A River

A River

By A. K. Ramanujan

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.

Summary of A River

  • Popularity of “A River”: Written by A. K. Ramanujan, “A River” is a free verse poetic output first appeared in 1966. It was part of his collection of poems The Striders. The poem is written in simple language and talks about the exploration of the cultural and spiritual significance of an Indian river as a symbol of life, death, and renewal in Indian mythology, and society has brought this poem everlasting fame for the poet. That is why the poem has become a textbook piece across the globe.
  • “A River” As a Representative of the Natural Lifecycle: The poem “A River” reflects the complexities of the cultural, social, and spiritual heritage of India to shed light on the natural lifecycle. Ramanujan, born and raised in India, seems to celebrate his ability to touch on his native culture in his poem ‘A River.’ He goes on to present Indian mythology and folklore to explore the deep significance of the river in the Indian social atmosphere. The poem not only speaks to the beauty and power of the river as a natural force but also delves into the various symbolic meanings it holds for the Indian people. As such, “A River” is a powerful example of how Indian English literature, too, is rich and fertile to use as textbook pieces.
  • Major Themes in “A River”: “A River” focuses on several thematic strands, such as the contrast between the beauty of the river and its destructive power, the natural lifecycle associated with water sources, and the place of a river in the Indian culture. The poem is set in Madurai, a city of temples, where poets sing of the urban beauty, history, and place and yet ignore the river that devastates the city every year when it floods. The river, thus, seems like a force of nature that could be both beautiful and dangerous.
    During the dry season, the river dries up and exposes the sand ribs, straws, and women’s hair that clog the watergates. However, during the floods, the river becomes a destructive force, carrying away village houses, cows, and even pregnant women. The poem indicates the limitations of language in capturing the complexity of human experiences. While the old poets celebrated the floods as a natural phenomenon, the new poets kept their mum about the tragic loss of life. The disparity between poetic language and reality emerges out of the beauty of poetic diction when the poem mentions the pregnant woman as a tragic victim of the floods. The poet concludes that the river is only poetic when it is in flood, but the reality is that floods could be devastating.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in A River

  1. K. Ramanujan’s skill of using multiple and diverse literary devices is quite apparent in “A River.” He used various literary devices to enhance the intended impact of this poem. Some of the major literary devices are analyzed below.
  2. Allusion: It is a reference to a place, event, figure, or thing of historical, cultural, or religious significance. The poem mentions an unnamed and the city of “Madurai” which are allusions to Indian geography and myths.
  3. Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds within words, such as line 27 shows the use of “Gopi and Brinda” (line 27), repeating /i/ sound to add to the music of the poem.
  4. Consonance: It is the repetition of the consonant sounds in words occurring close in verse. For example, the sound of /s/ repeats in the third verse, “who sang of cities and temples” and /b/ in “baring the sand ribs.”
  5. Enjambment: It is the continuation of a sentence or thought without a pause beyond the end of a line or stanza. For example, lines 3 and 4 moves to the 5th without any pause of punctuation or line break. This sentence flows smoothly from one line to another without a pause, enhancing the continuity of the image being described.
  6. Imagery: It means the use of vivid and descriptive language that appeals to the senses. For example, the line 13 “the wet stones glistening like sleepy crocodiles” shows images that come into mind when reading it.
  7. Irony: It is a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. For example, line 16 “The poets only sang of the floods” (line 16) shows the irony lies in the fact that the poets focus only on the floods, while other significant events, such as the drowning of a pregnant woman, go unnoticed.
  8. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things. For example, the line “the dry ones shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun” (line 15) shows that the metaphor of the dry stones is likened to water buffaloes, emphasizing their appearance and creating a visual image.
  9. Personification: It gives human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. For example, line 36 “the river has water enough to be poetic” (line 36) shows the river as having human qualities of writing poetry.
  10. Repetition: It is the deliberate use of words, sounds, or phrases for emphasis or effect. For example, the lines 31 and 45 show the repetition of “of the pregnant woman,” drawing the attention of the readers to her significance in the narrative.
  11. Simile: It is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as.” For example, line 13 “the wet stones glistening like sleepy crocodiles” shows the comparison of the glistening stones to sleepy crocodiles, highlighting their appearance and creating a vivid image.
  12. Symbolism: This is the use of objects or actions to represent abstract ideas or concepts. The poem shows of several such things, such as a village, river, twins, diapers, and even walls, as symbols of life and death.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in A River

Poetic devices are part of literary devices with different functions. They help writers and poets to develop themes and add further to their poems. The analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem is as follows.

  1. Diction: It is the choice and use of words in a literary work. “A River” shows the use of a simple direct language with concrete images to evoke the scene of a river drying up in the summer and causing flood in the rainy season.
  2. End Rhyme: This is the repetition of similar sounds at the end of lines in a poem. “A River” does not have a regular end rhyme scheme.
  3. Poem and Verse Type: “A River” is a free verse poem, which means it does not follow a strict pattern of meter or rhyme.
  4. Stanza: “A River” has four short stanzas, each having a different number of verses.
  5. Tone: It is the attitude or feeling conveyed by a literary work. “A River” shows an objective and detached tone as the poet describes the natural phenomenon of a river drying up and flooding without passing judgment or expressing emotion.

Quotes to be Used

This quote is suitable to use when discussing the limitations of art and literature and how they can sometimes fail to capture the full range of human experience.

The poets only sang of the floods.