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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Finding the Rich Tender in Tender Buttons

2015 marks the third year the Steiny Road Poet has been working with international students signed up for the Coursera Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) massive open online course (MOOC), on Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. The study takes place in the ModPo discussion forums. University of Pennsylvania professor Al Filreis, the ModPo developer, says this study group 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.


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 what was learned continues to apply to section 2 Food, which is where the Tender Buttons collective known as The Buttons is currently working.

Here is the original list developed to help a reader not familiar with Gertrude Stein make their way into the mysterious texts of Tender Buttons:

Nouns are important, especially the root meanings.

Root meanings lead to new aspects of what Stein is studying.

For Stein, poetry is about expressing love. Hidden in the words is her love for her partner Alice B. Toklas.

Stein’s daily life, her experience of living and the world in which she lived in come into play in Tender Buttons. This includes her long relationship with Pablo Picasso, cubism and various visual artists whose work Gertrude and Leo Stein invested in. Stein's treated all aspects of her life equally in Tender Buttons and often these elements arise simultaneously showing Stein's dazzling ability of dimensionality where one word, phrase or sentence projects many associations at the same time.

While Stein presents as simply as possible, often using plain monosyllabic words, she operates within a system to pointing that usually harkens back to what she learned from her Harvard professor William James. Therefore she is pragmatic. Therefore there is always some logic behind what she is offering. This could be meaning or it could be method.

Key words thread through Tender Buttons. Therefore, if Stein uses a word more than once within a subpoem, that is a sign that she is up to something and the reader must dig in deeper.

Mathematics and geometry play into Stein’s system of pointing. It’s part of her logic and eye on cubism. (think fractals)

Humor is part of Stein’s ludic (playful) landscape. Often it manifests in odd word play.

Reader participation is a requirement for reading Stein. She invites you to get out your magnifying glass, to tune up your singing voice, to play scrabble with her letters, to read what she has written through a kaleidoscope, to take out your perfume and get intoxicated.

When you enter the Steinian woods, take all your family, friends, and acolytes. The more the merrier.

One additional note is that while Stein said that once you name something, you have used up that noun and so the word is dead. On the other hand, verbs and adverbs create activity. What Steiny has discovered about the nouns Stein uses in Tender Buttons is that the origins of her words often enliven the text into which she has written these nouns.


After doing an intensive reading of Section 2 Food “Roastbeef.”, the longest subpoem of Tender Buttons, Steiny has developed additional lessons learned:

Approach each subpoem as if it were an abstract painting and allow yourself room to appreciate what thoughts come to you.

      This allows anyone, no matter his or her experience with reading texts by Stein, to pick up Tender Buttons without the fear of needing literary credentials.

Stein often implants suggestions for how to read her texts within the text of Tender Buttons.

      For example, in “A carafe, that is a blind glass.”, the first subpoem ofTender Buttons, Stein directs the reader to “an arrangement in a system to pointing.” This is the author telling her audience that she will be making suggestions (system to pointing) in this arrangement of words. Moreover while it isn’t ordinary or familiar, it has order and this difference will be proliferating.


      A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

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.

      This tip expands on #2 of the original Lesson Learned. The Oxford English Dictionary often has an expanded history of a word.

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.

      Stein’s process could be even more complicated if one assumes she is attempting to create a sacred text. In reading Jewish sacred texts, Talmudic scholars use a set of reading techniques to approach difficult work as follows:

        --repetition (things told twice)

        --missing information (very common in sacred texts)

        --key words repeated 3, 7, or 10 times in one passage or story

        --seemingly unnecessary information

        --repeating comparisons and contrasts with small differences

        --difficult words and grammar




        --echoes from story to story;

        --issues of moral behavior


        --symmetry (words or verses in a symmetrical pattern)

        --out-of-order sequencing


      And to this list, Steiny adds masquerade and anagrams.

      Now, let’s look at this nursery rhyme-ish subpoem of section 1 “Objects”:

      A DOG.

      A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.

      Anagrammatically, the title could be G-O-A-D, an implement for riding a stubborn animal like a donkey. The text could be read as a sexual game with a little French inflection: my key (mon clé—rhymes with say) works like (goes like) your key (ton clé—t and d are close in sound) that means touché (means to say) and sigh (because anatomically we are alike—both females) but heck lead with it (leave with it—the goad perhaps?) because my key [still] works with your key.

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.

      Contradiction pervades section 2 Food. “Roastbeef.”. The opening subpoem of section 2 mentions beef only four times in its 37 stanzas and 1757 words. While Stein provides the furniture—stove, chairs and tables—accessories—plates and spoons—and verbs associated with eating meat—cuts and cutting, no eating takes place. Rather, something seems to be eating at the unnamed characters (most likely who are Gertrude, brother Leo, and Gertrude’s lover-wife Alice) that pervade the stanzas and many of the stanzas read like philosophic discourse. For example, this excerpt from stanza 4:

      Considering the circumstances there is no occasion for a reduction, considering that there is no pealing there is no occasion for an obligation, considering that there is no outrage there is no necessity for any reparation, considering that there is no particle sodden there is no occasion for deliberation. Considering everything and which way the turn is tending, considering everything why is there no restraint, considering everything what makes the place settle and the plate distinguish some specialties.

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.

      “Roastbeef.” is saturated with literary pointing that includes techniques used by William Shakespeare in his comic play As You Like It, a subtle mimicking of William Blake’s poem “The Tyger,” and catchwords like lilacs that bring to mind Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” For example with the line 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.

      Alice B.Toklas-Gertrude Stein-1932

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.

    • Stein addresses American things such as turkey and cranberries. In several subpoems, Stein evokes the American Civil War as a counterbalance to the stressful breakup with her brother and to bring attention to the importance of her union with Toklas. Besides the mention of lilacs in “Roastbeef.”, Stein explores in detail the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in section 1 “A chair.” Words like widow, blaming, betrayal, spectacle, barn, no special protection suggest what happened as Mary and Abraham Lincoln watched the play “Our American Cousin” and the aftermath that led to finding John Wilkes Booth in a Virginia barn. Stanza 1 sets the scene at Ford’s Theater after the assassination:
    • A widow in a wise veil and more garments shows that shadows are even. It addresses no more, it shadows the stage and learning. A regular arrangement, the severest and the most preserved is that which has the arrangement not more than always authorised.

Knowing Gertrude Stein’s and Alice Toklas’s biographies and world wide historic events help illuminate 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.

      Some of the subpoems of section 1 Objects are so short, a reader without biographical knowledge of Stein and Toklas and historical context have limited resources to draw on. Take for example:


      A light white, a disgrace, an ink spot, a rosy charm.

      A biographical  and historical reading of these thirteen words might be that Gertrude Stein was a rebel when it came to what clothes she chose to wear once she decided to be a writer in Paris. The Gibson Girl look (and there is a teenage photo of Stein dressed this way) required restrictive corsets and multiple petticoats under long dresses.


      Such Victorian clothing made women uncomfortable to the degree that it pinched circulation and digestion, often making woman faint, but also this type of clothing restricted movement and riding bicycles. In 1896, Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” In the 1840s, suffragettes, like Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made a point of helping women achieve more practical clothing like the bifurcated skirt and the bloomers but it was a battle long fought. Stein herself never wore pants or rode a bicycle, but she carefully thought out what would make her comfortable, choosing (once Alice was part of her life) a long roomy skirt, blouse and vest. Both she and Alice had discarded the Victorian corset and the multiple petticoats.


The plan for the next eight months is to finish discussing the 53 subpoems of section 2 Food. With the first 13 subpoems already discussed, the remaining 40 spread over eight months would mean discussing five each month. Because we have spent anywhere from one to three weeks on a single subpoem or groups of two to three subpoems, the plan seems overly ambitious. Why go so slow?


More important is what is the value of studying such a work as Tender Buttons? It teaches us to think outside the box. In this world where we have become more aware of how unpredictable and chaotic things and events are, the patience paid to process in studying such a rich text as Tender Buttons reaps many rewards. It’s a unique educational experience worth a lot of time.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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