In the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein describes a shift in the character of her writing from “[having] been interested only in the insides of people, their character and what went on inside them” to “a desire to express the rhythm of the visible world.” After hearing that Donald Evans was interested in publishing Tender Buttons, Stein via Toklas again describes this work as “the beginning of mixing the outside with the inside … she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.”
I begin with these moments from the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas because much of my love of this text stems from my experience working with it in the context of the required first-year college composition course, a course that asks (or should ask) students to rethink their modes of writing academically. Appropriately, for Stein herself, Tender Buttons represents this kind of risk — an intentional movement from the portraiture of people, of the “inside,” to a wholly different kind of painting — one that orbits around the “outside” — literally, “objects, food, rooms.” In “How to Read How to Write: Bothering with Gertrude Stein,” Sharon J. Kirsch looks at the “compositional concepts” Stein explores in How to Write, positing that Stein’s work asks readers to rethink composition and reading her compositions as “taking risks, playing on syntactic and semantic levels, bothering with her poetic mischief, and finding pleasure in words, their arrangements, their demands, their omissions, their serious suppositions, their gnomic pronouncements, and their prepositional virtuosity.”
Tender Buttons is, in my experience, the gateway to engaging students in the potential that writing holds — seeing and seeking “pleasure in words” as their own entities, and straying from the formulaic models of what might constitute acceptable prose. I often use Stein, and excerpts from Tender Buttons, as invitations for students to write.
What follows are two of these moments, from very different classrooms, with my accompanying teaching notes:
“A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass” (Scenario: Composition II class, paper 2 revision workshop)
— Hear the piece read out loud two times — first, with one person reading the entire thing, then, alternating readers at each punctuation mark.
— Encourage students to annotate as they listen (marking moments they love and moments they feel puzzled by).
— Focused free write: First thoughts. What do you notice?
— Copy into your notebook: “All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.”
— Focused free write: Imagine this is the comment left on your rough draft. What would you now do to revise your paper and why?
— Share in small writing groups.
“A Long Dress”
(Scenario: Writing to Learn Professional Development day with interdisciplinary high school faculty)
— Handout “A Long Dress” — just the text with no author and no bibliographic information.
— Read the piece out loud four times — once straight through with one reader, once alternating readers by punctuation mark, once backwards, and finally, again straight through with one reader.
— Focused free write one: What is this piece about? Or, what is this piece?
— Focused free write two: What do you feel like you’d need to know in order to come to a reading of this text? Why?
— Share only focused free write two.
— Focused free write three: Perform a close reading of the text via a line-by-line translation of it. In other words, focus on the text at a sentence level and translate it in whatever way you see fit. Write yourself into the text.
— Process write: Reveal the bibliographic information (with no context). What did you need to do in order to translate “A Long Dress”? Where is your thinking now about how to work with students to find their way into a text they might initially feel outside of? Do you still want/need contextual information?
— Share. Discuss classroom applications.
A brief note on rationale: I chose to share these two particular moments because they are moments when Tender Buttons was used as a vehicle to work with students to get towards a specific goal — to work towards a final draft of a paper and to work towards thinking about how to engage students when they “shut down” as a result of being handed a “difficult” text. And, I chose to share these two particular moments because I think they demonstrate that Stein’s writing is always and ever useful in any scenario.
1. Sharon J. Kirsch, “How to Read How to Write: Bothering with Gertrude Stein,” in Primary Stein: Returning to the Writing of Gertrude Stein, ed. Janet Boyd and Sharon J. Kirsch (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Lexington Books, 2014), 109–24.
Good morning! It is the hundredth birthday of your tender buttons. Happy birthday to you happy birthday to them. They continue and have gone on continuing all these years isn’t it something. It is something to be sure. This morning they freshen my eyes just as they always have and they are freshening the eyes of others too. Gertrude I want to give you my hat and say chapeau. Did you say wooden object or did you say woolen object did you say the whole head that had a hole or did you say the whole bead that had a hole. Did you say all that time there was breadth or did you say all that time there was breath. I like them both I like them all. Gertrude you have mothered more than you knew but oh well you knew really didn’t you you always knew and you were knowing because you knew who you were and what you were going to do and then you did it and you went on doing it. Gertrude. My student said that reading your buttons was like reading a story that was put in a blender. Another said that reading your tender buttons is like flailing. And she underlined it like that. What if you felt free to do anything I said. What if you were a woman when you were a woman and you felt that way. What if you felt free to follow the voice inside the one you heard. Reading you peels my eyes open peels my fibrous soul open peels it all open. Reading you is the right thing to do it is a write thing. It begets writing and with wax wood and string wings it launches me off a bluff like Leonardo’s flying machines. Your book of buttons is an ornithopter. But you were never bluffing because you really had it in you you knew how to fly. The book she has muscular calves. All of this makes an uttermost, which is a charming occasion today. In the midst of a flourish you lift your wrist. You say Giving it away, not giving it away, is there any difference. Giving it away. Not giving it away. I would like to give you a bouquet of alphabets for your book’s birthday, Gertrude. Here.
'Tender Buttons' and noise poetics
The one-hundred-year anniversary of the publication of Tender Buttons has a tidy symmetry that appeals naturally to the pattern-hungry mind of literary history. But, as every reader of Stein’s modernist poetic masterpiece will attest, this is a text that succeeds swimmingly at holding symmetry at bay.
Stein scholars swear that there is more — much more — to the text than what we find on its surface. For Michael Hoffman,Tender Buttons is the turn to abstraction, driven by an engagement with the pictorial revolt of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gris, and Braque. For Marjorie Perloff, Tender Buttons is the poetic precursor of the poststructural turn and of Wittgensteinian play, hiding meditations on sexuality among the slippages of syntax and signification.
But for conservative critics, Tender Buttons is charlatanry, little more than elitist intellectual dabbling in nonsense. And for my students, there is often absolutely nothing in Tender Buttons. Lines like “Aider, why aider why whow, whow stop touch, aider whow, aider stop the muncher, muncher munchers,” produce few more profound questions than, “WTF?!”
WTF, indeed. Even Stein’s most patient critic, Richard Bridgman repeatedly refers to Tender Buttons as a “resistant” text. And even now, one hundred years later, Tender Buttons resists being read.
The quotidian simplicity of its organization — a series of prose-poem still lifes, objects, food, rooms — keeps us on the surface. In this way, Stein is clearly responding to the Cubist project, which similarly keeps its revolution on the surface using objects, food, and interiors as primary subject matter. But to say that the pieces in Tender Buttons are Cubist poetry is to miss quite a bit of what this writing does. The Cubist poetry label is probably better applied to a more imagistic poet like Williams or Oppen in the 1930s, but I have a different proposal for describing what Stein is up to.
I want to argue that in Tender Buttons Stein establishes a noise poetics. By “noise poetics,” I mean a set of formal qualities and a conceptualism. As a concept, noise is the static that gets in the way of the desired signal, the glitchy pixilation of a television signal or the hiss and pop of analog audio playback. As a set of formal qualities, noise is loud, blurry, dissonant, and overly repetitive. Noise is simultaneous; it paradoxically resists, grating our nerves, and fades into the background, as we habituate. Noise is something we wish to abate, but it is also a mark of something that needs our attention.
In Tender Buttons, Stein luxuriates in the static and the glitches of anaphoric reference: “Any time there is a surface there is a surface and every time there is a suggestion there is a suggestion […] and every time that is languid there is that there then and not oftener.” Taking what are often the most transparent words in English, the highly deictic demonstrative pronouns, Stein courts our frustration by removing the deictic center. “There is no there there.” Like the old man shifting the antenna to clean up the reception, the reader of these lines looks in vain for something beyond the surface only to be left with a blend of glimpses and noise.
She offers up gorgeous arrangements of phonemic repetition: “Eel us eel us with no no pea no pea cool, no pea cool cooler, no pea cooler.” She doesn’t destroy syntax; rather, she uses enough normative syntax to keep the hint of communication alive, to keep us squelching in search of the real signal, but then she lets the noise bloom in lovely stretches of nearly endless anacoluthon. Stein keeps us right on the surface, in a Barthesian “text of pleasure.”
Stein, with Tender Buttons, creates the most productive, thoughtful, and enduring exploration of noise poetics of the very noisy modernist period, and in so doing, she establishes a set of conceptual and formal qualities that inform a poetic engagement with noise that extends to the Black Mountain and New York Schools of mid-century, to the Language writers of the 1970s and 80s, and to the conceptualists of the early twenty-first century.
I was rereading Tender Buttons, thinking of its tone, its conceptual science, over minutes, over a period of days. Then there was a day when I read sadly, a day among days of sad readings. The tone changed. “A Long Dress,” “A Red Hat,” “A Blue Coat,” “A Piano” changed. “A Chair”:
Pick a barn, pick a whole barn, and bend more slender accents than have ever been necessary, shine in the darkness necessarily.
Actually not aching, actually not aching …
Tender. The indented prose of “A Chair” suggesting verse. I imagine the sentences of Tender Buttons as just the kinds of lines that welcome the dead. This is thinking now, don’t worry. We use adverbs here. The American Divine Comedy for things. The humor returns in my reading as I think of Dante in hell, narrating why “A Cutlet” or “A Petticoat” deserves their place, not to mention “A Cold Climate” or “A Time To Eat”. Stein makes no irrevocable judgment. “A letter was nicely sent”; “there is no worry”. There is much more, of “me,” of food, of pleasantness. It could be read as conceptual Cantos or a major novel, ‘there is no excuse for the abuse of cheese’. No, cheese must be defended, in Europe at least. “Why is there more craving than in a mountain”: need Benjamin have taken his quotes from more than one source? “Why is there so much useless suffering? Why is there?”
In Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein begins the second section, “Food,” with a semi-coloned list of foods that includes “Orange” and “Oranges.” So, in this menu of sorts, color is singular and fruit plural, separated by the singular collective nouns of cocoa and clear soup. Unlike cranberry, a color so clearly named after the fruit, orange is more a prediction, and I think of Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Orangery, and how he must have had Stein somewhere in mind with his permutations of orange and the tenuous abstract relations of signifier into composition. In “Food,” the lines between plural or singular, collective or not, are never clear, with apple standing alone and milk appearing twice but unrelated to itself, and breakfast a singular event that consists of many things. Sugar is made of a thousand tiny grains and eggs would have been easier to describe as one, therefore, plural, eggs, to complicate the description, the apprehension of its perfect form (which so inspired Brancusi). Volume, too, is an important part of food — the mass and conception of it, and how it slides from bulk to emptiness.
Singularities are complicated, joined, pluralized: apple becomes “apple plum” and eggs are “in white in white handkerchiefs with little dots in a white belt all shadows are singular they are singular and procured and relieved.” Again, in “Silent Knight” by Sorrentino, an echo of the play between one and many. “A wanting. A desire. / The current cant is ‘needs.’ / What does one need / to live?” Food, obviously, but perhaps not all of Stein’s “Objects”; I think one does need “Rooms” and its intensely musical phrases (on rereading Tender Buttons in the first time for some years, I was amazed at the music of it — fully modern music that takes its tune straight from language itself and not language crusted with centuries of metrical expectations — “cadences, real cadences, real cadences and a quiet color”) to live.
The movements between many and one in “Food” are quickened in “Rooms” — questioned, Why, why they are such things. And then Stein’s intense conjunctive phrasing — everything joined together equally in a way not seen before in language traditionally constructed to indicate dominance and subordinance. Marvel at the syntax below, from “Rooms,” where there is punctuation and where there is not punctuation when there “should” be and how beautiful when that “should” is negated:
A religion, almost a religion, any religion, a quintal in religion, a relying and a surface and a service in indecision and a creature and a question and a syllable in answer and more counting and no quarrel and a single scientific statement and no darkness and no question and an earned administration and a single set of sisters and an outline and no blisters and the section seeing yellow and the centre having spelling and no solitude and no quaintness and yet solid quite so solid and the single surface centred and the question in the placard and the singularity, is there a singularity why is the surface outrageous, why is it beautiful why is it not when there is no doubt, why is anything vacant, why is not disturbing a centre no virtue, why is it when it is and why is it when it is and there is no doubt, there is not doubt that the singularity shows.