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To explicate a poem, start simply; just comment on the description. The speaker describes a bonsai tree and how it could be 80 feet tall, growing wild on the side of a mountain. Instead, it is kept in a pot, pruned by a gardener so that it never grows more than 9 inches high.
Notice that the gardener personifies the bonsai, saying that it is its nature to be “domestic and weak.” The speaker then extends the personification of the bonsai with descriptions such as “hair in curlers” and “bound feet.” Often, when a poet personifies an object, he/she uses metaphor to describe something about that object in a different way. In other cases, and this poem is such a case, the speaker personifies an object because she is actually talking about a person or group of people. In this poem, the speaker compares the gardener with oppressive, patriarchal males. The bonsai represents any woman who has been “kept in their place” by this history of misogyny. She is not given the chance to reach her full potential to grow beyond the bonds of her pot, to “eighty feet tall.” The pot itself could represent the home, since the cliché is/was that woman's place is in the home.
When explicating a poem, it helps but is not always necessary, to find out some background on the poet. Look for symbols, key words, metaphors, allusions. Ask questions and then try to answer them. That sounds silly but it works. When you explicate or paraphrase a poem, especially a shorter one like this, you want to expand on it. Asking yourself questions about the poem is a way of deconstructing, seeing how and why it was written the way that it was. Who is speaking and to whom? What is directly stated and what is possibly inferred?
When a poem is metaphoric, this literally means that the words refer to other words that are not in the poem. That means that the poem says ABC but it means XYZ. Quite literally, the meaning of a metaphor is the relationship of what is stated in the poem (vehicle) and what is external to the poem or what is referred to (tenor). A good way to remember vehicle and tenor is that the vehicle drives you to the tenor. So, the bonsai is the vehicle that drives the meaning to "woman." If you get stuck, focus more on how the words create a motif: small, domestic, weak, bound, lucky.
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