Recently, I was listening to a lecture on a contemporary English poet. The presenter—a poetry professor—asked the room, “Have any of you felt moved or more alive after reading a poem?” When the majority enthusiastically nodded, he was surprised, and added he had never felt that way.
And I was left wondering how could someone who has never been moved by a poem teach poetry?
I was also immediately reminded of how poetry was taught back when I was in school. An example that immediately comes to my mind is Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. I remember each line being ‘analysed’ and ‘annotated’, and a context provided. We were ‘trained’ to attribute intentions to a poet; “the poet is trying to do this or that”. The same trend followed into college, till finally a winning formula was discovered: Explain the lines, provide a context, quote a few lines from the poem and you got the perfect score.
It was post-mortem before the death of poetry.
Much of the time, we hear how poetry is not accessible the way some of the other genres are. It could be because of the manner in which everyday language is reinvented using concepts and techniques which make the familiar seem unfamiliar. But that experience makes you aware of a certain reality in a new and refreshing manner. Yet, those of us who read poetry may not be self-conscious during the act of reading or aware of what a particular poem is doing to us.
Good poetry, like any other well-crafted art form, works in mysterious ways and can leave us feeling battered or light. And though as a genre it is considered far more personal, it can offer pleasure or entertainment, arouse powerful sentiments, make a statement, or describe values and tales of heroism as seen from some of the earliest forms of recorded poetry. The Iliad , Odyssey , Ramayana , Beowulf are some examples of early work which talked about the triumph of good over evil, of the ‘hero’, an embodiment of virtue, who fought anything that harmed society. Of course, each of these works was also very different in many ways, informed as they were by different socio-cultural milieux.
Discourses on the tradition and technique of poetry have varied over centuries. T.S. Eliot once said in writing a poem, “you’re writing primarily for yourself—although obviously you wouldn’t be satisfied if the poem didn’t mean something to other people afterward.” ( The Art of Poetry No.1, Issue 21, Spring-Summer 1959, The Paris Review )
I was particularly reminded of this because World Poetry Day falls on March 21. And though there is a World Book Day, there isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a World Novel Day or a World Short Story Day. I was discussing this recently with someone and he said, may be because the others don’t need to be ‘saved’. Though said in jest, that really made me wonder. Does poetry need to be saved?
It was in 1999 that UNESCO decided to proclaim March 21 as World Poetry Day. The proclamation document from UNESCO says, “In today’s world, there are unfulfilled aesthetic needs. Poetry can meet this need if its social role of interpersonal communication is recognised and it continues to be the means of arousing and expressing awareness.”
And certainly, poetry can and does perform this role. Take poems of dissent or protest which have become powerful means of responding to the world we live in. I’m reminded of the Tamil poet Salma.
“ … This bed, which reminds me/ Of pregnancy/ And fills me with fright,/ Is the weapon my Master wields/ …What refuge remains for a woman/ Whose traces are wiped clean?.../ ...I have a strange dream: There’s a newspaper story/ On my being raped by some men/ While walking alone on the road/ …This life—impossible to pursue,/ With a myriad lifeless objects/ And one man —/ Goes on regardless,/ Inside the same room. ”
(‘No Traces Left’, Salma, translated from the Original, ‘Thadayangal Azhikkappatta Piragu’)
Language blurs the boundaries between personal, social and political. More often than not, good poetry also lets you relive a highly subjective experience. It makes you aware of your own dilemmas, questions, emotions in sublime and subtle ways:
“ Unhappiness is a kind of yoga, he tells himself/ each morning, a breath meditation; besides,/ do you want to be happy or do you want to write? ” (from ‘Self-Portrait’ by Jeet Thayil)
There are far too many to choose from but there are poems that leave you alive, with your senses and emotions heightened like never before. How many of us would not relive the loss of a loved one when reading Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’:
“ He was my North, my South, my East and West,/ My working week and my Sunday rest,/ My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;/ I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. ”
Sometimes all poetry does is leave you feeling exhilarated at how language can entertain and reassure. In an image like “ A thousand-limbed million-tongued, multi-spoused Kali on wheels ” that Arundhathi Subramaniam uses to describe the ‘5:46 Andheri Local’, a lot is being said in very few words. That is where perhaps poetry succeeds—through its ability to evoke powerful response or sentiment through the frugality and novelty of language.
As someone who writes poetry, I am delighted there is a World Poetry Day but I really do not think poetry needs to be saved. A lot of great poetry is being written in many languages all over the world. But we need more: Publishers, avenues and media that take this poetry out to the world.
And we definitely need to change the way young people read and are taught poetry. Most importantly, we need more readers of poetry.
Anupama Raju is a writer and literary journalist. Her first book of poems, Nine , was published in 2015.