Gertrude Stein: Poems & Explanation

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will cover the poetry of Gertrude Stein, who is one of the most important figures in the arts of the first half of the twentieth century. We'll look at her work, the context of her art, and her influence on others.


Artists often need a dependable person to support and guide them, and there are few figures in American art history who have been able to do this as well as Gertrude Stein. Although Stein wrote novels, plays, and poetry, one of the contributions she is best known for was the insightful advice she offered to other artists and her ability to connect them to each other.

Among other things, Stein was known for her somewhat eccentric style of clothing.

Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 in Pennsylvania and spent much of her childhood in Oakland, California. While she was enrolled at Radcliffe College, Stein studied psychology, an experience that would have an impact on the poetry that she would later write. Having dropped out of medical school after only two years, Stein moved to Paris and lived with her brother in what would become the famous 27 rue de Fleurus apartment. While in Paris, the two started collecting art, ultimately leading to one of the most important private art collections in the world. Stein was prolific in her writing, producing poetry, novels, plays, and non-fiction work. Despite her clear intelligence and impressive influence on other writers, critical reception of her work is mixed and some critics have even dismissed her work as nonsensical. Stein died in 1946 from stomach cancer.


The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century brought tremendous changes to how the world was understood. Developing science and philosophy challenged traditional understandings of how people perceived and interpreted the world around them with the growth of theories such as Darwinism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Additionally, a more complicated and faster lifestyle, more developed technology, and the experience of witnessing the atrocities that occurred during World War I challenged people to rethink their conception of reality. Faced with this new context, many artists believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world they lived in. This movement came to be known as modernism and is defined by its use of innovative and often abstract art.

This plaque is on the door of the apartment where Stein lived, 27 rue de Fleurus.
27 rue de Fleurus

Of all of the modern artists and writers, few took the movement's calling to create innovative art to the extremes that Stein did. Eager to introduce many of the playful and abstract techniques that were being used in painting, Stein produced experimental poetry that, decades later, still remains some of the most unusual in the English language. Using her knowledge of psychology that she obtained from her years in college, Stein attempted to use words in a way that was unlike anything in the English literary tradition. Rather than following any linear patterns common to speech, Stein attempted to produce poems that mimicked the chaotic and multidimensional way that the human brain perceives the world. Many of her poems read more as meditations that are meant to be experienced than as pieces of writing that have a clear, definable meaning behind them.


Given that Stein was interested in reinventing poetry and creating entirely new forms, it's naturally difficult to place many of her writings into any obvious poetic category. While many of her poems appear scattered in a variety of publications, the collection of short prose poems titled Tender Buttons that was published in 1912 is one of her most notable direct contributions to modernist poetry. The poems appear more as meditative free-verse than standard formal poetry and often involved a large amount of repetition. In 'Susie Asado', repetition is particularly clear:

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.

Susie Asado.

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea.

Susie Asado.

Susie Asado which is a told tray sure. (1-5)

Here the word 'sweet' reads almost like a tongue twister; it's repeated so many times that it seems to lose some of its meaning, requiring the reader to experience the fragility of meaning in language. Moreover, the repetition forces the reader to actually participate in the act of listening to the poem and thereby acknowledge that the act of reading is a participatory process that requires work on the part of the reader.

Another central feature of Stein's poetry is its layering of images and sounds in a manner that makes the poem much like a collage. Consider this quality in the opening lines of 'Yet Dish':

Put a sun in Sunday, Sunday.

Eleven please ten hoop. Hoop.

Cousin coarse in coarse in soap.

Cousin coarse in soap sew up. soap. (1-4)

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