Poetry Explanation: Iyer’s “Memories”

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It is interesting that poetry does not rely on length to have impact. The nature of poetry, in fact, is that language may be used in ways to create entire worlds of thought and feeling, and within only a few lines. The key lies in how the poet chooses each word and applies it to the pattern of the whole, and this effect is evident in Sudhir Iyer’s “Memories.” On one level, it is a very simple verse expressing a moment of deep reflection, as the narrator takes in their own presence on a beach. On another, this same simplicity expands the poem, and it is a universal statement about the mysteries of knowing and feeling the past. Ultimately, Iyer’s “Memories” achieves the remarkable feat of translating common and profound feeling through only isolating a single moment in a human life.

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It may be that the most striking quality of Iyer’s “Memories” is its lack of traditional poetic elements, and this strongly goes to the universal impact of the poem. Iyer does hold to a structure of three stanzas, and there is a basic rhyme scheme in place. Nonetheless, it is the language itself that is different. While certain words are powerful, there is still a sense of the ordinary about the language. There is nothing “grandiose” or deliberately elaborate about it, and this is reinforced by the rhythms and content of the first lines: “Was walking down memory lane,/
Was walking on the beach” (Iyer ll 1-2). It is interesting, for example, that the narrator does not even employ a pronoun, and instead directly goes to what they were doing. It is an extremely informal opening to a poem, but this in itself brings the reader nearer to the narrator because it suggests intimacy, or an understanding already in place.

It is as though the poet neglects identifying him or herself because individual identity itself is unimportant; it is a human experience being recalled and anyone may play this role. More subtle are the qualities of alliteration and repetition in these lines. There is a pleasing sound in the ear from the “w” repeated, and the twin statements of the walking create a feeling of wonder, particularly as each line expresses a different state of being. Memory lane and the beach, it is clear, are places that may be occupied simultaneously, and this also emphasizes the universality of experience. The stanza then turns to actual feeling, but even this is expressed in a way understandable to all. The narrator is: “Throttling the feelings of pain,/ Keeping doubts out of reach” (ll 3-4), and that the pain and doubts are not identified beyond this brings them into all human experience. In four simple lines, a scenario is presented that is a virtual template of what it means to be human and occupying a certain place and state of mind.

The poet then chooses words in an almost sly way, and one also echoing the beach and memory lane as the same place. Again ignoring a pronoun, they state: “Had a look at the sands of time/ The hours when time itself stood still” (ll 5-6). The reader connects further, then, sands of the beach as being as one with the sands of time, and the repetition of “time” emphasizes the more important space occupied. What exists here is a very specific point of view, one expanding to understand how human feeling and thought shapes the external reality. The narrator actually refers to this point of view, in terms of the “look” at the sand/time; there is a kind of new awareness here that gives pause, and this quality of suspension is reinforced by the assertion that the sands and the hours, or time, are motionless. These are, again, simple lines, but they take the reader into the commonly known moment of existing apart from the flow of time and life, and given the opportunity to truly see what is there. The chiming of bells heard (L 7) amplifies the sense of being removed. Then: “And I was walking while I still stood still” (L 8) is especially powerful. Suddenly, there is an “I” and the moment as fully felt is expressed, just as the repeated “still” contrasts the walking and, through the repetition, conveys the greater force. The moment is now dictating the experience. The poet has then completely brought the reader into the reality presented and felt, and the human universality is then confirmed.

As the reader is now “with” the narrator, the final stanza is in place to identify the actual experience both feel. Importantly, even this is introduced by a pragmatic statement: “Felt the heat of the sun beating” (L 9). The internal rhyme in the line has the effect of reflecting the force of heat, and also creates a minor rhythm generating suspense. Then, and suddenly, there is meaning to be appreciated. Once again, identity is unimportant because the narrator: “Could sense an awe that the past left,/ Saw the sheath of life fleeting” (ll 10-11). What is striking here is that, as with the pain and doubt mentioned earlier, nothing more is isolated about these extreme elements.

There is only the knowledge that the past, living, has moved on and continues to do so, and it is a past unable to take in the immensity of life as it passes. The poet is then giving a human quality to as aspect of time, and this creates the sense that humanity and time itself are as on, flowing on and dazed by the sheer power and meaning of life itself. Then, and importantly, the narrator’s pain seems gone because of: “Glimpses of what was there were best” (L 12). It is a privilege to be able to be in such a moment and appreciate the tide of living itself, and this is fully shared with the reader the narrator has taken to their side.

If a poem may have strong impact within a matter of several short stanzas, so too may it have meaning when the poet carefully structures the words to “reach out” to the reader and bring them into the moment. This is Iyer’s achievement in “Memories,” and the skill in drawing the reader in relies in turn on the nature of the experience. It is both ordinary and transcendent. It is human, or on a completely human scale, but it is also beyond the human in terms of conveying universal feeling and wonder. Sudhir Iyer’s “Memories” then accomplishes the remarkable feat of translating common experience and profound feeling through only recalling a single moment in a human life.

  • Iyer, Sudhir. “Memories.” 2015. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

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