* NOTICE: Mr. Center's Wall is on indefinite hiatus. Got something to say about it? Click HERE and type.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Poetry XI -- TIGERS: GRR

SIRENS, TIGERS, and DREAMS, OH MY! and monsters too.

thank you: Chelsea Art Museum
Yeah, yeah.  I know.  Corny.  Hackneyed.  Irresistible.  But if you disregard the first of the trio, then it's likely smackingly obvious where this post is going, and, well, since the sirens really don't have that much to do with it, probably it is.

Francisco de Goya said, or painted really, "THE DREAM OF REASON BEGETS MONSTERS," in his etching to the right, and certainly in his head it did, and he painted them for the world to see.  Monsters is not a new topic here at The Wall, and I am not (thank me later) going to bore you by getting into it again.  The point isn't the monster, but the dream that produces it.  Perhaps all of us, rational or not, yet beget monsters--more or less monstrous--through our dreams.

Consider the first four stanzas of Margaret Atwood's "Siren Song" (taking the poetry's intent likely far from its originally intended context):

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.

Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?

(I wonder if the deliberate removal from context and subsequent application of a quotation is anything like the deliberate and maligned censoring of an author's published words.  If so, I am guilty, guilty, guilty.)

Good poetry is like a dot-to-dot in one of those coloring/activity books I buy my kids to keep them quiet in church.  The dots, obviously as there but the connecting of them is left to the reader.  While I'm in no way claiming any of this (my words) as poetry, much less good poetry, I am leaving the majority of dot-connecting to you--one poem, quotation, and painting to the next--partially because I think the connections are more profound that way, but mostly because my kids just went to bed (which really means things are supposed to be quiet but they aren't--at all) and I'm having a really hard time focusing long enough to articulate the shortest and most menial of my thoughts.

One of my favorite poems to use in my English classroom, and quite a classic, is "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" (below), by Adrienne Rich.  It's a great poem, and it's a perfect one to teach because of its abundant use of classic (and by "classic," here, I mean all the required stuff that shows up all over state boards of education English curricula) poetic devices.  All that aside, sure the poem is beautiful, but pay attention to the tigers, the dreaminess, and how, really, they're indeed monsters from the dreams of a rational or reasonable mind:

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid. 

Now put that together with “Dreamtigers,” by another of my all-time favorites, the great Jorge Luis Borges (seriously, if you like any of the stuff we talk about here at The Wall and you haven’t read this guy yet, get with the program!):

In my childhood I was a fervent worshiper of the tiger—not the jaguar, that spotted “tiger” that inhabits the floating islands of water hyacinths along the Parana’ and the tangled wilderness of the Amazon, but the true tiger, the striped Asian breed that can be faced only by men of war, in a castle atop an elephant.  I would stand for hours on end before one of the cages at the zoo; I would rank vast encyclopedias and natural history books by the splendor of their tigers.  (I still remember those pictures, I who cannot recall without error a woman’s brow or smile.)  My childhood outgrown, the tigers and my passion for them faded, but ther are still in my dreams.  In that underground sea or chaos, they still endure.  As I sleep I am drawn into some dream or other, and suddenly I realize that it’s a dream.  At those moments, I often think: This is a dream, a pure diversion of my will, and since I have unlimited power, I am going to bring forth a tiger.
            Oh, incompetence!  My dreams never seen to engender the creature I so hunger for.  The tiger does appear, but it is all dried up, or it’s flimsy-looking, or it has impure vagaries of shape or an unacceptable size, or it altogether too ephemeral, or it looks more like a dog or bird than like a tiger.


There is another piece of lit that I think qualifies, potentially, as part of this dot-to-dot, but it's bigger than I've got space her to include, a children's story, frequently banned, entitled, Little Black Sambo. Here’s the link (HERE – scroll down to the story), and then here, too, is the old movie.



  1. I really enjoyed this post. I think that what tigers, monsters, and sirens have in common is that they're all exotic. Sure a tiger is real, but how many of us will actually encounter one in the wild instead of within the confines of a zoo? Also, I think that the tigers of our imagination often surpass ones in real life. I know that this goes against what Borges is saying, or at least what he appears to be saying, but I think it's consistent. I would guess that he's probably able to imagine a fairly realistic tiger, but what he wants to imagine is a fierce, majestic, and awesome (traditional sense of the word) tiger, the kind of emotion lurking in the background when you think of one, and it's just really hard to put that into a picture or words. I think it's kind of an example of the gap between what someone feels and what someone can express--even express to himself in this case.

  2. I don't think you contradict Borges at all. I think he's speaking precisely of that gap you mention between imagination and reality. I think also we often make, to inaccurately echo another trope, monsters out of kittens, even baby tigers. I imagine something coming up and it gets more and more monstrous as I dwell on it and dread it. When I see it in reality it's really just a kitten. Maybe a baby tiger. Maybe even a real tiger, because even a real tiger isn't as bad as the monsters I cook up.

  3. I can't tell you how many times I've made monsters out of kittens.

  4. And right there: a direct link to your post: http://unmoderatedcaucus.blogspot.com/2011/01/civility-sin-and-david-brooks.html

    Making monsters of kittens is not a malady. And maybe more of the country needs such an internal response to pressure.


Be sure to subscribe to the thread to receive discussion updates.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...