Blessing : Imtiaz Dharker

This is a well-known poem to teachers of KS4 over the years. It is back on the IGCSE syllabus for Edexcel, as part of the English Lit Anthology collection. Since the new IGCSE makes the poetry part of the exam and removes it from the optional coursework, I thought I would link my “Blessing” posts here.

Some time ago I set some Year 11s this well known and much examined poem as an unseen. I was rather unsettled by the lack of structure in their responses and felt the need to take time to recap SLIME and SCASI to help them to tackle the task… For those unused to the mnemonics: Subject/Style, Language, Imagery, Meaning, Effect and Setting, Character, Action, Style, Ideas. I prefer the second one which I first came across as a teacher of the IBDP where it was recommended to me when approaching unseens in their mammoth two hour unseen paper.

I thought of using this poem when exploring techniques for discussing unseen poems:

One of my students then emailed me and asked for a model response!

So, here goes (written in a single sitting with no more than 25 minutes allowed for either essay to mimic the examination):

“How does Dharker create a sense of wonder in the poem?”
Focus on the language used in the poem, the use of images and literary effects, any other relevant feature of the poem.

‘Blessing’ by Imtiaz Dharker

The skin cracks like a pod.
There never is enough water.

Imagine the drip of it,
the small splash, echo
in a tin mug,
the voice of a kindly god.

Sometimes, the sudden rush
of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts,
silver crashes to the ground
and the flow has found
a roar of tongues. From the huts,
a congregation : every man woman
child for streets around
butts in, with pots,
brass, copper, aluminium,
plastic buckets,
frantic hands,

and naked children
screaming in the liquid sun,
their highlights polished to perfection,
flashing light,
as the blessing sings
over their small bones.

SLIME: This poem, written in free-verse is set in a hot and dry part of the world where water is scarce and where any appearance of it is a cause for excitement and rejoicing. The free-verse form enables Dharker to organise the poem around ideas with a freedom to draw attention to specific words or phrases without consideration of rhyme or rhythmic pattern. An example of this comes at the end of the third stanza where the list of utensils gradually decreases in status whilst increasing in urgency until the line “frantic hands” in which the adjective conveys both a sense of despair and of excitement. The sentence does not end at the end of the stanza, however and the fourth stanza opens after the enjambement with the ambivalent image of “naked children/screaming…” Here the image manages to once again convey the double emotion – the verb offering suggestions of pain to the same extent as it offers suggestions of enjoyment.

The stanzas of the poem follow an approach to the issue of water in their content. At the opening of the poem the pair of single line sentences, with their clear present tense outlining of the situation – “there is never enough water” present the context for the poem clearly. This is then countered by the imperatives in the second stanza which urge the reader to engage fully with the poet: “imagine…” The imperative verbs and the use of onomatopoeia on “drip” and “splash” help to convey the scarcity of this much sought after commodity.

It is in stanza three that Dharker uses imagery to convey the thrill of the water leak and to establish a link with the poem’s title. Already she has introduced the idea of a “blessing” at the end of the second stanza by describing the water as the “voice of a kindly God” (though we might wonder how “kindly’ a god is that keeps his people in such a state of need). As the third stanza develops she develops the idea. The water is variously described as “the sudden rush of fortune” and as “silver”. Both images create a sense of great value and worth on a materialistic scale. In the next stanza, however the “congregation” worshipping around the pipe are treated to the image of water as “liquid sun”. This is a clear metaphor which puts water on the same level as the sun as a life-giver and a provider of Goodness. No wonder it is seen as a blessing and is viewed with wonder, even when it is an imaginary event.

Despite this Blessing there is a single disquieting thought at the end of the poem: The first line and the last line form a couplet of their own with the unsettling message that “the skin cracks like a pod /over their small bones”. In the final stanza, Dharker clearly focuses on the children and using the euphemisitic phrase “their highlights polished…” draws attention to this fact. Her euphemism allows their stark thinness to be seen in a positive light and thus confirms the sense of wonder found elsewhere in the poem.

SCASI: The poem is set in a hot, dry part of the world, where water is seen as a scarce commodity to be valued highly. The setting is clearly described in the opening line of the poem in which one of the possible readings suggests that the very “skin” of the Earth itself is cracking “like a pod”.

In this harsh environment, the children and the locals living around a burst water main gather to collect water. The action is “frantic” and Dharker uses the third stanza to highlight this. Using enjambement to help to suggest the tumult, she combines metaphors of sound “roar of tongues” and a long list of ever more mundane utensils to suggest the possible aggression and the urgency with which the villagers contend with one another for water. Ultimately it is revealed that even “frantic hands” are used, so desperate is the need to gather this life-giving liquid.

Within the crowd, the children are singled out for attention. At first the imagery is ambivalent – the “naked children/screaming…” carries an unmistakable suggestion of pain as well as one of sheer enjoyment. The sense of wonder is stronger, however, due to the euphemistic description of the bodies: rather than emaciated and unhealthy, these children have “highlights polished to perfection”. It is as though the Blessing of the water has cured all illness and brought nothing but joy.

This is Dharker’s intention, since the poem is a clear presentation of the view of God providing all for his followers. The “congregation” are literally blessed by “liquid sun” as the life-giving water pours forth. To these worshippers, the water is more than this and its high material worth is suggested by references to “silver” and to a “rush of fortune”. Fortune also connotes luck, and it is possible that Dharker is being ironic in her title. After all, the God who provides so little in the normal scheme of events, as suggested by the empty onomatopoeia of “splash” and “drip”into the low status “tin cup” of the second stanza, does not seem as one who might be likely to provide such bounty as is here unleashed.

The poem uses the freedom of its free-verse structure to ensure that readers are led to the positive view of the leaking pipe. After opening with the dramatic couplet which sets the context in two single sentence lines, Dharker introduces a sense of wonder in the second stanza with the imperative “imagine” which allows the reader to summon up the mental image, assisted by the imagery of sound referred to earlier. In the third stanza, the listing and particularly the enjambment across the space to the fourth stanza help to increase this sense of wonder as the momentum of the poem is increased allowing it to gather speed and power towards the end.

Dharker seems all too aware of the naivety of the villagers who worship at the poor workmanship of the “municipal pipeline”. However, in her telling of the event, it is the sense of wonder which is presented clearly to the reader. There is, however an important message concealed in the structure of the poem which is seen by reading the first and last lines as a couplet with no punctuation: The skin cracks like a pod/over their small bones. Using “small” to present a human dimension to the poem and presenting the harsh reality of the event in this way allows Dharker to show clearly that all the wonder created by the incident will do nothing to alleviate the underlying issues.

I hope that these are some use to my readers. They are not perfect and are not meant to be. I want you to be able to see how I have applied the framework of either structure to ensure that my writing has a purpose and a flow which is more effective than a linear reading of the poem. Feel free to send comments or to mark my writing!