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Updated: March 30, 2013 22:53 IST

Wrestling with poetry

ANAND VENKATESWARAN
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It took a while for this writer to realise that one doesn’t have to write poems to enjoy poetry.

Prologue: “But I don’t understand any of this, thatha!” I said to my septuagenarian grandfather after I had read through a poem by a revered English poet. I don’t remember the poet or the poem, but I do remember my grandfather’s response to my impatience: “Don’t try to understand it. Instead, try to feel it.”

Poetry, of at least two languages, has been ubiquitous in my life. My grandfather was a spontaneous poet in Sanskrit and an ardent devotee of the beauty and ardour of the Bhagavatham. My father can’t not write in Tamil. Verses and songs flow through him; every day a poem, a song, sometimes two, sometimes more.

By the logic of heredity, I fancied myself a poet too. There was a spark I remember one stormy night in Visakhapatnam in 1992. My brother and I were huddled over a thick candle on a coffee table in the middle of the drawing room. Together, on a torn notebook page, we wrote a poem – of violent gales, an angry ocean and a lone yawl bobbing bravely in a lighting-streaked night. I still consider it my towering literary achievement.

The next day, I lost the page. I never wrote poetry again.

The story is true but I suspect the real reason I don’t write poems is because my brother wrote that poem about the yawl while I offered moral support; and my entire range of poetry consisted of the gross limericks I wrote to torment him. I’ll have to use a lot of asterisks to reproduce them here.

For a long time, I simply could not take to poetry in the English language. Some poems did sneak up on me from time to time and managed to stick. For instance, the clarity of Khalil Gibran’s thought, which comes through unsullied by translation:

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

Or these lines my grandfather wrote to me when I was studying in a boarding school:

To laugh at a joke that is drab to the core, to express concern to avoid a rub

To speak in tune even when it jars, is a cross we bear in company outside.

I needed that bit of alliteration and a specific meter that Tamil and Telugu poems are so rich in. I refused to acknowledge verses without these ingredients, as poetry. I was a prose man. I wrote clever e-mails and crisp letters. I tolerated poetry from family — since my father didn’t write in English, he was excused. My brother, who wrote only in English, I occasionally encouraged and consistently teased. He had a ‘thousand’ phase, where he used that word in every poem at least twice. “A thousand lamps and a thousand eyes…” and so on. Then he had the ‘sooth’ phase. We gave him hell. Then he stopped showing us his poetry. I scoffed at poetry from anywhere else.

A few years later, I chanced upon this:

I’d love to talk of fragrant wines

And conjure philosophy

I’d love to narrate extempore

And cough importantly

But I’d rather speak of simple things

Like how your dimple curves,

Of love, that needs just a word or two

And which my language serves

My blackguard brother, quite silently, and in terrible handwriting, had been conducting a roaring love affair with poetry.. I was inspired by everything that inspired him as a young boy — Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a sudden exposure to Varanasi, Shakespeare, and the Bay of Bengal right outside our balcony. The only difference was, he was able to do something about it. He filled a little book full of sonnets, he wrote songs in Hindi and three little epics.

I am forever,” said the sea “In my womb I carry life

In my swell I bear misery

And upon my waves, eternity”

When I asked him why he never showed these to me, he shrugged and said, “You don’t like poetry, man.” I like good poetry, I spluttered. He shrugged again. He doesn’t talk much. He’d made his point, though. It’s amazing how much of good stuff you come upon when you open your mind to something.

I read poetry old and new; classic and modern; popular, and very private. I sometimes understood my friends better from a couple of lines they’d written than from the hours of dialogue we would have shared. I’m sure it’s subjective, but I’ve found that women poets tend to be able to dig deeper into the art than the men I’ve read; I was always struck by the raw emotion and complete abandonment in verses like these, from a friend I call Gupto:

Let’s go on a boat ride!

No

I want to tear the clouds with my feet.

You want something to eat?

No

I want to swallow my teeth to kill my guts.

A word of warning. There is a humungous amount of bad poetry out there too. And all of it published! Now, great poetry might be subjective, but bad poetry certainly isn’t. A wannabe haiku for your perusal:

Dark in bright, part of life

Matter of mind!

In a weird way, that couplet was inspiring. I figured I ought to take another shot at writing poetry. But try as I might, I couldn’t write anything I didn’t want to shred. I put pen to paper when overcome with a strong emotion or the hint of an epiphany, but poetry needs a certain amount of ‘let-go’ that I never had.

I recorded this tug-of-war in a blog thus: A poem can skip, skirt and dance around its theme, tantalise or caress or mesmerise the reader. It can throw you a crumb or it could give you a feast. It can make you love, it can make you hate, and it can make you indifferent, but the poem will always touch you. But prose; poor, boring, regular, systematic, dull, obedient, good old prose, it has to work so very hard to reach your heart. Words are pawns to be arranged, they have no identity. But in poetry, perch one little word on the ledge of one line of a couplet, and you have no better snare for the gullible human heart anywhere else.

One day, I chanced upon these verses from Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Fruit-Gathering’

I cannot find what I seek, I cannot understand what I would learn; but this unread letter has lightened my burdens and turned my thoughts into songs.

It clicked into place. My place among the poets is to enjoy and admire them. Not to join them or understand them.

Epilogue: That scene with my grandfather from when I was 10 embossed itself onto my memory. I remember the faintly leathery scent that permeated his presence, the complete absence of clutter, the feeling of space, of openness, which I suspected the room borrowed from the conversations he had there. My bespectacled grandfather, looking at me sideways while bending over a book and some papers, enunciated the words clearly, precisely, yet languidly as he always does. He spoke the English language like he was savouring fine wine, enjoying every syllabic sip of it.

It took me two decades to realise that was what I wanted. I didn’t want to make the wine. I just wanted to taste it. One verse at a time.

Email the author at vi.ananda@gmail.com

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