Art & Culture

Simplicity is key

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiOct 25, 2015 | 19:29

Simplicity is key

Deadlines are an unfortunate consequence of offering prompts via a column. It isn't possible to make submissions open-ended and so poets writing in often express their frustration at being compelled to submit what, even in their eyes, is a less than finished poem.

This sense of frustration is stronger than usual this month and it shows in the poems. The prompt offered an image whose narrative spoke of displacement and unfinished journeys. While the poems could naturally have included the sense of the incomplete, they have to find a way to express the feeling without themselves being unformed.


Perhaps the difficulty lay in the enormity of the subject. A very concrete image could possibly anchor an abstract poem but only in very skilful hands that are not writing to a deadline. I have found, while attempting to enclose an overwhelming experience in words, that simplicity is key. There are many possibilities: an accurate description of the image could have made for a powerful poem. So could a list poem or a concrete poem.

Satchit chooses to retell the myth of Sisyphus. In his untitled poem, Sisyphus is a story-weaver. His futile, eternal pushing of a single boulder uphill is transformed into a process by which the stones he carries each time tell a different story, the story of his own people (whoever they may happen to be).

He is Sisyphus

Carrying the stones

As he ascends the mountain

To weave a new story for us

Taking it apart each time he's done

So he can start again.

This final time, the Sisyphus of the poem chooses to tell the tale 'of a family heading to an uncertain future' but leaves the stones as they are, conscious of their 'art' and therefore permanence.


There are a lot of unfortunately mixed metaphors: the stones that 'weave' a story; the stones

Pushed out like pawns

In a one way passage across the board.

I'm also unconvinced by this rehabilitation of Sisyphus. Why this particular figure from myth? In what way is his presence of importance to a poem about this image? I also find it odd that what solace there is in this narrative, is offered by the poet not to the family fleeing, but to Sisyphus who, through his art, offers the refugees something like a home.

The poem's strength lies in the fact that Satchit has chosen to stay with a single figure or idea and explore how that interacts with the image. The poem has simplicity working for it but it needs go through several drafts before it can be a decent poem.

Gayatri Chawla's poem, also untitled, mysteriously has no mention of stones or pebbles at all. Instead, she has replaced them entirely with hands.

Hands know how to feel

hands know how to breathe

hands know when it is time to leave

the poem begins, and though it sounds promising, it's an unfulfilled promise. Subsequent stanzas catalogue what hands can and can't do and end with the banal sentiment:


It takes a leader or two

to divide a nation

but just some hands

to bridge the pain.

It's a disappointing effort from a poet who has submitted some good work to The Sideways Door and is proof that even writers with talent can have off days.

Sometimes one wants so much to write well that the wanting overwhelms the demands of the poem. What is central to this prompt is the image itself. Sadly, this poem has nothing to do with that image.

Goirick Brahmachari's poem is also untitled - I really don't know why this month's prompt has all poets tongue-tied in the matter of titles - and is, interestingly, in two parts.

The first part of the poem is in the voice of an unidentified 'we', who progress through various landscapes, until the final stanza where we learn that the 'we' of the preceding stanzas is meant to be the journey not of displaced people (as the 'we have walked' had led us to believe) but of the stones in the prompt image. This confusion, while deliberate, is not an accurate use of the verb and detracts from the effect of the reveal.

The second part of the poem is more problematic: in impressionistic prose, it details the journey of a 'they' that are now people, but people whose violent displacement gives birth to more violence. Some of the language in this part is imprecise and adds to my sense of disquiet: "the river of blood", as if there is only one (but also, more successfully, evoking Enoch Powell); 'came out wearing a single pair of clothes'. However the closing line is chilling in its economy and effect: 'But when they reached here, they did not like those who came after them.'

Put together, the two parts of the poem correspond neatly with the subject of the image and the material used to create it. Each has a story and Brahmachari attempts to tell them both. Of course, this too is an attempt rather than a finished work, but it's a more successful one, with the promise of a solid poem at the end of it.

Here is the poem in full:


         Goirick Brahmachari


We have walked through the realms of time

inside paperweights of falling snow, for ages,

seen ice, fire, years of cold rain.


We have walked

through years of wilderness,

red moon nights, fought beasts with fire,

walked miles for water.


Like water we have travelled across the land

in search of food and sex through these liquid borders,

we have morphed into wind to fight the dust.


But, we have failed to love.


For stones we are and stones we shall remain.

Through these roads we walk,

we become the very stones we carry.



When they came, they could only get their torches and lanterns and lathis. They left their houses, their clothes, food, utensils, land, cattle, and came out wearing a single pair of clothes. Some walked for miles, some sailed in boats over the river of blood. But when they reached here, they did not like those who came after them.

Thank you for your submissions. Do look out for next month's prompt.

Last updated: October 25, 2015 | 19:29
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