What makes a poem a poem? The short piece by Michael Ondaatje below, if put together in a paragraph, reads very much like prose. If so, what distinguishes poetry from prose, or rather in this particular example, what elevates a piece of prose to poetry? Is it merely the arrangement of lines, i.e. its form and rhythm? A number of us have discussed and debated this question in relation to prose poetry in an earlier post. Anyway, read the poem below and share with me what you think. (I'll leave some of my own observations too)
In the half-dark cabin of Air Lanka Flight 5
the seventy-year-old lady next to me begins to comb
her long white hair, then braids it in the faint light.
Her husband, Mr. Jayasinghe, asleep beside her.
Pins in her mouth. She rolls her hair,
curls it into a bun, just like my mother's.
Two hours before reaching Katunayake airport.
by Michael Ondaatje
Before I begin, let me confess that I found myself very lost with most of the poems in this collection, Handwriting (Thanks, Sharon), and will probably have to ask Sharanya about the various Sri Lankan allusions to history, culture and mythology. However, even in the absence of background knowledge, one could still be able to get a sense, perhaps even the faintest one, of what a poem might be conveying; feeling its poetic quality, so to speak.
Reading it slowly, pausing between the lines and paragraphs, one feels something meditative about the poem, but what is meditated on? The speaker, on board a plane, observes a fellow passenger, an old lady who is brading her hair, but then, what is so remarkable about that?
The poem is rather quiet and doesn't seem to say much, yet in its reticence, it speaks volumes. A clue, perhaps, is how the lady, Mrs Jayasinghe ties her hair into a bun, just like the speaker's mother. The attention to the detail of this whole process reveals that this simple act is significant to the speaker, and one may infer that there is a hint of nostalgia or wistfulness, as the speaker recalls his mother.
A further detail that adds to this poem is the speaker together with Mrs. Jayasinghe and her husband are on board a flight to Katayunake Airport. Googling it, one finds out that it is the airport for Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. Stretching a bit, this flight could then be an international flight from overseas.
The last line of the poem which stands alone in its starkness provides us with the final piece. This old lady, Mrs Jayasinghe is going through the ritual of preparing her hair, not shortly before the plane would land, but two hours before arrival. Why would she be in a 'hurry' to do so, in a half darkened cabin? Because she is going home. She is returning to her homeland, as is the speaker to his ancestral/family home. Isn't it beautiful?
So, what makes this simple, prose-like piece a poem? Its content and its craft.