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A Look at Tamil Poetry

In my own attempt to step out of my comfort zone, I started reading Poets of

the Tamil Anthologies Ancient Poems of Love and War by George L. Hart, III. You might be thinking 'Mea, how is that outside of your comfort zone? You write poetry, you read poetry. What's so different this time?' Truth be told, I honest dislike romance in written form, particularly when it's too sappy and cliche. For this reason I tend to avoid the romantic end of anything written, includibng poetry (though I do make a special excpetion for Shakespeare's "Sonnet 130, My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" as I've always found it hilarious).

The Tamil people are from India and part of Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka. Hart, III mentions that:

The poems are divided into two great categories: akam, or interior, poems that view life from inside the family and concern the love between man and woman, and puram, or exterior, poems that view life from outside the family and concern such topics as kings, heroism in battle, ethics, and the life of wandering bards and poets. The techniques as well as the content of these two groups are different. Akam poems tend to hinge around one or more images, exploiting the complex suggestion of these images to the full. Each akam poem, moreover, is placed in the mouth of one of the lovers or of another character involved in the situation, which is conventional and known to the readers. Puram poems, on the other hand, are more straightforward, making less use of images and of their suggestion, and more use of simple description.

I'll be honest, the puram style definitely interests me more than the akam. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't give the akam a chance! It's said we learn the most when we step outsdie of our comfort zones.

My favorite akam can be found on page 28: Aiflkurunuru 203

Listen, friend,

sweeter than milk mixed with the honey from our garden

is the muddy water

that animals drink and leave

in leaf-covered holes in his land.



This poem's intro 'Listen, friend,' was quite fun for me to play with in my own writing, which I know isn't the most outstanding part of this work, it just happened to be what caught my attention at the time. There's supposedly quite a bit of allusion in these akam poems to romantic pursuits and women waiting for men to come back, while also having to worry if the man never came back that she would lose her honor (if they had a romantic relationship before marriage) and would be considered an outcast. I think there are some similarities that could be found between akam poems and the pastural style as well. Let's look at the following pastoral: Country Summer

Now the rich cherry, whose sleek wood,

And top with silver petals traced

Like a strict box its gems encased,

Has spilt from out that cunning lid,

All in an innocent green round,

Those melting rubies which it hid;

With moss ripe-strawberry-encrusted,

So birds get half, and minds lapse merry

To taste that deep-red, lark’s-bite berry,

And blackcap bloom is yellow-dusted.

The wren that thieved it in the eaves

A trailer of the rose could catch

To her poor droopy sloven thatch,

And side by side with the wren’s brood—

O lovely time of beggar’s luck—

Opens the quaint and hairy bud;

And full and golden is the yield

Of cows that never have to house,

But all night nibble under boughs,

Or cool their sides in the moist field.

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,

The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.

Inside and out, and sky and ground

Are much the same; the wishing star,

Hesperus, kind and early born,

Is risen only finger-far;

All stars stand close in summer air,

And tremble, and look mild as amber;

When wicks are lighted in the chamber,

They are like stars which settled there.

Now straightening from the flowery hay,

Down the still light the mowers look,

Or turn, because their dreaming shook,

And they waked half to other days,

When left alone in the yellow stubble

The rusty-coated mare would graze.

Yet thick the lazy dreams are born,

Another thought can come to mind,

But like the shivering of the wind,

Morning and evening in the corn. Let's compare this to the akam: Ainkurunuru 299

Even the dark waterlily

with its mouth opening wide

as it blooms in the fresh spring

on the slope of the hill man

cannot bloom

like the eyes of the mountain girl

with a swaying walk and gleaming, fine hair.

Even the peacock

cannot be as lovely

as she.


Kapilar The pastoral is longer and a bit more flowery, but both works carry a similar message regarding nature, women, and romantic interest.

I think it's important to note here that these poems, akam and puram, often stick to rather traditional gender roles, take for example this poem from page 156 (a puram style):

Purananuru 78

His legs strong and lithe,

his bravery fierce and unyielding,

my lord is like a tiger living in a cramped cave

who stretches, rises up, and sets out for his prey.

But they did not think him hard to fight against.

They rose up bellowing,

"We are best, we are the greatest.

Our enemy is young and there is much plunder."

Those foolish warriors who came with contempt

ran with dim eyes, showing their backs,

but he did not let them be killed then.

He took them to the city of their fathers,

and as their women with fine ornaments died in shame

and the clear kinai drum sounded,

there he killed them.

Itaikkunrurkilar sings Pantiyan Talaiyalarikanattuc Ceruvenra


There's a lot of women having kids, men being warriors, and quite a few nods to tigers in these puram styles poems. It's to be expected of the time period. What I am liking about these translations is that there is a lot of movement and storytelling happening. It's not rhymed and it's easy to follow while also keeping certain authentic word choices like 'kinai' whch we can deduce meaning from by how it's used in the work. Both the akam and puram style poems tend to incorporate nature to some capacity, which is another aspect I quite like about these poems as I myself am trying to write more about natural environments (moving next to a river after living in cities for so long will do that!). I don't want to over quote from the same text, however I do encourage you all to check out Poets of

the Tamil Anthologies Ancient Poems of Love and War by George L. Hart, III. if you ever get the opportuity. Just remember, thereare no disadvantages to reading new things.

Best, Mea Andrews


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