Recreate that thing!
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).