Teaching Tender Buttons

There are many domesticated Modernists, but Gertrude Stein is not one of them.

Of course, the truth of this statement rests (at least in part) on a particular understanding of “domesticated”; in this case I mean that quite a few of the previously controversial Modernists have acquired a patina of respectability, whether through exposure or reputation, so that it’s pretty easy to teach Joyce, WCW, Wallace Stevens, even (certain) Pound, and expect that my students will either have read something by them previously or, at the very least, been exposed to a teacher-approved text that resembles them. This makes my job slightly easier, though also less risky – because a text which has been “approved” is one which must be respected, if not necessarily read (much less loved), by which I mean the kids listen dutifully as we talk about them, and take notes. Whether or not they think about these notes ever again is an open question.

(This is also shows that I teach at a university where many of the kids have had decent high school English preparation, which is a theme for another post.)

Here is where I have to lay on the line the fact that I have no particular qualifications for teaching poetry in my classroom. I am not a poet, nor am I a particularly comprehensive reader of poetic texts, so in some ways my students’ previous experience as self-conscious “students” of poetry is a good thing; I’m in the sad position where I can’t really provide a comprehensive introduction to the very poetic texts I like the most, so I’m happy that my students don’t outright revolt when I throw Wallace Stevens/Marianne Moore/H.D. at them. In fact, I get a great deal of buy-in.

Except, of course, that outright revolt is sometimes an excellent thing. When I teach fiction it’s one of my favorite responses – which is why I try to teach “The Indian Uprising” whenever I can. Outright revolt can be its own kind of buy-in; in fact, if responded to in a non-aggressive fashion, it can provide the spark for a really fun class.

Which brings me back to Tender Buttons.

For the record, I love Tender Buttons. Maybe it’s because it’s (only nominally) prose, or because I enjoy word play – emphasis on “play” – or because I’m appreciative of the way in which it draws close attention to the status of words as signifiers (or the implausibility of the very concept of “definitions”), but I find it a particularly invigorating text.

But its particular force as a teaching tool stretches beyond any of my particular aesthetic concerns. Tender Buttons is exciting to teach because certain students really dislike it, and their visceral dislike gives a sense of consequence to the discussion. Other students sit up, take notice, and try to provide responses to this dislike. Some people defend the work; other people ask questions – lots of students want to know “what it means,” or “why” Gertrude Stein would have written something like this.  

Which is what I mean when I say that Stein isn’t a “domesticated” Modernist. She’s still debatable, not at the level of text – what is WCW’s “poetic project?” – but at the level of the allowable, as in: is she even allowed to do this?

My impulse, of course, is to yell “of course she is,” especially considering all of the fertile crosscurrents between aesthetic and political/sexual freedom – that which is “allowed” being a topic which we’re always debating throughout these territories, whether we want to say we are or not! 

But in the classroom I find that the students tend to come to this on their own, provided I playfully force them to engage with the text. I have them read shorter sections out loud. I play them audio of Stein reading (which makes some students laugh, and others loudly groan.) I have them listen to me read a section, and then free-write in response. I make sure that by my insistence I show I care about the work, but I don’t ram my love of it down their throats. Their resistance, after all, is what started the conversation in the first place.

I’ve had many teachers tell me not to teach what I love, because the students’ lack of interest will often disappoint you. One never has that problem with Stein. The students may not come to embrace her, but she never fails to invest a room with energy, which is one of my favorite environments to teach in.

After all, as Stein asks: “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.”

Or, less (more!) seriously: Sugar is not a vegetable.

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