Monday, July 25, 2016

How Do You Interpret Poetry?

Pandora's Box
Flickr Credit: Shawn Tron
Last week we discussed annotating poetry. For me, it’s a process of SOAPSTTone-ing and then picking out important pieces of the poem that I’ll refer back to later. Today we’re returning to “Pandora” by Topaz Winters to ask “What does it all mean?”

And I could’ve kissed you. Right there,
you with that dance and me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. Who knew people could be sunlight.
Add that to the things I’ve learned
while trying and failing to wrestle this year into submission:
one, a body is a prayer, not a temple.
two, is it really so selfish to want to be the one thing you’ll never say out loud?
three, the closet/the humming box/the things that come out of both of them.
four, yes, you idiot, of course I’m in love with you.
How many times do I have to tell you before you pick up the goddamn phone?
So me, I’m over here choking myself to sleep and you, you’re
busy kissing all the tornadoes in Kansas good night.
Like there’s anything more mutual than waiting.
Like there’s anything left, except for maybe everything.
Telephone cord dangling like something burnt to death,
the closet/the humming box/the things that are best left closed.
Me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. It’s been a long year.
Me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. Just look at that,
darling. Just look at you dance.
–Topaz Winters (source)

(Once again, many thanks to Topaz for letting us borrow her poem!)

There are multiple ways to interpret poetry and obviously I can’t go over them all, but I think there are a few things that are important to keep regardless of how you decide to share your thoughts.

1. Purpose and Meaning—purpose can make something creative sound incredibly dry, but the poet wanted you to take something away from their writing. What did they want to pass on? Why?

2. Evidence—no matter who you are, saying “I think this poem is about aliens because I say so” sounds dumb. Point out the pieces of the poem that say something to you.

3. Explanation—evidence alone doesn’t do much; it needs to be interpreted. That interpretation should ultimately lead straight back to the purpose and meaning we already discussed.

They’re a few simple ideas, but they can result in very different outcomes and even different formats. To demonstrate this, I enlisted my best friend to share her thoughts on the poem. She is smart and good with poetry, but she explained her thoughts in a completely different way than I did below. But, you’ll notice, our meanings are bolded, our evidence is italicized, and explanations are underlined.

Pandora's Box/Jar
Flickr Credit: 'No Matter' Project

Elizabeth’s Response:

A body is a prayer, not a temple. A line that strikes with a truth I haven’t considered before.
How many times do I have to tell you before you pick up the goddamn phone? A line in which I hear bitterness that I recognize.
the closet/the humming box/the things that are best left closed. A line that exemplifies the title, a line that connects the mythos with the modern.
What I get most from this poem is emotion. Raw emotion, and experience. It’s amazing to me that a poem can be Pandora and it can but it can also be something else entirely:  a story of truth through a medium of words, reminding me of what Tim O’Brien says about story and truth, that something doesn’t have to be real to be true.
That’s what this sounds like.
When I read poetry, I latch onto the feeling. (Maybe this is why I’m not an English major?) I go straight to the emotion and say why. "Why does it make me feel this way? What do I connect to? What truth has the poet spoken that I can identify?"
What I hear – my answer to the why – is a double edge of love and bitterness. A familiar theme, maybe. She says darling but compares the telephone cord to something burnt to death and I feel the discordancy as a shiver, feel the give and take of the words.
The speaker says, I love.
The speaker says, I hurt.
Sometimes, that’s all I need to know.

My Response:

“Pandora” expresses the frustrations of a queer speaker whose closeted relationship lacks adequate communication. Unless the speaker and her lover begin speaking their relationship will remain at a standstill, but the latter is notoriously silent throughout the poem. Her sexuality is the “one thing you’ll never say out loud, ” so it’s unlikely the speaker is going to get the verbal acknowledgement she craves (7). Let’s not lay all the blame on the lover, though. The speaker used to initiate conversations with her lover, but it’s “the look on her face that” is speaking (17). The voice of this poem is ambiguous—we don’t know how much the speaker says aloud and how much is unspoken longing. The only noise we’re sure is heard is Pandora’s “humming box,” which the speaker equates with the proverbial closet that queer people leave to externally affirm their identity. Where the phone is “like something burnt to death,” the box audibly vibrates (15). The same curiosity that motivated Pandora to open the box plagues our speaker, presumably to open the closet. Like in the myth, though, the consequences for that action will be severe.
What evil could she unleash? It isn’t the queer relationship itself—we’ve no moral qualms on that front. In fact, she tells us “a body is a prayer, not a temple,” justifying her love (6). This verse, 1 Corinthians 6:19, condemns same-sex relationships in a “house of God.” To the speaker, though, bodies are prayers—a spiritual communication platform that can involve a request, supplication, or thanksgiving made to a higher power (OED). In other words, a prayer (and thus, a body) is a kind of spiritual conversation. This is ironic considering the lack of conversation present in the speaker’s love life that initiating conversation will not solve. Ultimately the speaker never names the evil she could release, but she hints as to its identity in line 16 when she suggests her lover’s closet is “best left closed.” It would be wrong to out her crush. Why? It isn’t thoughtful, obviously. Maybe if Pandora opens the box too early, she’ll lose everything she had in the first place. Maybe it’s important that Pandora’s lover takes the initiative. She asks, “How many times do I have to tell you before you pick up the goddamn phone?” (10) Our speaker has waited and waited, but unless her lover picks up the phone they’ll never have the connection she seeks. Until her lover can reciprocate, it’s better that the box stays closed. It doesn’t mean Pandora isn’t curious or in love, but in her closing, she apparently seems content to wait, for now.

Elizabeth’s response described her personal reactions to the poem and mine was more academic. Still, we both took the same poem and came up with a way to describe what the poem meant to the both of us. There’s plenty of room for your opinion, too.

What does “Pandora” mean to you?


  1. This is really interesting, especially because I know I'll have to do looots of poetry analysis in AP lit/ Creative Writing/ Indian Literature this year (did I sign up for every possible English course I could do in high school? Yes, obviously, except for the SAT prep one because I don't need that)I also see significance in the repetition of the word 'goddamn' in this poem--because what Pandora did was in spite of the gods-- they can go to hell for all she cares. Pandora, to me, means persistence in the face of husbands in the the pursuit of curiousity in the wake of evil (& hope) I loved this post-- really!

    1. Wow, that's a lot of poetry and literature ahead of you! I applaud you for taking ALL the English classes, though. I think that's awesome. :) That's an interesting thought, I'd been struggling to think of the significance of "goddamn" but I like your interpretation! Perhaps it isn't just the gods, but also those who look down on her romance. Thanks for your thoughts, Shanti, and I'm glad you enjoyed this post! :)

  2. Ooooh this is interesting. I guess I'm more familiar with your type of analysis, although Elizabeth's is probably what I would do if I read poetry for fun. Therefore, I will try it.
    I feel like the poem ends on a hopeful note- 'goddamn. Just look at you dance' which feels sweet and appreciative of her lover, but at the same time, the lover could be dancing away or dancing around her affections. It's ambiguous.
    The 'tornadoes in kansas' seems to be a reference to The Wizard of Oz, which could mean several things-that the lover is transported literally or figuratively far away, or that the lover is magic, or that there's somewhere else she wants to be, but the speaker wants her home?
    The paradox of 'theres nothing left, except for everything' draws out curiosity in the reader, and makes them think about what this mean. Maybe it means that the relationship is in doubt-is it gone, or is it still there?'
    Overall, apart from being about queer identity, this poem seems to be about love, and questioning, and distance (both emotional and physical) and closeness (and where it can be found).
    Book bloggers don't always pay attention to poetry, but I really enjoyed this a lot. Thank you, Heather!

    1. Yup, we did it in dissimilar ways on purpose. XD And both are just fine!

      I like what you say about hope! That's something I should have thought of, especially because the ultimate point of the story of Pandora deals with the promise of hope in spite of the evil.

      I like your Wizard of Oz thoughts, too. Although personally it made me think of Supernatural. For absolutely no reason. *coughs*

      Distance and closeness is another good running one. I can especially see that with the telephone... which we only use when we're far apart from one another. Me gusta.

      I really liked your interpretations, Shar! You have a good eye for this. :) I'm glad you enjoyed playing along!


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