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Unoriginal Genius: Student Poems Made from Tender Buttons

In teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to undergraduates in a course on modern poetry, I have asked them to think about these prose poems through the act of making a poem in response. While this is a literature and not a creative-writing course, the strategy of assigning a creative-writing exercise is effective in Stein’s case because through making a poem the students prove to themselves that what might at first appear nonsensical can be, if one reads—and then writes—word by word, startlingly lucid. I think this assignment has been listed by students as a favorite because of, not despite, the challenge that Tender Buttons offers. Because the text opens a wild space between word and referent, they feel licensed to play with language in remarkable ways. The poem almost writes itself—and students love that kind of assignment.

Image by Lara Odell

Stein wrote Tender Buttons in part to express the rich diversity within everyday habit and domestic space. The poems’ lexicon is almost Shakespearean in its range, and Stein did little to marshal its energy; her use of organizational markers is slight or seemingly arbitrary. While the book has a setting, her apartment in Paris, it is non-narrative, and the subtitles that punctuate the first two-thirds of the book are mostly disjunctive with the text that follows. The book’s overall structure, however, is manifestly expressive. Stein organized the poems into sections—Objects, Food, and Rooms—to consider three types of relation: objects are outside of us, food is both outside and inside us, and we are either inside rooms or outside of them. The poems’ words are objects and the sentences function like rooms, as if any word might go into them and be moved around; the words appear infinitely rearrangeable. As an art collector Stein would rearrange the paintings on her walls. So too the irreverent social style of this work—practically any word could be next to another.

To prepare the class for the assignment, I circulate The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) and we discuss analogies between cooking and writing, how poetic forms are like recipes, words like ingredients, and reading like eating. As the Cook Book attests, gustatory pleasure can come through experiment, all the sauces one can mix and combinations on your plate. Of course people do not always want to try new foods, or food combinations, and similarly readers might prefer a poem that tastes familiar. Like a foreign cookbook, Tender Buttons challenges readers to expand the circle of what might taste good.

I then suggest that one strangeness of Tender Buttons is its treatment of mass nouns as if they are countable. Sugar, milk, and coffee are usually treated as undifferentiated masses, but Stein aims to reveal the singularity of things. We consider the subtitle “A piece of coffee” and how Stein takes things that are regarded as all of a piece (a grammatical unit or dinner menu) and breaks them into pieces.[1] “This made a piece show,” she writes punningly, the word “show” both verb and noun (41). We conclude that Tender Buttons, by thwarting the logic of the mass noun and having each word count, encourages us to discover what makes something different; a repeated word is not necessarily the same word. This is Stein’s politics of poetic form: as “America” promises not to be a mass noun, instead promising the individual’s right of movement, this poetry shows us how moving words around can expand their meanings.

We then choose at random a passage to close read, such as “There was a whole collection made. A damp cloth, an oyster, a single mirror, a manikin, a student, a silent star, a single spark, a little movement and the bed is made” (67). What do we notice? The language of domestic work? A damp cloth will clean a mirror and then you make the bed? Do oysters taste like damp cloths? Single mirror and manikin are also akin—like a painted portrait, they are never perfect doubles of the viewer. Stein emphasizes that which is single: alone, distinctive, unwed. Single mirror and single spark. A single spark is a silent star; a silent spark is a single star. Spark and little movement. “The bed is made” is a repetitive activity, like collecting, cleaning, or studying, and the bed is made is also the bed you made through what you have done and now you have to lie in it—a condition echoing the stasis of a whole or finished collection? With words (made, single) repeating and changing, with its intriguing comparisons, passages like this one work well: they give a spark to the students.

Here, then, is the assignment: write a poem using only Stein’s words and a formalist technique that we have seen in the work of other poets, and a short essay describing your creative process and what you have learned. I give the students a file with the complete text and invite them to read in any direction and for whatever duration they want. They compile what attracts their attention and work from there. In class we think up interesting words and use the computer’s “find” function to test whether they appear and in what context. They can use this technology in making their poem. Although the lexicon in Tender Buttons is immense, the words “teach” and “teacher” do not appear (neither do love, death or soul)—“students” but no teachers. This omission suits my approach.

The students have often made the assignment into a kind of psychology test: they find words to describe their current experiences and romantic predicaments, and they are drawn to the book’s erotic language and expressions of violence and pain. Their essays invariably describe a shift from seeing the book as nonsense to finding the precise words to tell a personal story; their essays add a context for that story. Poems about a color (red, white, black, yellow, green) are a popular choice. They build sentences like “My tongue has a tendency to dance with trouble” (Mary Kate Stewart). Some of them note that one found phrase in particular directs the content of their poem. For instance: “One of my favorite phrases is ‘silent pocketful.’ I fell in love with the contradiction. I wanted to take that idea just a step further. Ultimately, I wrote the lines ‘her silent pocketful sounds with the melody of / just a few pennies.’ The contradiction brings about the feeling that so little is so much and so much is so little.” This beginning inspired Breana Killingsworth to write on the theme of workers who are paid very little to make expensive products, and she borrowed the mesostic form developed by John Cage. The thirteen lines spell TENDER BUTTONS, and it begins: “Out on The hill, Brown Ladies in rose-wood chairs are / sewing an elegant yellow drEss with lily white lace. / One is wearing a dirty white petticoat that is poiNting to the sky.”

Image by Lara Odell

We reach this assignment around the middle of the semester. By that point we have surveyed a number of poetic constraints, including the sonnet, the sestina, blank verse, haiku, as well as the syllabic poems of Marianne Moore, the lists of Charles Bernstein, the univocalics of Christian Bök, and the abecedarian poems of Harryette Mullen—using Mullen’s recipe, Jared Fine wrote couplets such as “Machinery makes magnificent milk, / Naturally neater (no nurses)” and “Scent screams secret seduction, / Teasing temptations to touch trouble.” We also discuss the rise of prose poetry and free verse and look through Ron Padgett’s The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. Kenny Connally’s free-verse poem begins: “Objects cover every surface: / in the dining room, a little rose-wood elephant / rests on the long brown table, next to a nearly empty glass.”

So when the students are asked to choose a form for their poem, they have a buffet of ready options. Whatever they use, whether from before Stein’s time (sonnet, blank verse), concurrent with (free verse, syllabic), or after (abecedarian, univocalic), their poem—mixing Stein’s words with a different form—might connect the work of a radical Modernist with poets like William Wordsworth (his blank verse) or with our contemporary poets. When her words appear in sonnet form or are rearranged for narrative clarity, there is a risk of domesticating Stein. The upside, though, is that the students understand what Stein was reacting to and her influence on later writing. They situate her in the long history of poetic experimentation and work simultaneously with more than one aesthetic. They can see Stein not so much as an oddity but as an essential part of the overall design of American poetry.

Prior to working with Tender Buttons, the students do a sonnet-translation exercise that also involves reflecting on the evolution of poetry. They choose a pre-1900 sonnet and transform it into free verse through the technique of erasure. (I conceived of this assignment while reading Laura Riding and Robert Graves’s A Survey of Modernist Poetry [1927], which jokes that E. E. Cummings made his poems by deleting words from old sonnets or blank-verse poems, as if Modernism were Romanticism redacted.) We compare the sonnet’s use of pre-determined constraints to a mode wherein thought finds its expressive form as it is being written; while a free-verse poem may arrive at formal patterns, it does not begin with them. And with this exercise, we think about anchoring—a free-verse translation anchored to a sonnet, as well as a poem anchored to an author’s core concept and words to their referents. For the students this exercise often leads to a sense of failure, their translation seeming a ghost of its former self. The formal changes seem to destroy the original meaning.

By contrast, the Tender Buttons exercise does not require meaning to be carried over; this text offers a vocabulary and style with almost no strings attached. Our conclusion fully supports Frank Kermode’s assertion in The Classic that in literature saying “more than [she] meant was what [she] meant to do.”[2] While the students’ poems are made possible by Stein’s book, they are not beholden to it, and the students make a point of declaring, with irony intended, that their poems are their own. Through this process they therefore understand the appeal of writing a non-referential or abstract text. Just as Stein had been responding to her actual place of living yet created a text separate from it, the students respond to and use Tender Buttons without the concern that flares up in the sonnet-translation exercise, that they were violating the meaning of the original. They have fun rearranging words that Stein put into motion.


  1. ^ Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, ed. Seth Perlow (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014), 13.
  2. ^ Frank Kermode, The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence and Change (1975; rpt., Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 80.