2014 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Gertrude Stein’s masterpiece TENDER BUTTONS. and this week Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course (ModPo) participants have been studying the work of Stein as well as other modernist poets.
In the introduction to Stein on the ModPo site – the course leaders have written:
The difficulty of deriving any sort of conventional semantic meaning from the short prose-poems that comprise Tender Buttons turns out to be, for many readers, a helpful inducement to read for other kinds of signifying. As we hope you’ll see from the video discussions in this section, such difficulty need not excuse us from close reading. Stein’s poems really can be interpreted. They might eschew representation, but by no means do they turn away from reference.
I, with many others, recognise the difficulty of understanding Stein’s work. I have decided not to agonise too much. My experience tells me, that whilst the value of hard work cannot be disputed, there also needs to be a readiness for learning. As Charles Bernstein said at the end of the special live webcast broadcast to celebrate the 100th anniversary…
‘The key is not to puzzle it out, but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out. This work is not invested in pre-determining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning.
Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it and the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own process.’
In this video, nine poets each talked briefly about Tender Buttons: Laynie Browne, Lee Ann Brown, Angela Carr, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ryan Eckes, Jason Mitchell, Juliette Lee and Charles Bernstein.
It was fascinating to hear how they each approached the difficult task of reading and interpreting Gertrude Stein’s work. Three of these poets, in particular, caught my attention.
Lee Ann Brown read Glazed Glitter with such a lively passion and love of words that it was contagious. If you want a lesson on how to close read and glean multiple interpretations, her reading starts at 11.40 in the video.
Juliette Lee read just one sentence from Rooms in Stein’s Tender Buttons.
Star-light, what is star-light, star-light is a little light that is not always mentioned with the sun, it is mentioned with the moon and the sun, it is mixed up with the rest of the time.
Juliette starts talking about about 46.30 in the video.
She related this sentence from Tender Buttons to a passage from Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space .
Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect. Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. xxxvi)
Juliette questioned what constitutes rooms and space and suggested that space invites authorship. Her interpretation of Stein was a personal one related to her own search for understanding, and her questions about ‘space’ resonated with my ongoing search to understand space in relation to learning.
Charles Bernstein. I, who know very little about Gertrude Stein’s work, would have found it helpful to listen to him first. He starts speaking at about 51.00 mins into the video.
Charles explained that Tender Buttons is ‘the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of ‘wordness,’ where word and object are merged.’
‘It is a work of textual autonomy…. Words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed. The meanings are made in and through composition. Meaning is not something to be extracted or deciphered but something to be responded to…. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meaning, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of this work.’
At the time of listening to this webcast, I am steeped in my own research, analysing data and searching for meaning. These discussions about Stein’s work have made me realise that essentially she was a researcher too, a researcher into the origin and influence of words – the influence of words on words, as well as the influence of words on us.
Perhaps all researchers need to be aware of the influence of words, the multiple interpretations and narratives that can be told and that they can hold, and the potential for divorcing words from their meaning.
Lots to think about here. I am still miles off being able to understand Gertrude Stein’s work but I feel that I am one step forward from last year when I wrote about what I was learning about learning from Gertrude Stein. So that’s progress!