Despite festivals, online journals, anthologies and space in mainstream publications dedicated to verse, why does it seem that poetry is struggling for survival?
Should poetry care? Should the poet care? Can poetry not exist to give pleasure, like good music? If it gives pleasure and does nothing else to the world that reads it, does it cease to be good poetry? Does poetry really have the power to hold things together when they are falling apart?
Who can forget “Jalte hain jiske liye/tere aankhon ke diye/dhoond laya hoon wohi/geet main tere liye” sung by Talat Mehmood, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Or several other incomparable lyrics from songs written by Gulzar, Javed Akhtar in Hindi, Kannadasan in Tamil and O.N.V. Kurup in Malayalam. When combined with rhythm, melody and rendered by a beautiful voice, many of these ‘poems’ become some of the most powerful expressions of our times.
Yet when poetry sits in a bookshop waiting for its readers, it often becomes inaccessible and gets trapped in a world that is distant from everyday realities. And despite the surge in poetry festivals, online poetry journals, anthologies and dedicated spaces for poetry in mainstream publications, booksellers often say, “Poetry does not sell.”
So what should poetry do?
“Stay alive,” responds V.K. Karthika, Chief Editor and Publisher, Harper Collins India that publishes three to four volumes of poetry a year.
There is a gentle anguish in her words perhaps due to the fact that there are not many major publishers of poetry in India, like HarperCollins or Penguin, willing to give poetry a chance. But can poetry’s struggle for survival be attributed to the paucity of poetry publishers alone? Do poets have a role to play too?
Hindi poet, translator and Sanskrit scholar Rati Saxena believes that the poet cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the problems of the world: “Poetry should come to common people, as I saw in Turkey. The poets there are the biggest critics of government,” she says, quoting the example of Ataol Behramoðlu, the renowned Turkish poet and columnist. Apparently, Behramoðlu writes a newspaper column in the form of poetry, on the political problems of his country. Saxena laments, “There is not a single poet like that in our country.”
Meena Kandasamy expresses similar sentiments. As a poet and activist writing on Dalit issues, Kandasamy often finds herself sparking harsh and strong responses through her poetry and other writings. For her, “Poetry can do anything — start a controversy, provoke a rogue state, fight an unjust system, stand up for the people”. Kandasamy also acknowledges that poetry can exist without doing anything. But, she affirms, that kind of poetry is not for her.
Marathi poet, editor and publisher Hemant Divate also draws attention to the revolutionary role of poetry. “In the last decade, my poetry has spoken out against market forces that have made our society and culture shallow,” he says. As a publisher and editor, Divate strives to promote “unconventional and challenging poetry that goes against the grain of cultural mainstream” by his contemporaries.
Yet, who decides what constitutes ‘challenging’? Who defines conventional or unconventional? What parameters would help poets decide whether their work would meet such varying social demands?
Best-selling British poet and novelist Simon Armitage responds, “I think poetry must always be true to itself. That its first priority must be to the poem, or to poetry, not to its reader, its writer, its paymaster etc.” When a poem is true to itself it tends to turn away from mainstream expectations and more familiar forms of writing, because through its introspection and concentration it encourages a description of the inner life. In this way poetry becomes a form of dissent — physically on the page; intellectually, emotionally, tonally, in refusing to conform to traditional notions of written or spoken communication.
Srijato Bandopadhyay, a leading contemporary Bengali poet, feels that poetry should express a poet’s mind as exactly as it can. This exactitude could spring from a very high standard of truth that Armitage attributes to poetry.
Senior Malayalam poet and former Secretary of the Kendriya Sahitya Akademi, K. Satchidanandan also underlines the role of truth: “…I have always felt poetry should attempt to follow truth fearlessly, truth as perceived by the poet himself/herself.” Satchidanandan feels that poetry expresses its vision organically and it thereby ends the distinction between what is said and how it is said, making it impossible to discuss its ‘form’ and ‘content’ separately.
Language therefore becomes an inevitable part of this form and content. Tamil poet Salma talks of the role poetry plays in shaping language itself. “A good poem beautifies and innovates language — only poetry can do that,” she says. In her opinion, poets have far more freedom to write about their own or others’ experiences. Perhaps the poet is expected to use this freedom artfully to recreate the excitement of his/her experience in the reader?
In this poet’s freedom, there is wild joy and magic. Malayalam poet Anita Thampi breaks into a wish list when asked what poetry should do: “What not I would have made poetry do… on a complacent city evening, I would surely command a medley dance on top of a running car… no policeman, no State ever could suppress it. It would be a very difficult life for poetry, If only I knew, I haven’t domesticated the animal yet!”
This wild ‘animal’, then, has the power to wound and heal, to fly and to make you fly, to lift and to be lifted. In her essay ‘Why Poetry?’ for the Sha’ar International Poetry Festival, Tel Aviv, 2010, poet Arundhathi Subramaniam wrote, “Because it disrupts all those snug oppositions I otherwise live by: day and night, precision and passion, mystery and illumination… Poetry allows lunar concerns into my day. It brings question marks rather than full stops into my life.”
By bringing such question marks into our lives, poetry perhaps keeps life flowing? For Booker Prize-winning Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, “Poetry is a river of soul murmurings”. A poem is then a vehicle of philosophy and mysticism.
Vairamuthu, the award-winning lyricist and poet from Tamil Nadu, also affirms the mystical function of a poem. In a Tamil that sounds like the sea itself, he declares, “Poetry is like the sky, like the sea, like life itself — it cannot be contained… Poetry has the power to nourish life, which has been impoverished by humanity since time immemorial.”
Some poets or even readers of poetry want the verse they read to satisfy some untold need. Writer, translator and Co-Editor of Pratilipi, Rahul Soni, says that poetry for him is “a compact, self-contained form, a depth charge that sends out long-ranging, long-lasting shockwaves or a tuning fork that resonates with some frequency inside one's heart or brain.” So, what should poetry do — to survive, to be read, to reach, to soar? “Poetry doesn’t have to do a thing. It is or it isn’t,” says poet, novelist and musician, Jeet Thayil.
Perhaps it is not poetry that should do something. Maybe it’s us. So to those of us writing poetry: Create verse that does justice to what good poetry has always been. And to readers and publishers of poetry: Read and publish more good poetry.