In ‘What’s in it?’ Seth delves into themes of love, obsession, and longing. The poems told from the perspective of a love-wrought speaker. He is without the person he loves and this is driving him to seek out all news of that person’s life. Even their name turns his head. The tone is desperate, and in the end, pleading.
The poet uses language that suggests that the speaker is unable to control himself and is desperate for a solution to present itself to his uncontrollable love. The mood is at once uplifting and somber. He is without this person, but his joy at their name brings joy to the reader.
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Summary of What’s in it?
The poem describes a scene in a restaurant in which the speaker hears the name of someone he loves dearly. When this occurs, it is like a “siren’s song”. The vowels and consonants call him and he has to follow the woman who spoke the name. He shakes this off, chastising himself, trying to get his emotions back under control. The final stanza addresses this love that he can’t shake. He hopes that one day this person will no longer haunt him, but he doesn’t know when that’s going to be.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of What’s in it?
‘What’s in it?’ by Vikram Seth is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a rhyme scheme of AABBCC, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. The lines vary in length, with some stretching out to eight words or ten syllables. Others are much shorter, with three words or four syllables.
There are also examples of internal rhyme in this poem. These are rhymes that occur within the lines and are not confined to the ends. For example, “do” and “you” in lines one and two of the third stanza.
Poetic Techniques in What’s in it?
Seth makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘What’s in it?’ These include but are not limited to caesura, enjambment, alliteration, and simile. The first, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text.
A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line five of the second stanza. It reads: “Those consonants, those vowels – what a fool!”Or, another moment, this one in the third stanza, reads: “No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Went” and “where” in line six of the first stanza and “sirenic sound” in line four of the second stanza. There is another obvious example in the third stanza, line five reads: “No glimpse, no news, no name…”
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. A simile begins the second stanza of the poem. In it, the speaker compares himself to a “serious owlet” in how he stood there.
Analysis of What’s in it?
I heard your name the other day
Mentioned by someone in a casual way.
She reached out for a sandwich, and your name
Went back from where it came.
In the first stanza of ‘What’s in it?’ the speaker explains how he “heard” someone’s name. This is the name belonging to the intended listener of the poem. He uses the first person narrative perspective to address “you,” an unknown listener. Whoever this person is, he heard someone speaking about them “in a casual way”. Their name was mentioned in passing. This person, a woman, thought that “you were looking great”.
This simple statement is meaningful to the speaker. He remembered it, even though nothing obviously cubical happened in that moment. This makes it clear to the reader that he has some deeper connection to “you” than the statement “looking great” accounts for.
The moment passed as a waiter came by and “with a plate”. The woman the speaker is talking about is eating, and the “name” disappeared as soon as it had appeared.
But like a serious owlet I stood there,
Staring in mid-air.
Those consonants, those vowels – what a fool!
I show more circumspection as a rule.
Despite the brevity of the reference to “you,” the speaker honed in like a “serious owlet”. He is attentive and earnest, hoping to hear just a little bit more about “you” and what’s going on in “your” life. Because there was no more information forthcoming the speaker followed “her around / To hear, just once more, that sirenic sound”. The “sound” he’s referring to is of course “your” name. It is compared through a metaphor to the songs sung by the mythological sirens in Greek legend who drew sailors in only to allow their boats to be destroyed on ocean rocks.
The name was beautiful. “Those consonants, those vowels,” the speaker exclaims. They have power over him that he knows is dangerous. He calls himself a “fool” knowing that he should not be so easily influenced by its sound.
I love you more than I can say.
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?
In the final stanza of ‘What’s in it?’ the speaker directs his words to the listener. The first two stanzas were really just a prelude to what he actually wanted to say. He needed to tell this person that he loves them more than he “can say”.Words do not do his love justice. No matter what he does, he adds, that emotion won’t leave him. There is some distance between himself and this listener, just as the previous stanzas alluded to.
He has in the past and still does not, hope that that love is going to leave him. As the second stanza demonstrated it has control over him that is unhealthy. It is his opinion that eventually the sound of “your” name will cease to influence him so strongly. Then, he wonders, what will happen” When will “news” of this person’s actions not “stir” him?
The final line asks “when? …when?” will the love disappear? There is no answer to this question, alluding to the possibility that it is never going to go away.