Category Archives: Literature Classroom

A.K. Ramanujan’s ‘A River’

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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.

Teaching Indian English Poetry

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It is always a challenge to teach poetry. Because in the case of fiction or drama, the experience of the students within the field of popular culture is continued in their encounter with the literary works that get prescribed in syllabi. This is so not completely but approximately. When it comes to poetry, students’ familiarity with poetry in popular culture is mainly through film songs, pop music. Whereas, poetry prescribed is very different from these songs. This results in a sort of incomprehension of the significance of the poems.

Studying Indian English poetry faces further complications. How does one ‘place’ these poems? How do we explain the ranges of their significance to students? How to make them accessible to students experience?

Well, I would like to hear from my readers regarding their idea on how to read Indian English poetry. Whether you have been teaching or studying, what has been your experience? How do you go about cracking IEP?

Do share your views with me.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet in Indian Classroom

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Shakespeare’s sonnet in an undergrad class in India becomes a bit tough. This is so not because of any obscurity. With very little operative allusions, topicality, Shakespeare’s sonnets are accessible at the linguistic level. What is tough is carrying across the significance, as is always the case with poetry. I have always felt my students wear a puzzled look trying to work out why is the poem worth studying.

They can follow the ‘idea’, they can follow the sum total of the words, the prosody, all: but, so what? I feel this puzzle remains mainly because sonnet is not a familiar form of poetry to them. A Shakesperean sonnet doesnt ‘appear’ as a sweet song when only read.

This time I let them listen to a musical rendition. It is a ‘MacJams collaboration of Jack Miller (dadai), Richard Schletty (rschletty) and Michael Lavoie (Mr. EI Oval)’.  Available here. This worked. Listening to the song my students  could place it and that changed their perception of the poem.