March 2024

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier |

From the Belly: Poets Respond

Karren Alenier

Why does Gertrude Stein use the word “niggers” in Tender Buttons? How has this affected the presentation of the forthcoming From the Belly: Poets Respond to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Volume II "Food" edited by Karren Alenier?


Here is the stanza of Tender Buttons in which the word appears:

    It was a time when in the acres in late there was a wheel that shot a burst of land and needless are niggers and a sample sample set of old eaten butterflies with spoons, all of it to be are fled and measures make it, make it, yes all the one in that we see where shall not it set with a left and more so, yes there add when the longer not it shall the best in the way when all be with when shall not for there with see and chest how for another excellent and excellent and easy easy excellent and easy express e c, all to be nice all to be no so. All to be no so no so. All to be not a white old chat churner. Not to be any example of an edible apple in.


Here’s what ChatGPT writes as answer:

    Gertrude Stein's use of the word "nigger" in her work "Tender Buttons" has attracted much attention and controversy. It is important to approach this topic with sensitivity and respect, recognizing that discussions about racial slurs can be difficult and complex. Given the historical context and Stein's avant-garde style, several possible interpretations can be considered:

      1.     Language experimentation: Stein was known for her innovative use of language and unconventional writing techniques. She often sought to challenge linguistic conventions and create new ways of experiencing and perceiving words. By including the word "nigger," Stein may have aimed to disrupt traditional linguistic boundaries and provoke readers to question the power dynamics and associations attached to certain words.

      2.     Reflecting the racial context: Stein's work was written during a time when racial discrimination and segregation were widespread, particularly in the United States. Some argue that her use of racial slurs, such as "nigger," was an attempt to reflect the vocabulary of the era, exposing the deeply ingrained racism in society. It can be seen as a critique of racial hierarchies and a way of making the reader uncomfortably confront the realities of racial prejudice.

      3.     Linguistic minimalism: Another perspective is that Stein's repetition of the word "nigger" could be interpreted as an exploration of sound patterns, rhythm, and the phonetic qualities of words. Her focus on the musicality and tonality of language might have led her to include words that possess particular sound qualities, without necessarily considering the broader social implications or offensiveness of those words.

      4.     Provocation and controversy: It is also possible that Stein incorporated the word "nigger" intentionally to create shock value and provoke a reaction from her readers. Controversial elements in art can generate attention and challenge societal norms, making it impossible to ignore the work. In this case, Stein might have wanted to use the word to shock her audience and start conversations around racism and language.


      It's crucial to emphasize that interpreting Stein's use of the word "nigger" in "Tender Buttons" is subjective, and these interpretations are not exhaustive. However, it is significant to consider that Stein herself was an open advocate for equality and many African-American artists and intellectuals of the time found her work to be empowering and supportive of racial equality. Nevertheless, the word's inclusion raises important questions about literary intent, the responsibility of authors, and the implications of language.

Here's what the Steiny Road Poet thinks:


Surprisingly, these responses from ChatGPT interpreting Stein’s use of the word “nigger” in Tender Buttons are plausible despite having been generated through crowd-sourced robotic programming. They reflect widespread critical commentary about Modernism and Stein’s work in particular.


Many people who have read any work by Gertrude Stein, including Tender Buttons, do not realize she used the impolitic “N” word. The word is buried in “Food”,  the second section of three in Tender Buttons;  in “Dinner.”, the 38th subpoem of 53; and in the fifth and final stanza of that subpoem “Dinner.”. Despite ChatGPT’S speculations in point 3 (ABOVE), Stein doesn’t repeat the word and she doesn’t feature it in a title. It’s part of her discourse, no more emphasized than any other word, although the mention later in that stanza of  “a white old chat churner”, implicitly raises the question of racial division (black versus white).


Steiny argues that Stein’s use of “niggers” is not experimental, not particularly musical, not an attempt to expose societal racism, and not Stein’s goal to be provocative. Partially, Steiny thinks Stein is attempting to normalize the word and take the heat off it. That mention at the end of the “N” word stanza about “an edible apple” seems to suggest the Garden of Eden that changed life for Adam and Eve. The negative spin on this apple—“Not to be any example of an edible apple…” narrows to a very specific piece of fruit with that word any. Steiny sees a kind of innocence projected despite the specter of difference and otherness. The "Food" section is where innocence and knowledge collide. Indeed, once we’ve noticed her use of the “N” word, we can’t unsee it, can’t unhear it.  It’s like we’ve eaten fruit from The Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we can’t spit it out.


Gertrude Stein is a master at coalescing opposites. This is why Volume II "Food" of From the Belly: Poets Respond to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons cannot ignore the lingering heat of Stein’s word choice. This is why Steiny (a.k.a. Karren Alenier) picked the stunning artwork of JoAnne McFarland for the cover of From the Belly: Poets Respond to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Volume II "Food". McFarland’s image of a black baby doll—the epitome of innocence—appears between fronds of Swiss chard, as if in a garden, as if in Eden, as if ready for baptism, as if ready for sacrifice, as if oblivious to threat, as if raising by implication the question of guilt. Like Stein’s single disconcerting word, McFarland’s doll arrests our attention and provokes us to think about what is tender and what is provoking us to push such hot buttons.

From the Belly: Poets Respond to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Volume II "Food" will be published in late spring 2024 from The Word Works. Special thanks to Nathalie Anderson, JoAnne McFarland, and Nancy White for serving as thought partners of this volume which features response poems from 37 poets.




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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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