953 and 1956, then resurrected the title herself in 1959 with A New Folder, first published in a small hardcover edition, which was followed in 1960 by a paperback version. Given that much of the work originated in the subculture of little magazines, this format, which more closely mimics the portable aesthetics of those journals, seems ideal.
Allen sought to answer manifesto with manifesto, countering the “cooked” traditionalism of New Poets of England and America (1957) with a volume that dressed itself in the raiments of canonicity (including bibliographies and statements of poetics). However, Alden’s hybrid aims for A New Folder are still quite ambitious — to combine the anthology’s snapshot view of the best and brightest of contemporary American poetry with the journal’s diverse, risk-taking scope and more modest selections (most poets are represented by a single work) — and it bears repeating that she accomplished all of this before The New American Poetry was published.
Containing approximately the same number of poets, A New Folder and The New American Poetry have sixteen authors in common, representing one-third of their respective rosters — an all-star lineup consisting of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Edward Field, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, Paul Blackburn, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Larry Eigner, Madeline Gleason, Michael McClure and Philip Whalen. The selections Allen would make for both the Beats and New York School are almost identical, and many of the major Black Mountain poets are present as well, along with interesting outliers like Wallace Fowlie (who contributes a foreword), Aldan’s close friend Anaïs Nin, Kenward Elmslie, Harold Norse, James Broughton, M.C. Richards, Gerrit Lansing and formalist poets Richard Eberhart and James Merrill. Taken together, what we have is a wide-ranging chronicle of New York’s burgeoning cross-cultural scene, which works against Allen’s useful yet problematically reductive aesthetic/geographic subdivisions.
In and of itself, A New Folder’s literary content is enough to make it a notable anthology, however, the volume also contains work from a staggering array of more than thirty artists including Larry Rivers (who also contributed a poem), Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, Willem De Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Michael Goldberg, Robert DeNiro and Charles Henri Ford. In his preface to The New American Poetry, Allen observes that his poets are “closely allied to modern jazz and abstract expressionist painting,” and while the spontaneous bop prosody contained therein might ably represent swinging rhythms and action painting, the real thing is conspicuously absent.  Aldan’s black and white photoreproductions do an admirable job of conveying this vital aesthetic energy, and Library of Congress records show that she recorded a number of New Folder readings and discussions, perhaps suggesting that she intended to add yet another dimension to the volume. It’s worth noting that Alfred Leslie’s “one-shot review,” The Hasty Papers (also published in 1960) achieves a similarly effective mix of writing and visuals. However, it’s almost entirely a male affair, and this is the last, perhaps most obvious way in which A New Folder differs from its contemporaries.
While many “feminine marvelous and tough” voices could be found in The New American Poetry, there were, of course, only four women among forty-four poets in the anthology: Guest, Gleason, Levertov and Helen Adam. Guided by the eye of an experienced female editor, it’s not surprising that nearly one-third of A New Folder’s poets are women, and the same percentage holds true for its artists. Such opportunities seem unprecedented in the late fifties and early sixties: writers like Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones have retrospectively documented the limited venues for creative expression open to women during this time, and even outside the literary counterculture, misogynistic norms held sway (New Poets of England and America, for example, contains just as few women as Allen’s anthology).
In The New American Poetry’s bibliography, Aldan’s work with both Folder and A New Folder is given prominent placement, and in the intervening decades many of her selections have proven to be leading figures in twentieth century American culture. However, Aldan herself has tragically slipped into obscurity. She’s missing entirely or given glancing mention in important critical histories of the period such as David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde (1999), Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome (2003) and Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips’ A Secret Location on the Lower East Side (1998), receiving the most notice in Reva Wolf’s Andy Warhol, Poetry and Gossip in the 1960s (1997), largely due to having been Malanga’s high school English teacher. Even among as well-informed an audience as those attending our Kelly Writers House symposium on poetry in 1960, there were only three or four people who claimed familiarity with Aldan or A New Folder. However, it’s heartening that in this era of electronic memory — and through events such as the one this commentary was initially conceived for — she might finally be given the recognition that she deserves.
 The New American Poetry: 1945–1960, ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, 1960).
 A New Folder: Americans: Poems and Drawings, ed. Daisy Aldan (New York: Folder Editions, 1959).
 The New American Poetry: 1945–1960, xi.
Pick up a book any book cut it up
slice down the middle dice into sections
piece together a masterpiece a week
use better materials more highly charged words
there is no longer a need to drum up a season of
the writing machine is for everybody
This idea both precedes and inspired my own notion of “uncreative writing” by nearly half a century. Gysin’s notion of anti-genius still remains the most radical part of his statement, yet even he can't dispose of that idea entirely, still insisting on the value of creating a masterpiece. It’s hard to completely debunk our notion of genius. Even Pierre Menard, that great copyist, was an original genius albeit a one with tragically bad timing. Marjorie Perloff’s recent notion of “unoriginal genius” also holds that genius is still very much in play, it’s just an inverted notion of what we generally consider to be genius that is new.
Can we really kill genius, the masterpiece, creativity and originality? In the twentieth century, any number of great artists tried to kill genius — Duchamp, Warhol, Cage, Mac Low — yet all did it in the most exquisitely personal way, killing it with the best of taste. A Mac Low poem, for example, is not bereft of personal choices — it’s just the opposite. His “writing machine” is imprinted with the way he chose to construct it (the set of rules that determine the poem’s outcome) as are the source texts that he selected to dump into that machine. The resultant product, although determined by chance, is entirely Mac Lowian and could not have been done by anyone else.
Gysin couldn’t escape this either. Another section of Minutes to Go reads:
all words are taped agents everywhere
marking down the live ones to exterminate
Although the sources are unnamed (Gysin claims that they are from a variety of places, some found, some original), the vocabulary is immediately recognizable to anyone vaguely familiar works with produced in the Beat Hotel: “All words are taped” refers to the source material for recorded cut-ups; “agents everywhere” is taken from Gysin’s “Recalling All Active Agents,” (1960) a permutational sound work dealing with Cold War police states; and “to exterminate” appears throughout the writings of William S. Burroughs’s oeuvre, referring to both his own early stint as an insect exterminator as well as to nefarious criminal activities. Although Gysin advocates impersonal work, this is in fact a “classic,” a signature work of the period.
Yet I’m guilty of the same problem. While I trumpet my work’s “valuelessness,” its “nutritionlessness,” its lack of creativity and originality, clearly the opposite is true. There may, in fact, be a lot of truth when my detractors claim that I’m not that radical, that my name is still on these objects, and all the machinic and “impersonal” decisions I make in my works are in the service of upholding notions of my own genius. For an egoless project, there sure is a lot of investment in me here, leading Ron Silliman to acutely comment, “Kenny Goldsmith’s actual art project is the projection of Kenny Goldsmith.”
Perhaps it’s best to heed to words of Christian Bök, that constraint-based and performative genius, who proposes bypassing the human quotient entirely, claiming that “If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.”  And yet there will still be some human programming those machines, resulting in the crown of genius being rewarded not to the best poet or the best machine, but to the best programmer, leading us back again to our (un)original quandary.
 Christian Bök, “The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics,” Object 10: Cyberpoetics (2002).
Mac Low as a shadow beatnik
For years I heard about Stanzas for Iris Lezak and read excerpts from it in Representative Works: 1938–1985 and Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, though never held a copy until recently.  When I did, I made a surprising discovery: the great extent to which Jackson Mac Low’s work at this juncture joins with the Beat zeitgeist.
Mac Low’s “systematic-chance” poems, known for their inventiveness, expose a wide range of human values, interests, struggles, observations, desires, and joys — even if they are mechanistically derived. Catching my attention in Stanzas for Iris Lezak was something humorous, not on the surface and not so much funny as revelatory about how the author connected with broader literary movements. A nominal connection, association, or appreciation for the Beats is not disguised by Mac Low. Poems titled, “A 2-Part Poem for Ginsberg & Burroughs from Burroughs’ Letter to Ginsberg” and “Asymmetry from Ginsberg’s KADDISH—22 Sept. 1960,” are among those that appear in the book. 
Beyond containing many poems referencing narcotics (i.e., “The Mind and Marihuana”), Stanzas for Iris Lezak’s camaraderie with the subcultural framework of the Beats also appears in its portrayal of hedonistic sexuality. A poem strongly representing this take on the material is Section I of “6 Gitanjali for Iris”:
Gain is rainy life
The Here end
Gain rainy end again the end see the
Feet. Utter. Cry know
The outside when Now,
(18 seconds of silence)
Life outside void end
Feet. Utter. Cry know
Gain is rainy life. 
The amusing and weird part, providing connective tissue to the Beats (beyond perhaps echoing Michael McClure), is not in the lines of the poem, which appear as sweet and expansive cut-up and/or slotted texts. Discovered in the “seed” text used to generate them — which “An Afterword on the Methods Used in Composing & Performing Stanzas for Iris Lezak” reports are taken from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Gitanjali” — are, however, these “exultant sentences”: “My girl’s the greatest fuck in town. I love to fuck my girl.”  Mac Low reads through Tagore’s book, selecting words conforming to the pattern designated by the seed phrases (e.g. first letters of the lines “My you / Gain is rainy life” spell “My Girl”). What Mac Low does with his corporeal impulse, expressed in a code a reader might or might not see, differs from the blatant sexuality found in Beat works. However, Mac Low significantly chooses to divulge this textual fact at the outset of his Afterword — so he clearly wants to let readers know it’s there! [Photo at left by Rachel Homer, used with her permission.]
Stanzas for Iris Lezak also connects with the Beats by overt emphasis — by reference and process — on Eastern religion; it is peppered with Zen à la Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, as in “Haiku (3 Oct. 1960)”:
Ripples in a pool
passions thoughts sensations lives
in serenity. 
Many poems reference Eastern iconography and inclination; one titled “Rinzai on the Self, or ‘The One who is, at this moment, right in front of us, illuminatingly, in full awareness, listening to this talk on the Dharma,” being a particularly prime example. Mac Low’s methods involve use of “auxiliary means” such as dice, playing cards, numbers, and the I Ching.  These algorithmic inventions serve to decentralize a subjective self from the poem — although because it is a poem, made with decisive content from human input, self-importance remains at the fringes. Mac Low revealingly writes, “the most ‘personal’ aspect of the Stanzas […] is the variety of source text.”  Because these are poems, published in a book, we cannot consider Mac Low’s efforts as a rejection of materialism (although its methods of materialization do not follow common convention), but rather as processed re-materialism that finds ways for one set of words to say more than one thing, confirming that multidimensionality exists within a single set of resources. In the early sixties, Mac Low’s identity was normally associated with Fluxus rather than with his bawdy beatnik contemporaries becoming well-known at the time; however, both influences are there. Mac Low references Keats in the title of Thing of Beauty; we know Mac Low and the Beats drew from the Romantics, connecting themselves to all of it, filtering multitudes unafraid to disclose liberated glory!
I title this paper “Mac Low as a Shadow Beatnik” to commemorate the observation, and have applied Mac Low’s expansion method to the book using the “seed” “Mac Low as beatnik.” Linear reading of the whole brought waves of themes — touching and reading every page and word, holding transcribing staccato blasts of constrained concept. Any reader sees how Jackson blends native with foreign, but who else becomes aware of how many pages can pass without having a word beginning with “w”? Like Emmett Williams’ IBM poems or Hugh Kenner’s Travesty, participating like this is instructive regarding language, authorial range, how limited speech is not always limited, and how cycles and patterns build force. Here are results of reading through the poetry until page sixty — seven lines made by a chance melding on the bridge between Modern and Postmodern, instructive to a culture around it:
Maharishi always concerning little of written are same beyond each added teachings no in known
Man’s actual conditioned literally on way a sangsaric but existence and true not is karmic
Mental are conceivable like of wills and such believes essentially and to nationally
Matter adopted carefulness less orient which as set before east age this no is kind-hearted Moderate affectionate catch letter only widow attractive single business ex-Navy
adventure the N.Y.C. interesting kind
Mercenary American character love one who a sense background employed attractive
travelled nice if know
Marrying away calm lady over who actor seemed being else’s at nothing in kindness
My asshole clitoris little one while Augustin since begin Eugénie’s a those kid.
 Jackson Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak (Millerton: Something Else Press, 1972); Jackson Mac Low, Representative Works: 1938–1985 (New York: Roof Books, 1986); Jackson Mac Low, Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, ed. Anne Tardos (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
 Daniel Kane, All Poets Welcome: the Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 30; Allen Ginsberg, “Foreword,” in Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project 1966–1991, ed. Anne Waldman (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1991), xxv. Mac Low’s intimate association and involvement with the poetry scene in New York in the 1960s is reported in Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome — which includes excerpts from an unpublished essay by Mac Low titled, “The New York Coffeehouse Poetry Reading Scene in New York, 1960-1967” — as well as in Ginsberg’s “Foreword” to Out of this World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project 1966-1991.
 Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak, 203.
 Ibid., 400. A description of processes used in Stanzas for Iris Lezak is also offered in Mac Low’s posthumous collection Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, 49–51.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid., 401.
 Mac Low, Stanzas for Iris Lezak, 405.
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, LeRoi Jones’s first book, was composed between 1957 and 1961.  Arranged chronologically, the book feels distinct from the work Jones/Baraka is known for. That work, tho suggested here in isolated snatches, is yet to be written. In this sense the book truly is a “preface.”
And why to a suicide note? That part makes sense only in retrospect: Jones is poised to begin a decades long struggle to kill the white part of his consciousness. A belief common to Black Nationalists of the era was that many who are phenotypically black are ideologically white, therefore divided against themselves. This concept is explored in Jones’s “Poem for HalfWhite College Students” (1969), where he writes “check yourself / learn who it is / speaking [...] who it is you are and is that image black or white.” What begins in Preface as an embrace of open form, an opportunity to dig deep in his own mind and language, will develop, over the coming volumes, into revolutionary praxis. But as yet that struggle is kept at a distance.
Preface’s style is equal parts field poetics, Beat, and NY School.  Jones hasn’t arrived at a style quite yet, but instead presents an amalgam of influences. Though the authors in those movements had shifting perspectives, they often had well-defined approaches, habits, motifs. By contrast, the style of Preface feels uncertain — sometimes abstract lyric, sometimes visceral and incoherent, parodic in one poem, sincere in another. There’s anger, but its object remains unclear. The issue of race lurks, yet feels mostly repressed.
The second poem, “Hymn for Lanie Poo,” is most indicative of what Jones is repressing. In it, radically fragmented voices act out contradictory attitudes towards race and bohemia. The poem seems to critique both bohemians and the black bourgeoisie, but these critiques are equally directed at Jones himself. He lampoons a black man in a café for talking about politics then turning to gawk at a blond woman; Jones is married to a white woman when he writes this poem, and writes in disgust at Black Nationalists who claim this invalidates his right to address racialized oppression. Likewise, the poem labels his sister’s boyfriend a “faggot music teacher / who digs Tschaikovsky”; but Jones, who in this book references Strindberg, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, can’t question the character of a man “who digs Tschaikovsky” without implicating himself.
The poem is less about Jones making a critique, and more about the discourse landscape he finds himself trapped in as a black poet and intellectual. He wants a life in art, not in politics, but politics follows him everywhere. He ends a 1961 letter to Dorn — the letter that accompanies the newly-published Preface, but also recounts his recent arrest in Harlem — with “What is this all about? Who knows? It’s just that I’ve got to do something. I donno. I’m picked. What I wanted (& want) was soft music and good stuffy purity (of intent, of purpose) elegance, even (of the mind). And now I’m fighting in the streets and the cops think I’m dangerous. […] I have people, old men, on Harlem streets come up and shake my hand, or old ladies kiss me, and nod, ‘You are a good man… you will help us.’” 
Even at the end of Preface, which closes with eight poems written after his visit to post-revolutionary Cuba, Jones expresses no desire to move towards a political poetry. These last pieces are not much different from the rest of the book, leaning if anything more towards the lyrical and harmonious. Whereas in earlier poems anger felt submerged, was handled with parody and sarcasm, the anger in these last eight is owned, but oddly integrated into a calm lyric. These poems were written around the same time as “Cuba Libre,” his essay about the trip, and they seem to embrace its final section, where he holds to the primarily cultural rebellion of the Beats — poetry as soul nourishment, not praxis. One poem from this section, “From an Almanac” sees “our time,” as “a cruel one. our soul’s warmth left out.” In “Betancourt,” the one poem written in Cuba, he accepts poetry as something apart from the cruel world, and in a near-echo of Wordsworth writes:
(I mean I think
I know now
turning away . .
us . . .
Looking at the sea. And some
white fast boat.
So the poet of “Betancourt” accepts, regretfully, the poem as a “turning away.” He has had a realization about the difference between poetry and action, a realization we know will change over the coming years. But for now, he will continue his commitment to poetry as such. He will not be a revolutionary. 
In the closing poem of the book, “Notes for a Speech,” the word “speech” suggests a connection to activism, but feels tentative about identifying with the current configurations of the cause. It begins “African blues / does not know me” and ends “my, so called / people. Africa / is a foreign place. You are / as any other sad man here / american.”
 As a way of honoring the original event and its request for 750 words or less, all my serious post-event additions are in these footnotes. The complexity of Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note may be too much for so few words, and though I want to preserve what I presented, I feel concerned that my original text may be oversimplifying its topic, so in a move that would not normally stand in an ordinary academic paper, important parts of the argument are submerged in the footnotes.
 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of Leroi Jones (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984). Open form poetries offered a critical “place of first permission” for writers looking for strategies flexible enough to sustain language unfit for a more repressed, formal, 1950s poetics — what Baraka would later frame as the “lyricaljingles” of The New Yorker. Baraka, by his account in the Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1984), first discovered poetic comrades in the scenes that would later be represented (however inadequately) in The New American Poetry. After a period of deep alienation where what he knew of contemporary poetry was mostly what appeared in The New Yorker, his discovery of poets like O’Hara, Ginsberg, and Olson gave him his first sense of possibility. In one of the most cited passages of Autobiography, he talks about a turning point in his early relationship to poetry. While stationed in San Juan in the Air Force, sitting on a bench in a park where black people weren’t allowed unless dressed in US military uniform, he was reading the poetry in the current New Yorker. Those “jingling rhymes” and “verse […] of lawns and trees and dew and birds,” he recounts, made him cry, sob “like it was the end of the world” because just as he was getting excited about poetry, this verse made him realize he was “so out.” He explains, “I was crying because I realized I could never write like that writer […] that what was in me that wanted to come out as poetry would never come out like that and be my poetry” (118). Later sections of Autobiography indicate that the poetic context leading up to The New American Poetry offered the first set of strategies Jones felt connection with (225). Whatever personal and very real shortcomings progenitors of NAP had, the writing strategies, the work, was attractive to Jones, who regularly aligned himself with those projects in the pages of his magazine, Floating Bear, edited with Diane DiPrima. A question arose at the Kelly Writers House Q&A about whether any of the presenters were nostalgic for 1960. My answer would have to be no. The socio-political context of 1960 would not allow Jones to continue seeking what he sought — a life committed to aesthetic exploration in language. Jones wanted a life more like Duncan’s at that moment, but the struggle heating up in Harlem forced his engagement with politics. Reading both Autobiography and his correspondence with Edward Dorn, one cannot avoid the fact that Jones’ turn toward revolutionary politics was long and extraordinarily painful.
 Claudia Moreno-Pisano, “Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters” (PhD diss., City University of New York-Graduate Center, 2010). I am grateful to my colleague at CUNY-LaGuardia Community College, Claudia Moreno-Pisano, whose recently completed dissertation is an (as yet unpublished) edition of the Jones-Dorn correspondence. Reading this correspondence has deepened my sense of Preface, and of Jones/Baraka’s early writing and political transformation.
 In “Cuba Libre,” he notes that approaching the Cuba trip, he was determined “not to be ‘taken.’” He tells the story here of meeting Rubi Betancourt, a Mexican delegate from the Latin-American Youth Congress, who he says harangued him for hours about the evils of the U.S. government and what an outrage it was that he didn’t write political poetry. He says he found himself growing more and more defensive, and excused his lack of activism on the grounds of being a poet: “Look, why jump on me? I understand what you're saying. I'm in complete agreement with you. I'm a poet . . . what can I do? I write, that's all, I'm not even interested in politics.” Betancourt attacked this position, as did a group of Latin-American poets a few days later, asking him: “You want to cultivate your soul? In that ugliness you live in, you want to cultivate your soul?” He notes in Autobiography his position on this trip as the “oddball, weary traveler/tourist from the U.S. of A.” and the surprise of finding himself defending his decision to define himself primarily as an artist. He returned from Cuba changed on this count, and though still frustrated and ambivalent about the emerging Black Nationalist movement, recounts that “arguments with my old poet comrades increased and intensified” (245–7). In this light, it is also interesting to note that in the letter to Dorn accompanying the delivery of Preface, fifteen months after the Cuba trip, Jones writes for the first time in their correspondence about politics. He had only recently begun to get involved in protests in Harlem, and writes about the current state of the Black Nationalist leadership: “I am, literally, the only person around who can set them straight. I mean straight… not only as to what their struggle is about, but what form it ought to take! I meet these shabby headed “black nationalists” or quasi-intellectual opportunities, who have never read a fucking book that was worth anything in their damned lives […] and shudder that any kind of movement, or feeling shd come down to the “people” thru their fingers” (Moreno-Pisano 81). Thinking of the last eight poems of Preface being written over the period beginning with the Cuba trip and ending shortly before this letter, one can see what a conflicted process was his coming to politics, and how resistant, frustrated, and ambivalent he was about it, how almost forced into it he felt. These poems are not yet at the level of praxis, but stand as evidence of working out a relationship between conflicted parts of a self. Where Olson, for example, is constructing a self in poetry — this will be who I have been — Jones/Baraka starts out already at an irretrievable distance from a coherent self. This book is the best evidence of that struggle unresolved.
Gertrude Stein's subjects, objects, and the illegible
In the summer of 1912, while vacationing in Spain, Gertrude Stein began to write short prose poems on discrete objects and little events (shopping, eating, talking) that comprised ordinary daily living. Generating poems from such mundane experience was not on its own anything too radical, but Stein paired such ordinary objects and experiences with an extraordinary new grammar.
Stein had earlier experimented in The Making of Americans with conveying normal life with non-normative poetics, but in this new writing the banal objects appeared to atomize or discombobulate while the grammar was split apart at the seams. Stein collected this work and published it as Tender Buttons in 1914, and from its first appearance up to today, no one has settled how this book should be read. What kind of book is it that people still read it after one hundred years and yet still question the meaning of the book and how to read it?
Tender Buttons is enigmatic on its own, but to add to its legend, few readers know that the manuscript was untitled until the final few weeks before publication, that Stein almost did not have the book reach publication at all, and that she would not publish another book until eight years later. A brief history of the publication of Tender Buttons can provide insight into Stein’s focus on composition, and offer some new directions for reading it.
Stein was first contacted by Claire Marie Editions to publish a recent work of hers on 18 February 1914. The letter opened with an offer: “I should very much like to publish in volume form the plays of yours that Mrs. [Mabel] Dodge has told me about. Will you let me do it?” Stein might have indeed published her plays before Tender Buttons, thus becoming first publicly known as an avant-garde playwright rather than as a poet, but friends persuaded her that the plays should be performed before being printed. Claire Marie’s letter came on business letterhead and appeared to Stein to be an up-and-coming press of some import. “My public is also the most civilized in this country,” the publisher boasted.
This was a bluff, and the publisher had no public notoriety; in fact, it was a vanity press run by Donald Evans, a New York–based literary hopeful and socialite. The press was named after the little-known actress Claire Marie Burke, who had no relation to the publishing venture. Evans had published only a few friends and his own melodramatic and not very modern poetry up to that point. Stein was under the impression during the whole publication process that she was corresponding with a woman. Recalling the letters in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes, “We took it for granted that there was a Claire Marie but evidently there was not.”
Evans had befriended Carl Van Vechten in New York City, who suggested to Evans that he publish something by Stein, perhaps her first plays. Upon Evans’s first inquiry, Stein instead sent a work in three sections, very similar in tri-part structure to her only other published book, Three Lives (in the Autobiography, Stein credits Evans for the idea to publish “three manuscripts to make a small book” [Writings, 814]). The three works Stein sent were published by Evans, beginning with “Objects,” then “Food” and “Rooms” — and the order has never changed since, even though there is enough archival evidence that “Objects” was almost certainly the last section written and never intended by Stein to be the first in order. In the bound volumes that Toklas later typed up to record Stein’s work in the event that it was lost, she begins with “Rooms.” In Stein’s cahier manuscript notebook, “Food” carries the subtitle “Studies in Description” and is the only section for which Stein compiled a table of contents (included in the published edition), suggesting an earlier intention to list the titles of the prose poems up front. All evidence points to Evans as the one who put “Objects” first, and Stein did not complain or demand any different ordering of the sections in any future reprint. For a writer who stressed exactitude and faithful reproduction of her work, this rather significant editorial contribution made an impact that Stein might not have foreseen, as it turned “Objects” into the center of attention and effectively made the other sections into secondary works.
Stein received a letter dated 18 March 1914, notifying her of the intent to publish her book along with a book contract containing financial details. This was to be the first book Stein would publish that she did not pay for herself, and it was also the first time Stein had an opportunity to participate in any detail in book design. By Stein’s choice, the book had little in the way of design at all. In the March letter, Evans writes, “There will be no illustrations or tail or head piece or introduction or dedication, as you ask” (YCAL). Tender Buttons is very visual, the poems full of colors and synesthesia, so it is curious that Stein wanted no adornment and no preface — something she often courted in her other publications. The lack of directive in visual design from Stein could have been a strategic way to dissociate herself from cubism, the main artistic movement her readers were already placing her into. Stein wanted Mabel Dodge to correct the proofs, but Evans insisted in response that he was in a rush to bring the book out by June for summer readers and stated, “you may feel assured that not a single error will creep into the volume.” This is also curious, because the book contract lists the book title as “Objects-Foods-Rooms” and, beside the issue of the order of the sections being changed, Stein never wrote “Foods” in the plural. If there was an error in the title, how could Stein trust the integrity of the rest of the text?
In the same letter, Evans asks Stein, “You have not provided a general title for the book. What do you wish to do in that regard?” Without this prodding, Stein would likely have kept to the titles of the three sections, as she had often gravitated toward factual rather than metaphorical titles in previous work (for example, Three Lives; Many Many Women). Stein responds in her letter of 15 April 1914: “Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book. On the title page after the general the three sub titles, Food, Rooms, Objects” (YCAL). Here “Objects” is last and “Food” is first, but again Evans ignores this request. Also, one wonders if Stein’s impression that Claire Marie was a woman played any role in her choice of a title that foregrounds female intimacy. The book came out in May, approximately three months after Evans’s first letter of inquiry. This was quite a quick turnaround, so different than The Making of Americans, which took nearly fifteen years from completion to appear as a book. Evans wrote a short note to Stein on 13 June 1914, saying with glee, “The papers here are simply rabid about the book. It is all very amusing — their stupidity and bewilderment.” Evans relished ruffling the feathers of the staid American literary reviewers but truly published the book as an act of love for Van Vechten, to whom he had begun sending copious love letters by early 1914. Evans fell hard for Van Vechten, offering him gushing love poetry, drinking heavily, pleading to Van Vechten for a book of his to publish, and hardly mentioning the Stein book.
If “Objects” was not written first and not intended to be the first chapter of Tender Buttons, this puts into question the way this book often is taught. It is common pedagogy to state that the first object, the carafe, in which the sentence “The difference is spreading” appears, is meant as the flagship statement for the book when it was never meant to be so. If “Food” is first, the first sentence reads: “In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling” (Writings, 327). If “Rooms” is first, the opening sentence is: “Act so that there is no use in a center” (Writings, 344). Both sentences are about space, movement, and surrounding environs, rather than fixing central focal points. Furthermore, each of these three sentences implicitly argues that no sentence is primary or more titular than any other.
A second common theme in teaching Tender Buttons is to note how the objects and meals and rooms show us the intimate interior of the domestic life of Stein and Toklas. This is certainly a relevant reading, as Toklas’s presence suffuses the work, which is laden with sexual innuendo and the aroma of her cooking (although most of the food was prepared by hired cooks). Yet while the title of the book suggests such intimacy informed the work all along, when we consider that the title was chosen at the last minute it is just as fair to say that Stein envisioned these poems as concentrated “studies in description” with the mindset of a researcher, as much an impersonal figure as a subject of desire. While the private lesbian home and semipublic salon that Stein had begun to build with Toklas are certainly part of the text, the figure of the lesbian pair coexists with the researcher of the curious and uncanny “life of things,” as per Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.”
The Claire Marie 1914 edition, viewable at Open Library.
It turns out that much of the life of objects turns on the commodified, impersonal, indeed nonhuman aspects of things. Objects are repeatedly singled out as precious commodities like nickel, silver, and copper along with the stone malachite — which makes the word “tender” a pun on money but also a verb involving the act of “giving,” “obligation,” and “borrowing” (Stein’s words), evidence of how economy always weaves through intimacy in a depersonalizing way. Many of the goods listed have colonial implications, such as Japanese tea sets, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, and sugar. Objects like feathers, cotton, silk, coal, and all of the food imply global and local marketplaces. The domestic then appears as one node in a larger system of networks, exchanges, and contacts: “all this is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success” (Writings, 316).
For the reader, urged by Stein not to choose a center of purpose to the book, to pick one interpretive framework and foreground it above anything else as the most meaningful, reliable, or insightful would be to arrest the ambulatory movement of the work. Instead of isolating one reading from another, we should be able to lay out multiple readings, spread them before us, following Stein’s declaration that “The difference is spreading” (Writings, 313). I propose then that we make use of the object of the table, both metaphorically and literally as a thing upon which we put meaning.
Tables appear in all three sections of the book. On a table, we can place many readings to see how they look on their own or in juxtaposition. In “Objects,” Stein writes, “A table means necessary places and a revision” (324). “Food” opens with a table of contents, and ends with the last section titled “A centre in a table” (344). A case could be made that all of the foods and objects in these poems find themselves sitting on a table, among other possible locations. Tables play key roles in Stein’s daily living, including providing a material foundation for her writing — she is frequently photographed seated next to one, implying the photograph was taken as she wrote at the table. Activity in Stein’s Paris apartment/salon often coalesced around a large rectangular wooden table for dinner parties, and later the same table would turn into a desk for Stein’s nightly composition. According to Stein, she set objects on the table to prompt her writing: “I used to take objects on a table, like a tumbler or any kind of object and try to get the picture of it clear and separate in my mind and create a word relationship between the word and the things seen.” Such relationships happen on the table according to different ways for which the table is used: a meal, to arrange a still life, a stand for a sculpture, a place for conversation, a place for procrastination (“table it for later”), or a place to reveal something to a public, as in laying cards down on a table. Tables anchor rooms and define spaces by surface and volume. They also define access to spaces, as in getting a seat at the table. Much of early cubism took place on a painted table. Finally, Stein later wrote a play, Objects Lie on a Table (1922), which revisits some themes from Tender Buttons, declaring, “The objects on the table have been equal to the occasion.”
To put meaning on the table means one does not need to reject previous meanings and readings in order to assert another — there is enough room for conflicting or just different interpretations with multiple causes. There is enough room on the table for readings based on representation, be it symbolic or cryptographic, and for writing that goes beyond representational aspects of language. Recent readers have certainly been right to emphasize the female and lesbian world encoded in the poems, and I do not mean to displace these readings, rather only to juxtapose them with others. Certainly many of the food and objects Stein describes have attached phallic, vaginal, or anal symbolism, from “A mounted umbrella” to the petticoat stained with “a rosy charm” (Writings, 322). As Kathryn Kent points out, the title of the book sonically conveys the message “tend her buttons,” and many of the poems playfully allude to sensual domestic pleasures, from eating to sex, in effect recreating Stein and Toklas’s intimate lesbian life on the page. Kent adds that as the poems move back and forth from markets to interiors, public to private, everyday items to fetish objects, abstract to concrete, they “wrestle with the dominant conceptions of what counts as sex and the sexual.” Kent’s readings rely on a form of referential realism — the poems depict Stein’s personal life, even if coded through symbolism and word play.
But we also clear the table too quickly if we assume that representation plays a strictly realist or symbolic role in these poems. Marianne DeKoven is right to declare that referentiality is thoroughly undone: “It seems to me pointless to suppose, for example, that the virtue of Tender Buttons is its clarification of our notions of roast beef or asparagus or purses or cushions, or even to suppose that the virtue of Stein’s portraits lies in any information they give us about Picasso or Matisse or Mabel Dodge.” DeKoven argues that Tender Buttons is composed of presymbolic signifiers, celebrating linguistic play, pleasure, and meditation. Yet if play and pleasure are the experiences of the texts, if not what they are about, referentiality still reasserts itself as we interpret what play could signify (in DeKoven’s reading, it is a rejection of patriarchy).
Stein’s writing will always make and unmake itself available to meaning, something she admitted in the transatlantic interview she did with Robert Haas. “I made innumerable efforts to make words write without sense and found it impossible,” she confesses. “Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.” The referent inevitably guides, misguides, disappears, and reappears — the carafe is never fully present or absent. Every sentence is both doing and undoing, attaching and detaching. Each sentence sensitizes, but sense quickly recedes as the next sentence comes in. Sensation at times lines up with and at times diverges from cognition. As Jayne Walker describes, “One complex of images asserts the fundamental princple of difference — breaking, shattering, division, pieces, remainders. Another invokes a ‘wholeness’ that is based on the mingling of heterogenous elements: collections, mixtures, reunions, stews.” Words scatter at the same time as they gather, and the poem is what emerges in the attempt to convey the movements of these differences. Meaning is just out of reach, and right there on the table. Sometimes the “content” of the referent is just the table of contents.
Another reading that puts meaning on the table is the recognition that there is an irreducible and structural illegibility in Stein’s writing that is immanent to her work. Stein provides her own disclaimer to this effect: “Claiming nothing, not claiming anything, not a claim in everything, collecting claiming, all this makes a harmony, it even makes a succession” (Writings, 330). Writing that is “claiming nothing” claims no meaning and no readability, although this claim itself is readable. Craig Dworkin points to how nonsignifying language can still be interpreted in his Reading the Illegible, where he states, “every text threatens to sacrifice itself in an ecstatic loss of meaning, at the same time that its meaninglessness can always be accounted for (even if only as the meaning of ‘meaninglessness’).” Dworkin points to a “strategic illegibility” in modern poetics that forces the reader to read against the norm. This partially characterizes Stein’s writing, but structural illegibility differs slightly in that it implies a minimal level of indifference to reference (“claiming nothing”). It is not that Stein intends outright nonsense; rather, she writes in a state prior to a determinate distinction between sense and nonsense: “there is some venturing in refusing to believe nonsense” (Writings, 314). In practice, this means Stein writes in a way that is sincere and concentrated on an object or a moment or a person, but is nonjudgmental and nonpossessive about what words appear while in this state of concentration.
This factor of structural illegibility has several implications. While immersed in composition, Stein typically writes without knowing where she will go and when she will finish, and sometimes it is the page length of a notebook that seems to determine when a piece is finished (though she often does some revision). Contrary to The Making of Americans, in Tender Buttons Stein writes without a predetermined theory of total comprehension or absolute knowledge. A minimal amount of illegibility remains unyielding in a writing that recognizes an inherent indeterminacy of cognition and experience. We will never know all of what can happen or how all writing can be written, we can only continue to compose. We can only wade through the continuous present, orienting ourselves by the material or symbolic aspects of words as they appear in a state of writerly concentration. In this manner of word-driven, concentrated indeterminacy, Stein’s writing performs immersion and emergence rather than thematizing these. Tender Buttons features words like “a,” “and,” “of,” or “there is,” words that have meaning only due to their attachments, but that when read on their own do not suffice for coherence. “A question of sudden rises and more time than awfulness is so easy and shady. There is precisely that noise” (Writings, 335).
Opening pages of Gertrude Stein's manuscript for Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale
Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photograph courtesy of the Beinecke Library.
To read Stein, we must put illegibility (“that noise”) on the table along with interpretation. Illegibility is partially structural in that Stein does not allow meaning to settle on one interpretive system, instead continually moving between sound and sense, normative and nonnormative grammar, familiarity and alienation, immersion and exclusion. Things are domestic, humanized, but also at turns recalcitrant, alienated, or lost rather than consumed. Sense is made and unmade; indeed, both predication and nonpredication are forms of truth. It might be more correct to say that Stein writes in a way that is prior to making these binary distinctions. Here is where Stein is perhaps in closest attunement with William James’s philosophy of experience or the “radical empiricism” that aims to provide an account of the world prior to arbitrary and conventional distinctions between subject and object. Normative grammar relies on subject and object distinctions, and to the degree that Stein generates a writing that is prior to this binary, she also reaches for a form of experience prior to normative legibility.
The structural factor of illegibility is also due to the fact that Stein’s writing may not really be for us. The illegible faithfully leaves a minimal margin of otherness intact. It also conveys a refusal to reduce all things to thematization. We may not be the recipient in part because we are not being wholly invited into Stein’s domestic lesbian world, or because we do not know all her inside references, many of them sexual and guarded as private by Stein. In combination with a personal, subjective secrecy, Stein develops the strange expressivity of objects in writing. Illegibility at the level of the signifier thus occurs because Stein gestures to the writing of a nonhuman language, if such a thing is possible. Stein experiments with writing that does not just represent but hypothetically speaks the language of objects or events that are prior to subject/object distinctions. The relation of objects to other objects cannot be reproduced in a human-based subject-verb-object grammar. Thus, if objects themselves could talk, perhaps indeed their speech would sound like the subjectless segments of Tender Buttons.
In a later analysis of her own poems, Stein wrote that “I did express what something was, a little by talking and listening to that thing,” hinting that she was writing as if having a conversation with an object, listening to objects speak. Of course, inanimate objects have no thoughts and no mouths, but this still does not mean that objects have no bearing on matters of concern in the world. Objects have narratives of their own, narratives not dependent on our observations and our language. Objects themselves do not have their own intentions, but this does not mean they are entirely reducible to the realm of human intentions. Bruno Latour has discussed repeatedly how objects need not be recognized as full-fledged subjects but still perform as agents, doing things in the world.
Furthermore, the stories of objects are not necessarily reducible to the normative rules of our language — hence the need for a new language and new form of communication, giving modernist form a particular mandate. That this communication will be at least partially anthropomorphic does not defeat its relevance for representing nonhuman language. The existence of things is defined by activities and conditions such as use, disuse, juxtaposition, being out of reach, contact, breakdown, repetition, etc. These relations, which do not necessarily line up with normative grammatical sentences that require a clear subject-verb-object distinction, are everywhere in Stein’s book. Words can replicate these relations and not appear to make sense, from the viewpoint of standard grammar. But from the viewpoint of things, these relations, written as words, are descriptive fantasies of the world objects exist in. Stein uses so much repetition in part because this is a primary mode of existence of technical objects, especially modern machines. Indeed, there is something inhuman about repetition to begin with — computers will ponder forever the difference between a zero and a one.
The 1990 Sun & Moon Classics edition.
Talking with things in Tender Buttons is also possible because many of Stein’s objects are animate or pass through animate states, as in all the food, many of which once had mouths of their own and will end up in others’ mouths. In “Milk,” Stein writes, “Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging” (Writings, 336). In this clever short poem, every verb can convert into a noun and vice versa, as meaning points in multiple causal directions or “guesses” that are “hanging.” It is possible to read the beginning of this poem as describing someone or something climbing up into an utter. Utter points to the cow (or another lactating animal), as well as mouthing words in speech, an utterance that could still very well be the cow’s. In Stein’s lexicon, cows are also metaphors for female sexual acts, and encode a sensuous moment of domestic lesbian life.
Yet even inanimate things speaking need not be far-fetched — modernist objects as various as newspapers, telephones, gramophones, and dolls emit language shaped partially by their material qualities as things. Here is how Stein describes the world of “A paper,” perhaps understood at first as a newspaper or a notebook: “A courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool” (Writings, 321). The paper does not speak from the first-person subject position, but the paper participates as an active and “courteous” agent while being read, with the words “show” and “occasion” acting as both noun and verb. In this poem, paper ends with “stool,” suggesting the act of reading taking place on a kind of chair or a toilet. If a toilet, perhaps this is the first poem ever written as an ode to toilet paper. Stein often emphasizes politeness and courteous behavior, a politesse applicable to persons and things, even in seemingly vulgar situations. Politeness is her default mode of attention to persons and things in a writing that does not decide beforehand who or what can or cannot speak.
The refusal of reference in Stein is also a refusal to make language centered on human usage. Why do this? Modernists experimented with narrative forms that did not necessarily center on the self or the human species. Daily experience is composed of a variety of animate and inanimate interactions, many of them not directed to humans or not yet legible to the recipient. Writing that really reflects daily experience must somehow capture the simultaneous knowledge, limits of knowledge, and other forms of knowing that are not directed at us. If we talk of the perspective of the carafe according to the carafe itself, what would we say about food, which includes an animate component? Stein’s short poem “Roast potatoes” offers only three words — “Roast potatoes for” (Writings, 339) — to ask the reader an open question about what sort of potential purposes make up the composition of food that also make for the composition of writing. Several of Stein’s food poems register the uncanny world of food as a curious mixing of lives and interests. “Celery tastes tastes where in curled lashes and little bits and mostly in remains. A green acre is so selfish and so pure and so enlivened” (Writings, 340).
This essay has placed on the table several ways of reading Stein’s legendary Tender Buttons. Stein’s preferred keyword to describe her work is “composition.” A composition is something material, such as a page of sentences on a given topic or a musical score, but also a term that describes relationships, positions related to other positions. Still life art, or indeed any set of objects on a table, comprise a composition. Composition applies to things intentionally constructed or unintentionally combined, things artificial as well as natural, a landscape painting or the nutritive ingredients in a soil. Stein composed her work out of whatever ingredients she came upon, from commonly used words, everyday objects, personal sensations, and local affairs, to major historical figures and events. These all constituted a continuous surround around her. This surround did not feature Stein as the “center” or the code through which everything passes. Instead, she wrote in an aesthetics of surrounds, observing them and living in them. This sense of composition is a near synonym to environment as the context and condition of the life one is living, the “continuous present,” as Stein declared.
1. Claire Marie to Gertrude Stein, 18 February 1914, in The Flowers of Friendship: Letters Written to Gertrude Stein, ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Knopf, 1953), 95. The original letters are held at the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (cited hereafter as YCAL). Stein’s response is not in the Yale archives.
3. Dodge herself harbored deep suspicions of Evans, labeling him a “decadent.” Dodge thought him untrustworthy and recommended not publishing with him in a cable she sent to Stein on 15 March 1914. Stein still had not figured out that Claire Marie was Evans at this point. Dodge sent an expanded letter to Stein on 29 March, disclosing Evans as the person behind the press.
4. Another curiosity to note is that there is a slip of paper in the Stein archives at Yale that lists several corrections for the book, none of which was ever made or added to subsequent editions. These corrections seem minor, such as changing “Excellent” to “Excel lent” (as it is written in the cahier and in Toklas’s typescript), and do not mention the order of the sections.
5. Here is just one example, a letter sent to Van Vechten on 14 February 1914, just a few days before Evans’s first letter to Stein: “Dear Beloved: I am now happy. I know you are near by. The cup of happiness runs over. I shall write you many sonnets. Donald” (YCAL).
13. Elizabeth Fifer, Catherine Stimpson, and Lisa Ruddick each connect Stein’s only partial legibility to her strategic use of secrecy regarding her sexuality. See Fifer, “Guardians and Witnesses: Narrative Technique in Gertrude Stein’s Useful Knowledge”; Stimpson, “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein”; and Ruddick, “A Rosy Charm: Gertrude Stein and the Repressed Feminine,” all in Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, ed. Michael J. Hoffman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
14. Gertrude Stein, Writings 1932–1946 (New York: Library of America, 1998), 303. In this same discussion, Stein insists heavily on the role of looking in her writing as integrated with talking and listening. “I lived my life with emotion and with things happening but I was creating in my writing simply by looking. I was as I say at that time reducing as far as it was possible for me to reduce them, talking and listening” (303). She concludes that such insights transferred to here plays and other work, such that “I had also come to have happening at the same looking and listening and talking without any bother about resemblances and remembering” (304).