February 2024

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The Iliad as Foundation for Tender Buttons?

Karren Alenier

For twelve weeks, the Steiny Road Poet read and discussed with her poetry reading group Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Iliad.

Iliad-EW-trans-bookcovercrRemarkably, the day after (January 7, 2024) the discussion of the final two sections of this classic work (Books 23 and 24), Washington DC’s independent bookstore Politics & Prose hosted Emily Wilson who recited the opening paragraph of The Iliad in ancient Greek and in her English translation to an overflow crowd that, once her discussion and Q&A were done, lined up for book signing that expanded out of the store onto Connecticut Avenue.

Steiny estimates an audience of 200 people.




To prepare for this event, Steiny read Wilson’s “Translator’s Note”. Much to Steiny’s delight Wilson describes her approach to translating The Iliad in the same way scholars of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons advocate how to approach it—read the work out loud to hear its vitality. Wilson’s first priority was to pay attention to sound. She emphasized the work came from the oral tradition. EW-w-Boo-crkThe importance of sound came across when Wilson recited the opening words of The Iliad. Her English translation adheres to iambic pentameter (five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables: da DUM  da DUM   da DUM  da DUM  da DUM)  while the Greek original employs dactylic hexameter (a more complicated pattern of long and two short syllables occurring six times but allowing for variations that include a long and only one short syllable or two long syllables). Dactylic hexameter is part of the Greek tradition of heroic storytelling as iambic pentameter has traditionally been employed to structure epics in English.


Wilson emphasized that The Iliad is understandable because of its predominant use of short words and its sparingly assigned multisyllabic words. Look at the opening lines of her translation and notice words like cataclysmic and immeasurable. Wilson also points out that Greek names, like Agamemnon, are often multisyllabic.

    Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath

    of great Achilles, son of Peleus,

    which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain

    and sent so many noble souls of heroes

    to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs,

    a banquet for the birds, and so the plan

    of Zeus unfolded—starting with the conflict

    between great Agamemnon, lord of men,

    and glorious Achilles.



Typically, Stein used simple Anglo-Saxon words. Her goal was to communicate clearly so that any person could understand her work. In Tender Buttons, she also used multisyllabic words sparingly, which gives them emphasis. In the opening stanza of “Roastbeef.” (the first subpoem in the second section “Food”), a lyric passage that employs many ing words that effects a rocking sensation and a musicality typical of Stein, she
also points us to the five-syllable word discrimination with these tion words: resignation and recognition.


ROASTBEEF. [stanza 1]


    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.



In both examples, the multisyllabic words are meaningfully connected. Wilson’s translation of The Iliad with the words cataclysmic and immeasurable forecast Achilles unstoppable and irreplaceable loss when Patroclus, his best friend from childhood, is killed by the mighty Trojan warrior Hector. Stein’s use in “Roastbeef.” of resignation and recognition as pointers to discrimination might speak to how Stein and her chosen life partner Alice Toklas had to be resigned to hiding their love relationship because if it was seen in public (recognized), discrimination against them, either judicial or societal, would ensue. No doubt other interpretations about what Stein might mean are infinitely possible.




Other characteristics Wilson paid attention to were scale (e.g., how big or small), perspective, and point of view. All these characteristics also pertain to Stein’s handling of Tender Buttons which Steiny lumps together as Gertrude Stein’s cubist approach, a modern art philosophy which encompasses scale, perspective, and point of view.


In The Iliad, one unforgettable example of scale, immensity as opposed to minuteness, occurs in Book 2 which catalogues the armies and their chariots. Scale is also seen between the gods and mortals relative to longevity (gods never die) and heroics (only mortal can attain heroic glory because gods never risk dying).


Perspective and point of view go together. Point of view is who tells the story and perspective is that character’s version of the story. What is remarkable about The Iliad is for as much as this is the story of Achilles’ rage for how he was humiliated by Agamemnon, the top leader of the Greek armies, Homer allows their most formidable enemy Hector a scene where Hector tells his wife that he cannot stay inside the walls of Troy, that he must show himself to his enemy and risk dying. It’s a tender family portrait involving a concerned husband, terrified wife, and infant son who gets frightened by seeing his father in his battle helmet.


In her translator note, Wilson discusses these aspects of The Iliad and the challenges she faced in honoring the original Greek which included choosing words that were easy to understand (after all The Iliad was told by storytellers, not handed down in books) and didn’t make the listener bored. The characters also needed to come across as individuals, something she said did not happen in most English translations.




To understand Stein’s cubist approach, Steiny suggests looking at “Eye Glasses.”, a 15-word subpoem of Tender Buttons “Objects”. Like the other subpoems of Tender Buttons, “Eye Glasses.” is abstract and subject to many interpretations or perspectives, which affects who the narrator might be and the scale of the story being told.

    Eye Glasses.


    A color in shaving, a saloon is well placed in the center of an alley.

One way of approaching “Eye Glasses.” is through the aid of magnification (eye glasses), the narrator sees possibly blood (red color) coming from some nick caused by shaving with a razor. The poem seems set back in time in a town in western America where a saloon (not a hair salon, saloon comes from salon and both indicate a large room) is located in the middle of a narrow passage (alley). Why the narrator seems to be shaving in a place where one normally drinks alcoholic beverages is not clear. Is the narrator making a spectacle of himself? That is, is he putting himself on display? This brings up the word spectacles, a synonym of eye glasses.


Whose face is this under the blade (of the shaving razor)? Is this narrator Gertrude Stein (she considered herself a male persona) trying to carve out new literary territory as an American writer, a writer intent on making a legendary name for herself? Could this tiny subpoem of Stein’s larger love poem to Alice Toklas be some kind of coded sexual message? Hiding seems implied, in that a saloon is oddly “well placed” in the middle of an alley instead of being out on the main street where all the traffic is. In Tender Buttons, it’s all a matter of scale, point of view, and perspective as to what can be seen and whether it is on a physical plane of the body or a mental plane of the mind.




Academics have often stated that Stein made no literary allusions, but Steiny has noted the influence that Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, and Herman Melville had on Tender Buttons. This influence appears in Stein’s work as a suggestive pointing. For example, Stein begins the subpoem “Way Lay Vegetable.” (from Tender Buttons “Food”) with “Leaves in grass” which hints at Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Just in case you are wondering, there are other hints in Tender Buttons of Whitman also, but the reader is required to accumulate and interact with Stein’s texts to understand this.





Steiny believes that Stein also reached back in time in writing certain of her other texts  and possibly had some notion that Tender Buttons would be her epic poem not unlike The Iliad. Certainly, there is enough violence in Tender Buttons. What comes quickly to mind is “A white hunter is nearly crazy.” Take this seriously in a work where images of the Lincoln assassination (“A Chair.”) come into view from this mostly abstract work.




While Gertrude Stein did not have opportunity to read the wonderfully accessible translation of The Iliad by Emily Wilson, Stein certainly had ample access to such English translations as the tight poetics of Alexander Pope’s translation which was based on Latin and French versions. Wilson’s translation based on ancient Greek is without rhyme but has metric regularity that pleases the ear. As to hearing the translator in person, Steiny basked in Emily Wilson’s electrifying passion for The Iliad and now understands more fully why Homer’s masterpiece is at the heart of great Western literature.




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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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