Friday, October 3, 2014

Bridging from Whitman & Dickinson to Stein's Tender Buttons

What? The Steiny Road Poet is participating in another session of ModPo?

Yes, the 2014 Coursera MOOCModern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) by University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis’ is absorbing every spare moment of Steiny’s time. Again. The news is she is now seeing more clearly why the good professor begins his course with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

What happens in this course is that Filreis shows how 20th century poets like Rae Armantrout and William Carlos Williams seem to be influenced by Emily Dickinson and/or Walt Whitman. (To clarify—Rae Armantrout has bridged into the 21st century and is doing a fine job on innovating anew.) The pivot point in Filreis’ MOOC is week four when Gertrude Stein is introduced.


This ModPo year, Steiny took deeper looks at Dickinson and Whitman and saw cross connections between the work of these poets and Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein.

Cross connections between Whitman and Stein are strong. For example, Stein seems to point at Whitman in Tender Buttons, section 1 “Objects” subpoem, “A Chair.” 

Here is stanza 8 of “A Chair.””

Actually not aching, actually not aching, a stubborn bloom is so artificial and even more than that, it is a spectacle, it is a binding accident, it is animosity and accentuation.

Here are the opening stanzas of Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,  
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,  
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. 
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,  
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, 5 
And thought of him I love. 

As stated in the proceedings of the Buttons Collective on “A Chair.”, Stein seems to be addressing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through his widow Mary Todd Lincoln. In the cross comparison of stanza 8 of “A Chair.” with the opening of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” one notices a sound repetition based on the keening “ac”—actually not aching, actually not achingaccident … accentuation (Stein) compared with lilacs last (Whitman).

But Stein also imitates Whitman’s dooryard bloom'd with stubborn bloom. Stein’s words: and even more than that reverberate with Whitman’s phrasing: and yet shall mourn with ever.

Stein also seems to summon Whitman in other parts of Tender Buttons. Could the “Objects” subpoem “A Leave.” be pointing at Leaves of Grass? Maybe, Stein is setting the compass to Whitman, but within the subpoem pointing to “I Sing the Body Electric.”

Here is “A Leave.”:


In the middle of a tiny spot and nearly bare there is a nice thing to say that wrist is leading. Wrist is leading.

Here is an excerpt from “I Sing the Body Electric”:


The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress
    does not hide him,

What Steiny notices about “the Body Electric” is the word wrists and all that emphasis on joints. And why in Stein is the wrist leading? Possibly because she is writing and in writing she is leaving some thoughts on the page, the printed page that in hot type had a kind of spacing called leading. Wrist as my Buttons pal Peter Treanor pointed out to Steiny while they were talking in email this summer (imagine that another reality beyond the ModPo discussion forum) wrist is a joint between hand and arm. And Peter informed Steiny based on the Oxford English dictionary that the origin of wrist comes from—Old English via German—writhe. If you take the h out of writhe, you get write.

Stein is pretty blatant in the Tender Buttons “Food” section as “Way Lay Vegetable.” opens with Leaves in grass and mow potatoes, have a skip, hurry you up flutter. Or maybe not so blatant since it is Leaves in and not Leaves of. However Steiny won’t comment further but will patiently await the ModPo Buttons Collective to weigh in on “Food” soon.


In the meantime, some traits in common between Stein and Whitman fall in these categories:

  • The human body
  • Love of America
  • Emphasis on poetic identity and maybe identity in general
  • Attention to what’s natural (part of that Emersonian influence?)
  • Awareness about economics, class (the haves and have-nots as well as what is equal and democratic)
  • Contradictions/dualities
  • Metaphysical issues


As to the commonalities between Stein and Dickinson, probably most of the list in common with Whitman applies but much more subtly. Certainly Dickinson’s extreme emphasis on word selection applies. Often one has to go to the root meaning of a word with both Dickinson and Stein. Here’s an anecdote from Steiny recent interactions in ModPo.

September 10, 2014 in the ModPo discussions, Dave Poplar, one of the many super fine teaching assistants, and Steiny were chewing the fat during his office hours. I was concerned about swerving Splinters in Dickinson’s “Brain within its groove.” Here is ED's entire poem:

Emily Dickinson, #556

The Brain, within its Groove

Runs evenly--and true-- 

But let a Splinter swerve-- 

'Twere easier for You—

To put a Current back-- 

When Floods have slit the Hills-- 

And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves-- 

And trodden out the Mills--

Dave was concerned about ED’s use of scooped. So Steiny went to the roots of scooped and a saw this:

[Middle English scope, from Middle Dutch and Middle Low German schpe, bucket for bailing water.]

Would you say that going to the grassroots was on a par with the Steinian wrist-writhe discovery? Thought so.


The conversation isn’t over. Fair warning to the Buttons collective that we will be on the lookout for Whitmanian and Dickinsonian markers as we do a new close reading of Tender Buttons “Objects” and a first close reading of Tender Buttons “Food.” 

P.S. It’s not too late to sign up for the free Coursera ModPo MOOC and then join in the TB MOOSG (Tender Buttons massive open online study group).