I don’t know how to rate it. Tender Buttons is a classic. How can I not rate it more than anything else? And I like it. I loved it. It spoke to me when I was getting it here and there in anthologies. But I have now read the whole thing. And I can’t say… but it was very different. First of all, it was anything but spare. Spare is exactly what it was in the anthologies, but when you pack them all in one book, it gets a different feeling.
I’m going to say what I have in mind. These were thoughts that were coming to me. They were invading my reading experience. And I was pacing the room faster (since I pace when I read certain things). I was going at each poem, and then rereading them. It was tough work because, unbeknownst to me while I was reading three or four here in this anthology and five there in the other one, I had no idea there were some parts that were quite long. And it is hard for me to say this, but I have to say it anyway: I didn’t like them. I actually started feeling tense. It was the impatience brewing at the top of my head, the heat gathering there from this emotion and the constant pacing. I couldn’t stop myself.
Then I started thinking about it. What do I rate this thing? I rate everything on principle, even if it were a little beyond me. But this is poetry, and I have a wider rating curve for poetry. And this is Gertrude Stein. I do know Gertrude Stein, but I don’t know her work like I should. It’s that academic outlook that escapes me right now. That’s what’s missing here, any scholarly perspective on this thing that I might have had. It’s my ignorance I’m talking about.
But I’ve known poetry all my life, starting with those tiny morsels of vacuous moments that I scrawled on the back of something when ideas came at me as fragments.
What was art back then for me? I hardly remember. It has shaped itself to this — this thing I am now writing, the most recent attempt at anything! — and I can’t say anything about it. It morphed.
I want to give her four stars out of five on that site I use where I list all my reading accomplishments. I have to rate it something because I want to show I’ve read it, but four stars sound presumptuous for a prose poetry classic, as if I could do better! I don’t know. It’s a classic!
It was of its time. That much I can say. But I can’t stand lines like that. It’s an easy way out. I think those that say such things don’t really know what that even means. It is of its time, and if you’re not of its time, then you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.
But I meant to say that it has a historical significance. Without Tender Buttons, what do we have to place in prose poetry after the French have had their way with it? It is an American first. And to say that Gertrude Stein’s masterpiece only deserves four stars is saying that it really wasn’t as important as we thought it was.
And it is saying that I obviously didn’t get it. “You don’t get it.” This was my first line of defense when I spoke to some unbeliever about a great work of art. If they didn’t get it, that means any rating they give something is based purely on opinion, which won’t hold much water when dealing with great works of art. But that is exactly what the raters want. Opinions. They don’t push anything else other than if you liked it and how much. They don’t care to know if it was really good or not. They want nothing more than a democracy of what the majority feels, regardless if they’re wrong or right. If everybody likes it, it’s obvious it’s good!
Well, what if everybody is a moron? A great number of people have voted for some of the worse things in life. You don’t have to go far to see what I mean.
No, my ratings at least attempt to be objective. If I didn’t personally like something but I can see it was great, then I have to rate it as great! Too often you read irresponsible reviewers taking the time to tell you that they can see that it was well-done, that they could see how others might consider it great, but it didn’t do it for them, and so they rate it a one star out of five. And this is incredible to me! It is as if they were perjuring themselves and admitting it to everyone!
Most people have an argument for everything. Most people would turn this back around and ask me how do we know it’s good if opinion is all we can go by?
The opinion argument has been strong only because it satisfies the lazy camp. It is much easier to throw your hands up in the air and say it was only your opinion than to try to defend your observations. Saying it is only your opinion is less confrontational when you say negative things because you are simultaneously saying it (the opinion) is worth almost nothing.
But I say we have to go beyond the opinion defense. It does nothing for a work of art, and it says little about its importance. I think most of us can intuit when something is great. Even if you don’t like it, you can still recognize the quality of something. If all of this is beyond you and you can’t understand a work, then I say, don’t bother rating it.
The second time I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I found it to be one of the most unpleasant movies, and I had no interest in ever watching it again, but I could still see — right before my eyes! — how brilliant it was. What would I rate it? Five stars! Of course.
I remember reading the new generation of art critics and theorists, and one of them defended a new outlook I found preposterous. He or she claimed that since an art reviewer cannot possibly know everything in this day and age of multi-everything, they can no longer judge but merely offer kernels of thought. That meant that since the experts are admitting their lack, the public, which has long had its fingers in ratings, can have equal say in the matter, regardless of expertise.
I have always wondered, who questions the suggestions of a medical doctor? The gathered information of a historian? The know-how of a mechanic? Why are we experts in the various fields of art questioned about our knowledge? I used to ask why don’t you offer an opinion about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? I used to ask it until someone answered that they didn’t have to have an opinion about Einstein, but they can have an opinion about a book. And I never used that one again.
Look. I’m not saying I have all the answers about the deficiencies of the current rating systems used almost everywhere. All I’m saying is better solutions are out there, and maybe a better mind than the one I have can come up with a systematic way to objectively rate a work of art. I do believe it can be done. It may need to be a process that takes concessions, and it may need to change with time as a field of art changes, but it can be done. In the meantime, we have to at least try to be objective when rating something. That is why when I think of Gertrude Stein and Tender Buttons, I really don’t know what to rate it. I am really not qualified because whatever I thought I understood in snippets here and there came loose when I read the entire thing. Fifteen thousand words of borderline nonsense is hard to take, whereas three lines of it is utterly charming.
So, I shouldn’t rate it, but I have to — because I have rated everything else! I think by my long understanding of literature and art, it is worth four stars, primarily because it required too much patience from the reader, pushed the boundary a little longer than what is expected, and almost snapped the tether that was restricting its rhythms and forms. Where was Gertrude Stein’s sense of propriety as a poet? I don’t think she ever had the reader in mind. If I were honest, I’d give it four stars, and that is my best as a rater of this one work of art, but I am a coward, and since I do not want to show my ignorance on my sleeve, I get online and rate it a five.
Rey Armenteros is a Los Angeles-based painter and writer who writes the blog, Through Concentrated Breath. He has pieces forthcoming in Magnolia Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.