The revolution in 'Tender Buttons'

Although Three Lives and The Making of Americans were radical innovations, neither was as revolutionary as Tender Buttons (begun in 1912 and published in 1914).[1] Tender Buttons is the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of wordness, where word and object merge. No work from Europe or the Americas had gone so far in creating a work of textual autonomy, where the words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed and where the meanings are made in and through composition and arrangement. The sections of the work are not “about” subjects that are discussed but are their own discrete word objects (verbal constellations). Meaning in these works is not something to be extracted or deciphered but rather to be responded to, so that the reader’s associations create a cascading perceptual experience, guided by the uncanny arrangement of the words. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meanings, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of the work. The key is not to puzzle it out but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out; for, indeed, this work is not invested in a predetermining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning. Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it. And the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own processes.

Consider the title, which has many associations that bear a direct relation to Stein’s poetics. Buttons are used to fasten (attach or join) discrete pieces of fabric; this suggests a compositional practice akin to quilting and collage and situates the work not only as a form of practical art or craft, suggesting a connection to what has often been considered (and denigrated as) women’s work (buttons are often ornamental or decorative). The sense of domestic space is also suggested by the section subtitles “Rooms” and “Food” — suggested only, because the association is loose. You press buttons: the operating system here is point and click in a touch-sensitive textual environment. A button is also a small protuberance: stud or knob or bud (its etymological root). Tender Buttons suggests nipples or clitorises: the poetics is decentered eroticism (meaning disseminated evenly over the body of the text not cathected onto nouns or plot); which is to say the work is aversive to phallic or climax-oriented satisfaction. Tender Buttons, while not a manifesto, advocates a poetics of acting “so that there is no use in a center,” where “the difference is spreading.”[2] Tender, like the poem, is gently caressing, fragile, soft (rather than rigid or hard), edible (tender food), effeminate (weak or delicate). But tender also means money, something offered in exchange for something else, as in legal tender.[3] In the semiotic economy of the poem, words are tender and the poem is fundamentally involved with language as a system of exchange (rather than “pointing,” word to object). Yet Stein’s work is not random but intended, as she says, “no mistake is intended,” even if she is a “mischief intender.”[4] And Stein’s approach to composition is to be less a controlling of language than its tender.

Now let’s segue into the first part of the first section the three-part work:

A carafe, that is a blind glass.

     A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

This poem addresses the relation of word and object (this first section of Tender Button is called “Objects”), or perhaps better to say signifier and signified. It brings to mind Ferdinand de Saussure’s suggestion in his contemporaneous Cours de linguistique générale (1906–1911) that language works by creating a system of difference of one sound to another. Difference also suggests sexual or gender difference. In trying to break down the difference between signifiers and signifieds, Stein lets words “be” themselves, stand for nothing but what they are. Stein says the “the difference is spreading” — on the one hand this suggests that difference is proliferating, on the other hand, it suggests a way to see signifier and signified fused or melted onto one plane, when we “spread” words instead of using words “in a system of pointing.” Think of painting with words or think, in painting, again, the breaking down the foreground and background of perspective to get the “radical flattening” of some “abstract” painting (e.g., all surface, no depth). So, says, Stein, this approach is not random or chaotic or meaningless because it doesn’t “point” or doesn’t use resemblance (“not unordered in not resembling”: not unordered but rather ordered differently). The poem then might be seen as a carafe (a transparent/glass container: one view of what language is) that is a “blind glass” (one that you don’t see through because it is filled with something dark, so it takes possession of itself). Now, circle back to the double meaning of “spectacle”: eye glasses and something one looks at from a distance, something one is separated from, as by a glass, or even the frame of a stage. But imagine if we could melt this difference between us and a world we look at as spectacle, imagine if we could avert looking at our words as glasses that project distance, that separate us from the world. How can we break down this difference, this separation? How can we turn objects, how can we turn words, into tender buttons? This is not what the poem means. This is not a paraphrase. But it sketches a set of investments that run through the full work.

Those investments come in the form of a constellation of repeated words: Stein’s approach is not both derangement and rearrangement: “There was an occupation,” she write at the beginning of “Rooms.” Reading this work presents a necessary challenge to thematic close reading, which won’t work, while still requiring close scrutiny through an associational/ambient reading of the linguistic prompts and an allegorical reading of form (thinking about what the form means).[5] All key words in Tender Buttons are repeated numerous times but the repetition is distributed throughout the work, making much of the poem less rhythmically repetitive and more abstract than other Stein works. Among the most frequently used words (after articles and conjunctions) are such forms of to be as is (1,017 times, almost 7 percent of the words used),[6] followed by a very high frequency of be, are and being (in keeping with Stein’s approach to the “continuous present”); as well as “was.” Other frequently used words include little (ninety times), means (forty-four), and strange (twenty-five), as well as makes, shows, color, white, whole, change, single, same, suppose, and nothing. The word “difference” appears thirteen times in the work; that word plus “differ” and “different” occur twenty-four times. Center occurs twenty-two times. Come or coming or comes makes thirty-five shows, as in the specifically erotic “Cuddling comes in continuing a change” but also “The truth has come” (and keeps coming).  Resemblance and arrangement each come into the text about a dozen times.

In “Roastbeef,” the opening section of “Food,” the second part of Tender Buttons, Stein briefly returns to rhythmic repetition through the use of gerunds that create a palpable sense of “continuous present.” This passage is among the most evocative and enthralling of the work:

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching. All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling. This makes sand.

If Emerson saw meaning as inflected by mood,[7] Stein brings it into a dynamically diurnal intimacy with the feeling of time passing, from morning to evening, as well as the movements of meaning through the changes of resting, mounting, resignation, recognition, and recurrence. We are pinched awake by recognizing these conditions and by recognizing a view from “outside” ourselves and “inside” ourselves; indeed, it is this torqueing of outside and inside that marks language’s semiotic play, hear / not here. Words shift in use so that our norms and standards can take flight in exception and our lives can be as grounded as grains of “sand”. The tender of our language is change and exchange:

All the time that there is use there is use and any time there is a surface there is a surface, and every time there is an exception there is an exception and every time there is a division there is a dividing. … tender and changing and external and central and surrounded and singular and simple and the same and the surface and the circle and the shine and the succor … (“Roastbeef”)

In Tender Buttons, Stein was engaged in making a dialogic poetic of non-resemblance: words not dominating the world with their order but allowing the world to inhabit the words. Tender Buttons marks a decisive break with a voyeuristic poetics of subject and object, looker and looked at, figure and ground. It elides perspectival distance in favor of intimacy, non-goal-directed erotics, and gustation.

From Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, eds.,
A History of Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2015). Excerpted with permission.




1. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, ed. Seth Perlow (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014). Perlow has made some changes in previous presentations of the work, based on a review of relevant documents. They include a change in the way the titles appear. References to this work are given by section title. There are about 15,000 words in the work, which is in prose format, though not a prose poem as that term has been previously defined. This is about five times the length of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the most canonical American long poem of the era.

2. The iconic “Act as if …” is the first sentence of “Rooms,” the second part of the work. “The difference is spreading” is from the first section of “Objects,” the first part of the work.

3. “Tender” appears ten times in the work, always suggesting tenderness, but also note “a transfer is not neglected.” While I don’t think the ten/tender was planned, the modus operandi of the works potentiates such serendipitous collusions.

4. “Breakfast” and “Mutton,” the second and third section of “Food”; italics added. 

5. This use of allegory is developed by Michael Golston in Poetic Machinations: Allegory, Surrealism, and Postmodern Poetic Form (forthcoming, Columbia University Press).

6. In contrast “is” constitutes less than two percent of the words in “The Waste Land.” Moreover, none of the key words from Tender Buttons occurs with any frequency, if at all, in Eliot’s poem.

7. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” (1844).

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

Sarah Posman
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Rachel Galvin
Seth J. Forrest
Michael Farrell
Marcella Durand
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
EC Maxe Crandall
Angela Carr
Laynie Browne