February 2014

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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Tender Buttons – 100 Years

2014 is the centennial year of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. Xcitement among Steinians abounds. City Lights of San Francisco will be releasing (April 2014) a corrected centennial edition featuring Stein's handwritten corrections. However, few readers of poetry know this difficult work, a set of prose poems that is a coded love poem for Stein's life long partner Alice B. Tokals and much more.



The Steiny Road Poet is pleased to say as a follow on to her essay entitled "Learning about Learning" that her Tender Buttons Massive Online Study Group inside the Coursera Modern Poetry MOOC is proceeding apace. Al Filreis' Modern Poetry survey ended mid November but the 40,000 registrants of ModPo, as Filreis' course is affectionately called, still have access to the syllabus and the discussion forums where the TB MOOSG works. The question was whether the study group would maintain hungry momentum after ModPo and the winter holidays ended. It is, it is, it is!


At the beginning of 2014, Steiny posted to her personal blog lessons learned from the study that began mid October 2012 with "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.", the first subpoem of Stein's 78-page poem (using the 1991 Sun & Moon Press edition) and proceeded sequentially to "A Chair.". The ten points of "Lessons Learned So Far" serve as tips to new readers of this work influenced by the cubist painting style of Pablo Picasso.

Among the 12-20 Buttons, as the members of the TB MOOSG are known, item #5 of lessons learned raised considerable interest:


While Stein presents as simply as possible, often using plain monosyllabic words, she operates within asystem to pointing that usually harkens back to what she learned from her Harvard professor William James. Therefore she is pragmatic. Therefore there is always some logic behind what she is offering. This could be meaning or it could be method.


Most academics categorize Tender Buttons as a language exercise, "a great Modern experiment in verse," where the reader will find no meaning. As of mid January, the Buttons have studied 35% of section 1—Tender Buttons is organized in three sections: "Objects," "Food," and "Rooms." The consensus is most of the subpoems so far offer associations that track to such things as: Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas or her brother Leo Stein, a major event influencing her time like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, city life in Paris, daily household life including cooking and gardening, innovations of her time like photography and automobiles, fashion, the mechanics of the human body, and ideas about art, philosophy, and morality.

On the method side, there is also a great deal of language play that includes odd grammar and turns of phrase, repetitions, possibly anagrams, words within words, coded language, and much more. Sometimes these ludic approaches live within language that point to the printing industry, something Stein was intensely interested in as an author wanting her work published.

As Button Mary Armour suggested, "Tender Buttons might show how Stein processed fraughtness, both personal and political (the fire in the shirtwaist factory, the loss of May Bookstaver [Stein's first lover whose loss drove Stein to quit medical school in her fourth year and move to Paris to live with her brother], the fear of being misunderstood and ridiculed, etc.)." Steiny thinks Stein's baggage and joy are rolled together in Tender Buttons. While some folks have baggage they cannot handle, geniuses like Stein create objects that carry the weight. Mary further commented, "Pleasure-making is linked perhaps to deferral of pain, resolving pain, working through pain. Reading 'pain' here as fraughtness, often to do with the unresolved, troubling and threatening aspects of identity, sexuality, attachment."


The study group is giddy with surprises that surface with regularity. Stein is not known for making literary allusions. In the longest discussion yet, on "A Chair." [six blog posts cover this subpoem of nine stanzas], Steiny realized as she compile the group's proceedings that stanza 8 of this subpoem, heavy with Civil War trappings and the assassination of Lincoln, asserted reference to "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Walt Whitman's elegy to the fallen sixteenth president of the United States. Here is stanza 8 of "A Chair.":

Actually not aching, actually not aching, a stubborn bloom is so artificial and even more than that, it is a spectacle, it is a binding accident, it is animosity and accentuation.

Here are the opening stanzas of Whitman's poem:


When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Steiny is discovering the more time spent studying Tender Buttons, the more one sees or hears. For example, Steiny hears right now that the word artificial, broken apart and re-ordered, carries the resonance of official art. In other words, Whitman, taking a poetic leadership role, wrote what is called an occasional poem, a poem written for the specific event of mourning President Lincoln, whom one might call a stubborn [persistent] bloom [a man whose greatest talents flowered as the American leader who stopped slavery]. However, Whitman was not a named laureate and wrote without government commission and so maybe, in that way, his poem was artificial, just human produced (manmade) and unable to bring down artificial barriers against a writer who dared to buck traditional writing styles of his day as Stein was doing and continues to do now.


Another surprising tactic that Stein seems to be using is references to Jewish scripture, thinking, and accessories of Jewish prayer. This is surprising because Stein was an assimilated Jew of German descent who kept her Jewishness out of the public eye and sometimes embraced writers who were virulently anti-Semitic. In Tender Buttons, Stein begins so subtlety that, arguably, one might say that the Buttons who like mining these resonances are just experiencing what they wish to find. Starting with in "A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.", Steiny suggested that a system to pointing might be the insertion of marks to indicate the chanting of a psalm or the vowels in a Hebrew text, but, later, the Buttons' Hebrew and Jewish cultural life scholar Eleanor Smagarinsky mentioned that the pointing might also be a pointer called a yad (a ritual pointer often in the shape of a hand with an extended index finger).

Of course what cinched the interest in mining Stein for things Jewish was the review exercise that Steiny wished to do that became, through Eleanor's prompting, a reading of the first ten subpoems through the Ten Commandments. Nonetheless and despite the heated disagreement about reading Stein through a super-imposed (let alone Jewish) lens to—what? find meaning, the Ten Buts Thru Ten Comms project yielded Jewish associations that seem to be surfacing in other ways in recently read subpoems.


Furthermore, newcomers to the TB MOOSG who are unfamiliar with past findings can see these resonances. Consider "Objects.":


Within, within the cut and slender joint alone, with sudden equals and no more than three, two in the centre make two one side.

If the elbow is long and it is filled so then the best example is all together.

The kind of show is made by squeezing.

For example, Steiny was sure that the subpoem "Objects.", sporting the same name as the title of Tender Buttons section 1, meant something beyond the engaging associations of Japanese tree and French bush grafting, culinary handling of meat, echoes of Ariadne's thread, Adam's rib cum Eve, the suicide squeeze play in baseball, the rip of typebars into a typewriter ribbon, the mechanics of filling fountain pens, the playing of squeezeboxes (accordions) and bagpipes, group hugs, the meta language play, the applied grammar angle, the Boolean logic formula. Wow, Dear Reader, you might be thinking that Steiny has acquired the appetite of the Minotaur, a regular devourer of her human resources! Not at all, when Stein repeats a word, the rule is dig deeper but, in this case, Stein was repeating the title of section 1 and so the Buttons agreed something more was needed. Then enter stage right, Judy Meibach who tiptoed into our labyrinth and said haltingly:

"But there has to be a reason—you know I was thinking—in the Old Testament—at least in the Hebrew—the title of the individual books i.e. Genesis, etc.  is often the title of the first 'set of chapters'—I know that it might make sense in English—but when I think of the Hebrew—which is how I learned it—it makes sense—now it makes sense in terms of Stein."

Then suddenly Eleanor fanned the barely lit fire with:

"Judy, wow, you really got me thinking here, fascinating!! So, if I'm following you, you're referring to the fact that each of the 5 books of the OT (Torah) is titled using the first word of the first chapter. For example, Genesis in Hebrew is actually Bereishit, which is the first word of the first chapter. Also, each chapter is titled (as a way of talking/writing about it) by using the first word.

"This immediately made me think of the 5th and last book of the OT (Torah): Deuteronomy is, in Hebrew DEVARIMDEVARIM is translated as WORDS, but in Modern Hebrew it also means THINGS/OBJECTS.

"Objects and words are linked in Hebrew, and it seems that they are also linked in Steinese. Could Stein be describing letters as objects here? And then using all letters (except for 2) in the poem, so as to make her point?"


Then the lights went on in the cage of Steiny's head and she linked the break up of sister Gertrude and brother Leo Stein with the coupling of Gertrude and Alice as well as a link to male circumcision and an expansion of Eleanor's Deuteronomy thesis. But the story doesn't stop there, thanks to Allan Keeton, a Button unfamiliar but still puzzling out all these Jewish connections.  Allan took his and other Buttons' comments all the way from Jewish mysticism to creation myth and how the world was created by the unnamable highest power YHWH. However, Dear Reader, you will have to read the fractal details in that blog post.

Suffice it to say that Steiny Road Poet will continue to party with the Button Collective over the feast of Tender Buttons. Happy 100 years, Gertrude Stein, to your baby Tender Buttons!

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren AlenierKarren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4
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