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Summary and Analysis

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1993) was an academic and creative writer from India who was highly honored during his career. Sometimes he wrote in English, but he also wrote in the Indian language known as “Kannada.” His poem “A River” is a realistic description of a river that flows (or sometimes does not flow) through the city of Madurai. The poem implicitly comments wryly on the lack of realism with which other poets have treated the same topic. At the same time, the poem itself seems ultimately a violation of the realism it at first seems to endorse.

The opening line immediately presents the main physical setting of the poem by mentioning the city of “Madurai.” By the end of the work, however, the relevance of the poem will transcend its relevance to this particular place. The speaker uses Madurai as his setting so that he can present detailed, concrete specifics rather than broad abstractions or generalizations. By the time the poem concludes, however, it will be obvious that the significance of his words transcends their significance for any specific city. This is ultimately a poem about the differences between writing that is realistic, conventional, and/or highly imaginative.

In line 2, Madurai is described as a “city of temples and poets,” making it sound like a place of great spiritual significance and associating it also with creativity and beauty. Its poets, indeed, have often sung of “cities and temples” (3), thereby celebrating places of great importance. Yet no sooner does the speaker make Madurai sound like a mythic, magnificent location than he immediately complicates (or even undercuts) this impression. He reports that each summer the city’s river—a river that might itself symbolize power, vitality, and energy—“dries to a trickle” (5), so that many of its normally hidden imperfections and unappealing aspects are suddenly visible, such as:  

straw and women’s hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them....(8-12)

Part of the function of the present poem, then, is to reveal what is normally unseen and thereby deal with the full complexities of the river. The poet doesn’t hesitate to describe aspects of Madurai that conflict with the simplistic, romantic imagery with which the poem opened. This speaker and this poem present some of the full facts about Madurai, whereas other poets have tended merely to celebrate merely the beautiful, mystical aspects of the place.

To say this, however, is not to say that the speaker of this poem dwells only on the uglier aspects of the city or its river. Indeed, his descriptions of details that are not usually mentioned in other poems about Madurai are themselves sometimes beautiful. Thus he mentions the

the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun....(13-15)

Here his imagery is vivid and his similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”) are inventive and memorable. The river, although reduced to a mere trickle, can still provoke the imagination of at least this speaker, but most of the poets who have sung about the river “only sang of the floods” (16). Most previous poets, in other words, have presented only an incomplete and highly romanticized version of the river. They have failed to address the complete truth about the river and thus also about the city. They have preferred to emphasize beauty and power only, whereas the present speaker is willing to depict reality as it truly is, in all its full complexity.

The speaker now refers to himself in the third person (“He was there for a day” [17]), a technique also used in particularly memorable ways by (for instance) the Greek writer Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). Use of this method gives the tone of the poem greater objectivity than if the speaker had said “I was there for a day.” It is as if the speaker wants to focus on the external conditions he describes rather...

(The entire section is 1,291 words.)