Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Lessons learned from Tender Buttons So Far

2014 is the Centennial Year of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons. This prose poem marked a turning point in Stein’s career as a writer by establishing her as poet first and foremost though she had already published Three Lives (1909), a book of novellas, and she had written the unpublished long novel The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress (completed in 1911), not to mention the long hidden novel QED about Stein’s failed love affair with May Bookstaver. QED was completed in Baltimore in 1903.

Academics will be quick to say Stein is hard to put in one literary box. However, the Steiny Road Poet will stick by labeling this highly experimental writer as a poet because of the way Stein handled words throughout her writing.  Stein’s lecture “Poetry and Grammar” backs this up as well and presents how she transitioned from writing The Making of Americans with its emphasis on verbs and adverbs to Tender Buttons with its emphasis on nouns.

With the help of an international study group assembled inside the Coursera Modern Poetry Massive Open Online Course developed by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, Steiny has been studying Tender Buttons since mid October 2013 and presenting the results of that study in this blog. We have currently worked our way through 40 percent of “Objects,” section 1 of the three part poem. Here are some lessons learned which may help in reading Stein’s first love poem to her life long partner Alice B. Toklas.

Nouns are important, especially the root meanings.

Root meanings lead to new aspects of what Stein is studying.

For Stein, poetry is about expressing love. Hidden in the words is her love for her partner Alice B. Toklas.

Stein’s daily life, her experience of living and the world in which she lived in come into play in Tender Buttons. This includes her long relationship with Pablo Picasso, cubism and various visual artists whose work Gertrude and Leo Stein invested in. Stein's treated all aspects of her life equally in Tender Buttons and often these elements arise simultaneously showing Stein's dazzling ability of dimensionality where one word, phrase or sentence projects many associations at the same time.

While Stein presents as simply as possible, often using plain monosyllabic words, she operates within a system to pointing that usually harkens back to what she learned from her Harvard professor William James. Therefore she is pragmatic. Therefore there is always some logic behind what she is offering. This could be meaning or it could be method.

Key words thread through Tender Buttons. Therefore, if Stein uses a word more than once within a subpoem, that is a sign that she is up to something and the reader must dig in deeper.

Mathematics and geometry play into Stein’s system of pointing. It’s part of her logic and eye on cubism. (think fractals)

Humor is part of Stein’s ludic (playful) landscape. Often it manifests in odd word play.

Reader participation is a requirement for reading Stein. She invites you to get out your magnifying glass, to tune up your singing voice, to play scrabble with her letters, to read what she has written through a kaleidoscope, to take out your perfume and get intoxicated.

When you enter the Steinian woods, take all your family, friends, and acolytes. The more the merrier.

Dear Reader, you are invited to participate here in The Steiny Road to Operadom blog as we move slowly through the subpoems of Tender Buttons

2014: HAPPY NEW YEAR! Happy 100 years for Tender Buttons!

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