An Old Woman

An Old Woman

This poem is about a common enough experience, the experience of misjudging someone.

At first the poet/character thinks of the old woman merely as a pest, someone to be brushed off:

'You know how old women are they stick to you like a burr.'

And the poet is confident that we will have had a similar experience witha beggar, that we will automatically share the same view as him: He says 'you know'.

What is your attitude when you see a beggar?

An Old Woman

It is always difficult to know how to react, and we can get into habits of behaviour.

Should we help, say a few kind words, offer them money? Or should we be scared and view them with suspicion?

The great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda once said that 'even shop keepers commit suicide'. By this he meant that even people who may seem ordinary and dull on the outside have their pain and suffering and inner life.

This poem is about the same thing.

Half way through the character really looks at the old woman for the first time. Looks at her eyes, at her suffering, at her as a human being, with all the hopes, dreams, pain, and beauty common to all humanity.

And in that instant of recognition his attitude is completely transformed.

The importance of this change in perspective is underlined by the change in the language of the poem. Where the first half has been casual, ordinary, 'un-poetic' the second half breaks into a surreal, dream-like extended metaphor.

How is the irritation of the poet/character established in the opening 15 lines of the poem?

The woman 'grabs' hold of the man, 'tags along' wanting money, offering to take him somewhere he has already visited before. And when he tells her that she follows him 'anyway' and 'tightens her grip'on him. Despite his efforts 'she won't let' him go, but sticks closely to him 'like a burr'.

Clearly this is an uncomfortable, physical incident, as the words 'grabs' and 'grips' suggest. The simile of the burr makes us think of something stuck to our clothes that we can't get rid of. The poet's embarrassment and annoyance are clear in his attempt to convey an 'air of finality' to 'end the farce'.

Kolatkar also uses repetition to convey the perseverance of the beggarand the irritation of the character/poet.

'She wants... she says... she hobbles... she won't'

'You've seen... you know... you turn... you want'

The language is repetitive like the beggar's actions, and the repetition creates a bored, tired, uninspired tone. Notice that the beggar is referred to as often as the man; she has equal status in terms of lines.

The moment of transformation comes when we hear the woman's words:

'What else can al old woman do on hills as wretched as these?'

She seems, after all, to have a fair point.

This second half of the poem begins with an extraordinary image:

'You look right at the sky Clear through the bullet holes she has for eyes.'

An Old Woman

Why do you think the poet used this metaphor?

How effective do you find it?

This image starts a visual dream like sequence where the 'crack' in round her eyes spread so that the world cracks around her.

This could show how everything is changed for the poet/character by his sudden pity for the woman. It could also suggest that the world around her seems to 'crack' in sympathy with her suffering.

The image also makes the woman seem powerful and strong, despite her beggary.

There are various ways of interpreting the last stanza.

Have a think about what you take it to mean before looking at what I say.

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Do you agree?

If not can you supply a different interpretation?

In all poetry questions you will be asked to write about the following:

  • The subject(s) of the poem
  • The attitude of the poet
  • The poetic devices the poet uses

In other words you will be asked about what the poet is writing about,what the poet feels about the subject(s) and how the poem is written.

Subject
The poem is about a revelatory experience in which the poet/character changes their perspective completely.
At first the poet is annoyed by the beggar. He is aloof, distant, thinks of her as a pest.
But the image of her suffering utterly changes his view. Suddenly it is him who feels humble and small in comparison to the beggar woman.

Attitude
The poem is about the poet's thoughts and feelings. The poet passes through a considerable range of emotions, from irritation to the almost mystical, religious experience of the concluding stanzas.
The poem is also about how all of us judge, or misjudge each other.
Hence the use of the second person pronoun in 'You've seen it already', and 'You know how old women are'. Through this we are made to evaluate our own attitudes to the poor and vulnerable, and perhaps feel some guilt too.

Attitude
The poem is about the poet's thoughts and feelings. The poet passes through a considerable range of emotions, from irritation to the almost mystical, religious experience of the concluding stanzas.
The poem is also about how all of us judge, or misjudge each other.
Hence the use of the second person pronoun in 'You've seen it already', and 'You know how old women are'. Through this we are made to evaluate our own attitudes to the poor and vulnerable, and perhaps feel some guilt too.

Attitude
The poem is about the poet's thoughts and feelings. The poet passes through a considerable range of emotions, from irritation to the almost mystical, religious experience of the concluding stanzas.
The poem is also about how all of us judge, or misjudge each other.
Hence the use of the second person pronoun in 'You've seen it already', and 'You know how old women are'. Through this we are made to evaluate our own attitudes to the poor and vulnerable, and perhaps feel some guilt too.

Style
The poem's language splits into two halves: The bored, ordinary language of the first half, and the elaborate metaphorical language of the second.
Repetition is used in both halves but to very different effects. The repetition in the second half conveys the transfixed wonder of the poet watching the scene change: 'And the hills crack And the temples crack. and the sky falls.'
The fact that the form remains constant subtly helps to make convincing the idea that it is the same character experiencing both halves of the poem.

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