Gertrude Stein gave her second published collection of poetry the title Tender Buttons in 1914. The poems which make up the collection inside are every bit as offbeat and unexpected as the title. Of course, the literary world has another name for such a choice: avant-garde. Tender Buttons is a title which perfectly complements the central avant-garde thrust behind the poems; one that consistently pushes toward re-investing meaning into entities which have that element.
The collection is divided into three part: Objects, Food, and Rooms. Within each section, Stein devotes a series dense verse that take on the appearance of prose paragraphs more than standard poetry. Each poem is a musing filled with the power of repetition, wordplay and the space for recreation created by ambiguity of intent. That ambiguity affords the opportunity for interpretation that can range from the biographical issues of Stein’s homosexuality to psychological explanations such as B.F. Skinner’s contention that the volume represented a demonstration of “automatic writing” that seeks to connect the hand directly to the subconscious, thus bypassing the natural censor of the conscious mind.
Knowing Stein’s inspiration may help some readers to make more sense of the highly suggestive, but often unclear connotations the poems seek to make. Cubist art was revolutionizing the art world and in the process casting an awkward shadow over the value of pure representation of what the eye sees. The eye is very much at work in Tender Buttons, but it is a vision produced by a keen desire to penetrate beyond surface appearance. In particular, Stein was fascinated by the possibilities of doing with words what Cubist montage managed to do with images. Just as striking contrasts between seemingly unrelated images in a montage can stimulate new meaning based on contextual relationship, so is context through association at the heart of not just the contents of Tender Buttons, but the very title of the collection.