Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Cooking with Tender Buttons Food: Roastbeef. Stanzas 1-37. Discussion 8

THE BOOK ..........................-           TENDER BUTTONS
THE SUBBOOK ...................-           FOOD
THE SUBPOEM ..................-            Roastbeef
WORD COUNT (Total)……..-           1757
STANZA(S)............................-           37
THE LEADER........................-           THE STEINY ROAD POET

Among all the subpoems of the first two sections of Tender Buttons, “Roastbeef.” is the longest. Addressing the major themes of the entire work: existence, appearance, gender, sexuality, morality, and union, “Roastbeef.” is a critical subpoem. This post will be a broad-brush summary of the six separate discussions.


Starting in the fall of 2013, the Steiny Road Poet, working with international students signed up for the Coursera Modern & Contemporary American Poetry massive open online course (ModPo MOOC), has been slowly working through Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons using The Corrected Centennial Edition edited by Seth Perlow. The study takes place in the ModPo discussion forums. University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, the ModPo developer, says this study is a MOOC inside a MOOC. The depth and duration of this study is unlike anything that has ever been done before with Tender Buttons.

Because “Roastbeef.” contains 1757 words (including the title) spread among 37 stanzas, Steiny divided the subpoem into six parts so that the Buttons Collective, as those ModPo students are known who participate in this study group, could more easily focus and stayed focus on individual stanzas. The results of those six separate discussions have been documented here on this blog. Additionally, there is a separate blog post for the title of this subpoem.

At the beginning of 2014 after spending several months studying subpoems of section 1 Objects, Steiny created a list of lessons learned. She is pleased to say that these lessons learned continue to apply to section 2 Food where “Roastbeef.” is the first subpoem. Additional lessons learned are accruing and so this summation of “Roastbeef.” may be useful in reading other subpoems of Food as well as rereading the subpoems of Objects. Nevertheless, Steiny still says that a reader can start anywhere in Tender Buttons and be able to appreciate what Stein has written at a basic level of “understanding.”

Tips to keep in mind while reading Tender Buttons are:
  • Approach each subpoem as if it were an abstract painting and allow yourself room to appreciate what thoughts come to you.
  • Stein often implants suggestions for how to read her texts within the text of Tender Buttons.
  •  Key words in a subpoem merit looking up the possible meanings and origin of the word in a dictionary. Often the best dictionary for looking up word origination is the Oxford English Dictionary.
  •   Repeated words signal that Stein is emphasizing something important in this text.
  • Strings of words that don’t make grammatical sense may be associated with some kind of process that might involve for example: gaming, musicality, or grammatical shakeup.
  • Expect the unexpected and allow for contradiction. Stein was a polymath who studied philosophy at Harvard with William James. Tender Buttons reaches into science, mathematics, physics, psychology, religion, superstition, nursery rhymes, classic literature (especially the plays of William Shakespeare), American literature, philosophy (including logic), and more.
  • Stein points at texts by other writers rather than quoting them. Stein also suggests without employing strong literary allusion. This makes scholars says that her work is without literary allusion.
  • American subjects play an important role in Tender Buttons. Stein was intent on being known as an American writer, despite living in Paris for most of her life.
  • Knowing Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s biographies and world wide historic events help illuminate a great deal of Tender Buttons. This knowledge might help a reader buy into this premise: Tender Buttons is Stein’s love poem to her wife Alice Toklas as well as the covenant as to how they will live with each other and what they will leave as their legacy.
  • For optimum reward, reading Stein requires participation by the reader. Stein believed in talking and listening, which Steiny says is about coming to the texts ready to work.


There is little mention of beef in the 37 stanzas of “Roastbeef.”. Only three stanzas use the word beef. Stanza 3 has no beefsteak and stanza 14 has never beef. Only stanza 25 employs the word beef without negation:

Please be the beef, please beef, pleasure is not wailing. Please beef, please be carved clear, please be a case of consideration.

The use of the word beef in stanza 25 seems more an exercise in wielding language than informing the reader about why the title of this subpoem is Roastbeef. The poet seems to be exhorting someone to take responsibility for some complaint (the beef) and then to let go and complain (to beef).

 “Roastbeef.” opens the Food section of Tender Buttons, but no mention of eating takes place. Stein only provides the furniture—stove, chairs and tables—accessories—plates and spoons—and verbs associated with eating meat—cuts and cutting. While disparaging the cow (…it does mean that a meadow is useful and a cow absurd—stanza 3), Stein perversely mentions chicken twice (Room to comb chickens and feathers—stanza 9 and To bury a slender chicken to raise an old feather—stanza 30) and other animals like lambs, goats, and colts (Why should ancient lambs be goats and young colts and never beef—stanza 14).


Generally speaking across the stanzas of “Roastbeef.”, the most compelling continuity is a biographical narrative subtly sculpted into the words of this subpoem. That narrative begins with introduction to the love story of Stein and Toklas (stanzas 1-3) with emphasis on relationship. Stein plays with ship making it seem as the subpoem opens that the principal characters (those in this relation) are waking up on a riverboat steamer. The opening three stanzas are much more lyrical than what we have encountered in section 1 Objects which are generally shorter. Also contributing to this sense of lyricism is that Stein may be taking her poetic lead from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It as well as from Genesis (the King James version).

Stanza 4 with words like reduction, reparation, no restraint seem to point to the riff between Gertrude and her brother Leo which occurred at the time Gertrude was writing Tender Buttons. Stanzas 9 through 17 beginning with the word room, which is repeated six times in stanza 9, seems to indicate that Leo’s departure from their common living space at 27 rue de Fleurus will give her room to do what she pleases. The following stanzas (10-17), starting with a barely polite breakfast scene, chronicle the sister-brother relationship including their philosophic exchanges, the Saturday night salons in their living room, and how the slightly older brother lorded his authority over his sister. Meanwhile in the background, Stein shows Toklas as a shadow in the kitchen.

Stanza 18 juxtaposes bone and bones (7 occurrences) with time (2 times), choice(s) (3 times), difference (1 time), kind (5 times). “Roastbeef.” includes these words in this count: bone and bones (7 occurrences), time (10 times), choice(s) (6 times), difference (6 times), kind (9 times). One way of reading stanza 18 is that Stein is showing us the bone of contention between her and Leo. The contention involves Gertrude choosing to be a writer instead of a doctor, and in the face of the time she lived in, that did not allow for difference in gender identity (the kind of person she was who identified as male versus female) and for Gertrude choosing a lifetime partner of the same sex.

Stanzas 22 through 29 could be read as Gertrude acknowledging the loss of her brother despite the beef he has with her over Alice. These stanzas also return to the passion (as embodied in the words furnace and blanket) Gertrude has for her chosen one.

The concluding stanzas 30 through 37 gather together all aspects of brother-sister-lover triangle, which Stein boils down to a matter of preserving her union with Toklas. By pointing in stanza 37 to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (and by inference the jeopardy that exacted in preserving the Union, the United States of America, after a bloody civil war): All the stain is tender and lilacs really lilacs are disturbed, Stein invokes Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” as well as the broader concern that her American union (with California-born Toklas) must and will survive despite there being no delight (referring to the sadness of losing the relationship with her brother) and no mathematics (money) in it. The fact that the stain (bloodstain) is tender puts additional weight on Tender Buttons, the title of the entire work. Union might also be a plausible explanation why Stein makes “Roastbeef.”, this subpoem’s title one word instead of two.


Unlike the shorter subpoems of section 1 Objects, “Roastbeef.” is full of literary pointers, some of which have already been mentioned. However, for the sake of seeing these literary references together, Steiny will repeat them: Shakespeare (particularly As You Like It but also Macbeth in stanza 34), the Bible (most likely the Saint James version, especially Genesis), Walt Whitman (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), and William Blake (“The Tyger”). Stein’s pointing to “The Tyger” appears in stanza 6, an unusually rhymed-filled stanza. Instead of a tiger, Stein gives us a snipe, which could be the long-billed bird, a (gun)shot from a concealed location, a contemptible person, or an anagram of penis.

As mentioned, “Roastbeef.” addresses the six major themes present in Tender Buttons. It occurs to Steiny that these themes— existence, appearance, gender, sexuality, morality, and union—are interrelated with existence as the first priority. Stein usually signals these themes through her word choices and by insistent repetition though the union theme seems subtler. Yes, Stein uses words like altogether in stanza 3, sets in stanza 9, collecting in stanza 22, collection in stanza 26, together in stanza 31, but predominately in “Roastbeef.” she communicates the idea of union through literary pointing. As You Like It is a play about warring family members who come to peace and marry. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” deals with the American Civil War that broke the country apart into Union and Confederacy a state of affairs that often pitted brother against brother and resulted in the assassination of the 16th U. S. president.

By inclusion in the first and last stanzas, “The Tyger” emphasizes the word symmetry (two similar parts along a divide which work together in some way) as does Stein’s Lovely snipe and tender turn which ends on the word symmetry and exhibits the symmetry of two possible birds (snipe and tern/turn) in the first phrase marked by a comma. Stein uses punctuation—seven commas and a period—to create a symmetry (the punctuation functions as a line break might) between her prose poem and Blake’s quatrains, which have a regular rhyme scheme (AABB  CCDD, etc.). The question arises why would Stein choose Blake from whom to take inspiration over other English writers? Steiny suspect she did so because Blake wrote a series of poems called America a Prophecy that concerns the American revolution and because Blake was a multi-disciplinarian who was an accomplished visual artist using this talent to illustrate his books of poetry.


Steiny notes that Stein uses the word is, one of the markers of the existence theme, 172 times in “Roastbeef.”, not to mention lesser counts of the words are and be. More exciting to Steiny’s way of thinking is Stein’s use of the word birthday in stanza 5. Stein’s backstory is that her sister Bertha taunted her that she and Leo were replacement children after two babies preceding them died. The presumption was she would not have existed had these siblings lived. Like the good scientist and philosopher she was trained to be, Stein also examines the flip side and has substantial counts of such words as no, not, and nothing. However, overall Stein always seems to weight her words toward the positive.

Among the words that indicate appearance, Stein uses show five times in “Roastbeef.” but this is a big subject with lots of categories, such as color, dimension, clothing, quality, quantity, etc., not to mention what Stein is hiding (the sexual relationship with Toklas) which falls into the realm of keeping up appearances. For example, in stanza 19 she expresses no hope in daintiness and determination.

The theme of morality comes across strongly in the first few stanzas with words like standards, pinching, resignation, discrimination, and dirt. For example in stanza 1: All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and in stanza 3: The change the dirt, not to change dirt means that there is no beefsteak and not to have that is no obstruction, it is so easy to exchange meaning. What’s interesting is how this language of judging is mixed with joy because as this subpoem opens immense feeling associated with awakening dominates stanza 1: In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching.

While the theme of gender (one’s sense of self—Stein identified herself in relation to Toklas as male) is harder to detect because Stein had so much to hide, Steiny asserts that Stein’s use of the word kind is a signpost of gender. Stanza 18 runs riot with the word kind, asserting four times (in keeping with the opening premise of the stanza about four choices) there is a kind. What follows is an assertion about bone and bones (these words are repeated seven times), which could in theory refer to the male sexual organ. The text says: There are bones and there is that consuming. The kindly way to feel separating is to have a space between. This shows a likeness. Gender identity sets one apart such that one needs space to choose it but there in resides the likeness or resemblance.

Sexuality pervades “Roastbeef.” and can be seen in the examples provided for the other major themes. A standing sexual joke between Stein and Toklas was having a cow meant having an orgasm. Where does roast beef come from? Cattle, of course. However, on a more serious note, “Roastbeef.” is Stein’s attempt to address Hamlet’s question—to be or not to be.


One of Stein’s goals in writing Tender Buttons, was to revitalize the English language, such that over used words would be born anew. She placed emphasis on articles, prepositions, and conjunctions and said in "Poetry and Grammar" [from Lectures in America] articles are interesting just as nouns and adjectives are not. “She noted that articles please—‘Articles please, a and an and the please as the name that follows cannot please.’ As “Roastbeef.” opens, she uses the preposition in (10 times in stanza 1) to provide an immediacy and a lyrical intimacy that is backed up by the repetition of the article the. But this is not to say that she has written text devoid of meaning. Steiny argues here that Stein’s use of articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, which seem mostly like connecting words to the casual reader, echo what Shakespeare does throughout As You Like It. It also speaks to the way philosophers argue the essential points of their knowledge.

Word play also abounds in “Roastbeef.”. It is an interactive sport between Stein and her reader as the possibility of finding p-e-n-i-s in snipe (stanza 6) or the seabird tern versus sound-alike turn (also stanza 6). Excessive use of the “er” sound might point to the word her, as in Alice Toklas since Stein cannot name her lover. Excessive use of the article a might also point to Alice, because again Stein cannot name her partner.


While Stein like most Americans came from immigrant stock, she set herself a task to be an American writer but one who would distinguish herself from others. In “Roastbeef.”, the characteristic turkey (stanza 28) is a North American bird and in this one sentence stanza, the turkey may be a stand-in for Stein: Bargaining for a little, bargain for a touch, a liberty, an estrangement, a characteristic turkey.

For more details and deeper understanding of this summary, read the individual blog posts on “Roastbeef.”.

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