Stein and the essence of language and poetry

Omid Shams

Is there any language marked as language of poetry? If so, how can it be defined? And how can it be distinguished from the language as a whole? Answering these questions goes through the definition of poetry. But the problem is that, there are as many definitions as the poems have ever been written. In the other words, each poem itself redefines the poetry. Then on what basis we call all of these varieties as poems? The only common basis we can find for every poem is language. Poetry does something with language. Poetry derives itself from language and makes that language something peculiar and different to whatever we know as “normal” language or language which is not poetic. Poetry makes us to gaze to the body of language instead of understanding what the language presents. In other words, poetry makes us to communicate with language not through language. And we all know there is a general understanding of language as a device for making and understanding the expressions and therefore communication. Thus, to find out the essence of poetic language we should understand the boundaries and limits of non-poetic or general language. This is what formalist literary theorists do to understand the poetic essence of language or more general to understand the “literariness”. Their attempts aim to indicate the relationship between standard language and poetic language. For them the distinction between standard and poetic language has been taken for granted.

In this essay I use a reversal method starting from formalist analysis of poetic and standard language so I can point out the distinguishing aspects of poetic language then I will come back to the question of relationship between poetic language (parole) and language as a whole (langue) regarding Heidegger and Blanchot’s approaches towards the language and poetry to show that the essence of language is poetry; claiming that poetry is not bound to expression or communication through representation.

Throughout this probe I take the Gertrude Stein’s Tender Button as the main exemplary background and in the third part of the essay I’ll try to show how Tender Button can be considered as a modernist pioneer for radically rethinking over the language (as only material for poetry) and exercising this survey as a subject for the poetic work.

Poetic language and Standard Language:

Tradition of Russian formalism, which is not limited to the Russian formalists of course, has a fundamental question to answer: What makes a literary work out of language? In the other words, they try to find the essence of literature.

To answer this question they had only one field to research on that is the language. Then they specify their question: what are those aspects of language that create the literary or poetic work? Through this question they postulate that language in its general usage is not literary but in certain situation it “becomes” literary. Thus, the poetic or literary work is a peculiar usage of language that makes it different from ordinary (or practical, standard, utilitarian, prosaic, scientific, every day, communicative, referential, etc.) language.

From this point of view they make a fundamental division between standard language and poetic language to understand the relationship between them and how they affect each other. This division is rooted in their understanding of art as technique that is in contrast with symbolist understanding of art that, according to Alexander Potebnya, defines it as “thinking in images”. Potebnya claims that “Without imagery there is no art, and in particular no poetry(Art as Technique, 15). Famous formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, argues the imagery which is claimed by Potebnya as the essence of art is just a technique among the others and all of the techniques have same function which is, in shklovsky’s view, de-familiarization. He writes in his brilliant essay, Art as technique:

“Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been. [Tolstoy’s quote]” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.” (Art as Technique, 20)  

Shklovsky also criticizes the Potebnya’s belief that “the image is far clearer and simpler than what it clarifies”. He argues that using the adjectives such as “clearer and simpler” as values for poetic images shows that “these ideas are perhaps true in their application to ‘practical’ language. They were, however, extended to poetic language. Hence they do not distinguish properly between the laws of practical language and the laws of poetic language.” (Art as Technique, 17)

That is why formalists start their research on laws of poetic language from a distinction between standard and poetic language. They assume that either the purpose or the whole process of creating poetic discourse is completely different from standard discourse. Clarification is the purpose of the standard discourse. While for the poetic discourse the purpose is ambiguity. Also the process of creating an ordinary discourse is based on familiarization but poetry is created through de-familiarization. Regarding the issue of the text’s message, while a scientific text tries to transmit its message as fast as possible, the poetic text tries to postpone the transmission of the message as much as possible. I shall clarify with an example:

If you wish,–

I’ll rage on raw meat like a vandal

Or change into hues that the sunrise arouses,

If you wish,–

I can be irreproachably gentle,

Not a man, — but a cloud in trousers. (Mayakovsky, Cloud in Trousers)

In the verses above the message could be transmitted in one short sentence: I will be what you wish. But the poet uses six sentences to transmit the message. The poet intentionally delays the process of transmission of the message. It shows that sending the message is not the purpose of the poetic language. While in communicative language the first and most important purpose is to send the message as fast and clear as possible.

On the other hand, the poet uses the similes and metaphors to obstruct the process of message transmission by distorting the clarity of the message. By those techniques he tries to estrange the familiar message: “I will be what you wish”. He de-familiarizes the ordinary and standard predicate by using strange and unpredictable descriptive sentences “[I’ll] change into hues that the sunrise arouses”. What the poet claims in verses above can only happen in the world of poetry. Those claims are not what we expect to come true in real life. Here we can point out one of the most important differences between standard language and poetic language.  Standard language as basic for scientific and other communicative discourses has to be factual. Or at least it has to sounds or seems factual. In other words, standard language has to determine its relation with the reality and its laws and limitations. While for the poetry there is no distinctive line between reality and unreality. It is obvious that in standard and communicative usage of language (even in scientific discourse) we use metaphor, irony and allusion that mean sometimes we say something which is not apparently factual or reasonable, for example in an everyday conversation when we say “I am dying to see you.” Or in a scientific essay: “Smith has been haunted by two antithetical criticisms”. However these figures of speech are presented in a context that refer them to a fact or familiar and logical situation so we can understand them. In other words, in the field of standard language, we recognize such sentences as figures of speech and we paraphrase them into the standard and familiar sentences. We can recognize them because of their deviation from clarity of standard language. Hence, Mukarovsky concludes that poetic language cannot be the brand of standard language. He argues “for poetry, the standard language is the background against which is reflected the esthetically intentional distortion of the linguistic components of the work, in other words, the intentional violation of the norm of the standard. The violation of the norm of the standard, its systematic violation, is what makes possible the poetic utilization of language; without this possibility there would be no poetry. The more the norm of the standard is stabilized in a given language, the more varied can be its violation, and therefore the more possibilities for poetry in that language.” (Standard language and poetic language, 17) Let me suggest another example:


In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. (Tender Buttons, 33)

In sentences above there is no cohesive relation between the sentences which is one of the standard norms. Roastbeef is the title and the sentences have descriptive form, so the following sentences under the title apparently should describe the Roastbeef. But there is   no semantic or logical relation between the title and the descriptive sentences. Also in each sentence we cannot find any referential connection between “inside” and “sleeping”, “outside” and “reddening”, “morning” and “meaning”, “evening” and “feeling”.

The only connection between these words and sentences is the rhyme, repetition (“in the” and “is”) and alliteration which are another deviation from the norm of standard language. If we take “Food”, which is the title of this section of the book, as a referential context of these sentences, we cannot find any reference to this context. On the other hand, Stein uses the word “roastbeef” without a space between “roast” and “beef”, then even the title is different with what we know as “roast beef” in real world or in standard language. However roast beef remains in the background of our mind when we read those sentences. Stein makes the familiar seem strange by changing its name and describing it in a way as if she is seeing it for the first time and as if it is just a name. Roastbeef in Stein’s text has nothing to do with what we know as a food called roast beef. At the same time we unconsciously compare those sentences with what we know as description of roast beef and we find the strangeness.

The relation between the title, “roastbeef” and the following sentences is what Mukarovsky describes as different function of poetic language from standard language called “foregrounding”. “The function of poetic language consists in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance. Foregrounding is the opposite of automatization, that is, the de-automatization of an act. automatization schematizes an event; foregrounding means the violation of the scheme.” (Standard language, 18)

Irrelevancy between the title and following description and also between the subject and complement of each sentence de-automatizes the act of description. In other words, we have some linguistic patterns and semantic expectations in the background from which those sentences are deviated and foregrounded. In poetic language foregrounding achieves maximum intensity to the extent of pushing communication into the background as the objective of expression and of being used for its own sake; it is not used in the services of communication, but in order to place in the foreground the act of expression, the act of speech itself”. (Standard language, 18)

De-automatization may occur in both semantic and syntactic fields. In the example below Stein uses both.


An elegant use of foliage and grace and a little piece of white cloth and oil. (Tender Buttons, 20)

Above we have a syntactic de-automatization through the incomplete sentence, a fragment without verb, and also there is a deviation in syntagmatic axis of the sentence where we have words which semantically cannot be together. If we take “More” as subject and the following phrase as predicate for that subject, then there would be no semantic or predicating relation between the subject and the predicate.

From those examples we learn that poetic language can be defined as intentional distortion of standard language. It pushes the communicative functions of language to the background to create esthetic relations in the text. However, what formalists indicate as differences between standard and poetic languages cannot answer two fundamental questions of language: What is the essence of language? And, what is the essential relationship between poetry and language?

What they did was only comparative description of two forms of language. Their survey does not go through the essence of language, so their discussion remains at the surface. They can illustrate “how” the poetry acts through the language but they cannot explain “why”. This is where Martin Heidegger starts his work. He tries to reach to the essence of language and poetry.

Essence of Language and Poetry

Heidegger begins his brilliant lecture on language with this claim that “reflection tries to obtain an idea of what language is universally. The universal that holds for each thing is called its essence or nature.” (Poetry, Language and Thought, 189) Then he insists that the title of the lecture is not “the essence or nature of language” but it is only “language”. He tries to be restricted on language and language itself is nothing but language. Then he asks a fundamental question: “In what way does language occurs as language?” He answers “Language speaks”. Not man but language speaks and through its speaking it appears as it is in its nature. But how language can speak? And how that speaking can be? First of all Heidegger describe the “current view” on speaking through three points: first, speaking is expression. Secondly, speaking is the man’s activity. Finally, “human expression is always a presentation and representation of the real and the unreal.” (Poetry, 192)

He argues that based on this common understanding of speaking, “all statements are referred to the traditionally standard way in which language appears.” (Poetry, 193)  For Heidegger this restriction of definition obstructs the survey for language in itself. He admits that, because of this restriction, no one dares to deny the identification of language as human speech on emotions as representation by visual or audial concepts. However, he dares to reject this identification. He lets the language speak of itself. Then how we can find that speaking? In what is spoken, of course. Not whatever is spoken but what is spoken “purely”. “What is spoken purely is that in which the completion of speaking [as value] is original. What is spoken purely is the poem.”(Poetry, 194)


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. (Tender Buttons, 9 )

In the verses above what we have is “naming”. Stein names “the carafe” and calls it “a blind glass”, “a kind in glass”, “a cousin” etc. There is a process of naming and renaming that continues till the last sentence. According to Heidegger the ability of naming in poetry is what can reveal the nature of language. But naming is not exclusively the ability of poetry. Then why naming through poetry and only poetry can reveals the nature of language?

In verses above, Stein names as she speaks. But this naming is not decoration of imaginable and familiar objects with words of language. “This naming does not hand out the titles, it does not apply terms but it calls to the words. The naming calls” (Poetry, 198) Calling brings what is called to the near. At the same time, this “bringing closer” does not put what is called into our present. Then, where does this calling bring it to? Calling brings it “Into the distance in which what is called remains, still absent.” (Poetry, 198)

Poetry calls thing for the sake of calling and nothing else. By calling things, poetry brings them into their being. But this being is sheltered in absence. Because “a carafe”, which is called to words, comes closer (into the presence of word) but it is not present here in our place where we are reading it. Then, “The calling calls into itself and therefore always here and there—here into presence and there into absence.” (Poetry, 199) This is the forgotten nature of language which is always between the presence and absence. By calling things, we find their being in language but there is always “the difference” between their presence in language and their presence in our room. However we cannot refer to their being or presence in our room without calling them in language. To clarify that why the nature of poetry is closest to the nature of language let me mention the five pointers which Heidegger takes from Holderlin to probe the essence of poetry.

1-       Writing poetry: “that most innocent of all occupations”.

2-       “Therefore, has language, most dangerous of possessions, been given to man…”

3-       “Much has man learnt.

Many of the heavenly ones has he named

Since we have been a conversation

And have been able to hear from one another.”

4-       “But that which remains, is established by poet”

5-       “Full of merit, and yet poetically, dwells

Man on this earth.” (Existence and being, 293)

Poetry is most innocent of all occupations because poetry is a play. It is play that creates its world out of imagination and stays in the realm of imagination. Hence, poetry has nothing to do with reality and stays away from seriousness of action. Language is the only material of the poetry. So how poetry can be the innocent occupation while language is the most dangerous possession? As we discussed before, the essence of language is bringing things into being. How does language do that? It does it by naming them. It calls them into the being. By naming things, language divides the being as a whole into the certain beings: “Many of the heavenly ones has he named.”  By calling the things, language makes a conversation with universe: “Since we have been a conversation.”

Bible tells that God brought all of the animals to Adam so he named them. By naming them, Adam became the master of animals. He annihilated their existence. Therefore, naming is the most powerful and dangerous possession of human being. By calling something, man kills its unique existence. By calling a dog, that dog ceases to be a unique and real being and becomes an ideal dog. When we call a group of animals as dogs we kill the uniqueness of their existence. At the same time we bring them into the being by distinguishing them from cats and parrots. Language kills and brings into the life. It kills a thing in the real world and gives it a new life in words. Blanchot says:

In speech what dies is what gives life to speech: speech is life of that death. […]. What a wonderful power. But something was there and is no longer there. How can I recover it? How can I recover it, how can I turn around and look into what exists before, if my power consists in making it into what exists after? The language of literature is a search for this moment…it wants the cat as it exists, the pebble taking the side of things, not man but the pebble and in this pebble [literature wants] what man rejects by saying it…(The Work of Fire, 327)

Poetry renames what was named before and through this renaming it kills that old existence. “The secret of the poetic word that enables it to bring the unsayable into a world as such lies in its naming power.” (Ellipsis, 81) Also the nature of language is the naming that brings everything into the being. That is why “yet poetically, dwells Man on this earth.”

The only difference between the essence of poetry and language is that poetry, as Blanchot said, tries to look into what exists before language’s naming. Poetry tries to give the “carafe” its existence or better said, its uniqueness and originality; and does it by renaming the “carafe” as Stein did. That is why poetry is purely spoken.

Now we can approve what formalists claim that poetry is not the brand of standard language. We can go further and claim, as Heidegger does, that “poetry proper is never merely a higher mode of everyday language. It is rather than the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer.” (Poetry, 208)

Also we can claim that the representation is neither the essence of language nor the poetry. There is a fundamental distance between the thing’s presence in reality and its presence in language. There is no dog in reality. Dog is an ideal creature not a real one. Then the name, dog, cannot be considered as representation of any real creature. There is only one relation between a thing in real world and its name in language: The name refers to the death of thing in reality and its life in language. Aware of this aspect, the modern poetry consciously tries to retain the unique existence of beings through remaking the language.

Stein, Essence of Modernism and Essence of language

Modern era radically changed the understanding of art, media and reality. By invention of photography and later cinematography, the art and specifically poetry, was released of traditional understanding of itself as representation, or recording of the reality. Photography and cinematography influenced the art in matter of style and specifically fictional literature learnt much from these new media; but poetry and painting learnt one important thing from them that changed their fundaments. The principles of framing and camera’s standpoint taught them about individual narrative of reality. Cubism and Impressionism in painting are completely under the influence of photography. Both tried to give a new understanding of reality through changing the conception of perspective, lights and objects. In poetry the influence of photography appears both in definition of poetry and the style of writing poetry.

Focusing attention to the concept of image or poetic image as central element of poetry can be considered as one of the results of that influence.  Also the individual interpretation of reality or remaking individual reality through poetry is another example of that influence.

In case of Stein’s Tender Buttons, we can see that influence both in style and definition of Stein’s poetic work. Tender Buttons has a descriptive style, the word picture of objects, foods and places. Usage of sentences without verbs, full of nouns and adjectives, makes us feel that Stein is taking photos through writing.


The sight of a reason, the same sight slighter, the sight of a simpler negative answer, the same sore sounder, the intention to wishing, the same splendor, the same furniture. (Tender Buttons, 12)


These verses are much similar to the snapshots taken by a subjective and imaginative camera. The stillness in sentences of Tender Buttons is also much similar to the stillness of a photograph. Most of the verbs used in Stein’s work are variations of “to be”. However, Stein’s work is not just a simple picture of things. Since, “single image is not splendor.” Those verbs make the work able to transform the picture continuously and present a constant changing picture.

A single image is not splendor. Dirty is yellow. A sign of more in not mentioned. A piece of coffee is not a detainer. The resemblance to yellow is dirtier and distincter. The clean mixture is whiter and not coal color, never more coal color than altogether. (Tender Buttons, 12)

But the most important characteristic of the modern era that changed the art, and therefore poetry, was the soul of modernity which can be discussed in two principles: will to cognitive knowledge and challenging the traditional perceptions.

During the modern era all the fields of knowledge reflect to themselves trying to understand the essence and the boundaries of themselves. Poetry as well, asks cognitive questions: what is the poetry? What the poetry is made of? What can be called as poetry?

Using the formalist approach and Heidegger philosophical probe, we already answered to these questions and Stein’s work is a poetic version of those answers. What makes Tender Buttons so special is that it is one of the first attempts in case of poetry that applies this approach in process of writing poetry. Throughout her writing, Stein asks those questions and tries to find answers. She names things and renames them then rejects those names and names them again. Through this process she affirms the impossibility of representation and expression. She challenges the established perception of things and she challenges the limits of standard language.


A star glide, a single frantic sullenness, a single financial grass greediness.

Object that is in wood. Hold the pine, hold the dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom.

A piece of crystal. A change, in a change that is remarkable there is no reason to say that there was a time.

A woolen object gilded. A country climb is the best disgrace, a couple of practices any of them in order is so left. (Tender Buttons, 23)

Her work is not about avoiding the meaning or encoding the meaning. It is about the possibilities of meaning. Her poetic world is constantly under construction. She names and renames, she kills and resurrects, she establishes and challenges, and through this aspects of her writing she reflects the soul of her time, modernity. In spite of stillness of the fragments, there is a movement inside each stanza. Whenever an image is established the next image challenges the former one and at the end there is only uncertainty of description or representation which remains the same.  From this point of view we can see Tender Buttons as a poetic work about the possibilities of poetry.


Modernity led to rethinking over the all fields of knowledge, Encouraging redefinition of human subject and humanities. During their approach toward the definition of literariness or essence of poetry, modern literary theorists and philosophers distinguished between Standard and poetic language, suggesting that poetic language is intentional distortion of standard language’s norms through the techniques of de-familiarization and foregrounding. Therefore, poetic language cannot be, in any case, a brand of standard language. In fact it is the standard language which is the used-up and automatized brand of poetry. We also discussed that the poetry is the closest form to the essence of language, regarding to its power of naming. By naming, both poetry and language, as a whole, stay in an inevitable distance with reality. Therefore, representation of reality through language and specifically poetic language is the matter of doubt.

However, this modern survey has been done also by the poets throughout their works. Gertrude Stein exercised the same approach in her work to find the essence and possibilities of poetry. In Tender Buttons, Stein exercises language as an active conversion of meaning rather than passive paradigm of rules and features. Reflecting the soul of her modern time, the constantly reconstructing world of her poetry suggests that “a poem is not involved in representation or imitation, but repetition as difference.” (Ellipsis, 152)



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Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language  and Thought. Trans.  Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row,   1971. Print

— . Existence and Being. Trans.  Werner Brock. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1949. Print

Mukarovsky, Jan. “Standard Language and Poetic Language.” Prague School reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure and Style.  Ed. P. L. Garvin. Washington, DC:  Georgetown University Press, 1964. 17-30. Print

Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art as Technique”.  Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed.  David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988. 15-31. Print

Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. New York: Claire Marie, 1914. Ebook.