Is it so a noise to be

'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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.


1. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (Gordon Press, 1972; Green Integer Press, 2002), 34.
2. Ibid., 56. 

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'