Within ‘Tenderness’ Stephen Dunn speaks on the importance of the word “tenderness,” its implications, and how love can entirely transform one person. The poem explores themes of love, loss, and change.
The poem takes the reader through the beginning, middle, and end of a love affair between the speaker and a married woman. Before their relationship, he didn’t know what love was, and she had never known tenderness. Her abusive husband was in jail and during the interval, the two met up and learned a great deal about one another. The speaker describes the importance of the word “tenderness” and how one must lack it before they know what it means to have it. The poem concludes with the speaker explaining how changed he is after the relationship ended.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Tenderness’ by Stephen Dunn is a forty-five line poem that’s separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half-rhyme within the text. The former, half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. There are numerous examples within ‘Tenderness’ but a few include “feel,” “thirty,” and “twenty-three” in lines two, three and four. Or, “seats” and “sleeping” in lines twelve and thirteen.
Dunn makes use of several poetic techniques. These include alliteration, enjambment, simile and repetition. Repetition is a very prominent technique that helps establish other techniques, such as alliteration and assonance. It is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, “feel” in line four and “learned” and “learn” in lines two and three. There are a few other moments in which words are repeated near to one another, either for emphasis or to promote a specific rhythmic pattern or both.
Repetition is crucial for the formation of alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “shared secret” in line sixteen and “softly” and “selfishness” in lines thirty-two and thirty-three.
A simile, or comparison using like or as, is a very common occurrence within poetry. In ‘Tenderness’ there is a good example in line twenty-one in which the speaker compares his body to rain.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout ‘Tenderness,’ such as the transitions between lines one and two and lines forty and forty-one.
Analysis of Tenderness
Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn’t learned
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband
In the first lines of ‘Tenderness’ the speaker beings by recalling a time before his mind became cluttered. It was “clear” and devoid of the knowledge that “young men learn from women”. They come to an understanding, as they age, of “what it feels like to feel just right”. These lines allude to the vagaries of romantic/intimate relationships.
In lines four and five it becomes clear the speaker is interested in talking about one relationship specifically, alongside a larger depiction of love and sex between men and women. He remembers a relationship he had with an older, married woman who had children.
in prison for breaking someone’s head.
were back seats and a night or two
Her husband was absent, having been sent away for “breaking someone’s head”. There is an immediate juxtaposition that comes into play in these lines. The speaker compares the terror and pain of this relationship to a generalized feeling of pleasure that should exist between men and women, and that which the two later engaged in.
Before they were together, the slapping and yelling were all “she knew of tenderness”. By utilizing the title of the poem in this line Dunn is guaranteeing the reader knows that this is the kind of tenderness he’s going to be speaking about. It was not only the absence of tenderness the woman knew but a need for tenderness. She knew there was something missing and was actively seeking to fill that lack in her life.
Her larger, emotional trauma is compared in the next three lines to the simplicity of the pleasure the speaker took from the encounters. All she knew what how “much she wanted” tenderness and all he knew were the “back seats and a night or two / in a sleeping bag”.
in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits
Continuing on into the next lines of ‘Tenderness’ the speaker remembers how the two spent time together during the day as well. They worked in the “same office” and spoke, bantered, and shared themselves in order to alleviate general loneliness.
Another interesting juxtaposition occurs in the next lines as this larger, emotional, deeply human relationship develops. It runs alongside the mundane. The two “help / National Biscuit sell biscuits”.
was wildly comic, which led to my body
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,
The more mundane moments of their relationship were “wildly comic”. They took pleasure from these simple encounters and brought them even closer together. He explains that his body transitioned into a state in which it was “existing with hers”. The speaker compares this to “rain that’s found it’s way underground / to water it naturally joins”. The process was simple, natural, and unstoppable. It also resulted in something that felt unifying, familiar and comforting.
Moving on from this simile, the speaker tries to think back but I unable to recall if he ever said the word “tenderness” but he knows she did.
though she did. It’s a word I see now
you must be older to use,
when at last it comes. I think it was terror
Now that the speaker is older, he states, he thinks about the word “tenderness” a lot more. It is something he knows “you must be older to use”. This is an interesting statement to consider and he goes into greater detail in the next lines. One must have experienced the “absence of it” to be able to use it. If you haven’t been without it, and then known what it is to have it, then you can’t respect the word and its importance.
at first that drove me to touch her
and finally, sometime later, it became
In the next few lines of ‘Tenderness’ the speaker explains that it was not tenderness that made him touch her, but terror and then “selfishness”. He knew, eventually that by touching her he would benefit. It was an action that would return to him twofold. He put goodness out into the world and go it back.
reflexive and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us
The evolution of their relationship is an interesting one. He tells the reader that eventually his motivations for pursuing tenderness changed again so that it was “reflexive and motiveless in the high / ignorance of love”. These lines suggest that he did not fully understand the implications of the relationship was in.
The next lines are much more emotional than those which proceeded them. He recalls what meant to “have an ache” in his hands and the change that came over him mentally and physically. She changed him in a way he’s only now coming to understand.
I had new hands and new sorrow,
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.
He knows now that since his relationship ended that he gained “new hands and new sorrow”. He learned a great deal about what it means to be alone, lack tenderness, and to be in love. The speaker explains that he knows what it means to “be a man changed”.