Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein: Analysis & Concept

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  • 0:00 An Introduction to…
  • 0:25 Analysis
  • 1:24 'A Carafe, That Is a…
  • 2:43 'A Box'
  • 3:48 Themes
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

During this lesson, we will learn about Gertrude Stein's groundbreaking poetry collection, 'Tender Buttons.' Published a century ago, the experimental nature of this collection makes it relevant still today.

An Introduction to Tender Buttons

Tender Buttons is a collection of poems written by Gertrude Stein, an American writer, in 1914. It is experimental in nature. In it, Stein describes common, everyday objects with adjectives that are not typically used in association with them. Each poem explores a different way of looking at a familiar object. The book is divided into three parts: Objects, Food, and Rooms.


Have you ever gotten so used to seeing the same everyday objects that you barely notice them anymore? In Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein breaks up the monotony of everyday objects by describing objects in unusual ways. Take, for example, the title, Tender Buttons. Anyone who has worn a shirt before is familiar with buttons. Most of us barely consider a button until one comes loose in the laundry, and we find ourselves with a shirt in need of repair. But by describing a common object like a button with an adjective that no one would think to associate with a button, such as 'tender,' Stein forces her readers to reexamine their associations and preconceptions about buttons and all other common, everyday objects.

The experimental nature of Stein's collection is also apparent in the syntax Stein uses. Her poems are full of rhythm and sound. Stein uses odd syntax that sometimes does not make logical sense, but she is always aware of the sound of her poems. Let's look closer at two of the poems in the book and explore how Stein uses literary techniques in them.

'A Carafe, that Is a Blind Glass'

The first poem in the book, 'A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass,' is also one of Stein's most famous poems. Here is the poem in its entirety:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Do you notice something different about the poem right away? It is not broken up in lines, like poetry often is. This is an example of a prose poem, a poem which is written in sentences and paragraphs. It is a prose poem, rather than just a fragment of prose, due to the poetry techniques that are being used in it, such as rhythm and sound.

In terms of sound, there are a lot of 'k' sounds in this poem: 'cousin,' the two c's in 'spectacle,' and 'color.' There is also an interesting repetition going on with 'unordered' coming in such close succession with 'ordinary.'

Stein's entire prose poem is 38 words long and consists of three sentences, the last of which is only four words long. This is not a coincidence. While the first two sentences are looping and almost stream of consciousness in their associative word play, the last sentence—'The difference is spreading'—is purposefully short, clipped, and forceful. Stein is stating a fact. What is the fact? Well, that's for the reader to interpret.

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