It may not find space in bookshops or support from mainstream publishers, but the consensus among poets is that English poetry in India is far from dead.
What would the world lose if it lost poetry? Would it be a sterner world, with lost lyrics and barren phrases? In 2003, a Newsweek article announcing the death of poetry sent indignant waves rippling through literary circles. There were countless responses with vehement denials and outraged debates. More recently, the Washington Post published a piece titled ‘Is Poetry Dead’, and, again, set off a similar reaction.
In this context, it seems pertinent to take a look at the state of poetry in India. Of course, a complete and fulfilling study would include regional poets, but even if we do restrict ourselves to just English Indian poetry, some crucial facts are impossible to ignore.
Foremost is a lack of mainstream publishers willing to publish poetry and, perhaps more unfortunately, a dwindling number of readers willing to buy it. While Vijay Nambisan thinks that the publishing industry has always been this way, others remember a different time. “P. Lal was the first publisher to believe in Indian poets, and back them unreservedly. He opened the doors for poets. The Poetry Society of India played a big part in encouraging young writers. Their All-India poetry contests threw up many fine writers,” says Sujatha Mathai.
Today, it looks like English poetry in India is floundering, but Tishani Doshi disagrees, “We’ve been hearing about the death of poetry for some time now but, as I once heard it put (by a poet, of course), ‘Poetry is the cockroach of the arts; it will survive’.” K. Srilata’s echoes this thought saying the idea of poetry’s death is “too alarmist”. Mathai adds that poetry is a part of the Indian consciousness from childhood. “I don’t think it’s drowning. People are writing poetry of various kinds all over the country. They don’t seem to be put down by indifferent publishers, absolutely no money or other such ‘rewards’.”
Yet, for a genre that’s seen giants like Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Toru Dutt and Kamala Das, English Indian poetry find few takers today. It’s the smaller publishing houses and imprints like Authorspress, Poetrywala, Writers Workshop and the Brown Critique that are publishing poetry. “It’s a shame that no mainstream publisher — other than HarperCollins — has a regular poetry agenda” says Arundhathi Subramaniam. Mathai agrees, “Not even the ‘best’ publishers are willing to lay their bets on a poet. Not one has a Poetry Editor.” For Gopikrishnan Kottoor, the quality of publishing makes all the difference. “Mainstream print poetry publishing has commercial reasons. There will be hype, sensationalism, ‘purposeful creating of readership’… on which publishing houses thrive. Poetry generally world over does not sell. Which publishing house will want to print 500 copies and set it on fire in the godown?”
Hemant Divate, poet and founder of Poetrywala, India’s only publishing imprint dedicated to poetry, feels that bookshops too have a role to play in poetry’s decline. “Few bookshops are ready to stock books of poetry. The reason being poetry does not sell fast and occupies space.” This lack of visibility in terms of physical presence in bookstores also hampers the availability to the readers. “We are losing the traditional buyers who like holding a book, going through the pages and enjoying the poetry before deciding to buy it.” Divate feels that poets should buy books of their contemporaries and not expect them free from publishers.
Srilata agrees with this. “Instead of working to create a readership, we have decided to take the easy, low-risk way out. It is not just the publishers’ fault though. I think all of us — writers, readers, teachers — need to re-orient ourselves and remain open to all literary forms.”
In this age of instant coffee and communication, have we stopped enjoying poetry? “We are all on a conveyor belt travelling at top speed. The space for reflection, to turn things over in your mind — even our children have so little of this,” muses K. Srilata. With too much to do and too little time, wouldn’t it make sense to turn to these little nuggets? “The age we live in is an impatient one. Actually, a poem could be a solace and inspiration at the end of a busy day. It should be the ideal form for today. Instead, people are turning to new genres, such as “flash fiction,” says Mathai.
It’s easy to fall in love with poetry; to savour it because it tells you so much when saying so little. And yet, something holds us back. Doshi feels that there is a fear that poetry is inaccessible, decorative, dangerous, quaint, excessive, and basically useless. And this, says Subramaniam, has to do with “the way poetry is taught in schools. If we liberated students from the tyranny of paraphrasing poems, they’d be much less intimidated by poetry as a form. It’s ironic that while most adolescents write poetry, they don’t read it! This is because we’re encouraged to decode poems, not embrace them.”
Interestingly, while publishers won’t publish poetry and readers won’t pay good money to buy it, the number of Indian poets writing in English is increasing. Kottoor says that there are countless young ones writing poetry in English in India but “what is lacking is the avenue for future growth. There is also hardly any sense of direction in that kind of writing. It is high time universities in India build into their curriculum an opportunity to enable poetry/literature lovers to opt for creative writing in poetry in English.” Mathai agrees. “While there is a Chair for Poetry at Oxford, and several Universities in the U.S. where is a chair for professor of Poetry at an Indian University?”
Fortunately, poetry isn’t easy to shake off, and despite the lack of a strong support system, or perhaps due to it, the literary form has found other avenues. Alternative platforms are mushrooming both in the real and the virtual world. “My generation had its own strategies: writers’ groups (in Mumbai, for instance, we had the Poetry Circle), literary journals and small publishers. The younger generations have their strategies — online groups, e-books, web journals — and that’s wonderful,” says Subramaniam. She adds that there are, surprisingly enough, listeners for poetry. “It just takes a little faith and a little imagination to turn listeners into buyers.” Open-mic gatherings like Delhi and Mumbai’s Caferati has poets reciting their work to attentive, appreciative audiences, which suggests that perhaps the idea of a lack of consumers might be slightly premature. Divate is also optimistic. “Poetry is very self-sustainable and sometimes profitable too. At the recent Poetrywala Literary Festival in Mumbai we sold Rs.30,000 worth books of poetry.”
The Internet has opened up a new platform for poets. “The great levelling thing about the Internet is that it offers such a wide platform — and it’s completely democratic, regardless of whether you’re a banker, poet or child-molester. Because of the dynamic interface, it’s not only possible for poets to find other poets, but also to find and create new audiences. Will this help you pay your home loan? Probably not, but it does provide an environment where survival, however marginal, is ensured,” says Doshi. Kottoor adds “Today, anyone with a laptop and Internet connection can submit to world-class magazines, like Agni, Prairie Schooner, Poetry (Chicago) and Paris American.”
This has helped independent poetry journals like Papyrus. Nikhil Pandhi, the journal’s founder and editor-in-chief, talks about how he has received several contributions from India and abroad, with poets from fields as diverse as academia, journalism, advertising, law and issues as varied as personal dilemmas, desires and confessions to abstract realism, reflections on contemporary trends, structured poetry and free verse. “It is unfortunate that publishing houses have become so insular and exclusivist especially at a time when there is a growing enthusiasm among younger poets to write and a growing idealisation of the poetic medium,” he says.
The consensus among poets and publishers in the country seems to be that — while it may not find enough space in bookstores or support from publishing giants — English poetry in India is far from dead. It has morphed and is breaking conventional moulds. Indian poets are experimenting with themes and creating identities that are both strong and unique. “Contemporary poets such as Sachin Ketkar, Mustansir Dalvi, Vivek Narayanan, Sampurna Chatterji and Meena Kandaswamy are very promising because they have a distinctive voice,” says Divate. He adds that while poets are aware that their work may not get due recognition or might not even get published, they continue to write because they have an innate desire to do so.
If you loved poetry, if you understand what makes it so powerful, then you know that, in rescuing it from the margins, we’ll be rescuing ourselves too. “Poetry isn’t endangered. We are endangered if we don’t have access to poetry,” says Subramaniam. “What do we lose if we lose poetry? The delight of organised sound and rhythm, joy in the patterning of sound and silence, the magic of the charged utterance, the shock of insight, the gift of clarity, the deep human thirst for mystery”, she adds.
Perhaps Doshi is right when she says, “Say it happens, or it has already happened….If it was entirely decimated, I believe that poetry would give birth to itself again”.