Skip to main content

A very public attempt...

At Understanding Poetry

I know very little about poetry. But I have been trying to understand the form. Some poems I get. Most I don’t. I often resort to what the others have said about the piece before making up my own mind. So much so, I no longer know what I instinctively feel about a piece. The next few posts will attempt to strip away with the noise and simply listen to my own senses. And you’re welcome to join in.

This is what we will do. I will post a piece of poetry without revealing who wrote it. Please resist temptation to google for the poet’s name and comment what you think of it. And let’s compare notes.

Here’s the first…

And Madonna, she still has not showed

We see this empty cage now corrode

Where her cape of the stage once flowed

The fiddler, he now steps on the road

He writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed

On the back of the fish-trucks that loads

While my conscience explodes.

What do you think? Befuddling rhyming nonsense? Or some deep, deep philosophy?


sriku said…
The medium of poetry in my opinion, is often used to express inner turmoil, undecidedness and every other emotion, while retaining a very cryptic and irritatingly indecipherable quality. These few lines somehow speak about restrictions and freedom, and of debt's (perhaps promises) being repaid. It is beyond me to decipher the fish trucks and the exploding conscience, hope you reveal the poet, looking forward to yours and others opinions on this snippet.
Shyam said…
I'll go with rhyming nonsense... although I'm sure there are those who will extrapolate some fundu meaning from ANYTHING! Including this :)
Akira said…
Ammani that makes us two. :D I will keep checking for more in this series in hope of reaching the goal that you have set for yourself.

I read the piece 4-5 times...but ah I don't think I understand it a tad bit :(( ...Some random thoughts

The poetry uses rhyming (doh!..isn't that obvious?)

Madonna = singer or Mother Mary?

The first four lines seem to be talking about something that was - then and now. But whats with the last line? Seems to me that suddenly a new character (the poet) is introduced...

I just cannot connect the dots.. :((

sriku: Wow!!..I am impressed..
Falstaff said…
It's gibberish, but it's 'visionary' gibberish. And a glorious song.

And I cannot believe there are actually people who do not know where this comes from. The education system is broken, I tell you, broken.
Anonymous said…
Drug induced trash.

"And I cannot believe there are actually people who do not know where this comes from. The education system is broken, I tell you, broken."

Another reason why people refuse to countenance poetry : because of pretentious homigod how-cool-I-ams who make remarks like this.

Add to other overhyped garbage like the Beatles.
sriku said…
Dylan it is eh! I had to google it after people started blaming the education system :P Apologies to anyone upset by my ignorance. Although I think we can restrict our comments to the actual post itself, and attempt to draw out our understanding of Dylan's words. Lets turn the off-topic comments, er.. umm.. off.
WA said…
Education system or not, i struggle with poetry. Looking fwd to more in this series Ammani
shyam said…
Figures... I dont like Bob Dylan :) OR David Bowie.
Dylan it might be but it made absolutely no sense to me.
It seems I don't get poetry either!
neha vish said…
On an average.. I get poetry.

But I will disagree with falstaff. For one thing, there is something called exposure. For a majority of us, we're first generation English poetry/ prose readers for "fun". We don't come from families where people generally lounge around and quote Keats to each other. Sure, they are erudie. But in biographies and factoids. Not in fiction, or poetry.

But I speak strictly for myself.

The discovery of poetry involves some amount of serendipity. And to a greater extent, the ability to contextualize and to empathize. Half of the pop-references from Dylan's works can be completely lost if you've never had the access to those pop articles in the first place.

This isn't drug induced trash. But it is relevant to its time and space and context. And the Beatles similarly are not overhyped either. They expressed a certain generation, in a certain space.

And nor is poetry some homogeneous thing - a giant undifferenciated blob of similar references. I am ranting.. Sigh.
Anonymous said…
Well i guess you must be happy with urself after this post, coz none of them seem to have even come close to explain the meaning of that poem. A complete tangent for me too :)

-- GM
Falstaff said…
neha: I'm not sure how you're disagreeing with me. For the record, I'm a first-generation poetry reader too - I doubt anyone in my immediate family can tell Keats from cummings. But that's precisely why we need an education system that helps people discover poetry, no? The discovery of poetry could be a lot less serendipitious if the education system provided the kind of exposure to poetry that poetry deserves. I don't come from a household where people sit around discussing differential calculus either - but I'm still expected to understand it, because the assumption is that I would have learnt it in school.

In any case, I wasn't really trying to make a serious point with my earlier comment - it was just a silly joke, brought on by sheer bewilderment that so many people would not recognize what to me is so standard a pop-reference.

For the record, I totally agree that poetry is not an undifferentiated blob, and think that attempts to understand poetry by picking extracts from here and there (and fairly mediocre extracts at that - Dylan's status as a serious poet is marginal at best) and attempting to analyze them out of context (and not just 'context' as in time and place, but the context of the text itself - Visions of Johannah is supposed to be an incoherent set of vaguely surreal, possibly drug-induced visions, so reading the lines here without knowing that is meaningless) is unlikely to yield any useful results, except to confirm people in their ignorant prejudices.

If you really want to understand poetry you need a good anthology, a primer on form / meter, a set of well-written critical essays and / or conversations with someone who actually does appreciate poetry. Which is to say, you need some way to approximate the education we should all have received, but didn't.
Space Bar said…
Ammani: Falstaff said "If you really want to understand poetry you need a good anthology, a primer on form / meter, a set of well-written critical essays and / or conversations with someone who actually does appreciate poetry. Which is to say, you need some way to approximate the education we should all have received, but didn't."

And it's something I wanted to ask you all day yesterday but didn't have time to. Why would you take a small portion of the lyrics of a song and put it up to ask if people thought it was 'poetry'?

If you wanted to create bafflement I can think of so many, many short poems you could have chosen that would have done the same thing: William Carlos Williams, Geoffrey Hill, heck - even Kolatkar would have had your readers asking if just breaking up what sounds like prose into little lines constitutes poetry.

This particular example you chose as your first one for the blog seemed to me (forgive me if I'm wrong) deliberately specious; chosen to prove that poetry is almost always incomprehensible and elitist.

Would you choose a whole poem, withhold the name and see where the discussion goes?

(I have to say I agree with Falstaff here: understanding poetry is not something that's achieved with one poem or even a few. It's a constant readjustment in the mind, slowly acquired and always provisional. I would also suggest a good anthology and a few essays. Plenty available on the net.)
austere said…

I liked this. I liked it before I read the comments/ discussion.
Nope- I wouldn’t know Dylan. Or Eliot.
Yes, that’s bad- just to set the stage- but read I can.

There’s music in the lines if you read them in your mind, in the cadence, the fall of words- I liked that.

The sense of irrevocable loss in the first three lines, of broken promises maybe, of the way things were and now are not, of aging and loss. I could see in my mind’s eye a derelict Opera House, the seats dust laden but Bach somewhere in the air, in dust trapped in the sunlight.

The fiddler- the performer or perchance the poet-moves on, to playing for himself, the crowds satiated, their dues paid, perhaps a plea to be left alone, hence “everything’s been returned that was owed”

That line about the conscience exploding maybe hints at some injustice that’s been done, maybe at the time and her whimsies.

(Back to lurking and g’reader)
Madura said…
I read the poem first. I dont think I got much. Yes rhyming. Sure. I was itching to google, but instead chose to read the comments. WOW such a debate. Finished reading them. Have heard of Bob Dylan, never read him, or remember any song!

So went back and re-read. Only now I could read the poem very clearly on two stands. (the only thing that has changed - could be my confidence - between the two reads! and I looked what exactly cape could mean in dictionary!!!)

I think first I read it as a soul departing/liberating from its body - a happy singer of a soul - fiddler - who celebrates life - but somehow fish trucks evoke stinkiness - why load the life's values into a fish truck - I felt a bit sad - but this could be a fisherman fiddler - and exit looks like a cape - an extension of land into the ocean - all this with an awake conscience - stretching itself into the depths of lives and freeing itself from its clutches - even though without the help of Madonna - the pure savior.

And I had my own sexy interpretation of it too!!! :) Madonna doesnt come, so all that he wrote in his fantasy explodes ... well well, I shouldnt go too far describing it ... You know it makes sense too ...

Some Tantric Liberation of the hippie world!!! :) ...

I loved it when the first meaning came to me, I felt silly happy with the second meaning!!! :)
Either way this song could be happy singing!

Bob Dylan Fans and good English poem critics forgive me!!! :)

You Might Also Like

Voicing Silence 1

There is no nice way of saying this so I will say it as brutally and as unvarnished as it needs to be said. I was sexually assaulted when I was ten and a half years old. While I recall the precise details of what happened that night, much of what happened in the immediate aftermath, I have little memory of. In the days and months that followed, I became increasingly angry. I would smash things, kick people, yell, scream and throw a tantrum at the drop of a hat. I was labelled difficult and called names. Rakshasi was a regular epithet and it clung to me like an dirty scent.

There were so many incidents of rage from those years and most involved destruction of some sort. I once lost a card game and went about meticulously ripping up an entire pack of cards much to the amusement of the gathered extended family. There was some other minor provocation which ended in a lovely red dress which was a gift from abroad being shredded to pieces, again to a mute audience

Word got around that I wa…

Voicing Silence 7

(To get a background on this series, I suggest you start with the first post here and then scroll up)

Headphones recommended

(Click on image for link or click here)
Written and narrated by  Abhi Arumbakkam
Animation and edit  Lucy Lee
Sound Louise Brown
Music Nefeli Stammatogianopoulu & Stelios Koupetoris

Sivaji, Jayalaitha And Us

I first noticed it when Sivaji Ganesan passed away. As someone born in the 70s, much of my growing years was marked by the rituals of Sunday evening Tamizh cinema and Friday night Oliyum Oliyum. And Sivaji Ganesan was a permanent fixture in them. Anyone who was melodramatic was a 'Sivaji' and rhymes like 'Sivaji vayile jilebi' were very much part of our book of nonsense rhymes.

So much so, I remember being fourteen and being part of the school drama team enacting a popular scene from Sivaji's Thiruvilayadal. It was a plum role that we all vied to play. Sivaji played Lord Shiva in the movie and in our minds, he might as well have been immortal. So years later, when news broke that he had died, I was in utter shock. Heck, I was not even a fan. Apart from Motor Sundaram Pillai and more recently, Thevar Magan, in every one of his movies, I felt Sivaji had outacted the entire cast. As if to tell the producers, you've paid me a lot, so let me give you your money'…

Tide - 17

Part - 17 “Are you waiting for me, Kamakshi?”, asked Padmaja a little breathless from climbing the stair case. She had never been particularly slim. But lately, she had noticed a tightening of her blouses, particularly around her upper arm that she taken to using the stairs over the lift.
“Hmm? Everything okay? Why do you want me to keep quiet? What is the matter, Kamakshi?”, Padmaja reeled off questions with mounting alarm.
“It's nothing”, hissed Kamakshi between gritted teeth guiding her neighbour by the arm away from her own door. “Come in to my house. I need to tell you something, Padmaja”.
And once inside, Kamakshi's behaviour was even more erratic. She said something about a letter and answering and now meeting someone and the man waiting for her at home.
“Where?”, demanded Padmaja.
Kamakshi silently pointed her finger at her neighhour.
“Where? In my house?”
Kamakshi nodded.
“Have you gone mad, Kamakshi? I gave you the keys in case you don't see me for days a…

What Would You Do?

This afternoon, I went to our local leisure centre to use their steam room and sauna. I had an hour to kill before it was time to collect my son and the leisure centre is across the road and I couldn't think of a better way to spend a tenner and so I went. No sooner had I settled into a corner of the steam room than I heard a voice ask me, 'are you from India?'. Yes, I nodded before it struck me that if I couldn't see the person clearly neither could he. Yes, I said. To this he (by now I could make out a dim outline of a man) volunteered in a very heavy accent 'My country Bangladesh' and then went on to ask me if I lived locally and if I was living with my family (yes and yes, I answered) and told me that he worked in a local Indian restaurant as a chef and that I should visit them if I hadn't already.

Having exhausted his arsenal of polite questions to ask a rank stranger, he fell silent. Shortly, I left the steam room to take a shower before dipping into…

Tide - 7

Part 7

Dear Mrs,
With regards to your advertisement in last Sunday's Hindu. My name is Mr.S.G.Santhanam. I am 65 years old. I retired in 2007 after 40 years of service in the Indian Railways. My daughter and my son are both married and settled abroad. I am in good health except for slightly high blood pressure. Last year I have undergone an operation for a growth in my retina and now my eyesight is better than it has ever been. I follow a strict vegetarian diet (no oinions no garlic) and I have managed to bring down my cholestrol levels also. Recently I have suffered from pain in my hips and my doctor has adviced me to go for a hip replacement operation which I am due to have some time in the next month. So if you reply to my letter, I can arrange to meet you before I check in to the hospital as I will have to be in bed rest for 6 weeks after my operation. I have also attached a photo of myself with this letter. This was taken before I had my new set of teeth.
Your's sincere…

Voicing Silence 4

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one here and the third one here)

Some years ago, my mother mentioned to me that she had attended my sexual assaulter's Sashtiabdapoorthy and I was appalled. This filthy beast was a pillar of the society and had had the temerity to invite my parents to its (no human pronoun for it) birthday celebration. Suffice to say I was apoplectic.

It was also around this time that the whole sordid episode of Jimmy Savile came to light and I had a thought. I began to wonder if I could take my abuser to court on historic sex abuse charges.

For days I fantasised about dragging the filthy piece of shit to court and have it look me in the eye as I would recall in graphic detail what it had done to me. Then, I would watch with glee as it lost its house, its job, its status in the society and delight in the gradual unravelling of its life.

I would have my perfect revenge. I would be able to show it that i…

Voicing Silence 2

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here)

I realised, almost instinctively that what had happened to me was not a one-off. A casual conversation with a cousin revealed that she too had been touched by the same person. She didn't give me details but all she said was, "that one, him, you know...he's a devil" and gave me an almost imperceptible nod. A secret code that meant that she knew about what had happened to me too. It was our shared language of shame, wrapped in silence and consigned to the deep recess of our minds.

Every now and then the incident would get an airing but I would almost dismiss it by making light of it. During joint studies with classmates from the 11th and 12th standard, two of them talked about the improper touching that had happened to them as children with an almost casual aloofness that I added my incident (for it was now entombed and labelled as Exhibit A in my mind) to the mix. Being abused was so…

Voicing Silence 3

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here and the second one here.)

In the intervening years since my assault, the whispers grew ubiquitous. Hushed conversations from scarred friends who all talked in coded language about what had happened to them. I should have stopped becoming angry but I just couldn't. Instead I channeled all my rage into the blows I rained on the random stranger who once groped me as I was walking past him one evening when I was in my early twenties. The nonchalance with which another pervert thought he could get away with pinching my breasts made me chase after him faster. But I could rarely sustain the rage which would blaze fiercely and frequently but never long enough for anything positive to emerge. There were no planned course of action to follow through, it was largely fire fighting on a daily basis.

And then something happened a decade ago which reminded me of what triggered my anger all those years ago. I won…

Voicing Silence 5

(To get a background to this series of posts, I suggest you read the first one here, the second one here, the third one here and the fourth here)

For years I had been wondering how to articulate my trauma. And then, a little while after I'd moved to the UK, I'd done courses in documentary film-making and had started telling factual stories. Could there be a possibility there? What purpose would retelling a personal story in all its gory detail serve? And is this what I wanted?

In 2013 I watched Yael Farber's Nirbhaya in Edinburgh to an auditorium full of sobbing men and women. I found its portrayal in all its attendant specifics and bit too real. Even the actors playing it had each suffered horrific abuse and it was their own story that was being told. It was discomfiting and I knew I didn't want to go down that route.

A year or so later, I met with Leslie Udwin, director of the documentary India's Daughter, the day
after it had been banned in India. Leslie was de…