Book Review: Tender Buttons

Just when I begin to understand poetry, I run across a book like this. I did win it in a Goodreads giveaway from City Lights Books, so I did volunteer for it. 

This is not your typical poetry. It is not Wordsworth, it’s not Rimbaud, it’s not even Ginsberg. If it comes close to someone’s writing, I would have to say Burroughs. There is a disconnection within the work. The poetry is in paragraph form and structured much like Naked Lunch’s* cut-up style. In Stein’s cut-up style, common words are joined together. For example, the title tender and buttons, two common words have little in common with each other but seem to fit well together. She also uses the phrase “piece of coffee.” It sounds very wrong, but somehow works well. 

Stein was influenced by the Cubist artists who dissected what they saw and rearranged the pieces in a different order. Below is Braque’s Violin and Candle Stick


The violin and the candlestick are visible in the picture, but not in the way we are used to seeing them. Stein does the same with her words, grammar, and structure. It is all there, but not in the expected manner. 

The poem “Apple” allowed me to see what was being done and acted as a Rosetta Stone for interpretation of many of the poems. Others seemed to take some thinking. The poem “Dining” consists of one line

Dining is west 

I have no idea if my thinking is right, but it went something like: 
Dining = dinner 
dinner = evening
evening = sunset
sunset = west

However the equally simple “Salad”

It is a winning cake

left me clueless. 

The poems are short one line items, like above, to several pages for the poem “Roast Beef” the poems however, seem to have little to do with the title. Most poems, however, fit on a single page. I am not sure what to make of this collection. My mind tries to find a code or a pattern in the work and there probably is not one. In the notes and afterword several theories are discussed from a hidden code to Stein being stoned. I can see where the latter might come from, but I doubt it. I am placing my amateurish opinion her work as an experiment. There are enough similarities in her work and Cubism to make that case. This edition also includes copies of Stein handwritten corrections to the first publication. 

Tender Buttons is worth the read for the open minded and those readers who do not see the need for strict form, grammar, or style…to the extreme. This collection is a mind bender, but one I will be keeping and reading again and again, waiting for that magic moment when it all makes perfect sense.

*In verifying my information on Naked Lunch, I learned that it was rejected by City Lights Books.

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