Saturday, November 23, 2013


What value was the re-playing, the re-visiting, the re-viewing of the first ten subpoems of Tender Buttons through the filter of the Ten Commandments? Could such a review as the Ten Buts thru Ten Comms Project have been done through other means? Will other reviews like this one be done in the future?

The Steiny Road Poet brings up these questions to close out the Ten-Ten project, to acknowledge various methods of close reading a difficult work like Tender Buttons, and to taut the SloPo (Slow Poetry) approach that is kin to the slow food movement.


As Eleanor Smagarinsky pointed out the first five Ten Commandments deal with the God/(wo)man relationship and the last five with (wo)man /(wo)man relationship. Accordingly, the big discoveries of this Ten-Ten project came in the first five pairings.

In the first pairing, reading “A Carafe, That Is A Blind Glass.” through “Thou shalt have no other gods,” what jumped out for Steiny was that Tender Buttons serves as a holy text of matrimony between Gertrude and Alice. This is Gertrude declaring her troth that there will be no greater love than the one she has for Alice.

In the second pairing reading “Glazed Glitter.” through “Thou shalt have no graven images or likenesses,” the issue of not depicting, not showing, not naming G-d translates to keeping Alice safe in this female-to-female relationship by not naming her.

In the third pairing reading “A Substance in A Cushion.” through “Thou shalt have take the Lord’s name in vain,” the whole discussion of calling unto G-d through holy texts yielded a side benefit and that was learning about Kushiot, a word sounding something like cushion and representing a comprehensive way of performing close readings of difficult texts as presented by the sacred text of Torah and other religious texts. In this subpoem, Gertrude establishes the importance of the partnership she is establishing with Alice. This partnership, like God’s attention, should not be summoned without substantial cause. Because “A Substance in A Cushion” is such a rich text full of words that associate themselves well with Jewish prayer clothing and implements (e.g. tallit, tefllin, tzitzis) as well as philosophic constructs (e.g. noumenon—a thing incapable of being known), Steiny believes The Button Collective will be looking at this subpoem again. This subpoem pairing really punches in this idea of Stein evoking an object without naming it.

In the fourth pairing of the Ten Buts thru Ten Comms Project reading “A Box.” through “Thou shalt remember the Sabbath day,” came a sacred pause to honor the wherewithal of creation. For Gertrude, the creation of union with Alice is a sacred troth worthy of the pain that they have chosen for themselves as outliers to normative man-woman relationships and also worthy of the time to celebrate this creative union. Steiny sees now that another descriptive single word for “A Box” subpoem 4 besides kaleidoscope is insight.

In the fifth pairing reading “A Piece of Coffee.” through “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother,” Steiny learned about the importance of the first five Ten Commandments and how the individual commandments can be categories of meaning. In the case of the Fifth Commandment, the exhortation extends beyond parents to also honoring teachers. In a union, one benefit from the other, one learns from the other, one is uplifted by the other as was the case between the partnership of Gertrude and Alice.

Because in “A Piece of Coffee.” Stein proceeds with more noticeable linguistic play than the first four subpoems (at least noticeable to The Buttons), the big discovery was seeing that the last stanza of this subpoem is heavy with the word may which summons Gertrude’s significant but heartbreaking romance with May Bookstaver. However the use of may is coupled with other words (may not, may be, may not be) that negate the link to Bookstaver. Because of the recently restored may’s to Stanza in Meditation and the flap Gertrude had with Alice over the use of this word, the discovery here in Tender Buttons is significant. And it’s useful to know the article A (as in Alice) appears 17 times throughout “A Piece of Coffee.”.

Largely, the close readings of TB subpoems six through ten seen through the sixth through tenth Commandments tended to bring out more domestic associations as opposed to those on a higher plane. Possibly there was more to see with these individual pairings since the project lost steam as the ModPo curriculum demands heated up in its last weeks of the course. This lack of collaborative close reading activity brings the discussion to the question about using other kinds of lens with which to do close readings.


What other kind of lenses could be used? Tracy Sonafelt suggested these after she came to a crossroad in how she wanted to approach Tender Buttons (more on Tracy’s crossroad shortly):

Reading the poems under the aegis of the first ten elements in the periodic table would also have been interesting. Reading the poems in conversation with ten Shakespearean soliloquies or ten early twentieth-century paintings or ten letters of the alphabet or ten grammatical concepts would also have been engaging.”

The problem, Tracy said about these approaches, is,

“…none of those approaches would have come out of the text. They would all have been read into the text, and that is what I have come to resist. Imposing an external construct on a literary work first and then looking afterward for evidence to support that construct is the exact opposite of the approach I see as most valid and authentic. It works. Virtually any framework will work with poems as open and as metaphorical as these. It may even be a lot of fun, but I don’t think it’s close reading. It’s concept reading.”

With a great deal of thoroughness, Tracy offered a detailed explanation why she felt that primary emphasis on the text without outside sources was important in discussing what Stein was doing in Tender Buttons and specifically in subpoem 13 “A Seltzer Bottle.” Steiny will quote Tracy and gloss certain parts of Tracy’s thoughts, which she titled “A lit-crit issue.” She begins with two quotes.

A poem need not have a meaning and, like most things in nature, often does not have. ~ Wallace Stevens (from “Adagia,” Opus Posthumous, 1959)

“How irksome to have to explain my poem when I don’t know what it means either. This is the trouble with analysis in search of a prose meaning for what is not prose. ~ R.S. Thomas (when a friend asks him to explain one of his poems)

“This is the meta-Sonafeltic portion of my response. I find myself at a crossroads in this Steinian journey, my friends, and I am uncertain how to proceed. I have always taught my students to use a text-centric critical approach to the literary works we read and study. I have leanings toward formalism and New Criticism, but I don’t completely discount biography, authorial intent, and reader response. I just believe that the text is primary. ‘Show me your textual evidence,’ I tell my students. ‘Can you back that up with a textual example? What in the text supports that claim?’ I ask. I want them to follow a text down the interpretive road it carves out, not take the text by the hand and lead it with a map they impose on the text themselves.

“But with Stein, the semantic and syntactic cues and clues on which I normally rely and in which I root my textual approach aren’t easily accessible because, as my husband, the Biblical scholar, said in my conversation with him about this, “Stein is actively subverting the normal process of exegesis.” Exactly. So what we’re led to do, in the absence of surety about what we draw out of the text is to, instead, read in our own preconceived notions, biases, or personal associations. Instead of exegesis, we practice eisegesis, turning Tender Buttons into a kind of literary Rorschach test. Maybe that’s what Stein wanted, for the poems to lead us into ourselves, to reflect ourselves back to us, but I think she was up to something much more revolutionary, namely, deconstructing language and remaking it in a radically new way that would fundamentally change the way we view the world. I have thus begun to think that while we can deconstruct the poems in Tender Buttons, describe their features and patterns, draw connections among the sub-poems, and juggle lots of possible associations and connotations, we can never really decode them and are, in fact, not meant to.”


Here Steiny affirmed that she had no problem with Tracy’s approach since Steiny could see Tender Buttons like The Making of Americans moving from “sense making to chaotic sound making.” And to be sure Steiny understood what Tracy was saying, she took the time to review what Tracy wrote:

“I think your approach applies to the term Exegesis that includes a wide range of critical disciplines: textual criticism is the investigation into the history and origins of the text, but exegesis may include the study of the historical and cultural backgrounds for the author, the text, and the original audience. This is the part of exegesis that is not working for you, right? This is also the part you of exegesis you have labeled the normal process of exegesis, yes?

Exegesis also includes cataloging other literary genres seen in the text and analysis of grammatical and syntactical characteristics of the text itself. This is the approach that you are currently pursuing in looking at “A Seltzer Bottle.”. Correct?
“Next you discuss EISegesis, which, as you say, puts the way of looking at Stein’s prose poems into the psyche of the reader who pulls out associations from his/her bag of experience and imposes that on Stein’s collection of words. It is what we do when we stand in front of an abstract painting.

“In many ways the approach you have settled on synchs with the approach my friends who are graduates of St. John’s College of Annapolis embrace for analyzing texts. They read the Great Books and often in the original language. In their college curriculum, they don’t do subjects separately but they do insist that one can only look at the text before them and separate that text from the author and from the author’s living space. It is a way of looking and it often yields valuable and satisfying information.

“I have no objection to this approach and it will be and is valuable with difficult unyielding texts like “A Seltzer Bottle.”

“That said, Stein is difficult to separate from other works and from her living space because she threaded that into work. She was a prolific reader reading in wide ranging disciplines. 
“While Stein did not write many personal things in her notebooks (literary journals), her work often contained details from her day. For example, I went to Yale to her main lit archive to research her relationship with Christopher Blake, a man still living who claims to be her last protégé. In fact there were things written about him that were in the form of Stanzas in Meditation and that he indeed seemed to be a writer she cared for deeply.

“Anyway I think the approach you prefer is valid and we will all learn much from it. I just don’t want to discourage other approaches and I know you are also NOT discouraging other ways of seeing, studying and enjoying Stein. Maybe this falls into a My Gertrude Stein like Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson.”

Here’s how Tracy answered Steiny:

Karren [a.k.a. Steiny], I think you have summarized my position pretty clearly and cleanly. My academic background (both undergraduate and graduate) is in English language and literature, not in education (I back-doored my way into teaching), and is thus largely exegetical. So I certainly embrace textual criticism and historical-cultural-contextual criticism. I am also not opposed to some biographical criticism, especially if supported by primary source evidence, but I still assert the primacy of text itself. I am entirely resistant to eisegetical approaches even though I can play that game and have done so previously with TB. I’m quite familiar with the St. John's Great Books approach (I have some continuing ed training in that approach) and think it’s a partial analogue to the critical method I embrace. You are right that I am not discouraging other critical approaches to Stein. A critique of methodology is part of literary criticism. Resistance is part of intellectual inquiry. Resistance ≠ rejection.”


Suffice it to say, there was additional exchanges on the subject of approach dealing with text, subtext, meaning, chance and so on but most importantly how one approaches Tender Buttons will remain open. All discussion is welcome. And yes, Steiny was willing to apply any lens to the first ten subpoems of Tender Buttons for review purposes, but felt by shifting the attention to the Ten Commandments actually yielded some meaty things to think about relative to Stein (and her work) who came from extended family who were orthodox Jews.

Furthermore, Steiny subscribes to the educational standard that review and reflection is periodically valuable. If all The Button Collective does is move through Tender Buttons like a group of constantly hungry carnivores or culture vultures (more apropos to those who visited 27 rue de Fleurus just to say that they had been there), we would be out of synch with Stein’s rubric of talking and listening. Surely we want to carry forward what we are discovering. So welcome again to SloPo.

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