It is too easy to look at the work of modern literary giants like Gertrude Stein and only response with confusion or aversion. Text cannot achieve the same visceral artistic flair inculcated from abstract and surrealist art. This is a curatorial dilemma for those interested in cubist, automatic, nonlinear and otherwise abstract forms of creative writing. Learned systems such as context clues and imagery have no place in Tender Buttons , because the aim of the work is to break down the methodology with which readers interpret information Altogether. Because many a blog has been dedicated to the first - and sadly, only the first - poem in the collection, "A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass" there is little else to add to the conversation surrounding that introduction. To summarize most of the discourse, it is believed that Stein uses relationships between physically observable familiar forms, shapes and colors to apply an aesthetic breakdown that not only gives the carafe an exhaustive descriptive quality, but enables it to graduate beyond being merely a cylindrical wine holder.
WHAT THE F**K IS NICKELWe then arive at the following poem, entitled "Glazed Glitter." For real-life analogues, the best-suited example I chose was that of a glaze doughnut speckled in shining, frilly glitter. One would be remiss to postulate that glitter thrown haphazardly is anything but satisfying to watch. Look at the success of trivial sweets like Pop Rocks, Pixie Sticks and Fun Dip to ground your taste buds in the juvenile allure of razzle-dazzle hedonism. "Glazed Glitter" is about much more than sugar, spice and everything nice, however. It can be interpreted as a commentary on the 'Polished Turd' idiom, with Stein gazing at the bells and whistles of an object bespeckled in glitter and shine and attempting to forge some ulterior motive from the sparkles assaulting her eyes. On the other hand, one might read "Glazed Glitter" and get to the aside about Japanese and its lack of breakage and become altogether distanced from whatever non-point Stein was aiming towards. There is no point in speculating without analyzing the text itself, though. While most modernist poetry is rather dense, the poems in Tender Buttons make all else look like oil in water.
Just the first line contains much to unpack.
"Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover."
We are familiar with two definitions of nickel, to answer Stein's burning question. The first is the coin, but according to her comment of a certain 'cover' this cannot be it. Nickels aren't even made of all nickel. They are 25% nickel, and 75% copper. Could this be the cover Stein alludes to? Is the U.S. treasury involved in some grand conspiracy to cover-up the true nature of five-cent coins? Well, the second definition of nickel is in relation to the element Nickel (Ni), with an atomic number of 28. Nickel is a naturally-occuring lustrous metal that can be found in a variety of forms. Nickel plating holds together a lot of day-to-day objects. Invariably, we will resort to conjoining Ni with the half-dime it is named after.
"The change in that is that red weakens an hour."
Because known definitions can't help, it stands to reason that we must push forward and try to unpack Stein's writing as a singular unit. Nickels are a lustrous gray, but Stein brings up red out of seemingly nowhere. Consider the following: What happens to metal left out for a long enough time. It rusts, plain enough! Rust is commonly given a brown or orange flair, but it can be applied to rust as well. Raw metal exposed to oxidizing forces will rust at a quick rate, but covering it can weaken that effect. Nickel, when found in nature, is indeed rid of a cover. It is itself. When we make the coins, or apply nickel plating to an object, we are adding a cover on top, which may or may not prevent rust from accumulating. This is the 'change' Stein speaks of, that we remove this cover and allow something to be exposed. 'Red weakens an hour' can be taken literally. A well-made metal structure will rust and decay, negating the time and effort spent working on it. So naturally, we cover things!
"There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely and is unwelcome, somethere is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that cleaning and cleansing."
Whew, let's work backwards on this one, shall we. You've worked hard on collecting your nickels, or bolting those nickel plates on whatever, but your time was in vain because they've been rusted. Rust is a problem, but in most cases it is only temporary. Sometimes a simple scrubdown is all that's required to make metal look brand new! Grab some steel wool, a bit of polish, put some elbow grease and scrub away until it's gone! Sometimes rust can be found before it has solidified, or it can be heated up to liquid and cleaned away. This is what 'sinecure' might mean, being the most peculiar term in this passage. We can assume 'breath' is either taken to be a metaphorical realization of oxidization, or it is the sigh of impatience/relief we give off before/after cleaning a rusted object. While we have hope that we can remove all the rust, though - delete all the unkempt qualities of something we create - there will always be some residue that doesn't get cleaned up; The rust will inevitably come back. Most people, based on aesthetic preference alone, will seek to remove rust, but it will keep coming back without something to keep it from being exposed to things.
"Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing."
Because we do not want rust to form and we cannot clean rust off forever, we cover things up. Take a look at the image of the glazed glitter doughnut up top again. What would the rust be in that situation? Maybe whoever made the doughnut forget to evenly glaze all portions. Maybe the underside of the doughnuts got burnt and only the top part looks good enough to eat. The point is, by Stein's logic here, we are preternaturally obliged to add glitter, to hide that rust, instead of seeking to constantly rinse and repeat the cleaning and cleansing process. We have glitter around, and glitter looks nice, so let us make the object look nice! Let us apply the cover to the nickel, let us realize that interpretation, because we approve of handsome things, because we want our handsome things to look convincing.
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
Sticking with the 'polished turd' analogy at play here in "Glazed Glitter" we can make some sense of the logic in Stein's writing. Art in a vacuum is simply art. We can cover art, offer different interpretations, or try to even fix it up ourselves, but at the end of the day it is still just art. Over time, public opinion will change on a piece of art. So too might time lead to decay of the paint, or like rust on nickel plates. We have two options as curators/creators then: Clean and update the work to its former state while risking yet another shift or change, or add our own flair to it in the form of the poem's title. I don't think Stein is explicitly advocating that museums take buckets of glitter and splatter them all over the Mona Lisa. Marble sculptures don't need to be tye-dye, the beige is just fine. Rather, we must understand that art throughout history has gone through revision both at the hands of the public, the creator(s) and the fall of time. Is it then a good or bad thing to apply the glitter, to sully a work with a thick glaze? Is there an objective way to determine if it's right to polish a turd? Let's move on and try to answer this idea.
"There is no gratitude in mercy and medicine."
A true statement, and not entirely removed from the subject at hand. Why specifically mercy and medicine? These are humanitarian subjects to bring up. It is ethically just to give mercy to criminals through the "innocent until proven guilty" justice system. Similarly, we are not to judge the sexual preference or flavor of ice cream a medical patient prefers. Conversely, criminals don't need to thank their lawyers just as much as patients don't need to thank their doctors. Let's look forward to tie this button up:
"There can be breakages in Japanese. It is no programme. That is no color chosen."
Remember how I said this line just appears out of absolutely nowhere in the poem? Well, just like the above statement about gratitude, there is meaning here. For those not aware of Japanese grammar, it is customary to not have extensive punctuation in classical writing. In speech, the structure of statements is dependent on context, and when removed from an audiovisual component one word can mean something entirely different. By 'breakage' Stein could mean anything from a full-stop period to a breath in the middle of a sentence. Japanese does not need the gratitude of a breakage, because native speakers understand the flow of their language. It might be nice when one is learning Japanese - it is only one of the hardest languages in the world - but again, it's not necessary. In addition to literal breaks, though, Japanese is a very pun- based language. Most Japanese humor is derived from the fact that words can mean different things and be taken in completely disjoint manners. With this in mind, we return to mercy and medicine. We need mercy. Without mercy, we are primitive beasts. There can be no breakage in mercy, because that will lead to an ethical conundrum. With medicine, one false move during surgery or a diagnosis could result in death. There is no aesthetic value to these acts inherent in their design. This does not mean they cannot have it period. You can make a surgery look pretty. A criminal can go to jail in style. But by definition these are concrete forms that have designated purposes to society. The 'color' of these elements are programmed, similar to how nickel does not choose to be gray. When we add the cover to the nickel, when we ignore the rust, when we glitter the glaze, we do risk devaluing the art. What cannot be understated, though, is the affirmation that it is still art. It may be false in its message or ugly beyond the surface, but it was chosen to change and is transformative in nature.
"It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing."
This is a brief aside that seeks to relate this stanza back to the opener in definite language. As red weakens the hour and rust is indicative of time's decay, it follows that any stains, be they from the rust's residue or from excessive cleaning (i.e. water marks) add to the finished product. A polished car with water marks looks different from one without. 'Spitting' is the important term here. Imagine I shine my shoes every day, but I hock a big loogie up on them to do so. You think I want to reveal this information to my friends and family? I would much rather lie and state that I only use the finest shoe polish, or that I painstakingly coat every inch of my footwear in cleaning solution until my fingers ache. I do carry the risk of being found out as hocking loogies on my shoes by an astute street corner cobbler, but the onus, the burden is weighted upon only me to deal with the knowledge that I use my disgusting spit to shine my shoes. My issue is not that I'm polishing a turd, Stein argues. My issue is instead that my hand is invariably touching the poop, that I'm placing my bets on making this turd look nice. If I am content with that, fine, but I have to be aware of that reality.
"It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving."
I was obliged to polish the turd. I was obliged to cover the rust. I was obliged to glitter the glaze. I was not, however, obliged to just simply wash the rust off, or leave the glaze without glitter. That was an initial state. If I'm correct, Stein closes out this poem by insisting that humans are guided by aesthetic principles. It is a fate much more palatable than being labelled a mere hedonist, I imagine. This is because 'borrowing' and 'taking' are practically synonymous with corporate consumerist hedonism. Razzle-dazzle hedonism, this aesthetic adoration Stein espouses, is reliant on charity and transformation of existing beauty into something more. Sometimes less. Who cares. This is long enough. Joke got taken too far.
"Glazed Glitter" does not refute that some art is of more value than others. It discerns quite clearly between art that is genuine and that which is not. The thesis of aesthetical balance achieved by adding to, rather than subsisting on the decay of art is a uniquely dysfunctional one, and likely not without massive implications for helping delusional artists come to terms with their performance and attain greatness in spite of a lack of talent. I wrote way too much about this and now my eyes hurt.