The poem was first published in a collection of the same name in 1995. It uses clever examples of figurative language to describe how garlic is generally considered and how, with a name change, one might feel differently about it. One of the most powerful parts of ‘The Stinking Rose’ is when the poet draws on the famous lines from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Explore The Stinking Rose
‘The Stinking Rose’ by Sujata Bhatt focuses on the power of names.
In the lines of this poem, the poet describes garlic through various allusions to superstitions while playing on the reader’s previous experience with the food. As the poem progresses, the poet compares garlic to roses and suggests that the name of either thing helps define it.
She believes that if one were to change the name of the food item that it would smell sweeter, just as Romeo knew in the play Romeo and Juliet that Juliet would still be the same person if she had a different last name.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘The Stinking Rose,’ Sujata Bhatt uses the theme of the power of language. Specifically, the way we consider roses and garlic. She believes that both are defined by their names which, when changed, may transform one’s perspective on them. The speaker suggests that if garlic was given a new name, it would smell sweeter.
Structure and Form
‘The Stinking Rose’ by Sujata Bhatt is a nine-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Readers will immediately notice that the stanzas vary in length. The poem includes stanzas that are four lines long, two lines long, and even five lines long.
Throughout this poem, the poet uses a number of literary devices. These include:
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line that’s usually created due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “for these cloves of garlic – they shine.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “warm” and “woman” in line four of the first stanza.
- Repetition: the use of the same literary device more than once. For example, the poet returns several times to the phrase “the stinking rose.”
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that do not use “like” or “as.” For example, the poet compares garlic to a rose throughout the poem.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “they shine / like pearls still warm from a woman’s neck.”
Everything I want to say is
in that name
for these cloves of garlic – they shine
like pearls still warm from a woman’s neck.
In the stanza of the poem, the poet introduces readers to the main subject of her text, garlic. The speaker brings one of the major themes of this poem, the meaning of names, almost immediately. She is very interested in the name “garlic” and how it helps relate garlic to roses.
The poet also uses an allusion in these first four lines to the traditional mythology associated with garlic and its ability to fend off vampiric attacks. This is seen through the poet’s description of the cloves of garlic shining “like pearls” as if they had just come off a woman’s neck. It’s easy to imagine a woman wearing pearls as well as garlic around her neck as a means of hypothetical protection.
My fingernail nudges and nicks
Does it burn through your ears?
The second stanza uses three sentences, two of which are hypothetical questions that are concerned with garlic. The poet uses first-person pronouns, as well as second-person pronouns, in the stanza. She addresses “you” and asks you, through the two rhetorical questions, what your reaction is to garlic. Garlic evokes hunger and may “burn through your ears” with its distinctive scent.
The very real-feeling and sense-based description of the speaker peeling a clove of garlic should make it very easy for the reader to imagine doing it themselves.
Did you know some cloves were planted
into giving stronger perfume…
There is another rhetorical question in the third stanza where the poet asks readers if they knew a specific fact about garlic cloves. It’s very unlikely that anyone reading does poem has ever heard the fact before, so it does provide some interest and adds importance to the role that garlic plays in gardens.
While incredibly different from a rose in many ways, garlic, the poet says, can be used to make roses evoke a stronger, pleasing perfume. They are related, something that’s explored in the next stanzas.
Everything is in that name
and the art of naming…
The poem is continually concerned with the art of naming and what a word evokes. Both roses and garlic are known for their very distinctive smells, but with different names and different uses, they remain distant.
As the poem progresses, the poet suggests an alternative name for garlic—the stinking rose (seen in the title). The ellipse at the end of stanza four helps lead readers into the fifth stanza, which contains a very well-known quote.
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose,
The fifth stanza is only two lines long and contains a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that begins with “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This dramatic tragedy focuses on the power of language, specifically names, as well as the romantic story of the two young lovers.
The rose and the garlic clove are defined by their names. So too, are Romeo and Juliet, who, because of their family names, are unable to be together. This distinction leads to an overwhelming tragedy and asks readers to question the importance of names as a distinction between people and things.
This specific quote falls as part of a longer monologue in which Romeo suggests that even if Juliet had a different name, she’d be the same person. So too, is the case with a rose. If you called a rose anything else, it was still “smell as sweet.” The garlic could be called something else as well, the poet says. Something that gives it a more delicate feeling—the stinking rose.
But that which we call garlic
if we call it The Stinking Rose.
The poet knows that just because it’s possible to acknowledge the insignificance of names doesn’t mean that they don’t still hold power. The name “garlic” brings a specific image and smell to mind that limits the beauty of a garlic clove and how much someone can appreciate it.
The poet says that if “we” call garlic something sweeter, then our perception of it may change as well.
The roses on the table, the garlic in the salad
your nipples and your legs from sleeping.
The seventh stanza promotes the powerful meaning that garlic could hold in anyone’s heart if we gave it a chance. The poet paints an image of a meal with roses on the table and garlic in the food. The garlic, she suggests, will “sing to your heart” in the same way (if not more) than the roses do. Garlic has nutritional benefits as well (ones that the speaker outlines (again) through superstition).
Fragrant blood full of garlic
The two-line eighth stanza suggests that the smell of garlic sticks around in the blood, so much so that blood analyzed under a microscope would still smell like it. It becomes part of one’s being, and she’s suggesting (albeit hyperbolically).
His fingers tired after peeling and crushing
the stinking rose, the sticky cloves—
The final stanza of the poem is five lines long. It brings in male and female characters. This time, rather than using first pronouns to describe peeling a garlic clove, the poet decides to use third-person pronouns depicting “he” and “she.” The unknown man’s fingers are still tired from peeling and crushing the “stinking rose” hours later in the middle of the night.
This leads to those same fingers touching a woman, nudging and nicking her (alluding to the way that garlic can burn your skin if it gets in a “nick” or cut). The final image is of the two touching in what is likely meant to be an intimate manner, relating the “prism” to the woman’s body (which is also commonly connected to rose imagery). It also brings in the woman’s smell which defines her, as her name does.
The purpose is to highlight the ways that something changes just based on its name. Garlic is unappreciated for the many roles it plays in everyday life because it doesn’t have as sweet a name as “rose.”
The message is that much of life, including objects and relationships, is defined by names and titles. The poet draws readers’ attention to how reconsidering those names might change one’s perception of events, people, and what is considered beautiful or ugly.
The main theme of this poem is the power of names, or language, to define how we experience the world. Roses are well-loved and appreciated while being seen as symbols of romance and beauty. Garlic, though, despite its many good features, is overlooked.
The speaker is someone unknown. Their gender, identity, and age are all missing from the poem. But these details are not necessary for the reader’s understanding of the poem. It’s very clear that this person is thoughtful and considerate when it comes to their experience of the world.
If you enjoyed this poem, you should also consider reading some other Sujata Bhatt poems. For example:
- ‘The Need to Recall the Journey’ – focuses on the past and a speaker’s desire to return to the moment her child was born.
- ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ – describes the impact of storytelling and unanswered questions in religion.
- ‘Partition’ – describes a woman’s trip to a railway station and how she tries to help people.