Tuesday, January 16, 2007


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.

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Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Dreamer Idiot! You beat me to it -- my next offering was going to be an Ondaatje! :)

I have little to add in terms of analysis, since this poem is obviously an evocative capturing of a moment, as you explain. Except perhaps to say that I feel I know exactly what someone watching Mrs. Jayasinghe in the half-dark cabin of Air Lanka Flight 5, two hours before arrival in Colombo would feel: every time I am on a journey to my countries (and my use of the plural includes Malaysia, to a lesser extent), I am hyper-aware of every single thing I observe. Everything locks into a intricate pattern of pathos to which memory is the skeleton key.

10:59 PM, January 17, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Oh dear me, I didn't know... Sharanya, sorry for beating you to it, but go ahead and post it next week anyway, since it's probably from a different collection, unless you want to save it for another time.

Thanks for sharing your own personal experience on travelling to your different 'homes'. Heightened senses on such trips... definitely makes it a good time to pen some words, either poetry or prose. I think I might try it sometimes. Have you done it yourself?

11:56 AM, January 18, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Yes, I think some primal instinct makes us more aware of surroundings when in new/strange environs...

Imagine, to be so actively aware of one's surroundings and then for that to be augmented by some primitive survival instinct on overdrive.

As Sharanya said, there is a quality about this poem that captures a moment, and then (and this is what, in my opinion, makes it poetry) upon its reading, the moment is evoked and replayed.

Reading this poem, I am put in the speaker's position, and the five sentences that comprise this poem paints five concrete observations; five times the speaker's gaze moved. This 'concrete' effect is the specificity of the details: 'Air Lanka Flight 5', 'seventy-year old lady', 'Mr. Jeyasinghe'...

There is also a more technical consideration to this poem too. I hope someone can help me articulate this idea, but I think that the previous poem, "The Catch" reads more like prose than this one, in terms of its sentence construction.

In prose, for example, the last line of 'Flight' could (should?) have been written as "This happened two hours before reaching Katuyanake airport."

I feel that it is the omission of "This happened..." that makes this line poetic... and I'd really like to understand how this is so.

2:07 AM, January 19, 2007  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

I notice a theme of time or the passage of it. There is also a stasis, somewhat, of time. Observe that the old lady just "begins" to do her hair combing.

The line about the husband asleep has no verb, as is also the last line. They are just half-sentences or phrases. And because they are all by themselves, in single lines, this non-movement is more apparent.

It seems as if the poet can only register movement in the act of the hair braiding. Even the lady's hair pins remain still in her mouth.

And it looks as if the two hours getting to Katunayake airport is some kind of suspension in time. Everyting he sees is so dreamy or faint and dark: "half-dark cabin", "faint light"

2:42 PM, January 19, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Wow, so many interesting ideas raised from such a short poem... Haha, I am really enjoying this.

In itself, the last line "Two hours before reaching Katayunake Airport" could just be an answer to the question 'How long more to arrival?', but Leon has brilliantly show how in the poem, it becomes more than that - it becomes poetic.

I now see how the verbless lines of 'non-movement' while justaposed with the processual ritual of combing and braiding the hair creates that point of stasis, a temporary suspension of time (in Leon's phrase)... and finally, the observational keeness brings together both speaker and Mrs Jayasinghe in that 'magic' time between self and what is outside the self - that 'magic' time that Sharanya speaks of: memories, and the home where the heart is.

7:40 PM, January 19, 2007  
Blogger Miao said...

Beautiful analysis. Keep it up.

9:27 PM, January 25, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks Miao for your kind comments.

PS. Went to your blog or former blog. It would be good if you could try publishing your stuff in the literary journals in S'pore, like Quarterly Literature Review Singapore. If you would like some editing/critical help or advice, you could try approaching bibliobibuli (who is also one of our contributors) at her blog, at thebookaholic (blogspot).

3:22 PM, January 26, 2007  
Blogger Miao said...

Dreamer idiot: Thanks for the information. I don't do much creative writing these days. Too drained.

Will appreciate advices from anyone whenever I come up with something. :)

11:09 PM, January 26, 2007  

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