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Appreciating Tender Buttons

Karren Alenier

How does one appreciate Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein's most mysterious work? Is appreciation the same thing as understanding?


The Steiny Road Poet (a.k.a. Karren Alenier) and her publisher The Word Works has announced a trio of books forthcoming in 2022 through 2024 that will help readers curious about Tender Buttons gain access to what seems to be Stein's most impenetrable work.


Tender Buttons, published in 1914, was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece by Gertrude Stein. It is a book-length poem divided in three sections—OBJECTS, FOOD, ROOMS—and may be a love poem and  the marriage contract between Gertrude Stein and her life-long partner Alice Babette Toklas.


If so, the agreement was that, as a clandestine married couple, their offspring would be books conceived by Stein. This is one way of looking at Tender Buttons.


In Alenier's project, the first book, Appreciating Tender Buttons: An Invitation to Play Volume I,  will contain the 58 subpoems of the Tender Buttons "Objects" and a poem written in response by Karren Alenier or by one of 36 poets who were invited to participate. Leading the invitation to play, Karren Alenier has contributed over 1/3 of the poems in this volume. Two appendices written by Alenier offer ways to enter Stein's most difficult poem and to invoke the Steinian muse. This collection is a study in the creative impulse.


The participants of this project are all enthusiasts of poetry. Some have impressive literary resumes—a Pulitzer Prize winner, an American State Poet Laureate, author of a scholarly book on Gertrude Stein—some are newer to the scene of loving poetry—a high school senior along with adult students of Professor Al Filreis' popular Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course known as ModPo. Many in this group of 36 questioned whether their lack of familiarity with Tender Buttons would benefit the project.


Alenier invited the participants: Indran Amirthanayagam, Rae Armantrout, Mary Armour, Carrie Bennett, Margo Berdeshevsky, Julien Berman, Andrea Carter Brown, Susana Case, Grace Cavalieri, Nikia Chaney, Roberto Christiano, Henry Crawford, Michael Davis, Denise Duhamel, Amy Feinstein, Barbara Goldberg, Harold M. Greenwald, Don Illich, Jacqueline Johnson, Hiram Larew, JoAnne McFarland, Kevin McLellan, Nils Michals, Brad Richard, Margy Ross, Marty Sanchez Lowery, Roger Sedarat, Lisa Sewell, Margo Stever, Miles Waggener, Lillo Way, Nancy White, Carolyne Wright, Bill Yarrow, Burgi Zenhaeusern, and Jason Zuzga, to "enter this work as a playground—to let your imagination run free." Just as Gertrude Stein applied a Cubist approach that she learned from Pablo Picasso in writing Tender Buttons, Alenier wanted a diverse set of perspectives to demonstrate how to open up this abstract work and have fun with it. Why? Because she wanted the worried reader to see that he or she could also enjoy this challenging work.


So how did some of these visitors to Tender Buttons "Objects" respond? Two of them pushed back on Stein. Where Stein wrote "More.", Indran Amirthanayagam answered, "Less." Within her subpoem "More.", Stein depicted several kinds of oceans. Amirthanayagam taking up the current concern of climate change, "I do not want to mirror you Gertrude, turn the Mississippi back to the future as  the hurricane Ida achieved, current turning negative, not flowing to the ocean…" Lillo Way responded to Stein's "A Time to Eat." with five haiku-like verses under the overall title "Gender Gluttons." Way's poem comically chides "A Time to Eat." and perhaps Stein's whole poem which has a section II entitled Food.




A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not lardy.


—from Tender Buttons, Objects by Gertrude Stein





A Time for Two

Pitcher of spoons, tea weapons at the ready, legitimized and stultified, toasted and buttered.

This is not lardy.


—from Gender Gluttons by Lillo Way



The question arises: do the response poems provide understanding for the Tender Buttons "Objects"? Steiny offers that sometimes a conversation erupts between Stein and the responder as in the following poem which uses Stein's entire text (seen in italics at the left margin):


state of the union: a dialectic with "In Between."



In between a place and candy


is a narrow footpath that

                                              ran to a sham self-clapping presi-

shows more mounting

                                         dent more shame

than anything, so much really that a


calling meaning a bolster measured

                                                                six inches

a whole thing with that.

                                            and could it be

A virgin a whole virgin is judged

                                                           ass not candy catcher

made and so between

                                         soft puta

curves and

                           hard c√≥geme duro

outlines and real


seasons and more

                                    spies look-

out glasses and a perfectly


unprecedented arrangement between old


ladies and mild


colds there is no satin

                                        sheet no





—Karren L. Alenier


In looking at abstract art, many viewers like to have a guide who offers some suggestions that might make the work more accessible. How to create one's own experience in interacting with Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons is the model that Appreciating Tender Buttons: An Invitation to Play offers.


In early 2022, Alenier will issue a call for poets interested in responding to the subpoems of Tender Buttons, Section II Food. As with Volume I, participants will get a random assignment as inspiration for their poems and also be asked to write a paragraph about their processes for these poems. How did the responder interact with the Stein nugget? What, if anything, was learned from this exercise?


Founded in 1974, The Word Works is a literary nonprofit organization publishing contemporary poetry and producing public programs to support the life and love of poetry. The three volumes of Appreciating Tender Buttons will be part of a new Word Works educational imprint.





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Scene4 Magazine ‚ÄĒ Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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