Bad habits of expectancy

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJun 24, 2015 | 19:55

Bad habits of expectancy

I confess, I thought I was giving everyone a rather easy prompt this month. It turns out that while it's easy to like a poem or be drawn to it, it's not that easy to write a response to it. A poem is a whole thing, complete in itself. This is why the idea of writing a response to it, to complete it in a whole other way, was intriguing.


To respond to one line or to a body of work; to use phrases or ideas from a poem without speaking back to the heart of it is to miss the point of the exercise. These kinds of response poems would be acceptable if they were very, very good or very skilled. The Donne poem in the style of the Marlowe, for instance, only glancingly speaks to the original. Staying within the harness of metre and rhythm, Donne roams very far from home and yet it is evident that his poem is talking to the way the feminine is perceived (among other things).

This month, Sophiya Pandeya responds to one line from Neruda's very famous "Every Day You Play" in her poem "A Pulsing Letter". The poem is crying out for a feminist response because unless one is an adolescent reading love poetry for the first time, I can't imagine what is attractive about the lines "How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,/ my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them all running." The speaker is rather full of himself, and of course he imagines his beloved as some shy, trembling and virginal girl grateful for his attentions.


I think Pandeya missed a trick in choosing to respond to one line - "Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars of the south?" - which, though not a bad line, is hardly the heart or breath of the poem. That makes the poem a bit of a mess with overwrought imagery ('fluent curlicues of hawk-scroll' and 'unpolished teardrops of quartz lost in shiny forests of cubic zirconium') and a surprisingly simplistic question-and-answer form.

Punyasloka Mohapatra's response to Jibananda Das's "Banalata Sen" is not so much a response as it is an attempt at imitation of tone. While that's not a bad thing to do as an exercise, it's not what this month's prompt asked for. The central character Banalata Sen herself is nearly absent from the poem, appearing only in the last line when the speaker seeks refuge in her "cosmic eyes" and so her role as anchor and touchstone in Das's poem becomes something more flimsy here.

David Jairaj writes back to Auden's poem "Labyrinth 2". Auden's is a lovely poem about the nature of doubt and finding answers. Jairaj is playing to his strengths here, in having picked a poem with a strong formal scheme. The poem itself is in a carefully mapped conversation with Auden's, though perhaps Jairaj lacks the stamina to answer it stanza for stanza. His poem has a light touch and though it stumbles a little in the penultimate stanza, it ends strongly.

  • Anthropos apteros
  • Passing through life unnoticed,
  • He wondered if He was real.
  • "What is this Tao before me?
  • Just what is its big deal?"
  • Physics used to enchant;
  • Promises of truth revealed.
  • Now, it's all science fiction
  • For the entertainment field.
  • Data produced Big Data;
  • All backed up in the Cloud.
  • But ask a meaningful question-
  • Someone will laugh out loud.
  • Machine Learning has taught us
  • How to behave like Machines.
  • Respond when someone prompts us
  • Or sleep by all means.
  • Anthropos apteros:
  • "What would I do with wings?
  • I go where my mind goes;
  • Of what use to me are things?"

Srinivas Rayaprol was a minimalist poet in the William Carlos Williams mould. He relied on the sharp image and the short line, leaving the reader's mind to fill in everything else. Today's final poem is Aditya Mani Jha's, who has chosen to respond to Rayaprol's poem "Travel Poster" (60 Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil. Penguin India 2008).

His "Indian Travel Poster", while using the same ironic accumulation of cliches that constitute travel posters everywhere, might even have improved upon the original. Jha's poem has a political edge and an undertone of anger that Rayaprol's poem does not. Instead of bland, representative images, he uses another set of cliches (bloodstained snow, tridents) but none of these will ever be visible on any travel poster. The irony is doubled when one sees how certain images are shorthand for complex political realities that are consumed by - say - the 24 hour news cycle. Jha's third stanza is a little wordy and the end could have been punchier, but it's a good response to Rayaprol.

  • Indian Travel Poster
  • by Aditya Mani Jha
  • after Srinivas Rayaprol
  • A frozen lake and bloodstained snow
  • for Kashmir
  • An opium haze in a mustard field
  • for Punjab
  • For Gujarat a trident
  • that sent
  • a thousand undesirables
  • to their graves
  • Bayonets and fatigue
  • for the seven sisters
  • Like most Indian girls they are seen
  • but not heard, and their names
  • are interchangeable headlines
  • A poster within a poster
  • for Tamil Nadu
  • Because Amma said so
  • And all around this country
  • Three colours shoved down your throat
  • (By four lions)
  • One more than the others.

As with all exercises, the challenge of any prompt is in understanding its intent and in refining the poem as it takes shape. This means attention to minutae and to every word choice and line break. This month's crop may not have been all it could have been, but for those who have made the attempt, I would ask you to go back to the poems and work on them with purpose.

Thank you for your submissions. Look out for The Sideways Door in July.

Last updated: June 24, 2015 | 19:55
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