In the beginning, there was verse. Before people had anything to write with, or on, they found stories easier to remember when they set the words to a beat, and possibly a tune.
And yet, most readers today find poetry harder to follow than prose. They don't get it, or they think of it as merely ornamental writing. A poet closely weaves meaning and form together. A poet chooses a word for any and all of its meanings but also for its ambiguities, for its potential to mislead, and sometimes for the pure sound of it. A poem is coded, but when it is well-written, the reader leaps right into its meaning.
I usually pick up prose, but sometimes an event or even a gimmick hustles me into poetry. It was the strange title that started me on Interior Decoration, published by Women Unlimited. Once inside it, I found fury and beauty, from Amrita Bharati, Prathibha Nandakumar, Kondepudi Nirmala. I will dip into it for years, but just one line made it sing the day I picked it up: “In him the hungry haste / Of rivers, in me the ocean's tireless / Waiting.” (That's Kamala Das, An Introduction.)
This past spring, the New York Botanical Garden set up another kind of gateway to poetry. It planted a conservatory with flowers found in Emily Dickinson's own garden. Knowing the American flair for tie-ins, her books were surely on sale at the gift shop, next to the hollyhock seed packets. And who can fault that idea? We would all like Wordsworth better if we could actually see a daffodil.
The easiest gateway to poetry is music. Most of us who think we are not keen on poetry have spent all our lives listening to lyrics. I knew little of Subramania Bharati's lyrics till a friend lent me a series of translations recently. They were overloaded with English archaisms, but they unlocked for me the sense and sensuality of the Tamil original on the facing page. I read back and forth to understand my favourite Bharati song, Kakkai siraginile Nandalala. (In the feathers of the crow I see your dark hue, Nandalala.) Those who can't read Tamil are out of luck here, but it worked for me. Once we have teased out the meaning of each line in a song, we will hear a richer music ever after. Next in my sights is the translation of Arunagirinathar's Tiruppugazh by N. Gopalasundaram, or perhaps I'll explore the Tyagaraja kritis, one at a time.
Last week in Chennai, at a lecture on the spread of India's library movement, Prof. S. Parthasarathy told of early promoters of literacy who actually read out books to people. Observing that young people now using the internet skip past the writing on any subject and watch the videos, he predicted that in 30 years we might leave behind the written word and embrace our oral tradition again. When that happens, we will find that poetry was with us all along.