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Organic and Mechanical Construction: Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" and Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"
– posted to the PDC, Oct. 5, 2016
– posted to the Cabinet, Jun. 28, 2017

Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" can be found here [link]
Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" can be found here [link]

another example of the difference between the poetic and prosaic modalities


In writing the previous post, it was not my original thought to follow up with more examples to the same point. Though, a door had been opened (if not a new door); and I was not unaverse to holding to the line of thought if opportunity presented itself. Which it did, by two unrelated online incidences, the first of which returned Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" to my thoughts, the second of which brought Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" to my attention. By coincidence, both verses feature tigers and use them in similar ways. Plus there is the bonus that "Disillusionment" is one of my favorite short verses by Stevens. So why not.

This post will differ from the previous in three ways. First, I am going to speak a little more about verseform, about the material aspects of the works. Second, in this post I cover the poetic work, Stevens's, and before the prosaic, Rich's. Third, I'm not going to dwell as much on the theoretic aspects of the poetic and prosaic; indeed, I may take this post in a different direction.

That said, I will begin with the reminder that while the prosaic works in the modality of the factual and the poetic in the modality of the symbolic, that does not mean that the poetic cannot or does not use factual statements. In the two verses under examination here the tigers appear in sentences that, on their own, are factual statements.

Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen, bright topaz denizens of a world of green.

Only, here and there, an old sailor, drunk and asleep in his boots, catches tigers in red weather.

"On their own" is key to the point. A prosaic text functions through independent statements logically coordinated into a whole. The statements in a prosaic text never move outside their own factual being. Putting two factual statements into coordination with each other does not change the nature or reading of the statements, even when the logical relationship established is one of opposition.

In the poetic, however, the text functions organically, uniting into a whole that generates an experience beyond the mere factual interpretation of the individual sentences. A poetic text can contain and utilize factual statements, but that factuality will be undermined, subverted, irrupted, metaphorized, made paradoxical, made experiential, or in some way pulled beyond the rational and into the irrational.[FN] As said, this is not mere logical opposition, mere 'A is not B,' which is but the coordination of factual statements, functioning in the prosaic. This is a change in modality, from the mechanical to the existential, from the factual to the symbolic, from the rational to the irrational.

[FN] The point should be made that the prosaic modality can often serve pragmatic purposes as well. In larger texts, for example, the prosaic can be seen to be used to do the work, to wit, of getting characters from the dining room to the living room.

Greatly, it might have come to you with word "experiential" (and after the last post), we are touching on the classic writing dictum of "show don't tell." The problem I have long held with that phrasing, with how that concept seems usually addressed, is that it does not sufficiently convey the change in modality that is the nugget of 'truth' hiding within that now very hackneyed phrase (hackneyed because it is given far more lip service than deep thought). It is, indeed, quite possible – and fairly easy – to "show" without moving outside of the factual, without moving into the experiential modality that "show" is supposed to cue.

"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" offers a great example to the point. It would be the epitome of "telling" to say

The people here are imaginatively, creatively dead.

At its root, Stevens is using a congruent statement to get to the idea of his unadventurous, unstimulating world.

The women here wear white nightgowns.

In comparison to the first statement above it is much more "showing," moving from the basic statement of the situation to an example of the situation. But on its own it does not move at all into the poetic. How does Stevens make that move? Through two ways.

First (moving forward in the text) through the experiential. He creates through language the experience of what is lacking in the world of the verse.

None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.

The lines are trebly playful: there is basic play of repetition; there is that they are sing-songy in their nursery rhyme-like rhythm; and there is play of the chaining of the colors. Then comes the important word, "strange." The word speaks most directly what is absent in the world of the verse, but it functions in other ways as well. First, there is something of an onomatopoeic aspect to the word, especially after the fairly workaday language of the preceding lines. But it also works to queer that workaday nature:

None of them are strange

We don't naturally use the word strange with nightgowns, even with more exotic styles,

With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.

Another onomatopoeic moment. The use of "strange" is pulling us aurally and ideationally out of the quotidian, even out of the unordinary, even beyond the sexual: the nightgowns that are missing from the world of the verse are nightgowns that would cause people "to dream of baboons and periwinkles." The onomatopoeia here comes to its fullest in the choice of words. But there is play also in the opposition: dreaming of baboons might be exciting, and dreaming of periwinkles might be quite ordinary; but dreaming of the two, of baboons and periwinkles, now that is a strange combination, two things one normally does not associate with each other brought into unity, as though of course people who wear strange nightgowns dream of such things! The playfulness of the lines – both in their material and ideational aspects – makes experiential what is lacking in this world.

Though: it is actually false to say that it is lacking in the world. And here we come to the second way that Stevens takes the core statement about nightgowns from the prosaic to the poetic: with the ideationally poetic first sentence.

The houses are haunted by white night-gowns.

The sentence can be seen as factual in nature. But that factuality is transformed when you let the words play against each other. Note that the sentence does not say:

The houses are haunted by women in white night-gowns.

Though a touch of metonymy cannot be avoided, if the reader engages the sentence as presented, the "ghosts" as it were are not people, they are things. Yet it is not normally "things" that are attached to the word haunt. We have an opposition, but not, in context, a logical opposition. It is an opposition that demands both parts to be recognized as possible at the same time: things don't haunt, and yet they do. The strangeness – I use the word consciously – of the situation is meant to be recognized: indeed, it is meant to be dominant in reading what follows as the text prompts in the reader the experience of "strange" nightgowns while simultaneously saying that the experience is not to be found. The world is haunted by things that are not. This is the central dynamo of the text, the simultaneity of what is and what is not present; it is the energy center that, so long as we actively engage the text, swirls around and through itself and the whole of the text without ever collapsing into a logical stasis. The text is not being rational, it is being irrational. It is not being factual, it is being experiential.

That dynamo is also energized by the last lines.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

The second line here is that which links the end to the beginning. You have gentlepeople (to use a word) sleeping in houses and old sailors passed out and sleeping who knows where. Where in houses they do not dream of baboons and periwinkles, the old sailors do dream their version thereof, of tigers in red weather. The dynamo in the lines lies in the clothing: white night gowns versus boots. The sailors are dreaming exciting dreams, yet they are in boots: not exactly emblamatic of strange nightgowns. And yet, the world of the old sailors is very different from the world of those in the haunted houses.

It is through the dynamos in the text that we can engage the title of the verse. The presented situation is one of disillusionment: the revealing of illusions. And thus we get back to why it is actually false to say that "strangeness" and all that entails from it is lacking in the world of the verse. That playfulness, the strangeness, otherworldliness that is created through body of the text does exist: obviously, for you were brought by the verse to experience it. Yet it is for most people an illusion, an illusion that is paradoxically "revealed" by the presence of white nightgowns. The houses are haunted by the nightgowns: by the ghosts of what during the day was alive; but also by realities that reveal that what seemed alive during the day was not. Another dynamo, another coincidence of opposites working in the text.


"Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" works in a completely different modality: it is a prosaic, factual, logically organized text. Because the text operates mechanically, one statement after the other, we can – and it might be argued should – approach the text linearly.

The text is made of three stanzas, each with a clear purpose. The first stanza presents the tigers; the second stanza presents Aunt Jennifer; the third stanza repeats the ideas in the previous stanzas, bringing them into direct contrast by putting them in the same stanza. If that seems simply presented that is because "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is simple, unsophisticated verse. In truth, it is stock pop-poetry, unexceptional, even clumsy at times. [FN] Because there might be something to learn from the faults of "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," as their was from the qualities of "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," I will give them some attention.

[FN] For sake of transparency, let me say I consider Adrienne Rich a typical pop-poet: her fame has less to do with the sophistication of her work and more to do with the subject matter thereof. I came upon "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" looking to see how Rich was represented in the Norton Anthology of Poetry (Shorter Edition). While this is the simplest of the four texts presented, the other texts are also prosaic in nature, and as a group demonstrate, if one but confront the texts for what they are, Rich's pop-poetic sophistication. Granted, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is an early work; but nothing I have read by Rich has ever led me to any other judgment.

The verse begins with the tiger:

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.

That fourth line is a poor line: "chivalric" is a poorly chosen word. First, because it is difficult to accept a large, carnivorous, predatory cat as being "chivalric." Second because the line is aurally bumbling:

they PACE in SLEEK CHIvalric CERtainty

Because of the dactylic nature of "chivalric," "certainty" is likewise pulled into the dactylic and the line loses it's intended iambic rhythm. A far better word, in both meaning and sound, would be heraldric. "Chivalric" was obviously chosen for the consonance. However, sacrificing ideation for sound is rarely if ever a good choice.

"Topaz" seems chosen for the same reason: the consonance with "denizens." But for me "topaz" comes off as a weak choice of word. First, topazes come in a variety of colors, not just yellow; but that is by far the lesser reason. Of greater is topaz's are not particularly "bright" in color: in fact the Oxford Dictionaries web page – the only dictionary out of four checked that even offered a color as definition to the word – gives "a dark yellow color," which seems to push against the phrase "bright topaz denizens."[FN] For me, the word seems chosen primarily for the use of z's, not for the meaning of the word. And to even have that thought speaks a weakness in the text. (Even denizens on its own seems forced.)


[FN] It is important to recognize that the phrase does not have a comma. It does not read:

Bright, topaz denizens

That comma would have eliminated the clash I feel in the line.


Ideationally, there is not much to say about the stanza. It is mostly factual description of the tigers. There are two concepts presented that we are meant to pull forward: that Aunt Jennifer makes the screens with the images of the tigers, and the general nature of the tigers.

Having described the tigers, the text now turns to describing Aunt Jennifer.

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.

More factual statements: indeed, the latter two lines are bluntly presented: to the point that it creates something of a jarring shift in subject. The facts intended to be pulled forward from this stanza is the metonymic association between the wedding band and the apparently dead uncle, and the relationship implied by the "massive weight" of the band. To note, there is a slight ideational clash between "fluttering" – which implies dexterity if not skill – and "hard to pull" – which implies weakness and inability. The text seems unsure: is she competent at making the screens or not?

If the image of the ring is not enough to generate the idea of domination of Aunt Jennifer by her uncle, the first half of stanza 3 makes it explicit.

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.

The prosaic nature of the text is clearly seen. The first stanza offers data as to the tigers. The second stanza offers data as to Aunt Jennifer. The third stanza restates more explicitly (if presented in a future time) the already provided and implied facts while making clear the logical relationship between the two sets of data: Aunt Jennifer is to be logically opposed to the tigers on the screen.

The text is entirely factual. It never escapes – nor does it ever desire to escape – blunt statement. The elements of the text work in mechanical relationships to each other: statement, restatement, and opposition. There is no generating of either the experiential or the ideationally dynamic as in "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock." The whole of the text collapses to a basic factual contrast: Aunt Jenny is X; tigers are Y; and X is not Y, with a side order of a second contrast: Aunt Jenny is J; Uncle is K; J is not K. Though the tigers and the wedding bands may be called the central "symbols" of the poem, they function prosaically, not – in the manner I am here using the term – symbolically. Tigers, here, stand for a fixed cluster of concepts, as does the wedding ring. Though, those clusters might be different from one reader to the next, the function of the tigers and the ring is one-to-one substitution, in the manner of the allegorical.

What is most interesting about "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is not the rather mundane recognition of its prosaic nature, but in how the text uses the prosaic nature – uses that it expects its readers to be reading prosaically – to clean up (to skip over) the ideational problems in the text. For example, a careful reader might notices that logical error in the second stanza: how can the woman's finger(s) be fluttering if they are weighted down?[FN] The text however is trusting in the reader not paying that much attention and passively accepting the stated facts as presented. It is presented as fact that the band is a "massive weight" and that it weighs down the whole of Aunt Jennifer's hand. That fact is not to be questioned but accepted. Thus, though her fingers are fluttering, that fluttering should not be permitted to interfere with the fact of "massive weight."

[FN] I'm see no reason why it's "finger" and not "fingers" in that line. To me it's another weakness in word choice. (To note, I do not have the text in print, and can only check it against how it is found online.)

But it is not just smaller details that are being controlled through the factual nature, it is the reading of the whole verse itself. The text gives plenty of overt cues that it should be read within the context of feminism – in fact, the very name "Adrienne Rich" is now one such cue. The reader who passively accepts the cues will approach the text with a pre-made reading: this is a feminist text therefore it will be read according the how feminist texts are read. Thus we see, giving a quick survey of the web, such readings as

The speaker tells us about the metaphorical weight of Aunt Jennifer's wedding band, and implies that her marriage was unhappy and held her back from the life that she wanted to live. The speaker then tells us that, when Aunt Jennifer is dead, she will still wear the ring that symbolizes the marriage that trapped her. ( [link]

[The tigers'] freedom and dignity is contrasted in the second verse to the restrictions of marriage, symbolized by the wedding band that weighs down Aunt Jennifer's fingers as she sews. The themes are resolved in the final, third, verse: Even death will not free Aunt Jennifer from her "ordeals," but the tigers she has created will continue to appear "proud and unafraid." ( [link]


Aunt Jennifer's hands are 'terrified' because of the massive weight of household duties. They are heavily pressed. They have undergone severe trials. She is dominated by her husband continuously. 'Fingers fluttering', 'ordeals', 'mastered', 'hard to pull' indicate her fear. By mentioning that it is 'Uncle's wedding band', the poet suggests that Uncle owns Jennifer too and that as a female she is the property of her husband. ( [link]

All standard feminist readings that fit in line with standard – we should say "conventional" – feminist ideas as found in feminist verse. Yet, if we read the text – if we actually read the text – we are told that the tigers and Aunt Jennifer are in logical opposition: Aunt Jennifer is not a tiger; what tigers are Aunt Jennifer is not. Tigers "do not fear the men beneath the tree" (notice these are tigers in a tree, not caged tigers); tigers are sleek and chivalric (ignoring the poor word choice); tigers are proud and unafraid. Thus, Aunt Jennifer is not proud, not unafraid, not sleek nor chivalric, and when in her tree she feared the men below. It seems to me the verse is saying that Aunt Jennifer is and always was a weak, fearful person. Indeed, is that not what is stated in the most explicit moment we have as to who Aunt Jennifer is?

Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.

The most direct statement as to Aunt Jennifer is the factual implication that she is weak. If we are to take the next sentence

The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.

as representing the Uncle's strength; why are we not supposed to take the first as representing the Aunt's weakness?

Is there anything in the text that says she was not always weak? No. Yes, it says she was "mastered" by the ordeals of her life, but that does not mean she was not from the start a weak individual. The only thing that directly argues that Aunt Jennifer was conquered by her ordeals, was once strong but was made weak, is the external, the extra-textual "fact" that this is feminist verse, so obviously.

This is how convention works in texts: ideas that are not generated within the text are brought from outside into the text and the reader is asked to read the text by those ideas rather than by the text itself. This is also passive reading: the reader does not actively engage the text, it merely accepts the readily accessible appeals to external meanings and applies those meanings to the text, irrespective of what is actually there.

Now, granted, as regards "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," this speaks greatly to the weakness of the text: there is less than hoped for word control and poor control of the concepts being offered. For it, the text accidentally creates an idea that works counter to how the text was intended (we assume, as externally cued) to be read. Prosaic texts are, at their core, logical arguments; and it is poor writing – whether the prosaic text be materially verse or prose – to exert insufficient control over the text to successfully present that logical argument. Which is not to say poetic texts can be more loosely controlled. I would argue that for success poetic texts demand even greater control than prosaic, for poetic texts both utilize and go beyond the prosaic.