Not everything Gertrude Stein wrote is worth calling poetry. Stein says so herself in “Poetry and Grammar,” because “for me the problem of poetry was and it began with Tender Buttons to constantly realize the thing anything so that I could recreate that thing.” This pronouncement on Tender Buttons directly contrasts with her account of The Making of Americans in the same lecture and, we presume, to the present participle-filled portraits consuming Stein’s attention pre-1912 — these she would call prose. Stein’s turn from prose to poetry even merited an evolving kind of attention: while writing The Making of Americans Stein was “completely obsessed by the inner life of everything,” but with Tender Buttons she recalls, “I struggled I struggled desperately with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns and yet poetry being poetry nouns are nouns.”
I struggled I struggled desperately
There is pathos here, in the struggle and desperation, that even being “completely obsessed” doesn’t convey. To be obsessed is to be preoccupied, to be consumed by something else. The active capacity of “I” is diminished. And one might be obsessed with a lover or enemy, but also an experiment, a logic problem, or collecting carafes. Obsession is a surprisingly neutral affect. But to say, “I struggled I struggled desperately,” is a resolute assertion (and reassertion) of an active “I” and of active effort. It is this sense of struggle, rather than completion, that in its desperation feels both necessary — as if the very existence of “I” depends on this ongoing recreation — and filled with desire, that brings me back to Tender Buttons, to Stein’s poetry.
with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns
Two phrases circulate through Tender Buttons, particularly in “Objects,” and they frequently begin its sentences: What is the use and Suppose. I read them as the book’s imperatives. What is the use asks us to recall past uses of a word or phrase — literally asking what its use is. But the phrase also extracts language from these uses — “What is the use?” is also asked rhetorically, indicating uselessness. Under this dual-sided umbrella, we have common phrases upturned (such as “a piece of coffee”), allusions through rhyme (“slender butter” to “tender buttons”), puns (such as “sam in” and “salmon”), transliterations (“land cost in” for langoustine), and a number of other plays on language. The used is rendered useless, the useless finds new use. But what I’ve always found more thrilling is the incredible force of the voice demanding, Suppose. Even at moments when we can’t identify, or have any hope of identifying, the variations of phrases used or the language games played, we hear such determination and desire in Tender Buttons’ voice — perhaps this is the basic definition of voice — that we find whatever it says possible, even plausible. In these moments, Tender Buttons is not about the inadequacies of language to convey reality, or even about the ambiguities already existing within language, but about a will learning and rehearsing to wield language however it wants, to wrench out new meaning from even the most unlikely and unyielding words.
and yet poetry being poetry nouns are nouns
This is not unlike the collagist who in 1912, concurrent with the writing of Tender Buttons, pulls out a receding table from a flat box label; or conjures up the vibrant specter of a guitar through a square of sheet music, a blue quadrangle, a piece of woodgrain, a schematic drawing of a wineglass and a curved black strip (perhaps a boat). The point here is not representation, or even substitution, but the recreation of composition. It is how recreation is neither leisure nor luxury, but it is necessary and brimming with desire. It is that I struggled I struggled desperately, and this is how I learn the stakes of being I. And this is how, for me, the problem of poetry begins with Tender Buttons.
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass (1912).
In his book on Kafka, Gilles Deleuze writes of the difficulty of both eating and speaking — one must choose, it seems, whether to ingest or express. Gertrude Stein, whose soundplay is so tongue-quickening that it always seems pronounced aloud, makes reading both speaking and eating. The “Food” poems of Tender Buttons are full of glorious, sensual mouthfeel.
In the section’s opening two poems, the grand edifices of “Roastbeef” and “Mutton” — both muscles, and so disconcerting reminders of the consuming body’s own potential consumability — draw prolonged, even elegiac responses (“in the evening there is feeling”). Further in the section, the humble daily chicken, with its comic “ick,” provokes four brief entries, as if Stein couldn’t stop repeating its rickety, abrasive sound, or curb the childlike teasing of “alas a dirty bird” and “stick stick sticking.” We are far here from the spondaic long-vowelled sonorousness of “Roastbeef,” or the schwa-muted assonance of “Mutton.” It must be mutton’s humming m that makes it so much graver than its off-rhyme, the titular Buttons with its bumping b and final z sound. When pronounced, mutton’s consonants glide smoothly, hypnotically, from that lip-buzzing m to tongue-tipping n. The mouth-movements of these sounds are near relatives to chewing.
“Food” delights in the comic oddity of what we put in our mouths, that wild diversity of shapes, sizes, and textures, and the responding oddity of what words and sounds our mouths can produce. Its range can even encompass transformations from raw product to cooked; the dynamism of writing contains the processes food is put through — raising or harvesting, cooking, digestion, absorption into the body, and eventually defecation. In the days before refrigeration, Stein would have been acutely aware of the alterations any edible object went through over time — ripening, rotting, changes in color and smell. Although she didn’t cook, it’s easy to imagine her in and out of the kitchen, curious and bemused by its ceaseless inflow and output of matter, by the malleable material in its heaps and hunks, its masses and splatters and precise julienne.
Two of the final “Food” poems are called “Salad Dressing and an Artichoke.” The formidable, sculptural whole artichoke is a very different object than the wedge or round of its “hearts” and “bottoms” (terms not used, but certainly suggestive of Buttons’ recessed emotion and eros), the forms it would be found in accompanied by a salad dressing. The prickly dactyl of a word contains both possibilities, as well as the nicked fingers, heap of discarded leaves, parings, fibers of the choke, squeeze of lemon, and bowl of acidulated water generated by the preparation. This extreme, even violent metamorphosis may be what sends her back (more mischievously) to the emotional yearning of “Roastbeef”: “please butter all the beef-steak with regular feel faces.”
“It is not what I eat that is my natural meat,” rhymed Marianne Moore in a somewhat Steinian moment. In its ranging degustations, Stein’s natural meat was what she wrote.
The dominant stylistic trait in Tender Buttons is not fragmentation or perspectivism but looping. Stein writes by looping similar or associative words, phrases, riffs, objects, units of meaning, or sonic hooks. She calls it “exact resemblance.” She also loops sense with nonsense, doing and undoing, continuity and discontinuity, sensual interiors with external surrounds, looping the environs into the work. Actually, any kind of binaries can be entwined, just as two identical terms can be spooled. Here is a sentence from “Rooms”:
Sugar any sugar, anger every anger, lover sermon lover, center no distractor, all order is in a measure
Stein’s recursive riffs become their own act of description describing itself in the act. She is writing through her own writing. Or one could say that looping is itself partly doing the writing.
A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since (344)
Innocence threaded through a nuisance. The famous phrase “The difference is spreading” perhaps refers to the minimal difference between looped terms. The spread: the difference between terms and their relations.
But why loops? If you asked this question for today, here are some immediate responses: computers, programming, cognitive modeling, financialization, new media, ecologies, carbon cycles, weather, DNA, galaxies, quantum mechanics. So why loops in Stein’s era? Perhaps: personhood, meditation, grammar, mechanism, neurology, automism, joy, history, sensuality, sex, objecthood, nature, female masculinity.
A great example of the combination of these “beautiful circuits” (Mark Goble’s term) can be found in Jackson Mac Low’s “Stein Poems,” written from 1998 to 2003. Mac Low used a computer program to generate a “diastic” poem that was made by running an algorithm through a cross between a source text and seed text. In “Mercy Entirely Astonishing,” the seed and source text comes from “Objects” in Tender Buttons.
Mercy, giving color, hardening interest, changes mustard dangerously.
Use an empty umbrella.
Desperately, the handy extra particles are practically complaining that facts are stubborn.
A purse is a purse and nothing is nothing.
We are reading a text-generated reading of Tender Buttons made by subjecting Tender Buttons to itself. Reading means no need to draw the line between poem and post-poem, seed and re-seed, Stein’s “Mildred’s Umbrella” and Mac Low’s “empty umbrella.”
One more thing: Stein’s loops are never really faithful to recursion and they often swerve, break apart, spin out, or leap somewhere else. There is no superloop. There is much of an aftermath of loops, reverberations of reverb (a nice term for a self-reflexive verb looping within itself). One hundred years of loops. One hundred years of reading and unreading. One hundred years of read-back and read-forward. 100 years of not unreading, not unordered in not resembling.
'Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.'
Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons begins with “A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS,” and with an insistence on the nonmetaphoricity of either object. This first entry famously closes with the line, “The difference is spreading,” and it does, as Stein’s “is” is at denotative work throughout her text.
“A SHAWL” from the section “Objects” reads:
A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an under coat and a sizer a sizer of talks.
A shawl is a wedding, a piece of wax a little build. A shawl.
Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows. There is hollow hollow belt, a belt is a shawl.
A plate that has a little bobble, all of them, any so.
Please a round it is ticket.
It was a mistake to state that a laugh and a lip and a laid climb and a depot and a cultivator and a little choosing is a point to it.
“A shawl is” is a proposition no more courted into metaphor than the carafe’s blind glass, despite the array of words following the declaration. Rather than a transformative comparison conjured when like or unlike words are drawn into relationship with each other, Stein eschews metaphor for an accumulation of words giving shape to, but not subsumed by, a shawl. Her defining “is” arranges and forms, rendering a shawl a linguistic composition of words. Moving along a range of resemblances from the sartorial similarities of hat and undercoat to the categorical differences of hurt and a piece of wax, the words assemble to describe a shawl. Meanings are made through Stein’s sonic wit and playful nominative invention as the piece shifts from definition to imperative, “Pick a ticket, pick it in strange steps and with hollows,” to a reversal from “a shawl is” to “a belt is a shawl.” In Tender Button’s final section, “Rooms,” the text states, “Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty.” This series of sentences that assert, inquire and preserve doubt resonate with the sly last line of “A SHAWL.” It claims, “It was a mistake to state” that the accretion of beautiful words in front of the “is,” including laugh, lip, laid climb, depot, cultivator, and little choosing, fix any one semantic or spatial point in the composition. Instead, Stein’s words are defining matter, building and moving “a point” of position and perception as they are brought into correspondences with one another.
Tender Buttons is, famously, a text that deals with looking. As Stein details in her Lectures, the book is the result of her decision to “include what is seen with hearing and listening.” The beautiful new edition accentuates this: it is the result of an act of scholarly scrutiny and its facsimile images, showing Stein’s corrections to the first edition, make it possible for everyone to experience the thrill of seeing Stein at work on her text. One of those images shows an inscription Stein added to Donald Sutherland’s first edition: “the concentration and the long struggle between sound sight sound and wide. and when it all came out so strangely” (84). As a comment, it shows Stein’s intention to emphasize sight over sound: sight should come first. As an image, of course, it stresses ‘sound.’ The image made me wonder about sound, and sound, in Tender Buttons, and about the book’s position in literary history.
Speaking, or “talking and listening,” is what Stein herself associates with the portraits she wrote prior to Tender Buttons. Central to these pieces is a voice that says and says and says, capturing slightly different moments of being in a sequence of expressive sentences (“and each time I said what they were as they were, as I was, naturally more or less but never the same thing each time that I said what they were I said what they were”). It is, however, the “breathless” Stein, the Stein who appears to delete ‘speaking’ from her poetic agenda when she starts writing Tender Buttons, that critics now put under the spotlight. This modernist Stein seems to fall in between a romantic tradition, with poets intent on breathing the inhuman air of poetic truth, and a post-modern rediscovery of breath, with for example Charles Olson calling for a poetics of breath. Yet I’m unable to look at Tender Buttons as some kind of airtight autonomous construction. I see it as a book filled with breath, with sound that isn’t talk or music but the whizzing of energy being spent — with ‘sound’ first. After all, this is writing that deals with the joys of consuming. Its collection of objects and their many uses, the “excellent vapor” the food gives off (37), the eroticism, the open rooms with its currents indicate that this is modernist poetry that reinvents Wordsworth’s understanding of poetry as “an atmosphere of sensation.” Stein constructs, rather than gains access to, her atmosphere. Notwithstanding many objections, from (poetic?) “declarations” to the state of the world (76), she takes care not to seal it off. Tender Buttons is Tender Buttons because “there is a chair and plenty of breathing.”