Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

A review of the poetry collection Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein.

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Although published in 1914, Tender Buttons by Gertude Stein is a literary exercise that still continues to challenge the reader to re-examine perceptions of objects and grammatical and syntactical systems. Stein’s collection, which consists of three sections titled ‘objects’, ‘food’, and ‘rooms’, defamiliarises language to encourage us to recognise conventional constructs and see how over time they become too familar and turn into cliche. Stein’s poetry achieves what Russian literary theorist Viktor Shlovsky argued art should do, which is to ‘recover the sensation of life; […] to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’

In his essay, ‘Art as Technique’, Shklovsky argued that ‘after we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it. Once this habitualization occurs it devours, works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.’ Shlovsky believed that it is ‘the purpose of art to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’. Through her poetry Stein makes objects ‘unfamiliar’ by describing them in unconventional ways. In the collection she explains how defamiliarisation works within her writing:

I became more and more excited about how words which were the words that made whatever I looked at look like itself were not the words that had in them any quality of description. This excited me very much at the time… [they were] words that to me very exactly related themselves to that thing the thing at which I was looking, but as often as not had as I say nothing whatever to do with what any words would do that described the thing.

Stein’s descriptions are not of objects themselves but offer a different way of knowing a quality of the objects. For example, a ‘box’ is not described by it’s dimensions or the material it is made out of, instead we are given an abstract thought initiated by the object: ‘out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of a selection comes painful cattle.’

Stein’s use of repetition defamiliarises sentence structure, forcing us to slow down our reading pace and break the sentence down in ways would never normally expect to do. When reading Tender Buttons we have to understand the meaning of the words and sentences anew: ‘a trimming such a sweet singing trimming’, ‘a feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post’. In ‘Asparagus’ Stein writes, ‘This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.’ Stein’s writing tries to, as she states, capture ‘the excitingness of pure being’, by avoiding conventional constructions of language, grammar, and syntax there is the opportunity for fresh and original thoughts and perceptions of the objects being described, the language used, and what we think prose poetry is and can express.

Throughout Tender Buttons there are questions that go unanswered. There is a sense of hopelessness. When Stein states,‘why is there so much suffering … why is there’, it is plaintive. There is no satisfying answer. Similarly there is no satisfying answer in the lines ‘what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover’. Stein does not offer us an answer we expect, for instance, that nickel is a chemical element or that its substance is silver metal. Nor do we find an answer that easily satisfies in the line, ‘A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon and an undercoat and a sizer a sizer a sizer of talks’. As we read these sentences we begin to find conventional logic break down. Again, this is seen in Stein’s line, ‘If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they need a catalogue’ Typically, the sub clause is meant to relate to the main clause, often providing a conclusion to a statement. However, in this example it is not immediately clear what ‘this’ is as there no explanation. I think Stein wants the reader to experience confusion and to feel they have little grasp of what these poems mean or understand what they are trying to say.

There’s no doubt that Stein’s style does make Tender Buttons a difficult read, but when you become familiar and comfortable with the sense of ‘not-knowing’, and begin to study what Stein’s words are doing to make you feel so disconcerted, the experience of reading her work starts to become a madly thrilling experience.

Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.

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