On the ways that Gertrude Stein “challenges the reader’s fundamental understanding of language and its utility.”
Gertrude Stein, an adored and spurned American writer who found no usefulness in the question mark (among other conventional devices),1 is most remembered for her experimental theories and techniques, collaborative efforts with other artists, and lasting influence on Modernism. Stein’s provocative engagement with language found her on an always-cusp between critical dismissal and praise—and still does in her legacy. For a contemporary reader, it is important to acknowledge the literary tradition in which Stein was raised and educated in order to establish a context to fully recognize (and celebrate) her concept of what language has been and should be. Of relevant significance is her involvement with abstract painting and, particularly, the Cubist work of deconstruction and following reassembly with shapes as parts (also parts as shapes), ultimately shifting texture, prioritizing creative experience, and reorganizing the relationship between form and content. A third item of polarized interest is Stein’s identity-experience and how it manifests in her work. Once this frame is understood, one may hopefully begin to admire the work that Stein did to challenge the reader’s fundamental understanding of language and its utility. For the purpose of this essay, I will be brief in my foundational introduction of this contextual material and then approach Stein’s hotly-regarded Tender Buttons with a reading guided by Stein’s own theories applied directly to her work with emphasis on its particular musicality introduced more overtly in The World is Round.
The nineteenth century Western narrative relied on time to move forward with mostly linear momentum. This yielded a formulaic understanding of “beginning” and “ending.” Stein’s style was disruptive to this pattern, ordering itself, instead, by committing to the performance of describing “inner” and “outer” realities. These realities become a source of both familiarity and alienation, each distancing themselves from the reader and absorbing their understanding. Simultaneously, she aspired to create a “continuous present,” one that marked time to be fluid and events to happen at once and now, despite their order on the page. Stein’s continuous present is similar to list-making, she says in a lecture. Her entire body of work can be read with these motives in mind. Stein, also, was particularly self-aware in her brand of experimentalism along with the painters she often conspired with in Paris. Their linked deconstruction of mimetic gestures within an established order was deliberate and, for that reason, certain inflammatory reactions may have been anticipated and expected as is true for most avant-garde ventures. In response, Stein’s lectures thoroughly supplement the experience of consuming her work by demonstrating, if nothing else, consistency and belief in her theories as she executes them. In “Composition as Explanation,” Stein writes things like “A continuous present is a continuous present,” as a “thing” distinct from “beginning again and again” (Look at Me Now and Here I Am, 25). The repetitive, circular syntax just in these two brief quotations demonstrates her technique’s brilliance and difficulty. And, further, we may or may not conflate her queerness, her otherness with these ideas and projects, but it is difficult to not linger on that thought especially when reading her theories on completion and incompletion in Chaucer and other Romantic poets operating within a heteronormative patriarchal structure—their “daily island life” (39)—although she does not say so directly. More on this later.
The World is Round (1939), a lesser known work by Stein, was published as a children’s book and possesses a variation of the “A rose is a rose is a rose” line which has been referenced in countless ways in various tiers of culture, from Hemingway to the HBO Westworld series pilot. In some editions, the line makes a ring on the cover, begging an “etcetera.” While this piece is not my primary focus, it provides a more obvious musical experience that assists in hearing the nuanced tones of Tender Buttons (1914). The story follows a young Rose’s experience in understanding her name, in being unsure of whether it is associated with her performance of self. In the 1935 lecture “Poetry and Grammar,” Stein says, “So that is poetry really loving the name of anything” and, regarding the rose line: “I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.” While The World is Round consists of dispersal of somewhat-punctuated poetry and prose, the poetry is the act of naming and exploration, while the prose exists in the specificity of that assigned noun. It is almost as if the italicized voice in the world Stein creates is as round as a compulsive chorus, one that introduces a third voice to Stein and Rose. The roundness of the world, language, and journey propagates Stein’s idea of a continuous present, creating an echo-like ripple as a “thing” (in Stein’s terms), a Rose, is circled again and again, etcetera.
In the context of a short, illustrated children’s book with pink pages, the rhyme and lyric in The World is Round is absolutely whimsical. There is a delightful effect in Rose chanting through her tiny, childish crisis of associating words with objects, but also in her extending, ageless crisis of identity. When Rose reaches a meditative place on a mountain, she sings and the reader realizes that the italicized poetry is actually her voice: “I am Rose said Rose and she began to sing./ I am Rose…” (63). And, in a continuous present, she is always singing as the sky gets darker. This maneuver by Stein is important when considering the power of music to manifest, move, and even resemble a type of currency to be exchanged with traditional devices like theme and symbol. The narrative hears and operates with the singing voice. The musicality of Stein’s writing, in this moment, also resembles the technique used in both Wallace Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” In Stevens, the man’s reading voice closes distance between ghosts and the living world, somewhat reviving the spirits. Contrarily, in Bishop, the caught fish’s silence as it asphyxiates throughout a long, winding poem provides this undercurrent until it is finally released—and we gasp. While noise cues in The World is Round are more explicit than in Tender Buttons, it is useful to consider them related.
In reading Tender Buttons, it may also be helpful to be reminded that Stein is asking the reader to participate, to engage critically and imaginatively with the text provided. The reading experience, too, resists convention and requires a certain shattering of reluctance on the part of the reader to abandon a learned behavior they have been taught to cling to. This learning process does fulfill another interesting layer in Stein’s creation of a book for children as Stein explores the limits of language and of audience. When journalists, to Stein, asked, “Why don’t you write the way you talk?” She responded, “Why don’t you read the way I write?” (9). In addition to alluding to Stein’s personality and vision of self, this exchange demonstrates what I’ve just mentioned regarding agency, process, and boundary exploration. In these ways, it is reminiscent of the plight of Pauline Oliveros, composer and electronic music pioneer. While this is not the same Aunt Pauline for which Stein’s car and Tender Buttons section “A Little Called Pauline” are named, there is still room for comparison and another entrance to understanding the musicality in Stein’s work. Oliveros’s piece “Participle Dangling in Honor of Gertrude Stein” honors Stein’s repetition and its usefulness to electronic music. Essentially, Oliveros uses a Hugh LeCaine loop machine to compose noise from a variety of permutations of the recorded phrase “but is it music?” (Mockus 157). Jill Johnston in her “Dance Journal” even directly refers to Oliveros as a “musical Gertrude Stein,” which does somewhat underwrite Stein’s musical tendencies integral to the experience of consuming her work—especially when considering her operas. Both, in my opinion, should be recognized as their own related musical personas as to avoid falling into the behavior of associating two lesbian artists with each other, conflating identities. However, it is valid to say that Oliveros and Stein both create music through focused repetition. Oliveros, also, is a celebrity in some circles for her founding of the principles of Deep Listening, which, according to its website means “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” This discussion of listening encourages heightened awareness, especially between involuntary and voluntary listening. Stein’s approach to reading is entirely similar. John Cage, on Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening: “I finally know what harmony is—it’s about the pleasure of making music.” Gertrude Stein, on the creation of sentences (as quoted in Landon): “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” Harmony, like most abstract principles, exists in various forms.
And now Tender Buttons has been circled. When considering just the title alone, it is possible to return to Stein’s theory of the Romantic “island” poets. In “What is English Literature,” she discusses the separation in Elizabethan poetry’s completion: “There is no confusion there is separation” (38). The inner and outer realities of this tradition are detached. However, Stein does not allow that space to exist, instead pulling two familiar words strategically together to completely disorient and redirect understanding of them as separate pieces, but also a whole. The musicality of the entire text plays to this same effect. If the Romantics write a desert island, Stein writes a mirage, visually veiling her imbedded logic with an accessible vocabulary. Beneath that, however, the reader is able to experience a rarely-described consciousness with an acute awareness of the physical properties of language. Despite its face-value similarity to automatic writing, Stein’s coding and modulation is not mechanical, but rather incredibly palpable and human, experiencing three categories: “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” in a playfully tense way. The eye begins to work like an ear during some vignettes, displacing the senses.
In “Sugar” particularly, sounds and shapes are utilized to redefine experience, invoking the sensibility of knowing. In focusing on this one section, the reader may begin to trace feelings that sugar provides. For example, “a sample,” “selected,” “a peck a small piece,” “not a slice,” “separation,” “One, two and one, two, nine, second and five and that,” “A piece of separate” (152-153) and others can be interpreted as Stein writing anew the process of handling sugar with its properties of dust, and texture in multitudes, but also while “teasing” and “sprinkling” individual, sweet specks. The rattling off of numbers refuses the reader’s tendency to create patterns and also to count in a linear fashion. It is both relieving and frustrating to reach these familiar integers. The repetition of “pierce pierce” and “pet pet” creates a sound similar to a stutter or immediate loop, reminiscent of Oliveros’s dedication piece. Stein also displaces sugar, removing it from a domestic environment and transporting the reader to “any wet place” with animals and other rustic imagery, between which we are returned to an intimate “cuddling.” There is travel in the “staggering,” “rushing,” “canoe,” and this movement is clarified by the mention of “only this tune,” which provides explicit noise to the text and signifies a modification of setting. Through this, the body is forgotten until the end when “it is laid by” a widening chain. Here is an obvious example of the inner reality unfolding to the outer reality and the descriptions of each overlapping in a spectacularly dynamic way with the intimacy lying itself beside the external setting of the ending.
This is, by no means, a complete evaluation of Tender Buttons or Stein’s larger collection. It is only the beginning of an understanding of her intentions as a poet and theorist with emphasis on several ways the reading of such experimental work can appear less daunting. Much like in The World is Round, the items in Tender Buttons are first named and then their identity is contested and resolved. The “tiny crisis” Rose shares with the nouns within Tender Buttons is the same, just less abstract. As with all fine techniques such as Deep Listening, it is necessary to practice the modified form of reading Stein-logic in order to gain understanding and develop an ear for it. If nothing else, one may just choose to enjoy the language and, as Stein famously says (even if only to dismiss criticism): “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”
Johnston, Jill. “Sappho Is Rising.” Village Voice, 14 Jan. 1971. Web.
Landon, Brooks. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. New York: Plume/Penguin Group, 2013. Print.
Mockus, Martha. Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Oliveros, Pauline. “Deep Listening Institute: About.” Deep Listening Institute. N.p., n.d. Web.
Oliveros, Pauline. ““Participle Dangling in Honor of Gertrude Stein”.” Ed. Gayle Young.Canadian Electroacoustic Community The Quiet Legacy of Hugh Le Caine, Canadian Pioneer in Electronic Music 17.2 (2016): n. pag. Web.
Stein, Gertrude, and Clement Hurd. The World Is round. New York: Young Scott, 1966. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Look at Me Now and Here I Am: Writings and Lectures, 1909-45. Ed. Patricia Meyerowitz. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. Print.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. San Francisco: City Lights, 2014. Print.