Thoughts on Nael's Tiger

 The Tiger

The tiger

He destroyed his cage



The tiger is out

When he was six years old a little poet called Nael wrote the above poem. It's fair to say that it became something of a smash hit on the internet, and is now regularly reproduced on twitter and tumblr as one of people's favourite recent poems. I love it too! And in this little December blog post I am gonna reflect on what I think draws me to this poem, why to me it is so good.

My thoughts were inspired by seeing this lovely reflection on the poem during my travels across the internet. The author there identifies the following features: the use of caps lock YES creating a nice cadence and gives a sense of euphoria as the tiger bursts free. The theme of freedom and liberation, which lends itself to both a literal reading and also metaphorical readings about oppressed groups rising up. And the sheer simplicity of it - a 12 word poem where one feels not a word is wasted. I like how htey put it:
It’s not hard to imagine someone else writing the next part, i.e., what happens when the tiger gets out of the cage or adding descriptions of breaking the cage. But we don’t need to know any of that. Only that the tiger was in the cage and now the tiger is out.

And when I read this list I thought that while I don't quite disagree, it's not to me what is core to the poem.

Certainly all that is there. I agree especially on the wonderful simplicity of it, and the caps lock YES is tied up with that. And even while personally I think a metaphorical reading would somewhat detract from the poem, I wouldn't deny it is there - it can remind you of Shelley's classic "Rise like Lions after slumber // In unvanquishable number // Shake your chains to earth like dew // Which in sleep had fallen on you - // Ye are many - they are few." But, you know, with tigers. So go check out the blog post, and see some perfectly good reasons for loving this kid's poem.

But for my part, what I think makes this poem is best described as emotional purity. I have said before that what I tend to want from a poem is ability to convey an emotional moment without describing it in any heavy handed way. What I think this poem does is, with the simplicity befitting a six year old, achieve exactly that - and for an especially striking and affecting emotion. In fact its sheer popularity gives me some sense of joy, as it makes me think my aesthetic tastes might be more widely shared than I realised.

Picture the scene implicit to the poem. One is observing a tiger in the midst of, it will turn out successfully, breaking out of its cage. Presumably one is at a zoo or some other place where caged tigers might be. How does one feel about this? Well as an adult I guess I would say some combination of fascinated by how the tiger managed this, afraid, curious as to how the zoo messed up this bad, afraid, wondering what happens next, and, did I mention, afraid? On account of the angry tiger now running about? 

None of that matters to Nael. Our poet is focussed on one and only one thing about this scenario: how fucking cool it is. A tiger is breaking out of its cage. How cool is that? Now there's a tiger running about! Tigers are so cool! Breaking out of cages is inherently cool! It's a tiger! The poem is clearly written by someone observing the escape, is not from the tiger's perspective, but in some ways it could just as well have been the tiger. For, the poet and the tiger have achieved perfect empathy; they are both entirely focussed on, and in accord regarding, the powerful joy in this moment of liberation.

The simplicity of the poem, the naive use of caps lock for emphasis, the literalism in what it describes. They all allow you to recapture this pure joy at experience of the world and the powerful unpredictable things therein. To realise that by the simple appreciation of freedom you can connect in some deep way to the tiger, and to this six year old. And to do so in a scenario where I think adult instincts, burdened as they are with the habitual concern for causes and effects, all go in the other direction. The adult in you wants to empathise in this diffuse way with the zoo keepers, with the panicked guests (presumably now including your fictional self), the poor schmuck who is gonna take the fall for this later, and sure maybe somewhat the tiger too if you can get past the fear. But the poet reminds you of a purer, maybe even better, version of yourself, who lives in and appreciates the moment fully and entirely on the basis of its most important aspect.

The poem gives you the opportunity to briefly reconnect with that person. In fact its direct and evocative language even compels you to at least briefly take up that perspective once more. The simple little poem renews something within us. Merry Christmas, happy new year, and peace and goodwill to all!


  1. Merry christmas and Happy new year. This is a beautiful piece of writing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why I Am Not A Liberal

The End of Analytic Philosophy

Citational Justice