Kay Ryan, “Crocodile Tears”

Regarding mere humans, “crocodile tears” serves as a put-down. “He’s crying crocodile tears” nowadays means he’s being fake, a drama queen, showing off his grief for his purposes.

Crocodiles are far more interesting than that. Once upon a time, they were observed crying while eating what they killed. Even if one translates this behavior to human behavior, it reflects a specific person. The first mentions of crocodile tears have to do with politics: one with power can weep publicly for others, even eulogizing them, while being directly responsible for their death. Later, some influenced by a more religious line of thinking argued crocodiles showed repentance, and it is very curious why anyone would think that which provides an obvious good involves any regret. Still others thought that crocodiles cried while eating in order to lure more victims to them, and this strange logic has persisted in the way the expression is used nowadays, though it has been stripped of charm. (1)

Ryan tries to bring the crocodile back in her short lament:

Crocodile Tears (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The one sincere
crocodile has
gone dry eyed
for years. Why
bother crying
crocodile tears.

She starts with a personified crocodile, sure, but it is still a crocodile. The one sincere crocodile has gone dry eyed for years. It knows what it wants, gets it, has no regrets about what it conceives as good. As it is predatory in the extreme, one gets the distinct impression that its thriving has come at the expense of friends. It is the one sincere crocodile, after all, and it has been dry eyed for years. Has it cried for anybody? — I can’t help but think of “Bill and Pete” when I read this poem. Pete, the crocodile’s bird toothbrush, saves his crocodile friend Bill from the evil luggage maker. Bill, we can safely say, is not sincere. —

Back to the poem: Why bother crying crocodile tears? One answer: the perception that we can admit to mistakes makes us social beings. Not repentance, but the illusion of repentance, means one can access social goods. This creates a really nasty trap — if the one sincere crocodile could fake a tear or two, he’d get all the food he wants and then some.

But the one sincere crocodile, alone and unlovable, is perfectly content with what he has. In savagery, lack of civilization, he has peace. Why bother crying crocodile tears laments how complicated everything is. Someone’s a hypocrite, and as a result is flooded with benefits: they can kill and then cry and be praised as moral. Someone else is a hypocrite and gets a fate worse than death: you killed someone, then cried, and now you’re considered fake and murderous. Then there are those who are sincere. We’ve spoken of the crocodile of this poem, content in his constant, relentless killing. But someone else killing all the time for happiness, if aware how the world works, knows he’s perpetually in second place to a crocodile who can cry while eating and be praised for it. In the end, “why bother crying crocodile tears” stands as the speaker’s dissatisfaction with herself. Why can’t I learn to be content with what I have? Why is this, in a way, impossible?


This paragraph about ancient and medieval views of crocodile tears owes much to Wikipedia:

“Crocodile Tears,” Wikipedia, accessed June 30, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crocodile_tears

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.