Poet Mouthwash

March 5, 2024 by Michael Chow

A few years ago, I went to a farewell poetry reading for my friend Maryan. We sat under her favorite tree in West Philly’s Clark Park—the one with glittery bits of mica in its bedskirts—as people got up to read poems.

Poems tend to stick around after they’re read—not necessarily verbatim, but in parts and rhyme and semantic flavor—so she would reset us with Poet Mouthwash, by reading from Gertrude Stein’s book Tender Buttons.

Stein’s poems are best read through over and over, rather than the type you stop and puzzle out for meaning. Despite their popularity, they’ve been translated into few languages. The reason seems to be that the words in them don’t always mean what they should, or anything at all 1.

An example:


The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

Like sniffing a coffee bean between spritzes of perfume, it’s the perfect reset. It sort of shakes the previous poem bits loose.

Did you know that memory champions—who memorize giant lists of words for sport—do something similar between matches?

It’s nice to shake things loose.

  1. Thomas, C. (2019). Alienating the Written Word: Gertrude Stein’s (Un)familiar Languages. Modernism/modernity 26(1), 67-86. https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2019.0003↩︎

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