Perhaps the most influential figure for contemporary American poets, Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1874. Her father, a successful businessman, moved with his family to Europe in 1875. The young Gertrude was raised in Vienna and in Passy, France, where she learned German and French. Returning to the United States four years later, the family live for one year in Baltimore and then shifted to Oakland, California, where her father became vice president to the cable company that operated San Francisco’s streetcars. The family lived on a ten-acre farm just outside the city.
In 1888 Stein’s mother died of cancer, and three years later her father died. Taking on the care of his brothers and sisters, the eldest son, Michael, became the branch manager of the Central Pacific Railway, earning enough money to support his siblings. The family moved into San Francisco, where Stein often attended concerts and opera. During these years she grew close to her brother Leo, two years her elder. The two shared many interests which would bond them for years throughout their life.
In 1892, she moved to Baltimore to live with her aunt, and, although her education had been spotty, Stein was admitted to Radcliffe after only a year in high school. There, she specialized in psychology, studying with the great psychologist/philosopher William James, the brother of Henry. His demand for empirical observation and scientific open-mindedness, would have a lasting effect on the young woman.
In 1898 she returned to Baltimore to study medicine at The Johns Hopkins University, a requirement for advanced studies in psychology. But by that time her attention had increasingly turned to writing, particularly writing related to the studies in automatic writing that she had undertaken at Radcliffe, and she failed four of her classes. In 1901 she left the university and, with Leo, traveled to Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, and England. Leo had by this time become a sort of patron to the arts and an art critic, and the two determined to make France their permanent home, sharing an apartment. The collection the two developed consisted of artists who would become some of the major figures in 20th century art, including Picasso, Matisse, and Braque.
In 1907 Stein met Alice B. Toklas, with whom she fell in love, and in 1910 Toklas moved in with Gertrude and her brother. Leo soon thereafter left the Paris apartment, taking half of the collection with him. The two women were to remain companions until Stein’s death.
During this early period, Stein had already begun writing, and with Toklas as cook, secretary, reader and critic, she was able to write nearly every day. Her first published book, Three Lives (1909), was one of her most popular; the three tales, an homage to Flaubert’s Trois Contes, is one of the masterworks of modern American fiction. The three tales tell the stories of two working class women and a contemporary Black woman, Melanctha. Tender Buttons of 1914 is her first work of poetry, consisting of three series of prose poems, “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” Over the next several decades Stein poured out literary works of drama, fiction, poetry, essays and often mixed genres, including the long fiction, The Making of Americans (1903-11; published in 1925), Geography and Plays (1922), Composition as Explanation (1926), Lucy Church Amiably (1930), Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded (1931), How to Write (1931), Operas and Plays (1932), Matisse Picasso and Gertrude Stein (1933), Portraits and Prayers (1934), The Geographical History of America (1936), Paris France (1940), Ida (1941), and Brewsie and Willie (1945).
Through these same years, Stein held regular literary salons, which were visited by almost every noted writer and artist who visited Paris, as well as younger soldiers and beginning authors. In 1927 Stein collaborated with composer Virgil Thomson on an opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, first performed in New York on February 20th, 1934. She and Thomson collaborated again in 1946 on The Mother of Us All, which was recently revived in New York and San Francisco in 2000 and 2003.
Perhaps Stein’s most famous work is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), an “autobiography” written by Stein in the pattern of Toklas’s voice. Stein followed that work a similar “autobiographical-like text, Everybody’s Autobiography of 1937. Following the success of the first volume, Stein and Toklas traveled to the United States, where she lectured throughout the country from 1934-1935.
Stein continued to write through World War II, but was forced to evacuate her home in Paris, and with Toklas was sheltered by French villagers in the south of France.
Stein died of cancer in 1946. Upon her death, her papers were donated to Yale University on the condition that the Press publish her previously unpublished writings. The Press published eight volumes of her work, and over the next several years, other novels, plays, and mixed genres were published in separate volumes.
Stein’s work deals heavily with repetition and free association. Much of her writing is laden with puns. These and other devices, and the fact that she wrote in nearly every genre, has led some readers to claim that her work is unreadable or even of little value. The fact much of Stein’s work has still to be discovered and freed from the anthologies in which it has been entombed. Stein’s work is highly experimental, but it is truly contemporary in its attention to language and expressive devices that reveal the way we think. Stein’s work is also highly embedded with sexual, particularly Lesbian and gay, puns. As readers begin to decode some of these layered messages, her work can only come more and more to be seen as decades ahead of its time and recognized within its own time to be closer to the great experimentations of the century such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and Russian Futurism.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Many of the books Stein published throughout her life contain passages and selections that might be described as poetry. “Pink Melon Joy,” for example in Geography and Other Plays is most certainly a kind of prose poem. Useful Knowledge (1928) contains also much work that could be described as prose poetry. Many of her plays can also be read as poems. Below I have listed only the most obvious works of poetry published as separate volumes. Selections of poetry are also taken from the Yale University series.
Tender Buttons (New York: Claire Marie, 1914; reprinted by Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991 and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002); Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953); Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1956; reprinted [the sequence Stanzas in Meditation only] Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994; available from Green Integer as a PDF file); Lifting Belly (Tallahassee, Florida: Naiad Press, 1989).
Hear Stein read her "If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso" at this link: http://video.aol.com/video-detail/gertrude-stein/1452656869
You can purchase the PDF file of Stanzas in Meditation here.
Below are selected poems and an essay on Tender Buttons by Douglas Messerli
From Tender Buttons
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.
Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.
The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.
There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.
Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but point again.
A Method of a Cloak
A single climb to a line, a straight exchange to a cane, a desperate adventure and courage and a clock, all this is a system, which has feeling, which has resignation and success, all makes an attractive black silver.
A Red Hat
A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey is monstrous ordinarily, it is so monstrous because there is no red in it. If red is in everything it is not necessary. Is that not an argument for any use of it and even so is there any place that is better, is there any place that has so much stretched out.
A Blue Coat
A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away, that is the particular color that is used for that length and not any width not even more than a shadow.
If the speed is open, if the color is careless, if the selected of a strong scent is not awkward, if the button holder is held by all the waving color and there is no color, not any color. If there is no dirt in a pin and there can be none scarcely, if there is not then the place is the same as up standing.
This is no dark custom and it even is not acted in any such a way that a restraint is not spread. That is spread, it shuts and it lifts and awkwardly not awkwardly the centre is in standing.
A New Cup and Saucer
Enthusiastically hurting a clouded yellow bud and saucer, enthusiastically so is the bite in the ribbon.
A color in shaving, a saloon is well placed in the centre of an alley.
A blind agitation is manly and uttermost.
A Time to Eat
A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.
A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like donkey.
A White Hunter
A White hunter is nearly crazy.
(from Tender Buttons, 1914)
Part 1 from Lifting Belly
I have been heavy and had much selecting. I saw a star which was low. It was so low it twinkled. Breath was in it. Little pieces are stupid.
I want to tell about fire. Fire is that which we have when we have olive. Olive is a wood. We like linen. Linen is ordered, We are going to order linen.
A belly belly well.
Bed of coals made out wood.
I think this one may be an expression. We can understand heating and burning composition. Heating with wood.
Sometimes we readily decide upon wind we decide that there will be stars and perhaps thunder and perhaps rain and perhaps no moon. Sometimes we decide that there will be a storm and rain. Sometimes we look at the boats. When we read abut a boat we know that it has been sunk. Not by the waves but by the sails. Any one knows that rowing is dangerous. Be alright. Be careful. Be angry. Say what you think. Believe in there being the same kind of a dog. Jerk. Jerk him away. Answer that you do not care to think so.
We quarreled with him. We quarreled with him then. Do not forget that I showed you the road. Do not forget that I showed you the road. We will forget it because he does not oblige himself to thank me. Ask him to thank me.
The next time that he came we offered him something to read. There is a great difference of opinion as to whether cooking in oil is or is not healthful.
I don’t pardon him. I find him objectionable.
What is it when it’s upset. It isn’t in the room. Moonlight and darkness. Sleep and not sleep. We sleep every night.
What was it.
I said lifting belly.
You didn’t say it.
I said it I mean lifting belly.
Don’t misunderstand me.
Do you lift everybody in that way.
You are to say No.
How are you.
Lifting belly how are you lifting belly.
We like a fire and we don’t mind if it smokes.
How do you do. The Englishmen are coming. Not here. No an Englishwoman. An Englishman and an Englishwoman.
What did you say lifting belly. I did not understand you correctly. It is not well said. For lifting belly. For lifting belly not to lifting belly.
Did you say, oh lifting belly.
What is my another name.
Of the evils of eating.
What are they then.
They are sweet and figs.
Do not send them.
Yes we will it will be very easy.
(from Bee Time Vine and Other Pieces, 1953)
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
Susie Asado which is a told tray sure.
A lean on the shoe this means slips slips hers.
When the ancient light grey is clean it is yellow, it is a silver seller.
This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are
the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
Incy is short of incubus.
A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the
old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean,
render clean must.
Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a boblink
has pins. It shows a nail.
What is a nail. A nail is unison.
Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.
(from Geography and Plays, 1922)
I I I I I I I I I I .
Clinch, melody, hurry, spoon, special, dumb, cake, forrester. Fine, cane, carpet, include, spread, gate, light, labor.
Coffee, cough, glass, spoon, white, singing. Choose, selection, visible, lightning, garden, conversation, ink, spending, light space, morning, celebration, invisible, reception, hour, glass, curving, summons, sparkle, suffering the minisection, sanctioning the widening, less than the wireless, more certain. All the change. Any counseling non consuming and split splendor.
Forward and a rapidity and no resemblance no more utterly. Safe light, more safes no more safe for the separation.
A cook. A cook can see. Pointedly in uniform, exertion in a medium. A cook can see.
Clark which is awful, clark which is shameful, clark and order.
A pin is a plump oint and pecking and combined and more much more is in fine.
Rats is, rats is oaken. Robber. Height, age, miles, plaster, pedal, more order.
Bake, a barn has cause and more late oat-cake specially.
Spend rubber, holder and coal, high, careful, in a pointed collar. A hideous south west is always a climb in aged seldom succeeded flavoring untimely, necessity white, hour in a glaze.
Break, sky blue light, obliquely, in a cut carpet, in the pack. A sound.
Press in the ink and stare and cheese. Pick in the faint and feather and white. White in the plume.
No noon back. No noon settler, no sun in the slant and carpet utterly surrounded.
No pressed plaster. None.
No pressing pan and pan cake. Not related exactly. Not related
Matter in the center of single sand and slide in the hut.
No account of gibberish. No sky lark utterly.
Perfect lemon and cutting a central black. Not such clouding. A sugar, a lame sugar, certainly. No sobriety no silver ash tray.
A co existence with hard suckling and spoons, and spoons. A co-existence with orange supper. A last mending. A begging. Should the assault be exterminated, should it.
A sound is in the best society. It hums and moves, it throws the hat in no way away and in no way particularly at paving. The meanness is a selection of parts and all of that is no more a handkerchief merely and large.
The exchange which is fanciful and righteous and mingles is in the author mostly in the piece.
A unity is the meantime in a union. A branch case is exactly so anxious and avoided and even then is it in place of blunders, is it in the piece that makes hesitation clear.
The yough and the check board and the all color minutely, this and the chance of the bright flours inward is not in a glance. A check is an instance and more more is indwelling.
In the unconcise word that is ministered and in the blame extraordinarily the center the whole center is coupled. This is choice.
Hunger is not hurry and a silence and no more than ever, it is not so exactly and the word used is there.
A cut in trusts and in black colors which are not carpets not at all likely carpets and no sucking in substance of the sacking placed only in air outside. This makes a change precious and not odd not odd in place of more use. Not odd in the meaning rapidly.
The soon estate and established alternately has bright soldiers and peaceable in the rest of the stretch.
A regular walking ground is that which shows peeping and soft places between mush and this is most moist in the settled summer. So much wet does gleam and the shutters all the shutters are sober. A piece of cut grass is dangerous dangerous to smelling and to all most.
A dark ground is not colored black mostly and dirtily securely and much exchange is much with a sight and so much to sponge in with speeches to whittle.
A tight laundry that is piece meal is in the best astounding. Between, in, on the beside, and no more origin, more in the weed blessed.
Point, face, canvas, toy, struck off, sense or, weigh coach, soon beak on, so suck in, and an iron.
Point a rose, see a soil, see a saddle, see a monk tree, see a sand tree, trust a cold bit of pickle usefully in an oration.
See the meadow in a meadow light.
The blame is necessarily an interruption perpendicularly.
The seam in between is fenceless.
The seam is most tight legs are looser and not secure politely.
The separation is a sight
Chocolate is alarming in old places, chocolate is thunder.
Joining jerked sour green grass is yesterday and tomorrow and alternately.
Kindness is necessary and a spilled iron loan. The best choice is a sucked place readily and much any within the cut spilling.
Jacket in buds and in glasses, jackets entirely in collision.
A triangle is worried and recollected socks and examples
Peace is in.
No spilling and an argument, no spilling and no spilling is beckoned. A shout in particular.
An heroic countenance justly named and special, special and contained and in eagle.
A mark and a window glass and a splendid chew, altogether a singer.
Secret in a season makes the pining wetter. So much hooding, so best to saw into right pieces the clang and the hush. The held up ocean, the eaten pan that has no cut cake, the same only different clover is the best, is the best.
Caution, caution all, caution the cloud and the oats and the beagle and the clearing and the happy dent and the widow soaking and the climb and the correction.
Shut the chamber in the door, so well and so weak and so buttered. Shut the chest out, do not shut it n.
Crime, crime is that way to charge safely, crime is a tooth-pick. It is. It has a credit. Any old stick that has a choking in the way that there is leather shows a mean spirit.
An eye glass, a yellow and neck lace person, a special way to date something, any pleasing register means no readily replaced mice.
A set cold egg, a set in together is lively.
A barked out sunshine, a better way to arrange Monday, a cloud of neglected Thursdays, all these are together somehow.
A white wedding cake means a white thing and so no more left in the bottle, no more water grows.
A very likely told place is that which is not best mentioned, not the very best.
The incline is in classes in coats in whole classes puzzling peculiarly.
The best way to put it all in is a bite, it is so in every way especially.
Cunning, very cunning. Cute, very cute, critical, not only very critical, critical, critical.
Climbing into the most high piece of prepared furniture is no collection. It is part of the winding old glass.
A sun in shine, and a so and a so helped angle is the same as the whole night.
It is not for nothing that the row placed quantity without grinding. Furnishing is something, individual is pointed. Beetles, only aged sounds are hot, a can in ease and a sponge full, a can in case and a wax well come, a can, a single hole, a wild suggesting wood, a half carpet and a pillow, a pillow increasing, a shirt in a cloud, a dirty distress, a thing grey, a thing thin, a long shout, a wonder, an over piece of cool oil, a sugar can, a shut open accident, a result in a feat, a copper, any copper. A cape coat, in bold shutters shutting and not changing shutters not changing climaxes and feelings and hold over the switch, the binding of a pet and a revolver, the chosen loan, the owned cake in pieces, the way to swim.
A language in a bath and in a dressing gown to a precision and a likely union and a single Persian and a pressing quite not colored and a gloom not a gloom, and a pin all the same, and a pin not to share and a pin with a stone.
A sudden plunge into a forest and a sudden reserve in a cup of water coldly and a dark sunshine and a squeeze, a length in all.
A choked part of a loud sound in an old piece of glass is happening, it is solid and all that and not by any means noisy. The best way is just to stay any way and to think. The best way is always lively by a kind of a hoarse whisper. A shutter is not only light when there is a joke. This is no use.
A birthday cake is in the morning when there is no use in sleeping. Supposing there is time at nine, the less often there is seven the more use there is in lending a joke. Any nice way to remain is longer than was necessary and the temptation the real temptation never happens, there is a cut away and there is a kind of a mellow cheese that has just begun.
Climbing in and climbing are the ways to change and the only hope is what is there, when it is not a difference between all of it every time.
A countenance and order and a bite, really a bit and care and receiving and a vacation and a long half mounted hat box and more silver and more in silver in some and the buttons in a hat and a mild market and goats and not coats Thursday and all health and heels in front grasses and light corn cropping, all this is a toiler and much breading and a kind of a cover is the kind unoccurringly.
A wild waist and a simple jerk and bloom and best to come in a way, hut, heart, hide, have, within, a study, hard in, all which, black busts, coal car, gold nose, white wood, curly seize, half in, all which, best plant, cold carpet, in the glass.
Why are stains silky and old pieces ruddy and colored angels way built. Why are knuckles calmer and pins chunks and bold in heats frightened. Why are the savage stern and old age coming. Why are the best old seem culpable and a decision, decisive.
Enthusiasm, prudence, cold heart and elegant example, a winding alley and a stair case center, a complete poison slip.
CH-N AND R-CK.
A clatter of curious pin cushions softly gathered by the pan that comes.
Wide in the street makes the double engagement stutter, a lean in the roll, a lean in it.
A lean in when and all came but when it was for an the hindrance and it.
CH-N R-CK AND M-NH-.
Be advised that really no insolence is in the bicycle shop. Be advised by it.
Be advised that no Belgian is strong, be wonderful.
Bet use that come in.
M-NH AND ALF-.
An occasion to sell al cables all towels and all that is what is met, is not met.
A cold hast that means saw dust and hot enough, hot enough heating.
NOT CUTTING FURIOUSLY.
A single speech is in it, a soil. A single speech. A ham. A cold, A collusion. A count. A cowslip. A tune ditch. A well king. A house to let. A cut out.
A shudder makes a shake. A bit of green breeze makes a whole green breeze and a breeze is in between. A breeze is canvassed by a week wet and all sold, anything dwelling, in the mist. All the whole steer, all of it.
Best to shut in broken cows with mud and splinters and little pieces of grain and more steel doors a better aches and a spine and a cool school and shouting, early mounting and a best passion and a bliss and a bliss and a bliss. No wide coal gas.
(from Geography and Plays, 1922)
Cousin to Clare washing.
[In the win all the band beagles which have cousin lime sign and arrange
a wedding match to presume a certain point to exstate to exstate a certain
pass lint to exstate a lean sap prime lo and shut shut is life.
[Bait, bait, tore, tore her clothes, toward it, toward a bit, to ward a sit, sit
down in, in vacant surely lots, a single mingle, bait and wet, wet a single
establishment that has a lily lily grow. Come to the pen come in the stem,
come in the grass grown water.
[Lily wet lily wet while. This is so pink so pink in stammer, a long bean
which shows bows is collected by a single curly shady, shady get, get set wet bet.
[It is a snuff a snuff to be told and have can wither, can is it and sleep
sleeps knot, it is a lily scarf the pink and blue yellow, not blue not odour
sun, nobles are bleeding bleeding two seats two seats on end. Why is grief.
Grief is black. Sugar is melting. We will not swim.
[Please be please be get, please get wet, wet naturally, naturally in
weather. Could it be fire more firier. Could it be so in ate struck. Could
it be gold up, gold up stringing, in it while while which is hanging, hanging
in dingling, dingling in pinning, not so. Not so dots large dressed dots, big sizes, less laced diamonds, diamonds white, diamonds bright, diamonds in
the in the light, diamond light diamonds door diamonds hanging to be four, two four, all before, this bean, lessly, all most, a best, willow, vest, a green guest, guest, go go go go go go, go. Go go. Not guessed. Go go.
[Toasted susie is my ice-cream.
(from Composition as Explanation, 1926)
from Stanzas in Meditation
I caught a bird which made a ball
And they thought better of it.
But it is all of which they taught
That they were in a hurry yet
In a kind of a way they meant it best
That they should change in and on account
But they must not stare when they manage
Whatever they are occasionally liable to do
It is often easy to pursue them once in a while
And in a way there is no repose
They like it as well as they ever did
But it is very often just by the time
That they are able to separate
In which case in effect they could
Not only be very often present perfectly
In each way which ever they chose.
All of this never matters in authority
But this which they need as they are alike
Or in an especial case they will fulfill
Not only what they have at their instigation
Made for it as a decision in its entirety
Made that they minded as well as blinded
Lengthened for them welcome in repose
But which they open as a chance
But made it be perfectly their allowance
All which they antagonize as once for all
Kindly have it joined as they mind
Just when they ask their questions they will always go away
Or by this time with carefulness they must be meant to stay
For which they mind what they will need
Which is where none is left
They may do right for them in time but never with it lost
It is at most what they can mean by not at all for them
Or likeness in excellent ways of feeling that it is
Not only better than they miss for which they ask it more
Nearly what they can like at the best time
For which they need their devotion to be obtained
In liking what they can establish as their influence
All can be sold for what they have more seeds than theirs
All can be as completely added not only by themselves.
For which they do attack not only what they need
They must be always very ready to know.
That they have heard not only all but little.
In their account on their account can they
Why need they be so adequately known as much
For them to think it is in much accord
In no way do they cover that it can matter
That they will clear for them in their plight
Should they sustain outwardly no more than for their own
All like what all have told.
For him and to him to him for me.
It is as much for me that I met which
They can call it a regular following met before.
It will be never their own useless that they call
It is made that they change in once in a while.
While they can think did they all win or ever
Should it be made a pleasant arrangement yet
For them once in a while one two or gather well
For which they could like evening of it all.
Not at all tall not any one is tall
No not any one is tall and very likely
If it is that little less than medium sized is all
Like it or not they win they won they win
It is not only not a misdemeanor
But it is I that put a cloak on him
A cloak is a little coat make grey with black and white
and she likes capes oh very well she does.
she did she knew we were the two who could
did we who did and were and not a sound
We learned we met we saw we conquered most
After all who makes any other small or tall
They will wish that they must be seen to come.
After at most she needs be kind to some
Just to like that.
Once every day there is a coming where cows are
With which they can be only made to brush
Brush it without a favor because they had called for it
Be can be never playing to be settled
Or praying to be settle once and for all
to come again and to commence again or which
They will be frequently enjoyed
Which they never do as much as they know
That they like where they happen to have learnt
That seeds are tall and better rather than they will
It is much chosen.
Every year dahlias double or they froze
Mama loves you best because you are Spanish
Mama loves you best because you are Spanish
Spanish or which or a day.
But whether or which or is languish
Which or which is not Spanish
Which or which not a way
They will be manage of Spanish
They will be which or which manage
Which will they or which to say
that they will which which they manage
They need they plead they will indeed
Refer to which which they will need
Which is which is not Spanish
Fifty which vanish which which is not Spanish
I thin very well of my way.
May be I do but I doubt it.
Can be can be men.
A weight a hate a plate or a date
They will cause me to be one of three
Which they can or can be
Can be I do but do I doubt it
Can be how about it
I will not can be I do but I doubt it.
Can be will can be.
(from Stanzas in Meditation, 1956)
Tender Buttons as Narrative Fiction
by Douglas Messerli
Gertrude Stein Tender Buttons (New York: Claire Marie, 1914); reprinted by (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991) and (Los Angeles: Green Integer: 2002)
Douglas Messerli Modern Postmodern Fiction: Toward a Formal and Historical
Understanding of Postmodern Literature (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1979)
When, in late 2007, I taught a course at Otis College of Art + Design, I found that my students were particularly engrossed in Tender Buttons, and after discussing a great many of her entries from the three sections of the book—Objects, Food, and Rooms—I discerned that today’s readers do indeed make a great amount of sense out of work that at one time seemed radically disjunctive.
There are several reasons for this, including several generations of poets writing today who were highly influenced by Stein—particularly the “Language” poets—who have helped contemporary readers to attend to the multiple meanings of words and the associations they generate as opposed to narrative structures based on mimesis. The world of Stein’s works is a world of language.
Accordingly, when the students asked me, at the end of our discussion, whether I felt Tender Buttons was a collection or an unusual kind of narrative fiction, I quickly concluded that I now saw it more as poetry—that indeed almost all of Stein’s works (with the exception perhaps of her more publically conceived biographies and autobiographies), no matter which genre she attempted, might be described as poetry.
Soon after, I ordered of a copy of my PhD. dissertation of 1979 on “Modern Postmodern Fiction,” a work I’d not read in years. I was highly amused to see how strongly I had argued that Stein’s book of 1914 was a narrative fiction. Although in some ways, I don’t think it truly matters—one might easily describe it as a narrative fiction based on poetic principles—I do think that it helps to explain why this work, in particular, has been more readily accepted by readers than others of her books as a masterpiece, and how Tender Buttons, despite its linguistic density, appears more open to readers than, say, Stanzas in Meditation or even a work “advertised” as a novel such as A Novel of Thank You.
It may be interesting, consequently, to reprint some of my comments on Tender Buttons from that dissertation.
My comments on Stein follows a long discussion on the role of character in the Modern Postmodern fictions I considered, ending in the claim that if “narrative is grammar,” as it is in many of the works I discussed, “ then there is no need for characters at all.”
In Tender Buttons, the work Stein turned to after A Long Gay Book, character is almost non-existent. Although it superficially appears to present objective reality—the book is organized around categories of Objects, Food, and Rooms—Tender Buttons is closer to a narrative fiction in which language replaces character.
To assert this immediately presents problems. In large, critics have treated this work as poetry, a treatment justified by the brevity of the prose passages and the use of a highly condensed, rhythmically patterned language. But just as Stein in more interested in the word “typewriter” rather than the object in space in her To Do, so in Tender Buttons is she less interested in the objecthood of things than in the linguistic potentiality of a thing brought into narrative flow. In this respect, the work is not a series of definitions or descriptions of things, as many critics have attempted read it. Rather, as Neil Schmitz recently has written, in Tender Buttons Stein began “to extrude the referential content of story from her narrative and to replace it with the drama of writing itself, the experience of language” (“Gertrude Stein as Post-Modernist: The Rhetoric of Tender Buttons,” Journal of Modern Literature). Each object mentioned in “Objects,” for instance, serves not as an aggregate thing which, in the prose following, is anatomized or given a metaphorical equivalent; rather, it serves as a point of departure for a flow of linguistically organized associations. “A Petticoat,” for example, sparks a series of four short phrases: “A white light, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.” While these phrases may first seem descriptive—especially since the first of them, “a white light” sounds adjectival—the reader quickly grasps that even if “a white light” suggested itself to Stein as an adjective of petticoat, the phrase quickly became nominative. The nouns “disgrace,” “spot,” and “charm” emanate from their associations with white, not with petticoat. Indeed, because of the interrelatedness of “white light” and “rosy charm,” and of “disgrace” and “spot,” there is something almost narratively sequential about these nouns.
Similarly, “A Blue Coat” is immediately thrown into narrative action:
A blue coat is guided guided away, guided away, that is the
particular color that is used for that length and not any width
not even more than a shadow.
“Red Roses” “collapse” and become “a little less hot”; “A Shawl” becomes “a hat,” “a hurt,” “a red balloon,” an under coat,” and “a sizer a sizer of talks”; “A Dog” gets transformed into “a little monkey” that “goes like a donkey.” In almost every case, language in action takes over. As Schmitz describes it:
The denotated world collapses, its tables and orders break up,
awash in process… Words as buttons fastening side to side,
signifier to signified, become tender, pliable, alive in the quick
Is such a narrative flow of consciousness, however, fiction? A world as depopulated as Stein’s would obviously have had nothing to do with fiction as defined by James—or by critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Ezra Pound noted that there are two ways of looking at the world: either the artist can see himself as the “Toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions,” or he can see himself as “Directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely observing and reflecting.” For Stein, as well as for other figures I consider in this work—Djuna Barnes, Wydham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce—to present man at home in the world, to record what is observable was ultimately not a true choice; for these authors the world “out there,” nature, was a great emptiness that as for Primitive man, had no meaning except with what man endowed it. As representative of mankind’s spiritual and natural birthright, a character such as Barnes’ O’Connor, for example, pursues only one action in Nightwood; he talks, talks endlessly throughout the book. For these writers, man, on the brink of nothingness, dare not stop talking, “bragging, lying, singing, pretending, protesting, swearing everything into being and swearing everything away.” To stop “swearing into being and swearing away” is to become silent, and like Beckett’s Murphy or Lewis’ Vincent Penhale, is to die. Language is man’s only tool with which he can build up a world in which to live, and in that fact, the flow of language is character, and, accordingly, is perhaps the truest and most necessary fiction of all.
Later in my dissertation, I discuss Tender Buttons in terms of the structure of narrative fiction, exploring the concept of style as structure.
In some of Stein’s works one encounters structures that are no longer inclusive, but are intrinsic. In works such as Tender Buttons Stein does not order her material in terms of an overall structure, but structures the individual passages in terms of style.
In her lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein remarks that she always sensed a crucial difference between paragraphs and sentences: “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are.” In order to test this, “to break down this essential combination,” Stein notes, she made the sentences of The Making of Americans “enormously long…..as long the longest paragraph,” creating in them a balance akin to that of the paragraph rather than of the normal balance of the sentence. In some sentences, Stein claims, she succeeded in “creating a balance that was neither the balance of the sentence nor the balance of the paragraph….” What she had discovered, she asserts, is a “new balance that had to do with a sense of movement of time included in a given space….” And in How to Write she experimented in expressing this new balance in shorter sentences. In the end, both these long and short sentences become something in their own right that was “a whole thing,” that had a balance of unfilled space “created by something moving as moving is not as moving should be.”
What comes out of this interest in a new “balance” of sentences is Stein’s emphasis in works such as Tender Buttons upon the noun in motion—not the motion as in a sequence of addition (as in counting one, two, three, four), but as in a sequence in which each element, each nominative or other clause, is given new potential (as in counting one and one and one and one).
This interest in grammatical structure might at first appear to be a narrowing of focus. But in its effects this shift of emphasis is additive. For what Stein posits here is a structure that is as dynamic in its treatment of language as the most inclusive form is in terms of content. In this sense, such a structure is as dynamic as an encyclopedic fiction, but is simultaneously so intrinsic that it does not go beyond the boundaries of the sentence. One might liken it to a situation in which all the structural energy the Old Testament is focused into the space of a single paragraph. Obvious, Stein makes such claims. But my point is that rather than viewing Stein’s concentration on a grammatical structure, her focus on style, as opposed to a generic form, as a kind of reductivism, one should understand it as an attempt to expand the restrictions normally imposed by the structures of narrative art. Somewhat like Lewis’s vortex, Stein’s balanced sentence in motion concentrates all energy into one place, and in so doing frees fiction from having to imitate the broader patterns of life inherent in the generic forms.
I have previously hinted at how this works in Tender Buttons in my discussion of character. However, a further example must be examined in order to better understand Stein’s approach.
A star glide, a single frantic sullenness; a single financial grass
Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the
rush, make the bottom.
A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there
is no reason to say that there was a time.
A woolen object glided. A country climb is the best disgrace,
A couple of practices any of them in order is so left.
In the very first sentence one can clearly see how the noun is put in motion: although the “star” in the first clause, for example, reads as a adjective modifying “glide,” because it reads so queerly (upon first reading it is nearly impossible to cognitively grasp “star glide”) one senses it as a noun in the possessive case (a star’s glide), and consequently, one reads the first clause forward and backwards before he is able to move on to the next. The second clause, moreover, does not add to the reader’s understanding but forces him to begin anew. One comprehends “sullenness,” but may have difficulty connecting such an emotional state with “a single”; and the connotations of “sullenness”—silence and reserve—seem to be at odds with “frantic.” This confusion thus puts stress on the adjectives, so much stress, in fact, that “sullenness” is converted almost from a condition into a thing. And once more, before one can comprehend the clause, he is faced with another. In its repetition of “a single,” one may be led to believe that the new phrase will provide some elucidation; but just as before, a series of adjectives confounds a comprehension of their object. Although one readily understands “financial greediness,” he can only wonder what “grass greediness” is—unless one understands this as a greediness for land—and how a world denoting excessiveness can relate to “a single.” In this first sentence of “A Waist,” in other words, one is faced with nominative clauses that move seemingly to their own logic rather than according to a referential, preconceived one. To rephrase Stein’s description, such clauses move as moving is, instead as moving should be. Each element, each clause, is given new potential instead of functioning accumulatively.
It is only when the reader gives up his attempts to “make sense” of this sentence, when he abandons his attempts at cognition, that he can discover the “balances” by which Stein has structured it. The most obvious of these is a “one, one and one, and one and one and one” pattern of adjectives in these three clauses; each clause is given one more adjective than the previous. However, in perceiving that one may also uncover Stein’s pattern of consonants by which she has interlinked the whole sentence: the “s,” “f,” and “g” sounds. By marking these consonants, one can immediately see the most important factor of balance.
a star glide, a single frantic sullenness,
a single financial grass greediness
When this pattern is linked with the internal consonants “d” and “n,” and when the vowel variations in each clause are taken into consideration, one readily discerns that what may have appeared as formless is actually one of the most carefully constructed sentences possible. If one has been previously misled, it is because in a sentence like this the form comes directly out of the spoken language instead of out of a language directed into written form which, accumulating with other sentences, reflect man and his experience. The language of Tender Buttons, in short, is not a tool to be used in conveying reality; it is that reality. And in this regard, Stein’s words seldom work as symbols that call up associations relating to life experience; for they are themselves living things, are signifiers in their own right. Form, accordingly, does not go beyond the sentence or, at most, the paragraph; there is no overall structure to be uncovered in the work. There is mostly repetition—sentence after sentence, each alive in its own combination of moving, non-accumulating clauses, balanced into a structure that seldom crosses the boundary of the period. In this manner, lifting fiction out of organcism, away even from conventional nonorganic forms, Stein took narrative beyond the borders even of Northrup Frye’s archetypal patterns of literary activity.
This does not mean that “A Waist” or Tender Buttons as a whole is without human reference. The second and third sentences of “A Waist,” for example, are quite obviously sexual in connotation; and if one interprets the “star glide” of the first sentence to have something to do with dancing, it is possible to sense of flow of events that all relate to “a waist” as affected by love (suggested by the “frantic sullenness,” “greediness,” and “star glide” dance of the first sentence), sex (implied in the concern with objecthood, and in the verbs “hold” and “make” and the nouns “dark,” “rush,” and bottom” of the second and third sentences), food (perhaps the cause of “a remarkable change,” a suspicion supported by the incomplete platitude, “there was a time” [when I was thin?]), clothing (the “woolen object” of the sixth sentence), and movement in space (the “country climb” and “star glide” which tie together the first and last sentences). It is these very things—love, sex, food, clothing, and spatial movement—one must remember that are the central concerns of Tender Buttons. And disjointed and nonorganic as the overall structure is, the repletion of these very human concerns encourages one to further identify the work as a narrative entity.
Miami, Florida/College Park, Maryland, September-August 1979
Revised, with notes, Los Angeles, July 14, 2008
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2008).