Satyamurti, Carole

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Nationality: British. Born: Farnborough, Kent, 13 August 1939. Education: University of London, 1957–60, 1972–79, B.A. 1960, Ph.D. 1979; University of Illinois, Champaign, 1960–61, M.A. 1967; University of Birmingham, England, 1964–65, postgraduate diploma in social work 1965. Family: Married T.V. Satyamurti in 1963 (divorced 1986); one daughter. Career: Lecturer, University of Singapore, 1963–64; social worker, Save the Children Fund, Kampala, Uganda, 1965–67; social worker, Ealing Child Guidance Clinic, London, 1967–68. Since 1968 lecturer, senior lecturer, now principal lecturer, University of East London. Awards: National Poetry Competition First prize, 1986; Arts Council (UK) Writers' award, 1988. Address: 15, Gladwell Road, London N8 9AA, England.



Broken Moon. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.

Changing the Subject. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Striking Distance. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.

Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Love and Variations. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 2000.


Occupational Survival. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1981.

Editor, with Noel Parry and Michael Rustin, Social Work, Welfare & The State. London, Edward Arnold, 1979.


Critical Study: By Silvia Kantaris, in Poetry Review, 85 (2), summer 1995.

Carole Satyamurti comments:

Many of the poems I write are concerned, from different points of view, with the way in which one life touches on another. By this I mean not just the influence that people have on each other but, more specifically, the otherness of others and the way we imagine them—or fail to. The other life in question may be that of a stranger or someone we think we know well, or it may be our own other lives—past, future, or potential.

The epigraph for Striking Distance is Elizabeth Bishop's startling question "Why should I be my aunt / or me, or anyone?" ("In the Waiting Room"), and many of the poems are an exploration of different dimensions of that existential shock. It does seem to me very strange and arbitrary that I inhabit one skin rather than another, and I often have the vertiginous illusion that by really attending to another state of being one might enter into that other person, that other life. There is a tension between the connectedness and separateness of lives, between sameness and difference, that several of the poems try to capture. The distance between people can seem striking.

Someone accused me once of writing as if I wished that language was not necessary. I do mind absolutely about language, but I want it to act as a window rather than a mirror—framing, letting light in, allowing as clear a view as possible of what lies beyond it. This is not to imply some simple equivalence between language and what it denotes; Derrida is right. Nor do I think that what the language refers to is itself straightforward. But primarily I search for a precision, a "rightness" of language, rather than an exciting inventiveness.

We go through our lives, if we are lucky, with something that feels like a self. But there are times when we do not "feel ourselves" or when we feel we will never be the same again. Many of my poems are about turning points, real or imagined, moments that mark a shift between one way of being and another.

The voice varies. To write in a different persona, for instance, is itself an imperfectly achieved act of imagining the other, and always in the recognition that one can hardly ever get within striking distance of it.

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The hallmark of Carole Satyamurti's poetry at its best is the clarity and precision of its language, the sharpness of its visual imagery, and its concerns. She seeks, she tells us in an article for the Poetry Book Society, "a rightness of language rather than an exciting inventiveness." She goes for substance rather than style. Nevertheless, her first collection, Broken Moon, displays a proper poetic concern for language and its place in our identities. The first impressive and substantial poem in the book, "Between The Lines," treats of a childhood in which "words are dust-sheets, blinds," and where "adults buried questions under bushes." It is a place where the developing child is "striving for language that would let me out" and "where people were difficult to read." A later poem, "Erdywurble," pursues the matter of language further, to the point at which a flawed child invents his own language until "his words trickled, stopped." The language and the child die together.

This concern continues in Satyamurti's later collections of poems. In Changing the Subject, for example, the poem "Birth Rite" explores experience beyond words to a deeper language:

To be reborn with you
I shed responsibility,
my social face,
speech, consciousness.
I reach back to the dark.

Then there are those everyday encounters with ambivalence and ambiguity in "How Are You?" or with the hierarchy of nomenclature in "Knowing Our Place."

There are, of course, other concerns in Satyamurti's poetry. It is a humane poetry in which, she tells us, she is concerned with "the otherness of others." A direct confrontation with this comes in the acceptance of the fact that her daughter has grown up and has assumed her own individuality. This is movingly expressed in the poem "Pulling Away."

There can be sharpness as well as insight in Satyamurti's observations, along with a waspish sense of humor. "Singapore 1963," a poem that is close to being perfect, illustrates not only her skill in conjuring visual imagery but also her mastery of a fierce irony. The street market is presented vividly in admirably economic images both visual and aural: its "naptha glare," the paucity of the listed offerings displayed on the spread mat, and the "cat-cries aimed at those almost as ragged as herself." The self-important commentary of the poet's companion, "rehearsing your lecture as we walked," is a counterpoint that is juxtaposed with savage irony but that also underlines the concern of the poem itself.

Another special personal quality in Satyamurti's poetry is that of sympathetic courage, which is to be found in her longish sequence of poems "Changing the Subject." As the title indicates, these poems return to the matter of language. The evasion of the subject of cancer and even the word itself is the starting point. The poems move on to a deeper consideration, rooted firmly in the life and routines of hospital life and with a deeply sympathetic concern for the other patients, which underlines her own courageous stance. If this sounds daunting, it is redeemed by Satyamurti's sureness of touch and poetic sensibility.

John Cotton