My first pass at Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) is that the poet’s idea is to create writing in which the connection between the word and its meaning has been destroyed. She uses common objects as titles, words with strong significations for most readers, words that are hard to separate from the thing they signify – apple, shoes, salad – and then, crack!, shatters the usual meaning and does not replace it with anything else.
Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.
An ideal example, as the passage contains many of Stein’s strategies. The first item in the list suggests that Stein is making associations with original word, perhaps expanding meaning, but then “carpet steak” suggests otherwise, or else the associations quickly become so private as to become meaningless to poor me.
Some amusing pairs like “seed clam” / “calm seen” make Stein fun to read aloud, and I can imagine a good performer working wonders with Tender Buttons, although I can also imagine the fun diminishing quickly. A half-hour performance would feel long.
Finally, in the last phrase enough meaning returns to fill me with doubt. That looks like a child begging for a bit of apple. Pretty clear. Maybe there is more meaning than I think. Or maybe just enough meaning is simulated to suggest meaning without the bother of actually creating meaning.
It is a winning cake.
What is bay labored what is all be section, what is no much. Sauce sam in.
It was a peculiar bin a bin fond in beside.
If I were to go all in on meaning – if I wanted to interpret the text rather than explain it conceptually – I would keep my eye on that little girl begging for an apple slice. I would take Tender Buttons as an exploration of early childhood linguistics, like it is from the point of view of a child learning language fresh, when the arbitrariness of language is a source of mystery and pleasure.
Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot. This makes it art and it is wet wet weather wet weather wet.
Is Tender Buttons joyous nonsense or dreary nonsense? Every example I have picked is from the “Food” section of the book, which I enjoyed the most, and which lends itself best to my “childhood language” idea. The “Objects” section was more purely baffling. The “Rooms” section, a single long prose poem, more adult. A number of interpreters have argued that Tender Buttons is, from the title onwards, full of sexual material. I did not know how to break this code, until I got to certain parts of “Rooms”:
The sister was not a mister. Was this a surprise. It was.
For example. So, yes, maybe there is something about life in the Stein and Toklas household in this book. Maybe the references are too private, maybe not.
Dance a clean dream and an extravagant turn up, secure the steady rights and translate more than translate the authority, show the choice and make no more mistakes than yesterday.
Still, my first guess is that the conceptual linguistic ideas are what matter. Someone, circa 1914, had to demonstrate the concept, and here it is.