‘What is the use’
Woman with a Hat, Henri Matisse, 1905
Not everything Gertrude Stein wrote is worth calling poetry. Stein says so herself in “Poetry and Grammar,” because “for me the problem of poetry was and it began with Tender Buttons to constantly realize the thing anything so that I could recreate that thing.” This pronouncement on Tender Buttons directly contrasts with her account of The Making of Americans in the same lecture and, we presume, to the present participle-filled portraits consuming Stein’s attention pre-1912 — these she would call prose. Stein’s turn from prose to poetry even merited an evolving kind of attention: while writing The Making of Americans Stein was “completely obsessed by the inner life of everything,” but with Tender Buttons she recalls, “I struggled I struggled desperately with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns and yet poetry being poetry nouns are nouns.”
I struggled I struggled desperately.
There is pathos here, in the struggle and desperation, that even being “completely obsessed” doesn’t convey. To be obsessed is to be preoccupied, to be consumed by something else. The active capacity of “I” is diminished. And one might be obsessed with a lover or enemy, but also an experiment, a logic problem, or collecting carafes. Obsession is a surprisingly neutral affect. But to say, “I struggled I struggled desperately,” is a resolute assertion (and reassertion) of an active “I” and of active effort. It is this sense of struggle, rather than completion, that in its desperation feels both necessary — as if the very existence of “I” depends on this ongoing recreation — and filled with desire, that brings me back to Tender Buttons, to Stein’s poetry.
with the recreation and the avoidance of nouns as nouns
Two phrases circulate through Tender Buttons, particularly in “Objects,” and they frequently begin its sentences: What is the use and Suppose. I read them as the book’s imperatives. What is the use asks us to recall past uses of a word or phrase — literally asking what its use is. But the phrase also extracts language from these uses — “What is the use?” is also asked rhetorically, indicating uselessness.