How much poetry is too much? Well, let’s wallow in it and see
A literary festival was just started in Coimbatore, a proud industrial city’s first baby steps in this direction, as far as I know. Every infant totters, shrieks, and makes a mess, but we excuse all that, because what enchants us in an infant is its unself-consciousness and its boundless promise. An established literary festival must answer to sponsors and expectations. Some big names are announced, smaller names are insinuated between them. There’s a session on the business of books. One on graphic novels. One on chick lit or its male equivalent. And, apologetically, one on poetry. Because all publishers know that poetry doesn’t sell unless the poet is already famous or she’s versifying about sex.
But in Coimbatore last week, we wallowed in poetry. Poets read their own verses and favourites by other poets. As each set of speakers went on stage and off, instead of a taped tune during the intervals we heard young people read out verses on love, or on jellyfish. Novices offered their unpublished poems. Veterans shared something they had written just the day before yesterday. An extraordinary environmentalist read out his Tamil haiku. At the coffee machine and over lunch, we talked amongst ourselves, those who knew from childhood that poetry was the path to follow, those who chanced into poetry, and those who were just about to wet their toes. The organisers themselves were unabashed poets, and they steadily infected us all.
Good professors of Lit ground their students thoroughly in poetry, because most readers can be left to pick up the habit of reading fiction on their own. Fiction seems so straightforward. Poetry, readers often feel, is for hardcore students of Literature. Poets themselves don’t easily cross from one form to another. “I don’t understand haiku,” said one writer at the festival, though she has published verses that have a similar austerity. “Isn’t it a kind of line drawing?” I offered. It is economical, it suggests a larger thought, the way a Japanese garden of four-foot square suggests a mountain range and a waterfall. The imagination fills it all in. In turn, I learned from a much published poet that every poem must show movement, even in that very small space.
Back at home, I plan to snack on poetry now and then, when I don’t have time for an entire volume. Or just chew on one poem all afternoon, while cutting vegetables and making decoction.
World Poetry Day is coming up, on March 21. I have a pile of new books, including two jewel-tone volumes from Writers Workshop. I also have a copy of old verse, Robert Browning’s poems. I plan to look in again on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Add a translation of Nammalvar hymns. Even if I don’t get to it all by March 21, it will soon be National Poetry Day in Scotland or Chile.
I’ll excuse myself
now to settle in my chair
and nibble on verse.
Please talk amongst yourselves.