Published in 1914, Tender Buttons is one of the great Modern experiments in verse. Simultaneously considered to be a masterpiece of verbal Cubism, a modernist triumph, a spectacular failure, a collection of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax, the book is perhaps more often written about than actually read.
Divided into three sections—"Objects," "Food," and "Rooms"—the book contains a series of descriptions that defy conventional syntax. William Gass notes that these are, respectively, "things external to us, which we perceive, manipulate, and confront," "things which nourish us," and "things which enclose us."
An American by birth, Gertrude Stein lived as an expatriate in Paris for most of her life. At once a novelist, an essayist, and a poet, she was famous for hosting evening salons that gathered together the great thinkers, painters, and writers into one room, and sparking (and recording) their exchange of ideas. Besides Tender Buttons, her major works in verse include Patriarchal Poetry and the somewhat more accessible Stanzas in Meditation.
Tender Buttons is not frequently anthologized, perhaps because it is meant to be read as a single, long prose-poem. However, notable selections include "Suppose an Eyes," "A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass" in which she seemingly announces her intentions towards Cubism, as well as "In Between," which is often read as a feminist poem because of its strong (though abstract) themes of sensuality. Another noteworthy poem is "Orange In" from "Food," which contains both the repetition and word-combining that many consider to be cubist.
Still avant-garde and experimental ninety years since its first publication, Tender Buttons has inspired generations of experimental poets, providing inspiration for the Language movement, as well as a variety of imitations— both successful and not. She is beloved and cited as influence by many poets and novelists, including William Gass, Sherwood Anderson, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and Harryette Mullen.