A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘A River’


image from: the telegraph

image from: the telegraph

R. Parthasarathy, in his introductory note on Ramanujan in Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, reads ‘A River’ as a poem that exposes the callousness of the old and the new poets to suffering. But the irony in the poem extends to the speaker also, mocking the irrelevances he indulges in.

There are people who hold AKR very highly as a poet primarily for the technical finesse of his poems. One of the legends about him is that he used to revise his poems umpteen times, some undergoing as many revisions as sixty. It shows in his poems. No flab in them, pared to the minimum, enriched in possibilities through irony, line division and word placement.

A.K. Ramanujan in his poetry is a modernist to the T. In his themes as well as poetic strategies, he displays the international modernist attitude. He is right there with other modernists in writing about the existential issues, about the tension between being and world, about duality in relation to past, about scrutinising the self. His poems deploy all the modernist poetic trappings: tension, irony, obscurity, fragmentation, montage-like structure, ambivalence, imagistic, concrete.

“A River” immediately invokes binary structures: “new poets” and “old poets”; city of “temples and poets”; songs of “cities and temples”; the flood in the poems and as “people” saw it; a “couple of cows”; pregnant woman with “identical twins” etc.

The poem also presents alternative perceptions of the river in Madurai. One of them is available in poetry – old and new – which “sang” of cities, temples and the river in flood. On the other hand, “people everywhere” saw something else, which the speaker also concurs with. The speaker of this poem as the persona “he” has seen Madurai and has heard reports of the flood. The river as seen by the speaker is different from this report, which in turn is different from the description available in poetry old and new.

Thus, the view available of the river is diverse. The old and new poets see only the richness of the river when in flood; they see none of its impoverishment during summer. How about the present poets? This speaker sees the impoverishment during summer and the damage it causes during flood. He sees no richness. Thus, a dual view is available from the poets.

People seem to have a different “kind” of view. People seem to see the river in a contingent manner – as the flood is rising. The speaker-persona has his own report, which is different from the view of the old and new poets or the views of the people. He seems to pick up the details from the oral reports “everywhere” and then adds his own “poetic details” that veer away from the pathos of what he is describing with the triviality of his additions. Thus, instead of a serious criticism what we get is an unsure comment on the situation ending in parody. The indeterminacy in the poem is the result of the multiple possibilities that memory presents.

A River

In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women’s hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.

28 responses »

  1. Well , A RIVER,has two sides to it. One ,to be poetic about it and the other to be completely oblivious of it. Of course, depending on the rise and fall of water ,as it were. Is’nt that so true of life! You are noticed during your heydays & discarded as a namby-pamby as time gets by……The river exists nonetheless,for poets to sing about many things….besides the floods…….like the ‘ wet stones glistening like sleepy crocodiles’ or the ‘ pregnant woman’ swept off in the surging tides .

  2. this poems reflects to ways of life……..ist the people’s attitude ie…sensationalism over humanism……and secondaly…the poets callousness…..who romantisized floods and ignore the human aspect of sufferingss….

  3. I wrote recently in a opinion: Ramanujan is the poet i have admired. His poem A River is the river. Ramanujan cannot be read translating word by word. He wrote about India using the metaphors of green coriander leaves in an American Supermarket.

    Some say he has influences of William Carlos Williams. But i think Ramanujan was much more brilliant.

  4. who is he in sentence”He was there for a day
    when they had the floods.
    People everywhere talked
    of the inches rising,” and”He said:
    the river has water enough
    to be poetic
    about only once a year”

  5. here …..HE…actually..is the poet himself…………….he says that he was a traveller who once visited village that was flooded…………………nd…………expirienced ..the atmosphere of the place at that time…………:-)….hp this helps u………….

  6. he is totally different in his piont of view. i admiered by his thoughts.i am really thank to him to give this kind of poetry.

  7. Well, a nice poem depicting an Indian city like Madurai depicting the religious fervour prevalent in the indian society where there are many people to sing the praise of temples but very few to analyse the significance of a river which every day cleans the river oanks. Here, it should be noted that the ‘cleansing aspect’ of river has two meanings. Firstly, purity of the river banks, and Secondly,the cleaning up off the nearby villages due to floods occuring every two years.

  8. In this poem the poet criticizes the post modern poets as well as old poets.While the poets romanticizes the flood, they forget the human sufferings.

  9. The poem A River is amazing which out shown both sides of life using metaphor with river . both the summer reason it was dry , rainy reason flood . just like human life have both side of sorrow and happy. .. . . . . .. . . . …. he used to blame the both new and old poets who forget to confide the human sufferings he used a different way to out show our beautiful temple city and culture .

  10. indeed this poem emphatically underlines the truth that A.K.Ramanujan is a complete signature of “Indian Writing In English”……

  11. to anemesh: he is poet!!!!! u will feel dat y i told ubut reason being dis dat suddenly i saw ur question and as i have read it got curious to tell………..’k’,,,……dont mind!!!!!!!

  12. A.K.Ramanujan like Ashtabakra and Khana is using vakrokti, the oblique approach to say the things of his psyche; a writer ironical and satiric, sardonic and sarcastic smiling and mocking at. Taking Madurai, the temple town and the literary confluences as a heritage of it, he starts the tale to contrast and contradict the base.
    The poets may have sung the songs of its glory as a temple town historic and old, exaggerating the river in spate, flooding over, drowning the steps, but the reality is far from these as the poets have told it not the havoc the flood wreaks. In summer when the river dries, things come to sight. Straw and women’s hair seem to be clogging the rusty bars of the bridge. The wet repair works done in patches appear to be sleepy crocodiles. The dry ones seem to be like buffaloes wallowing,
    The poets talk of the water-level rising by inches or downing, but never do they about the pregnant woman swept off and the twin would-be siblings , Gopi and Brinda two cows drowned. None touched down the things earthy and realistic. Everyone is after the colourful flights of fancy and imagination.The old temple town and its history, art and culture the things of discussion. Even the new ones like to quote and refer to.

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