‘A River’ by A.K. Ramanujan focuses on the Madurai River, how it has been depicted by poets throughout time, and brings the suffering that exists along its banks to the reader’s attention.
This short, four-stanza poem is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains sixteen lines, the second: eleven, the third: seven, and the fourth: fifteen. They do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are moments of repetition which help create rhythm.
Most clearly, there is a refrain that is used in the second stanza and the fourth and is only slightly changed. The speaker describes what happened during this particular flood, and then restates the same thing. This works in two ways, first to emphasize the loss. But, at the same time, it also desensitizing the reader. One comes to expect tragedy, as those who reside in the city do, and see it as another aspect of the flood/drought.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that every year, every poet sings the same songs about the sometimes flooding, and sometimes empty riverbed. When it is empty, all its hidden items are exposed. The poets have always sung about this period and the other in which the flood happens. But, they don’t get into the details of who is impacted.
In the next stanzas, the speaker relays the words of the citizens of this area as they describe what happened this year. Houses were washed away, as were two cows and a woman who thought she was pregnant with twins. The speaker derides the old and new poets for not caring enough to look deeper into their environments.
You can read the full poem here.
Ramanujan also uses a variety of poetic techniques, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, and enjambment to unify the text. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. Assonance and consonance are other forms of repetition in which a vowel or consonant sound is used multiple times, in words that close in proximity. A few of these are noted with the body of the text.
Enjambment is another important technique. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. A great example is between lines four and five in which a reader has to move down a line to find out what summer brings.
All of these techniques contribute to the speaker’s tone. It fluctuates back and forth between disappointed, analytical, and even lighthearted at times.
Analysis of A River
city of temples and poets,
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by setting the scene. He is going to be describing how the city of “Madurai” is described by poets. It is a place that is made up of “temples and poets” and these poets have always sung of the same things. Every summer in the city the river basin is emptied. The river “dries to a trickle” and the sand is bared. The shapes and objects that are revealed are dark and somewhat ominous. The are “sand ribs” and “straw and women’s hair”. These things clog up the “watergates,” made of rusty bars.
Ramanujan makes use of consonance in these lines with the repetition of the “g” sound. Rhythm is also created through the use of reuse of the word “sand” in lines six and seven. Then, in general, the repetition of words beginning of “s,” or words that carry the “s” sound. This is especially true for the first half of the stanza.
Everything about the drainage system is old and in need of repair. The bridge is in patches, a fact that is revealed when the waters recede. In the last lines of this stanza, Ramanujan uses two metaphors to compare the stones to animals. The wet ones appear like crocodiles sleeping and the dry as lounging water-buffaloes. Despite all of this, the poets “only sang of the floods.” There is so much more to the city that the poets are ignoring.
He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.
The second stanza of ‘A River’ is only eleven lines. The “He” in the first line is a reference to a poet, perhaps the speaker himself. He states that he was only in the city for “a day”. It is in this stanza that a number of the more complicated and personal details are revealed. The details were not hidden, they were easily learned by the poet featured in this stanza.
Everywhere the people spoke about the flood and the terrible things which resulted. It is not just a simple natural occurrence. It “carried off three village houses” as well as a pregnant woman and “a couple of cows”. The cows have names, making these lines lighter in tone than some of the others. The list-like way in which this section of the poem is conveyed makes it clear that these are not uncommon occurrences. The people are used to them.
The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.
The problem that the speaker has with poets is made clearer in the third stanza of ‘A River’ as he speaks of the similarities between “old poets” and “new poets”. Both spoke about the floods, yet ignored the tragedies which resulted. In fact, to make it worse, the new poets copied what the old ones did. There was no evolution in style or subject.
In the fifth and sixth lines of this section, the speaker states that it is possible that the woman who died was going to give birth to twins, increasing the life lost. This is a very interesting contrast to the flooding of the river in the first place. The waters are meant to fertilize the land and make it possible for the next crop to grow. Life is destroyed as it is being created.
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.
In the final stanza, the speaker relays the words of the poet again. He said that the poet complained of how “the river has water enough / to be poetic / about only once a year”. It is only once a year that the poets pay attention to it, and even then they don’t want to speak about the loss of property or life.
The speaker repeats a section of the second stanza again, restating what was lost. There are additional details added. Now, he says that the woman believed she was “expecting identical twins”. They were going to be perfectly the same, with no way to tell them apart except through dressing them in “coloured diapers”. This is another humorous line, but it has a darker undertone. It speaks to the lack of care with which the poets approached the land and people. There is no desire to know who these people are or quest to adequately depict their suffering.