Gertrude Stein and Tender Buttons276 challenged my own Eastern experimental experience of reading poetry. In my view, her poetry collection seemed to be a dictionary; the words from which I thought I used to know about things and objects should be redefined. During my reading of Tender Buttons, I imagined the effort of Hàn Mặc Tử when he wrote ‘crazy poems’, the hopelessness of Trần Dần when he stated the manifesto of Vietnamese Surrealism, which had never before been accepted in Vietnamese society or poetry, and the ‘play’ of Như Huy when he wrote a kind of syllabic poetry. Finally, from the poems of Stein, I began to understand what had been happening in modern Vietnamese poetry. I found out that the Vietnamese poets mentioned above, and most other Vietnamese poets, might never have read Stein’s poems but the attitude of renewing poetry, the desire to enhance the identity of a poet as an ego, in my view, could help them come closer to each other in a flat world of modernism. Hence, I hope, from examining Tender Buttons, that this thesis might stand beside minor modern poets in Vietnam and support them in finding possible new ways of writing a modern poem.
Gertrude Stein’s Writings and Imagist Poetry
Although living and writing in the same era, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound did not have a close relationship in life or writing:
We met Ezra Pound at Grace Lounsbery's house, he came home to dinner with us and he stayed and he talked about Japanese prints among other things. Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a villager, but if you were not, not.277 This statement could be seen as an identification that Stein did not appear to be familiar with Pound’s works.
However, in my view, they both had a desire for renewing language. Denying the familiar, verbose, figurative expression and description, they proposed a way of writing that ignored the essentials of semantics, enhanced nouns and regarded intensity. Pound wrote about ‘In a Station of the Metro’:
I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work ‘of second intensity.’ Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made [this] hokku-like sentence.278 Thus, cutting excessive words and showing no subjectivity was the way Pound created an Imagist poem. This approach seemed to be similar to Stein’s, when she insisted that the object appeared in the present with its original image. The attempt to analyse or even think about it could damage an artistic work.
If you do not remember while you are writing, it may seem confused to others but actually it is clear and eventually that clarity will be clear that is what a masterpiece is, but if you remember while you are writing it will seem clear at the time to anyone but the clarity will go out of it that is what a masterpiece is not.279 Moreover, I also think that what Pound and Stein wrote did not belong to the meaning of words themselves, but came from the spaces between words. That might be the reason why Pound tried to minimise his poems into the smallest amount of words and deleted the linking words and clauses. This also happened in Stein’s writings when she played with semantics and called for reading from the boundaries of lines to find out the ‘embedded stories in the text’.280 Pound and Stein had different approaches to making words. Pound had a clear view about new metaphors:
Pound’s famous dictum, ‘Make It New’, comes from Hulme, too, who takes from de Gourmont the notion that language is constantly nearing extinction, shedding resonance, and must be regularly reinvigorated with a stock of new metaphors. 281 Stein paid more attention to the meaning of individual words: ‘I had to recapture the value of the individual word, find out what it meant and act within it’.282 Words themselves in her poems did not contain metaphors. Gilbert Seldes said Stein ‘strips all meanings from words’283 and DeKoven wrote about meaning as a desperate effort of readers in Stein’s work:
There is no reason to struggle to interpret or unify either the whole of Tender Buttons or any part of it, not only because there is no consistent pattern of meaning, but because we violate the spirit of the work in trying to find one.284 Thus, instead of presenting meaning based on the existing meaning of associated images, Stein pushed herself on the journey of looking for the other untold, hidden object-life.
I also found out that Stein’s writings and Imagist poetry both used a theme in a poem. Imagist poetry followed the mainstream approach of using a chord that captured theme though a main subject and object, whereas Stein rarely used a subject’s sound as a chord in her poems, even if it was written in the title as a protagonist. In my view, what Stein wrote was close to James Joyce with the interruption of narration, time skipping and unexpected association.
Some Innovations in Tender Buttons
Repetition was not a new writing technique. It even contained limitations in artistic value due to the ‘poverty of linguistic resource’:
It may further suggest a suppressed intensity of feeling – an imprisoned feeling, as it were, for which there is no outlet but a repeated hammering at the confining walls of language. In a way, saying the same thing over and over is a reflection on the inadequacy of language to express what you have to express ‘in one go’.285 Johanna Winant suggested that:
…while Wittgenstein argues that nonsense is ‘withdrawn from circulation’, Perloff works very hard to drag Stein’s language back into circulation. As a result, she ends up having to argue both that Stein’s language is nonsense, excluded from our language game like Wittgenstein’s examples of nonsense, and yet that it is not nonsense, because of the literary criticism she can do to reveal its meaning286 Thus, there was no boundary between sense and nonsense in Stein’s writings. In my view, sense and nonsense were removed from normal intentions and expressions of everyday life by repetition.
Repetition in Stein’s poems was not used to confirm any information but to create a flowing stream of thought and images that appeared automatically. For example, in ‘Melanctha’,287 the idea that Dr. Campbell thought Melanctha would never come to any good was repeated three times in his monologue about Melanctha. Even the realistic part of his mind prevented him from accepting any information from her; the name Melanctha appeared in four whole sentences. The more he tried to refuse thinking about Melanctha, the more it became mainstream in his thought. What he did was repeat, not impact on or adjust anything. Thus, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘take care’ or ‘ignore’ did not contain meanings which related to any evaluation. Another example is:
A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. Is it likely that a change. A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table means necessary places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.288
At first, this poem could be classified as a definition (like many others in this collection). However, the chorus ‘a table means’ does not bring any sense of clarifying an object that (supposedly) was hidden. Continuously, lots of characteristics that seem to relate to a table are recounted: ‘steadiness’, ‘a looking glass’, ‘necessary places’, ‘a revision’, ‘a stand’, ‘a shake’. This makes the features of a table sink into a mixture of confusing definitions, and reshapes whatever it was thought to be. A table for Stein turns into a table coming from modern life, which is no longer unitary but polyhedral.
Repetition in Tender Buttons did not actually belong to sentence structure. If the whole of Tender Buttons was a long poem, each repetition (syllables, rhymes, words) would be considered as a sentence inside it.
In my view, the repetition of domestic objects like table, chair, plate, umbrella, orange, and potato played down the endless rhythm of what I would describe as ‘inner house life’, which could be a symbol for society and the poetic world in microcosm.
Moreover, repetition was not simply used as increasing concreteness or a unified stream in Stein’s writing. In Tender Buttons, opposing views were tied in knots to reveal irregular ideas about objects or human life, in which, the repetition of objects in the following clause was the preparation for an unexpected bend of it into a different perspective. An example can be seen in ‘Shoes’:
To be a wall with a damper a stream of pounding way and nearly enough choice makes a steady midnight. It is pus.
A shallow hole rose on red, a shallow hole in and in this makes ale less. It shows shine. 289
The chain of ‘A shallow hole’, ‘a shallow hole in and in’ seem to lead towards exploration into the depth of the object. At last, ‘shine’ is found. The poem creates a paradox between inside and outside through the effort of trying to escape from the ‘pus’. This could be considered as a competition happening in the inner shoes; a competition of dark and light, quiet and noise, monotone and audacity, hurt and glory with the desire of analysing the word and the world of objects. This kind of contrary effect also appeared in many other poems in Tender Buttons (e.g. ‘A Petticoat’290, ‘A Waist’291), where at least two opposite sides or characteristics were hidden in one thing, such as purity and cloudiness (‘white’ and ‘ink spots’ in ‘A Petticoat’) or authentic and fake nature (‘crystal’ and ‘gild’ in ‘A Waist’).
Among such contradictions, ‘charm’ and ‘disgrace’ were of interest in examining Stein’s poems. On the one hand, Stein wrote about objects which were considered to be elegant and charming, while on the other, they turned out to be ‘Nothing Elegant’.292 In my view, Stein preferred to find the abnormal, the unspoken corners of objects around the house, including in the dining room, the kitchen and especially the living room, which was always supposed to contain the most beautiful and sparkling things and moments in life. However, in a strange way, nothing was as tender as it used to be thought. Thus, words controlled life. When Stein wrote her famous statement, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’293, she still wondered:
A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest.’294 She also wondered about fixed and constant entities (e.g. ‘A Red Stamp’, ‘A Red Hat’, ‘A Piano’) because they could transform to various situations and colours and finally find themselves blooming in a catalogue of images. Each fragment of an object freely looked for its own voice, which suggested lots of directions that even writers could hardly consciously intend to reach. For instance, a red hat could have no necessity to be red, it might be suffused with numerous shades of dark grey: ‘A dark grey, a very dark grey, a quite dark grey’.295 Thus it was impossible for readers to link Stein’s objects to normal life. The dictionary in Tender Buttons (if it could be named as such), in particular, was a closed inner life of a domestic woman, but in general, it involved an infinity that a human could only imagine. This is confirmed in The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:
She knows that beauty, music, decoration, the result of emotion should never be the cause, even events should not be the cause of emotion nor should they be the material of poetry and prose. Nor should emotion itself be the cause of poetry or prose. They should consist of an exact reproduction of either an outer or an inner reality.296 Sometimes, in the extremity of repetition, Stein eliminated the meanings of nouns in which all rhetorical sense disappeared. It could be the journey from paper to stool,297 a letter to the fire,298 which suggested the meaninglessness of any living action, or the inevitable and predictable ending of objects (from ‘cool’ to ‘less hot’). The usage of strong verbs such as ‘sell’, ‘cut’ and ‘collapse’ showed the collapse of what used to be established with pride and elegance.299 The desire of reaching a concluding definition of an object’s life made Stein reluctant to accept half-hearted descriptions such as ‘charm’ or ‘beauty’ (perhaps because they contained no exact meanings but seemed to be boring and ridiculous). She wrote in ‘A Drawing’, ‘nothing broader, anything between the half’300, and would rather ‘hot up and inspire the pale look, the regularity, dress them to a kind of salad than let them be simple like an artichoke’.301In this case, the artichoke could be considered as the symbol of normal life which was neither difficult to nominate nor complex to imagine. Therefore, a salad dressing was a solution in defamiliarising existing objects, which Stein gave the privilege of experience. It might be described as another reality within the reality.
There also appeared, as repetition in Tender Buttons, some striking images (e.g. ‘umbrella’, ‘table’ and ‘yellow’). Although colours are generally regarded as auxiliary components of an object, Stein proved that colours themselves could individually become lively objects. Sometimes, they were definite colours, sometimes not. In this case, it tended to be a mixture like ‘rose-wood colour’ in ‘A piece of coffee’302, which was rather an image of a possible reality or a transformation between reality and unreality. However, in Tender Buttons, even if colours were written simply as ‘blue’, ‘red’ or ‘white’, they were still far enough from components of metaphor or to be linked into groups of colour meaning. I examined ‘yellow’ as an apt example. This could be the colour of food: ‘the yellow and the tender and the better’303 or the colour of objects: ‘Dirty is yellow’304, ‘The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter’,305 ‘Enthusiastically hurting a clouded yellow bud and saucer’.306 However, what made the greatest impression was the yellow of people. Wright Morris questioned this when he recounted that: ‘They (Stein and Anderson) admitted that Hemingway was yellow’.307 The ‘pale yellow’ of Melanctha was mentioned ten times along with her other positive characteristics, such as being ‘graceful’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘attractive’, as a way to remind readers about the origin and the stable nature of this black woman. ‘Pale yellow’ was also used to describe her sick mother. It was not really the health symptoms of a prolonged illness; it seemed that Melanctha, or her mother ‘Mis’ Herbert, was a different version of a common yet mysterious and confusing entity. That was why on the one hand, Melanctha revealed her drastic attitude in disclaiming and trying to ignore her childhood as well as the love of her parents, while on the other hand she could hardly fail to recognise her genetic traits from them. This also led to a systematic existence of ‘pale yellow’ like an obsession, which named a person and anticipated her fate and lonely death from tuberculosis. Thus, yellow in Stein’s prose and poetry lived a real individual life and told its individual story rather than being an auxiliary for any subject. That might be the reason why we can hardly find the link between ‘curtain’ and ‘yellow’ and ‘roastbeef’,308 or ‘shining yellow – hope – nothing’,309 where ‘yellow’ is written as a random factor or an untold potential in the inner core of objects. Along with ‘yellow’ is ‘Chinese’, which could be considered as an object appearing many times in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: ‘Chinese chair’, ‘Chinese gown’, ‘translations of Chinese poems’. Those could be seen as examples of defamiliarisation in Stein’s writings, when she did not want to draw attention to any common objects. However, the repetition of ‘yellow’ and ‘Chinese’ could evoke the prejudice of racialism since the words have close relations to yellow-skinned people and patriarchy. Sometimes, with metaphors like ‘Japanese’, ‘broken pieces’ and ‘single piece’310, the poem also raises questions about the existence of a minority. There might also have been reference to the The Yellow Wallpaper311 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, with its ‘smouldering, unclean yellow’, ‘deadly fascination’ and ‘a yellow smell’ where the female protagonist found freedom in suicide through madness. That was the only way to reject, to strangle the woman behind the yellow wallpaper who day by day by day by day tied her with a rope. Therefore, ‘yellow’ turned out to be the environment, a jailer as well as a victim, a companion, which promoted the feminist ideology and required a change of the gender relationship.
Along with this, sexuality is considered to be one of the repeated inner subjects in Tender Buttons. In sexual politics, writers tried to avoid theories of male domination by looking at women’s experience in culture and forming a coherent understanding of women’s writings. However, because gender was considered to be the product of a discourse in which the participants were divided into a muted and a dominant group, the only way that one could find the speciality of women’s writing was by translating their language into the language of the dominant group.
This could be examined more specifically in A Room of One’s Own312 by Virginia Woolf, in which a problem was presented: men and women had the same qualities, but under the cultural and historical conditions of a traditional society, women were not allowed to become like Shakespeare. They could not develop genius. Thus, they would be forever buried into two dungeons, one imposed by society, the other created by women to avoid the influence of partisan prejudices which had evolved over thousands of years. Female writers only had one way to be themselves, to escape the frame of social knowledge, the discourse of their era. It was through madness and death. If not, they would turn into witches or wizards and live the life of a different, peripheral person. To solve this, there were only two ways they could become abnormal: to be inferior, or to stand higher than the society. The female writer took the second way and she was alone in the sense that she was both the pioneer and, possibly, the last. Thus, while on one hand, Woolf desired to enter through the closed library door, on the other hand she was afraid of boredom when trapped inside. The imprisonment of women was the biggest hurdle; it was a challenge for them to come to literature as a way of release and live their own lives. It also raised the question of what benefits it would bring to society. Virginia Woolf pointed out that the innovation of women’s roles was committed to the innovation of literature. To achieve such innovations, she cited the basic concepts of women expressed by Samuel Butler and La Bruyere, and concluded that looking at women through the eyes of men led only to confusion and chaos. This was because a woman in men's writings existed in a two-fold way: personality and impersonality. To explain this, Woolf pointed out that women in poetry only existed as shadows, beloved objects and major sources of inspiration for literary works. However, in real life, women were slaves in their own homes. As a consequence, Woolf drew a portrait of professor von X - an ugly and unbalanced picture, and she temporarily imagined a reason that would have made him have a bad view of women. It could have been anger when his wife committed adultery, which reduced the man’s confidence. She realised that anger made the views of both genders become biased. She also felt that the bad characteristics women had to assume were due to the nonsense and craziness of men. Women were victims of anger. This might be the reason why Woolf, in later arguments, was not against male viewpoints. She also realised that female writers who wrote based on the response of their gender, found difficulty in expressing all their literary capacity. The more they reacted to society, the more they were influenced by it. Prejudice, therefore, was always in their minds and forced them to think about it before making art. It was the invisible regulator for female writers. They were locking themselves into a social cage, self-questioning about views that attacked women, despite opening their souls to freedom in the world of writing. Thus, Woolf rejected the argument that genius just needed to focus on personal thinking and capacity. No-one seemed to be outside of prejudice and social institutions. That was the reason why women used to write as a man to avoid the appearance of abnormality, and considered writing as a way to relieve the self-destructive tendency. However, it was inevitable in a society where professors could disparage women and men legally established politics, law, education, economy and culture. It was a society where women could only appear in the miscellaneous pieces of news, and as figures of minor entertainment. All of these existed in the dominant male discourse. However, Woolf deeply indicated that underestimating women manifested the lack of confidence of males, and the reason for expressing the power of men was because they were actually weak. They needed women to create a rival. Without women, the balance of life would be changed and there would be nothing called nobleness and inferiority, victory and defeat. Women’s humility was proportional to the pride and power achieved by men. Men live by that illusion.
Therefore, the creation of a new balance could be found in Stein’s writings, in the participation of both genders like the division of two entities in one object. From a biographical perspective, this could be seen as the result of the lesbian life of the writer. However, the more textual explanation in the case of Stein could be that she wanted to find another way to define words, and feminism and sexuality were among her choices. The sexuality described by Stein was not the desire for ways to make love or a way to attract readers. It could be suggested that the lesbian sexuality was linked with Woolf’s protest against patriarchy, but above all, it was Stein’s neutral way of exploring objects which were worthy of having positions in any human field. Sometimes she used simple nouns to express sexuality. This was derived from the ambiguity of objects. A purse, in the poem of the same name, could be a decorative object for a woman, but with the evasive and unclear description that could refer to any other thing. Similarly, the repetition of ‘breed, breed’313 and ‘It is better than a little thing that has mellow real mellow. It was better than lakes whole lakes, it is better than seeding’ 314 also suggests a status of hurry and desire. In the majority of her writing about sexuality, Stein used a combination of objects and strong verbs, the deepness of image and especially the collision of objects themselves showing a different object-world in which nothing seemed to be separate from anything else.
The more fascinating thing was that tactile relationships did not happen in any area that was easy to associate with sexuality. An apt example in Tender Buttons was the kitchen. Naturally, Stein let readers go through the space of a kitchen to participate in the world of food, but also to play with recipes as a parallel for many concerns about sexuality. The familiar room might even be considered as being mediocre because of its small size and its femininity, so the kitchen was the ideal space for Stein to set her poems. ‘A time to eat’315 turned into an expression of patriarchal discourse with its authority and central position, such as ‘tyrannical’, ‘resumed’, ‘articulate separation’ and ‘tardy’. This could also relate to the repetition of ‘mount’, ‘mounted umbrella’ in Tender Buttons as a symbol of a frame that appeared to be able to hang, cover and protect absolutely everything inside and under it. However, Stein then revealed a funny, opposite truth: ‘There is nothing’.316 This was supposed to be a form of black humour that ridiculed and reacted to the inequitable situation in a man’s world. ‘Lunch’, with its adventurous words, referred more to a time to enjoy sexuality than a normal time to eat: ‘A little lunch is a break in skate a little lunch so slimy, a west end of a board line is that which shows a little beneath so that necessity is a silk under wear. That is best wet’.317 However, sexuality, even if it appeared metaphorically in Tender Buttons, was definitely not Stein’s aim in writing. What those poems brought to readers was a different perspective on accustomed household objects, especially the small and underestimated ones. Each of these indicated a lively life with the desire of love and being loved. They could, probably, be seen through romantic and sexual eyes, but more than that, they themselves contained natural qualities of sensations that awaked the instinct in humans. For example, ‘rub her coke’318 expressed the sensuality of touching, or ‘mixing tongue and pepper, tongue and salmon’,319 or ‘Water is squeezing, water is almost squeezing on lard’.320
On the other hand, Stein approved the rejection of the division between sense and emotion, point of view and context, objects and meaning, surrealism and nothingness that could refer to a metaphoric understanding of modern life coming from lost generations. For instance, in the poem ‘A Handkerchief’,321 Stein wrote ‘A winning of all the blessings, a sample not a sample because there is no worry’, which helped to remove the predetermined emotional states that could be assigned to a handkerchief as a place that contained human moods, taking it back to its neutral situation: ‘no worry’. It seemed that the human associations normally involved in recognizing an object had been replaced by the discovery or perception of an object’s original nature. Women’s writing in literature which had maintained the ideas of patriarchy had generally been far from the nature of literature. This also explains why in this collection, Stein used lots of refusal, disagreement and paradox. For example, ‘elegant’ could contain any meaning but people are much more familiar with the beautiful aspects written in its definition. However, to Stein, ‘elegant’ could be anything or nothing. She showed a contrary attitude to the normal ideology, not to deny objects but to supply their new life with new meanings, as if she was ploughing in a field that had not been reclaimed. Some apt examples were: ‘nothing elegant’, ‘nothing is stable’,322 ‘nothing middle,’323 ‘nothing flat nothing quite flat and more round, nothing a particular colour strangely, nothing breaking the losing of no little piece’,324 and ‘little leading mention nothing’.325 This attitude could be supposed to relate to the term ‘lost generation’, of which Stein stated: ‘All you young people who served in the war were a lost generation. You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death.’326 Being considered as applying the boredom and hopelessness of the First World War context to writing, some poems in Tender Buttons followed the trend of undefined meaning that merely produces a sense of playing with language and sound to make rhythm. An example of this is the poem ‘A little called Pauline’:
Gracious of gracious and a stamp a blue green white bow a blue green lean, lean on the top.
If it is absurd then it is leadish and nearly set in where there is a tight head.
A peaceful life to arise her, noon and moon and moon. A letter a cold sleeve a blanket a shaving house and nearly the best and regular window.
Nearer in fairy sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of ten. Count, count more so that thicker and thicker is leaning.
I hope she has her cow. Bidding a wedding, widening received treading, little leading mention nothing.
Cough out cough out in the leather and really feather it is not for.
Please could, please could, jam it not plus more sit in when.327 It can be seen here that the invasion of form into content shows its truth in deciding the meaning and creating the relationship between the nouns used. For instance, although the second ‘lean’ in the first sentence is separated into a new clause and interrupted by a comma to bring a change of tone, it is still linked to the repeated ‘blue green lean’ in front to lengthen and continue the feeling of lingering and finding a refuge in a gracious object. Similarly, in the third sentence, ‘life’ half-rhymes with ‘arise’ and is followed by a series of long vowels, ‘noon’ ‘moon’, which displays a variation of the symmetrical pattern of assonances on syllables and accelerates the endless peaceful theme. To carry on the word game, Stein not only keeps the cycle of lifetime immortality but also widens spaces as far as possible by placing them in various dimensions with one repeated vowel, ‘nearer (…) nearer and farther’, which in combination with ‘fairy sea’ evokes the voice of mysterious mantras. Therefore, it could be said that before the poem can penetrate the reader’s mind with its whole meaning, the sound and rhythm loiter, echo and fill every space, even though it is empty of description. Therefore, without trying to clarify the poem, I can at least outline it within an auditory nerve centre. A comparison could be drawn between the chiming and onomatopoeia in the language of Tender Buttons, and the repetition of a leading major chord. This chord could be a word, as in the case of the poems ‘Chicken’328: ‘Stick stick call then, stick stick sticking, sticking with a chicken. Sticking in a extra succession, sticking in’, and ‘Eating’329: ‘Eating he heat eating he heat it eating, he heat it heat eating. He heat eating’. More complex and playful, however, is what we find in ‘Orange in’:
A no, a no since, a no since when, a no since when since, a no since when since a no since when since, a no since, a no since when since, a no since, a no, a no since a no since, a no since, a no since.330 In this poem, Stein challenges the semantic categorisation which is normally used to require sufficient components of sentence structure, by choosing the open-meaning phrase ‘a no since’ and randomly adding and repeating continuous sub-clauses to make it lengthen. This might look like a kind of automatic typing, which might easily fall into mechanical formalism. However, poetic licence defeats the simple repetition through the irrationality of the rhythmic beat which, like a dance of musical notes in Jazz, has no regulation but freedom and excitement.
In individual sentences, repetition in Tender Buttons also appeared in rhetorical questions. This was not new and has frequently been mentioned as a common method of emphasis:
It is a positive question which is understood as if equivalent to a negative statement (…). It is true that a rhetorical question produces no violent sense of incongruity. None the less, its dramatic effect arises from a feeling that the question demands an answer and is not provided with one.331 However, in the case of Tender Buttons, Stein seemed to ask readers to participate in the ‘autobiography’ of objects, which was the reason for the rhetorical questions, and to disable the possibility of an answer, there was no available pre-explanation hidden inside. For example, in ‘Cake’, she wrote:
We came back. Two bore, bore what, a mussed ash, ash when there is tin. This meant cake. It was a sign. This is to-day.
A little leaf upon a scene an ocean any where there, a bland and likely in the stream a recollection green land. Why white. 332 Continuously, the chain of sentences was connected by repeated implied questions, which the following clauses were not really able to satisfy. In other words, there was a conformity that chimed but deviated. This also led to an open ending which was concentrated into a very small amount of words. Poems arranged with such characteristics included ‘White hunter’333, ‘Dinning’334 and a series of ‘Potatoes’335. These could be arranged in different grammatical structures. There were some full sentences, but also some which lacked semantic parts, including main ones like a subject or a verb. However, the common crucial characteristics that made them into poems by Stein was that they were incomplete. The familiar repetitions seemed to be hidden in various choices to fulfil an idea, even when the writer had no initial intention. As in a word puzzle game, readers were free to use their own experiences and imagination to play with unspoken spaces. The formulae were simple to interpret; for example, ‘In the preparation of cheese, in the preparation of crackers, in the preparation of butter, in it’, requires who/what + do something (‘Potatoes’); ‘Roast potatoes for’ requires who/ what/ doing something (‘Potatoes’). The result was a different kind of rhetorical question. The border between positivity and negativity, answerability and non- answerability seemed to be no longer regarded.
The Possible Influences of Gertrude Stein’s Writings on Vietnamese Poetry
Although Stein’s writings, especially Tender Buttons, were published a century ago, their innovations still provided the modern pattern and inspiration for the literature of many nations in general and poets in particular. This did not only apply in America and Europe, where the influence of Stein with her innovative language has been absorbed into twentieth century art:
William Carlos Williams wrote that she (Stein) tackled ‘the fracture of stupidities bound in thoughtless phrases, in our calcified grammatical constructions, and in the subtle brainlessness of our meter and favourite prose rhythms— which compel words to follow certain others without precision of thought’.336 It also applied in Eastern countries like Vietnam, where obedience to convention in poetry was still an obstacle in the modernisation of literature.
An apt example that could be used to clarify her influence was the case of Như Huy, a representative of new Vietnamese poets whose prose poetry was inspired by Tender Buttons, and not by accident.337 Firstly, in my view, the idea of the Tender Buttons collection was a way of appraising the work of a poet. To Vietnamese literature, this was quite a new subject of writing because, from mediaeval to modern times, poetry had never been considered as a career and had no official status. Having undergone a century of consecutive wars, poets had been trained to be soldiers and heroes; what they could speak about out loud were national problems and praising of victories, in which the reader could never see portraits of the poets themselves or know anything about the making of poetry. However, in times of peace, when those grand concerns were no longer the aims of poetry, poets came back to find who they were, what they were born to do and how they could make a real poem without the shadow of politics, including lots of stories that used to be hidden behind the scenes of a poetry career. This might have been suggested in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but largely in Tender Buttons, which was the miniature world of Stein with lots of similarities to cookery-book writing. Here, it described the work of poetry as the challenge of a stream of words and language, such as in the poem ‘Long Dress’:
What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it. Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it. 338 Ignoring the repetition factor that has already been mentioned in the earlier part of this chapter, the sequences of questions propose to readers a long dress that has been immersed in the ‘current’, the ‘wind’; it speaks of the beautiful silence of length, while the mixture and challenge of colours and the regular sounds of ‘machinery’ and ‘crackle’ play a role as a soundtrack for this active-image of the object. On the other hand, the work of making a dress is presented like the work of the poet, with both romance and reality while choosing the right colour, and being cheated and lost in the realm of an endless line. In the same situation, while facing the various opportunities of arranging cloth, she makes a multiple-choice game of words with ‘Any occasion shows the best way’. Temporarily far away from the sewing field, Tender Buttons leads us to another feminist place where the choices are sometimes more deliberative and plentiful. For example, in ‘A plate’339, the object of a plate leads to play with the meaning through ‘sad’ and ‘blue’ and concludes with a strange combination, ‘sad size’, from the size of the plate. The surface is described, which is staged actively like a three-dimensional picture with a sense of freedom and wetness from flowers, and even the function of the plate remains different from a normal plate, with a lamp and cake which seem to have no relationship inside it. It could be said that the whole poem is a dissonant assemblage of familiar elements to create an open mixture of an incomplete object. Another example is ‘Salad dressing and an artichoke’340, in which the writer seems to bend the artichoke to find out a choice, to escape from hovering and boring repetition, although again, the writer herself seems lost in it.
Following Stein, Như Huy also had a sense of wonderment in the poetry-making process:
He knows that a poem is always its language, always its shadow, always its rhythm, always its writer, always its left, always its outline, always its mirror, always its plagiarist, always its erased part, always its beginning, always its incline, always its escape, always its long junction, always its memory, always its abstracting manipulation, always its bottom, always its oasis, always its confusion, always its obsession, always its dominant right, always its dark corner, always its document, always its recall, always its grammar, always its maze, always its solution, always its nostalgia. (‘A Poem’) 341
On the one hand, Như Huy specifically mentions the elements of a poem (e.g. language, rhythm, grammar and writer), but on the other, they seem to be obscured by images that have no close relation to poetry-making. However, besides contributing to the regular rhythm of the poem, those images suggest the nature of creating from the inside, which both promotes and hinders the process, and which contains both beauty and evil, past and present. Therefore, the poem is fragmented into uncountable pieces, each piece of which could be considered a version of a poem but a definition of such a complex object could never be complete. Here, the Rubik’s cube is in Như Huy’s hand, he continuously turns it to various dimensions to look for the right answer, the right choice of colour arrangement, but what he gets is failure, leaving just nostalgia and the promise of another unfinished turn.
Through not directly mentioning the cooking-process of making a poem, as with the above poem, Như Huy raises a question about the complexity of sentences using another basic process, love:
1. With a strange grammar, you stole completely my source of words – from that, with the actions of tongue, mouth and fingers typing on the keyboard – is just my uncompleted – eternal – efforts, to reconstruct the world and reality.
2. Between the deep narrow slots of various reality layers, between the different interpreting abilities of love, between the repetitive actions of thinking, between sadness and happiness remaining on the scenery.
We – are – able – to – see – each other – clearly.342 Like Stein’s approach, this could be considered the mixture of separated fields and combined images that illustrates an object that always stays on the border of different notions. The two sentences are very complex in grammar structure but more complex in the definitions of the two sides of that border. The sides are love and poetry, a lover and a poet, the choice of language and the choice of love actions, vagueness and assertion, dream and reality. In the open conclusion, ‘We – are – able – to – see – each other – clearly’, even though the border is invisible, it is still a border that a poet longs to possess, but neither can he achieve it nor can he understand such poetry clearly. However, playing with such puzzles of words leads the poet to innovation.
The above poem reminds readers of the ‘In Between’ by Stein, where the poet can hardly find the connectivity:
In between a place and candy is a narrow foot-path that shows more mounting than anything, so much really that a calling meaning a bolster measured a whole thing with that. A virgin a whole virgin is judged made and so between curves and outlines and real seasons and more out glasses and a perfectly unprecedented arrangement between old ladies and mild colds there is no satin wood shining.343 It could be seen that between ‘a place and candy’, which have no relation to each other, there are many things. All life’s objects are counted here, all prejudices and social forces and institutions appear here, on a ‘narrow foot-path’ which is also narrow like itself. For example, ‘a virgin is judged made’ is a product of social opinion, not a real natural one. Nothing turns out to be elegant and shining as it used to be imagined.
Secondly, it seems that in Tender Buttons, language was the product of ‘supposing’. This consolidated the ideology that a poem belonged to the present, which could be changed or even dematerialised because of current notions. This could be found in ‘A Centre In A Table’344: ‘Suppose a cod liver a cod liver is an oil, suppose a cod liver oil is tunny, suppose a cod liver oil tunny is pressed suppose a cod liver oil tunny pressed is china (…)’, and in ‘Roastbeef’ 345 ‘Supposing there is a bone, there is a bone. Supposing there are bones. There are bones. When there are bones there is no supposing there are bones’. Similarly, in ‘A Piece of Coffee’:
Supposing that the case contained rose-wood and a color. Supposing that there was no reason for a distress and more likely for a number, supposing that there was no astonishment, is it not necessary to mingle astonishment.346 With the power of language, Stein transferred these ‘supposing objects’ into reality but always consciously reminded readers that they might be the products of imagination. The boundaries between existence and nonexistence, real life and artistic context were blurred in creation. To Vietnamese poets, this appeared to be one of the crucial points that had the ability to change the notion of making poetry. Before that, poetry had to be derived from reality; everything written in poems had to be a reflection of the cycle of life around us. Therefore, it would have seemed impossible for Stein to write about the cod liver if it did not appear on the table; similarly, the rose-wood colour would have needed to be an image that our imagination could reach and analyse. Moreover, a poem would have had to be written in the narration of traditional prose, in which details were well-arranged in the journey that the subjects were born to have. Vietnamese poetry in the past could not get far from realism decorated by figurative language. However, with the reception of consciousness about ‘supposing’ and fiction, the realm of poetry was extended to infinity. For instance, Như Huy proposed a kind of unreal and chaotic sequence in this poem:
There is something disintegrating, does it reach the destination?...
The fingers type and type and type, or is it the far drum beat, the glass of water?…
Four surfaces are dark. How strange that voice is!...
And the black. She predicted that everything could not end at the beginning.
The step sound and a bunch of copper keys, and the present…
The face is only the falling shadow of time wearing glasses, and hair, too…
The sound of truck horns. Linguistics and the book you have been looking for many days…
The gentle dropping hands there. Fiction is a part of decision, that’s why he…
Can not come back. And the new slope is the real reason of speed. That’s it…
That’s it, that’s it, the slight touch on that face…
The careless walks on the pavement, and the dark, and the beat, and the far ethnic trumpet, and the tintinnabulum, and the brown-soil-bird that Neruda loves… 347 As the title ‘There Is Something Disintegrating’ suggests, this poem is a realisation, through imagination, about fragmented objects in life and in literature. Coincidentally, Như Huy also uses familiar structures like Stein did, such as 'There is something ...', and the images are built on the principle of 'supposing'. Objects can move freely from district to district, from time to time and between different contexts, in different people. The poet continues on in thought and reality, past and present, literature and life. The only connection which makes this fragmentation able to stand together in a poem is the vague and fragile feeling of existence. It is as if there was something that was close to him; he can see it, hear it and feel it, but if he just touches it, it will disintegrate and disappear as though it has never existed. That might be the nature of a world which is both forming and ruining, of art arising from the moment, of beauty and poetical issues as something tangible that people can only admire but never possess. Furthermore, like the poems in Tender Buttons, there is a deep circuit making the music of this poem, which is the repetition of sounds: fingers typing, the strange voice, the ‘step sound and a bunch of copper keys’, the ‘sound of truck horns’, the ‘beat’, the ‘far ethnic trumpet’ and the tintinnabulum, which could be considered as an invisible connection in this disintegrating world.
Music, again, could be considered as one of the most effective means which help to transmit the content and inspiration of poems. The meeting point of Như Huy with Stein’s writings was the endless repetition. Here is an example extracted from the poem: ‘Roastbeef’ in Tender Buttons:
All the time that there is use there is use and any time there is a surface there is a surface, and every time there is an exception there is an exception and every time there is a division there is a dividing. Any time there is a surface there is a surface and every time there is a suggestion there is a suggestion and every time there is silence there is silence (…)348 This can be placed in comparison with the first part of ‘Memory’ by Như Huy:
He knows that actually the bell is only the bell – that bell makes memory, and memory makes memory, makes memory, makes memory…
He knows that an era is only an era – that era makes memory, and memory makes memory, makes memory, makes memory…
He knows that every action is only one action – that action makes memory, and memory makes memory, makes memory, makes memory…349 While Stein borrowed the roast beef to play a hide-and-seek game with memory and the continuous present passing through the mind, catching the sound, reproducing seconds and moments much more than describing, Như Huy used ‘memory’ as a mainstream note to make the harmony become smooth, reduce the intensity and create a peaceful feeling like hearing increasingly small bells. This also reminds us of a very beautiful poem named ‘Cups’ in Tender Buttons. It could be said that rarely did Stein stay in a subjective position, which raised the question of why an object was always considered to be an object when it was still deep in its individual world of music and memory. It had a soul.
Why is a cup a stir and a behave. Why is it so seen.
A cup is readily shaded, it has in between no sense that is to say music, memory, musical memory. 350
Sometimes, accidentally, some other idea from Stein’s writings became inspirations for Vietnamese writers. In ‘Melanctha’, there was a paragraph about a child watching through a hole:
For a child watching through a hole in the fence above the yard, it is a wonderful world of mystery and movement. The child loves all the noise, and then it loves the silence of the wind that comes before the full rush of the pounding train, that bursts out from the tunnel where it lost itself and all its noise in darkness, and the child loves all the smoke, that sometimes comes in rings, and always puffs with fire and blue color.351 Stein wrote those words in a different voice and sense. They did not need to be based on the awakening of a modern writing technique but were able to catch the soul of the reader. It was a circuit of changing day and night, noise and silence, love and calm. It softly glided into our mind in innocent child’s steps. This was the initial idea for a short story written in 1938 by Thạch Lam352, a romantic writer in Vietnam, about the fate and simple life of two children in a poor half urban-half rural area.
However, along with the drastic attitude of poetic innovation, in my opinion, there was a conflict in Stein’s ideology: she might want to find a new way to define the word, language and the world, but she also seemed also to resist and be afraid of the change. Everything she did included supposing the reordering of an object’s life, which suggested both a mirror reflecting human life and being totally different from it. Like a polygon or prism, Tender Buttons looked through an unorthodox dimension. That was why it had never been fully understood and accepted. This comes from Stein’s own point of view about changes which are shown quite clearly in the third part of Tender Buttons: Room.
All the time that there was a question there was a decision. Replacing a casual acquaintance with an ordinary daughter docs not make a son (…) It is not very likely that there is a centre, a hill is a hill and no hill is contained in a pink tender descender (…) Giving it away, not giving it away, is there any different. Giving it away. Not giving it away (…) All the rest of the chairs are established.353 This also had an effect on modern Vietnamese poetry. While on one hand, poets tried to obtain new methods and ideologies to create a new style of poems, on the other hand, they could not escape the national discourse which led them to write in support of traditional and political trends. All they could do was to create their own poetic discourse using their own range of language. That explains why there were a lot of individual poems that nearly touched the level of the new Formalism in terms of linguistics, but it is almost impossible to find an official collection of poetry that makes a statement about following a modern literary theory. However, it cannot be denied that Stein’s writings opened up an orientation of prose poetry in Vietnamese literature.
In conclusion, passing through the wars in Vietnam, from 1975, Vietnamese literature was divided into two main strands. The common characteristics of both was the desire for a revolution in Vietnamese literature, which had been affected by the Chinese for approximately 1000 years until 1427, by the French from 1887 to 1945, and by Americans from 1954 onwards. Both strands were looking for the Vietnamese cultural identity and sought to help it to integrate selectively with the developing trend of modernism in literature. The difference between them was the opposing evaluation of form and content. The first strand wanted to keep traditional verse composition and re-orientate writings about national issues as it used to do before. These issues could be a poet’s concerns with his own activity, the beauties of cultural tradition in a rice-civilisation, or whatever previous grand, national, poetic narratives had not yet talked about. The second strand, in contrast, focused on changing poetic form and required equality between the inside and outside of literature. This called for an approach which ignored meaning and significance, encouraged the rise of new experiments in form and advocated prose poetry. The latter strand helps to explain why Stein and her Tender Buttons, from my understanding and analysing, could suggest a modern way of writing in Vietnamese poetry.