The elastic line

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiJan 05, 2016 | 18:10

The elastic line

My grandmother, who is over 85, reads in bright sunlight. She needs that much light because her eyes are failing her and yet she cannot put her books away. She reads in Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil and English and at least two of those languages she has taught herself.

When she visits, I listen to her talk about things she has read in these books or has heard of in lectures. Her favourite text is the Ramayana is all its forms and retellings. On one such afternoon, recounting a lecture, my grandmother describes the moment when Hanuman leaves for Lanka to look for Sita:


She says, "When Hanuman leaps in the air, the poet says that the trees accompany him as hosts do a favoured guest when he must leave and they don't yet want him to so they walk with him a part of the way until they can no longer continue and so they turn back home."

I recognised the device as an epic simile; but detached literary classification didn't stop me from being moved in a way that is hard to articulate. While the scene itself is domestic and personal, the action describes power - of trees being uprooted and flung into the air by the force of Hanuman's great leap.

In another instance from Kampan's Iramavataram, Sita is considering her reply to Rama's angry accusations after he rescues her from Ravana. Kamban describes her state of mind thus:

  • Like a deer
  • on the point of death,
  • tortured by terrible thirst
  •          in the middle of a desert
  •          thick with kites,
  • who sees a lake
  • just beyond reach,
  • she grieved at the barrier
  • that rose before her.
  •                              (trans. David Shulman)

Shulman likens her inner state of mind to Sangam poetry's association of mood with landscape. In AK Ramanujan's translation from the Kuruntokai (127), here's an extended simile in a poem:



  • What Her Girl Friend Said
  •  when he sent a flattering minstrel on his behalf
  • Dear man from the city
  • of portia trees and rice fields
  • where
  •           the small barbus fish
  •           slips sometimes
  •           from the heron's beak
  •           and dives into the water
  •           but fears ever after
  •           the white bud of the lotus
  • since one of your minstrels
  • was a liar,
  • all your minstrels must seem liars
  • to the women you abandon.
  •                                        (Orampokiyar, transl AK Ramanujan)

From these poems it becomes clear that it is not necessary for epic similes to belong only in epics or epic poems; though of course they're most often to be found there because the scale of the project allows for the enlargement of the comparison.

This month, write a poem at the heart of which is an epic simile. You could, like the poem above, make it a short poem, even a poem consisting of a single sentence.

Try out ways in which this simile will work itself out. How does it change the poem if it appears at the beginning? What is the comparison and what does it tell the reader about the person or event the simile is describing?

Think also of the action: what action is worthy of an epic simile? What emotion do you want to evoke with your comparison? If a simile is akin to a weighing scale, does your epic simile make both sides balance?


Your poem could refer to the epics or they could be standalone, contemporary poems. But remember that for the similes to be effective, they need to be exact at the same time that they are detailed. Avoid vagueness and reach for specificity.

As always, keep your poem under 20 lines. Title and send as a word document to thesidewaysdoor@gmail.com by January 20. Only one submission per person, please. Don't send me drafts and corrections. Be sure of your poem before you send it out into the world!

I look forward to the first poems of 2016!

Last updated: January 05, 2016 | 18:10
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