Puram Poems Aren’t So Focused On The External As One May Think —Payton Hayes

When readers think of poetry, typically a few images come to mind —the intricate love poem, the vivid poem describing nature’s beauty, the epic. However, poetry can take many forms and cover even more topics. It’s an art form that transcends age, race, time, culture, distance, and experience and continues to bring people together over miles of stone, sand, and sea and centuries. Indian poetry comes in all kinds of forms and covers a wide variety of subjects —the Classical Tamil lyric for example, is typically split into two genres: akam and puram. In his article from the Daily Star, Farhad Ahmed explains the distinction between the two Tamil genres and what readers could expect to find in poems that fell into these two categories:

“Akam dealt with ‘that which is inside’ or ‘the inner world’ – in other words, love poems, written in highly structured forms. Puram’s themes were on ‘the outer world’, and dealt with public life, with war, death, and the glory of kings.” (Ahmed 1)

Ahmed explains that puram poetry covered topics such as ‘public life, war, death, and the glory of kings’ but these weren’t the only topics found in puram poetry. Sometimes, purams covered more personal topics such as the value of one’s life without children, the quality of the world being that of the quality of the men in it, and much more which blurred the lines between the internal and the external.

For example, in “This World Lives Because” the narrator explains how the world as they know it is even permitted to exist as it is, because of the fearless men who protect it.

THIS WORLD LIVES BECAUSE

 

This world lives

because

 

some men

do not eat alone,

not even when they get

the sweet ambrosia of the gods;

 

they’ve no anger in them,

they fear evils other men fear

but never sleep over them;

 

give their lives for honor,

will not touch a gift of whole worlds

if tainted;

 

there’s no faintness in their hearts

and they do not strive

for themselves.

 

Because such men are,

this world is.

 

—Anonymous

Translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Norton Anthology 982)

“The World Lives Because” from the Norton Anthology of World Literature Washed in Sunlight By Payton Hayes

While this poem does of course cover typical puram topics such as honor, masculinity, and bravery, it also explores internal topics such as emotions —fear, anger, and selflessness. The imagery in this poem conjures up very personal and emotional images in the reader’s mind’s eye, even though it deals more heavily with the external.

Another puram poem that does this is “Earth’s Bounty” by Ilam Peruvaluti.

EARTH’S BOUNTY BY ILAM PERUVALUTI

Bless you, earth:

field

forest,

valley,

or hill,

 

you are only

as good

as the good young men

in each place.

— Ilam Peruvaluti

Translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Norton Anthology 983)

Even though the reader is provided with very external imagery — “field / forest / valley / or hill” and the plural “men,” it invokes a feeling of appreciation and acknowledgement of sacrifice (especially when read closely with the previous poem). The latter lines really drive home the very personal and deeply moving notion that the world reflects both he good and evil within it. Essentially, the narrator of the poem is saying “the world is only as good as the people in it make it.” This phrase can be compared to a more modern phrase “you get out of the world what you put into the world” which can give credit to karma — the idea of destiny or fate, following as effect from cause. This is certainly interesting because the Classical Tamil Lyric precedes Hinduism and Buddhism and makes “no references to karma or dharma, caste or pollution, Siva or Visnu, the Ramayana or Mahabarata —or rasa and Sanskrit poetics.” (Puchner, 970)

Another Puram poem to closely examine for instances where the internal appear (in this typically external-focus genre) is Auvaiyar’s “Children.”

CHILDREN BY AUVAIYAR

Even when a man has earned much

of whatever can be earned,

shared it with many,

even when he is a master of great estates,

 

if he does not have

children

 

who patter on their little feet,

stretch tiny hands,

scatter, touch,

grub with mouths

and grab with fingers

smear rice and ghee

all over their bodies,

and overcome reason with love,

 

all his days

have come to nothing.

 

—Auvaiyar

Translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Norton Anthology 983)

This poem while seemingly external in nature with its mention of the man and his children, is actually very internally focused, especially with the mention of personal and touching images of the children and the provocative “overcome reason with love,” line.

In “A Young Warrior” by Pantiyan Arivutai Nampi, there are many provocative and emotional moving images as well.

A YOUNG WARRIOR BY PANTIYAN ARIVUTAI NAMPI

O heart

sorrowing

for this lad

 

once scared of a stick

lifted in mock anger

when he refused

a drink of milk,

now

not content with killing

war elephants

with spotted trunks,

 

this son

of the strong man who fell yesterday

 

seems unaware of the arrow

in his wound.

his head of hair is plumed

like a horse’s,

 

he has fallen

on his shield,

 

his beard still soft.

 

—Pantiyan Arivutai Nampi

Translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Norton Anthology 983)

Imagine if this poem were read aloud and the quiet that would sweep the room after. There is so much emotional imagery in this poem and so many internal topics buried beneath the surface. While on the first layer, the poem’s narrator is discussing war and the brutality of it, they’re also discussing childhood, loss, fear, anger, bloodlust, bravery, and sorrow. The images on the outside, are external, yes, but the topics on the inside —the real meat of the poem and the point it drives home is gravely internal.

The last puram poem to be examined in this blog post is “A Mother’s List of Duties” by Ponmutiyar.

A MOTHER’S LIST OF DUTIES BY PONMUTIYAR

 

To bring forth and rear a son is my duty.

To make him noble is the father’s.

To make spears for him is the blacksmith’s.

To show him good ways is the king’s.

 

And to bear

A bright sword and do battle,

To butcher enemy elephants,

And come back:

That is the young man’s duty.

 

—Ponmutiyar

Translated by A.K. Ramanujan (Norton Anthology 984)

This poem once again outwardly seems to follow all of the criteria for fitting in with the puram poetry genre. However, if one examines the poem closely enough, below the surface lies a world of meaning in these few lines. The narrator, a mother is explaining that she only has one job and all the other responsibilities in her son’s life fall on the other people around them. But beyond that, she is saying “if it is my job to bear and raise a son, then it is his job to come back to me, and that is all we owe each other.” When looked at it this way, the poem really seems more personal, emotionally provocative, and ultimately internal.

Puram Poems from the Norton Anthology of World Literature Washed in Sunlight By Payton Hayes

All of this is to say that while Classical Tamil Lyrics can and have been split into two main genres for centuries, it doesn’t mean the topics and nature of either style (puram or akam) are mutually exclusive. While it may be easy to file poems into either category with a  quick glance, upon closer inspection, readers will find a wealth of imagery, meaning, emotion, and value in poems from either genre.

 

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Farhad. “Tamil Poetry: akam and puram.” The Daily Star, https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-97372. Accessed 23 February 2021. (para 4)

Puchner, Martin, Akbari, Suzanne, Denecke, Wiebke, Fuchs, Barbara, Levine Caroline, Lewis, Pericles, Wilson, Emily, editors. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume A, Fourth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company 2018. (p. 982-984)

Photos and captions by Payton Hayes