Reading Gertrude Stein

I sat down with all of Stein’s books and several anthologies in front of me. I can do this, I said out loud to myself (while by myself). I opened “Tender Buttons,” and then I quickly closed “Tender Buttons.” What the eff just happened? I thought to myself. Why would anyone do this?

Well, Chapter 3: “This shows it all”; Gertrude Stein and the Reader’s Role in the Creation of Significance in the book Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers by Mary E. Galvin (1999), really helped me suss out some of my “I can’t read Stein” problems. Everything I’m about to say is NOT unique and came directly from Mary E. Glavin. So thanks, Mary!!

10 Things I Learned About Reading Stein:

1. There is most likely NOT a Steinian code by which she speaks to Alice erotically, without drawing censure from larger public.

2. Stein’s writing cannot be cracked… this would be antithetical to Stein’s approach to composition and her articulation of a nonhierarchically based lesbian experience.

3. Her aversion to punctuation is STILL received with varying degrees of hostility and confusion. (She found punctuation to be too directive.)

4. Judy Grahn says about Stein’s use of (or lack of) commas? “She thought this was condescending to and undermining of the independence of mind of the reader.” For the record, independence is overrated.

5. Stein’s poetry mirrors the abdication of the privileged position of knowing (authority). Our social order depends on such principles and the reader feels ungrounded/dislocated without these expected structures.

6. Stein’s use of a finite vocabulary avoided the use of ‘literary’ diction. Through a combination of repetition and variation, Stein found she could create emphasis and degrees of emotional intensity without relying heavily on adjectives and nouns to further her descriptions.

7. Stein abandoned nominalism and severed her dependence on metaphor. She was constantly displaying the multiplicity of being.

8. Stein can be seen as a direct descendent of Emily Dickinson! (In linguistic experimentation, especially.)

9. Both play with the multiplicity of language, its ability for ambiguity, equivocation, and unstable meanings! They both also have a propensity for disrupting categorical distinctions / “truths” they establish. While Dickinson leaves just enough traditional structure in place to make interpretation feasible, Stein pushes her poetics of disruption into realm of rationally unrecognizable

10. Stein undermines the need for critical interpretation, and Judy Grahn says, we (readers) are veiled by our judgments.







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3 thoughts on “Reading Gertrude Stein”

  1. Thank you for this post, Sarah! I agree with most of this, and think the Dickinson/Stein connection is so interesting on so many levels. Dickinson worked on the smallest level of language by using word associations and open syntax to create a multiplicity of worlds and meanings. Stein, on the other hand, worked on a larger narrative level, where syntax could seem more overtly challenging, yes, yet it seems to me she aspired to define language and redefine the experience of the subject matter in a manner derived from a Dickinson sensibility. Both are interesting subversions of linearity and narrative and a meaning predetermined by language. Both are feminine/feminist in this way. Anyways, I think that even though Stein did not necessarily compose Tender Buttons as an erotic narrative to Toklas, there remains an interesting number of poems/sections where the use of sound chains and word denotations/connotations implies an erotic happening of some sort. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that both are feminist on so many levels. Really interesting how readers will define the work in so many ways when its surface is so challenging! 🙂

  2. I have a sense from this blog that you’re having a little trouble reading Stein. It’s just a guess so I could be wrong 😉


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