Posted by: Tom Triumph | December 2, 2009

65. Mildred’s Umbrella: Gertrude Stein

One thing I want to instill in my students is the ability to do small, basic things adults either wish they could do or take for granted. No longer are children taught to sew on a button, change the oil in a car or cook an omelet. Surrounded by DIY emporiums like Home Depot and the like, many students and their parents can hardly cook a meal or two that does not come from a box or can.

There are good reasons for this, of course, but students should feel like they CAN do things. It is not about knowing how to bake bread, but feeling that they can if they wish and then becoming very good at it. No fear.

So, I am teaching my students how to make an omelet the Julia Child way, tie some basic knots and sweat a copper pipe. We shall see.

In looking for a poem about such a simple idea, I was at a loss. I stumbled upon Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” on a sewing search. This is part of a larger piece, “Objects”. It is not clear if it is an excerpt of that larger piece, or if it can stand alone. Indeed, it is unclear if the entire “Objects” section can stand alone.

Who cares? Ms. Stein would have and would not have, so here we have it. I like the absurd nature of such poems, and find that the kids eat it up. Does it fit my needs? Perhaps. No. Well, like “Why I Am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara; it’s still there even if not obvious. So, yes.

I teach about small things. Those things we miss in our daily hustle and bustle. So much so, that we expect broad descriptions which make sense yet fail to capture what is being described. “That couch is black.” Blah. That was Stein’s purpose in writing this; to move beyond the dictionary, which had become ineffectual (in her mind). So, it is my theme.

At least its interesting.

Mildred’s Umbrella
Gertrude Stein

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.

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Responses

  1. How did the kids react to Stein’s poem? I’m writing a research paper on methods for teaching experimental writing, so I’m curious to hear what happened!

    –Anne

    • The kids grasped at anything but the possibility it might not make sense. Then they thought it was stupid.

      I like Stein’s statement that she was creating a new dictionary. We talked about that. We talked about what the purpose of a dictionary was, and if the Webster’s definition really captured the true essence of an umbrella. I asked them if their grades represented them. Answer: No. So, how do you capture…. anything?

      I cannot say that they got it, or like it. I find that any “odd” idea is greeted the same way. It is an interesting balance between wanting to be free and do anything, but at the same time demanding order and depth. They are finding the balance. After a bit of bashing them with new ideas, they become open to it. Of course, they lose discipline because they think everything goes.

      Using “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and having the time to beat that horse, does a bit better as, in the end, it seems to “make sense”. Stein…. Well, they are not sure if there is any there there. Her life–her car and dog and idiosyncrasies–make for interesting discussions. In the end, Stein is a wedge for further discussion.


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