Of interpreted poems

This has spawned from a reading-discussion session that I went to some time ago. The group of people consisted of three of my professors, some of my friends and a few others from my college. It was the first such session that I had ever been to. It was also the first time I sat down and discussed poetry with anyone. I barely read any poetry, the idea of reading in a group and discussing it, especially in the presence of these professors had me unnerved from the start.

The one hour sessions spilled over and took half an hour more than what it was supposed to and we managed to discuss two poems: Mirror by Mark Strand and Warming her pearls by Carol Ann Duffy. My lack of experience in reading poems seemed, to me, to be obvious from the very start. With one of the professors admonishing everyone for not reading poems out loud (one thing I haven’t done since being forced to in school) and me not being comfortable with the pace at which anyone read (everyone was either too fast or too slow for my liking) the session’s start was pretty interesting. Although I understood the importance of reading poems out loud, I still don’t think that it is a feasible way to go when in a group. Once the recitation was done, it was time for the discussions to start and my anxiety came back.

The hour that followed made me realize that what I saw in those poems was utterly different from what others saw in it. The same lines, the same words would be interpreted in astonishingly different ways by everyone else. I had always felt that poems were some of the most chaotic forms of literature every invented by man. They were as open to interpretation as it could get. Each person could have drastically varied interpretations of the same arrangement of the twenty-six alphabets, as was clear from the discussion that ensued the recitation. For me, being someone who likes to have a very lucid structure in what he reads and writes, poems were always strange objects lying around to be approached with utmost care. They had the threat of abstractness and chaos written all over them. There have been very, very few poems I have ever liked, not that I have read many of them but even among all that I have ever read, I like (or maybe it is ‘understand’) very few.

While I accepted most of the interpretations the others had without any modifications, I still prefer my interpretation. I found the other interpretations quite intriguing but I am still unclear as to what is the right way. Or whether there is any right way.

Mirror by Mark Strand

A white room and a party going on
and I was standing with some friends
under a large gilt-framed mirror
that tilted slightly forward
over the fireplace.
We were drinking whiskey
and some of us, feeling no pain,
were trying to decide
what precise shade of yellow
the setting sun turned our drinks.
I closed my eyes briefly,
then looked up into the mirror:
a woman in a green dress leaned
against the far wall.
She seemed distracted,
the fingers of one hand
fidgeted with her necklace,
and she was staring into the mirror,
not at me, but past me, into a space
that might be filled by someone
yet to arrive, who at that moment
could be starting the journey
which would lead eventually to her.
Then, suddenly, my friends
said it was time to move on.
This was years ago,
and though I have forgotten
where we went and who we all were,
I still recall that moment of looking up
and seeing the woman stare past me
into a place I could only imagine,
and each time it is with a pang,
as if just then I were stepping
from the depths of the mirror
into that white room, breathless and eager,
only to discover too late
that she is not there.


My interpretation:

For me this poem is about that man’s yearning to become a better person and how he is late to get to that place, every time.

The initial setting just shows how the man is living his life. He is in this white room, at a party, with his friends. They’re drinking whiskey and are at a stage in their drinking where they are contemplating the most immaterial things (the “precise shade of yellow”) and are probably in quite the philosophical mood. This whole setting seems symbolic of a person living life without really worrying about where they are going in life, what they will do in the future, whether they have “made it big.” The white room, the party and the discussions with friends, give out a vibe that the poet is more concerned with the worldly matters in his immediate surrounding than with any thought for self-improvement.

Then, the lines

“I closed my eyes briefly,
then looked up into the mirror:”

seem to reflect how, in a moment of contemplation (or just a state of drunken stupor) the author stumbles upon some thoughts. Now, the way I interpreted the next few lines (the interpretation of the thought and what it signified in particular) differs quite a lot from others’ interpretation. The woman seems frustrated apart from being distracted, fidgeting with the necklace. The woman is the metaphoric prize that the man yearns for. To reach that prize though, the man has to become better, someone who is worthy of the prize. For me, the primary subject in these lines is the poet’s yearning to become something better, something that the woman would be waiting distractedly for. The someone who is “yet to arrive,” someone the man wishes to become but hasn’t yet. Becoming someone who he can only imagine, who is currently in a space that is just past him, just beyond his reach. That is what I perceived the poem to be about.

A man’s attempt to become someone better than what he is today. The mirror, showing himself, as he is now; a woman in green, symbolic of something he wants to achieve but is at the other end of his world (the white room); the woman staring at a point in space past him, distractedly, at someone he could be, someone he could become, indicative of what sort of person he must change into, to achieve what he desires.

The latter part of the poem where the poet talks about how years later- when he no longer remembers the details of where he was -he still remembers the woman’s stare, and the space past him. How, every time he comes out of the depths of the mirror, presumably a better man, he realises that he is too late and he has missed his chance. This cycle of improving only to reach a little too late fills the man’s heart with sadness. The never-ending cycle of improvement on yourself, the cycle that is life.

That to me, was what Mirror was all about.

The other interpretation(s):

The others’ interpretations for this ran from unrequited love to longing for someone to love. It was pretty much love, the lack of it or the pursuit of it. The woman was connected to love in each of these interpretations. A woman, representative either of hope of love or the sorrow felt at the lack of it or maybe even at the loss of it. For me, the woman represented something more than love (in any of its forms). For me, the woman symbolised something- that would need one to be at one’s zenith -to achieve. I found these interpretations as having barely scratched the surface of what the author had in mind. I’m not disagreeing with any of these interpretations, thinking more along those lines I found that they could all be true, truer than mine own interpretation but none of them really connected with me. All of them seemed to trivialize the poem in one way or another. Then again, maybe one can say something similar about my interpretation; taking a poem about love and corrupting it into something so different. But then again, any interpretation that isn’t the poet’s will be a corruption of some sort or another. In the end, I just never felt a connect with these interpretations, at least not enough to make me think more deeply about them.


Warming her pearls by Carol Ann Duffy

Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.

I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.

Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way

she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.

The interpretations:

Now, in this poem, the tracks were not completely unrelated like with Mirrors. Everyone agreed that there was a maid, a mistress and the pearls. Everyone also agreed that the maid loved the pearls, but other than that, what each of these represented and how they were related were questions that would elicit different answers from everyone.

Some took the relationship between the maid and the mistress to be a positive one while others took it to be a negative one. While some saw the maid and mistress’ relation to be a one-sided love affair, others saw it to be a case of the maid’s subdued malevolence towards the mistress. The pearls were dear to the maid, that much was obvious. Was it because she wanted to be with the mistress or because she wanted to be the mistress, that was the point of contention.

The two maid’s, namely the doting lover ready to worship to show their love and the malevolent servant, harboring ill will against the mistress, both had a fierce, yet silent possessiveness about the pearls; pearls they would never get. At the same time, their relationship to the mistress was left wide open for interpretation, so much so that two fundamentally contrasting views sprung up in our discussion.

All day I think of her,

resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.

These lines are the ones that really bring out the negative portrayal of the relationship. The mistress resting all day, pondering about luxuries while the maid labors all day, the pearls like a rope, a leash, around her neck. These feelings of resentment transform into one of jealousy in the later stanzas when the poet talks about the dances that her mistress goes to, the tall men she dances with, her carriage, the comfort she enjoys when going to bed. At every point one can easily see the contrasting life that the maid lives. How the maid has nothing, except those pearls; pearls, that perhaps she (the maid) is more deserving of. A perspective of resentment and jealousy.

Another interpretation, although slightly different but still carrying over the major theme of a negative relation between the two women is one where the maid is feeling an injustice over the whole way her life has turned out to be. She works all day, wearing those pearls, as a surrogate, only for the purpose of providing warmth to them. Working willingly to fulfill her duties, yet receiving nothing in return (“And I lie here awake, knowing the pearls are cooling even now”). The injustice at being the one who does all the work, while the mistress lazes in a room wondering about luxuries. Working diligently from morn to evening, warming those pearls, taking care of the mistress only to have the dances, the perfume, all other luxuries, and most importantly the pearls go the way of the rich. A class perspective on the whole issue.

The positive relation is where the maid feels love for the mistress, with the pearls acting as an outlet for those emotions. Lines like “… I work willingly, …” and “She’s beautiful. I dream about her …” show how the maid is in a way attracted to the mistress and the whole servant-mistress dynamic is just a symbolism for love. One of the professors went on to give examples of how the servant (dasi) approach had been commonly used by poets when talking about love. He went on to expound about Mirabai who refers to her love for Krishna as a wish to serve him, to be a servant, considering that to be a privilege.

In the end, it seems like certain words sprinkled here and there make each of these interpretations seem the most correct one, no one of them coming out on top. But maybe the maid is a very complex person and a story can be spun that explains each of those behaviours. Maybe it is both a positive and a negative relationship. The pearls may be just a metaphor or the whole aim of the poem (like someone ended up mentioning how the maid might be contemplating harming the mistress to take the pearls for herself).

In conclusion:

Overall it was a very interesting session. I have never given so much thought to poems before and maybe this might make me see them in a new light. Poems continue to be a highly chaotic form of literature for me, but I am starting to wonder if maybe that is the whole point. Fitting those chaoses into that of your own thoughts, your own life.

In the hopes of understanding how poems are to be interpreted, I keep reading.


2 thoughts on “Of interpreted poems

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