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The postmodern poesy

Poets and the liberties they take with language

Here’s some very good news. Imtiaz Dharker was as good as offered the poet laureateship of England, but preferred not to accept the honour and instead keep writing poetry. The other good news is the publication of another fine volume by Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Regrettably there is no news of any jingoistic or dishum-dishum verse from the battlefields of West Bengal. Mayawati has joined the fray and launched a brahmastra or two, but alas, not in rhyme. Sam Pitroda scored a same-side own goal. The alleged Malegaon murderer has come to the aid of a fellow desh bhakt. I hope some polemical poetry comes out of these slanging matches; nothing like the rhetoric of power to ignite ‘political’ poetry. I am reminded of Shelley’s poem, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’:

I met murder on the way

He had a masque like Castlereagh —

Very smooth he looked, yet grim

Seven blood hounds followed him.

Castlereagh was the Prime Minister of England, and a demonstration occurred in Manchester in 1819, exactly a hundred years ago, to hear Henry Hunt who was asking for Parliamentary reforms and a change in the corrupt corn laws. The mounted police attacked the crowd on the magistrate’s orders, resulting in 18 deaths and 700 injured. It became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Swimming in the cesspool

To stick to the fighting vein, Mrinalini Harchandrai in her volume, A Bombay in my Beat, tells us of battlegrounds/ of television deities/ frothing operatic soaps/ fiery dialogues and arrows/ in corpse-raising collisions. Very postmodern stuff, this. Then there’s a poem on Michael Jackson at Kemps Corner Flyover, his music blaring in the car and a beggar woman knocking at the car window and getting two paise from the owner. Harchandrai comes from Sindh, and the Partition hangover can be noticed. In her poem, ‘Blood Ties with the Foes’, she writes: History’s sense of humour/ is a double helix in a twist/ there is a border created by gods/ and gunfire/ family stories, packed/ with last minute trunks/ and earth-kissing farewells. The Big Daddies of Partition literature focus only on Punjab. There was also Sindh, also East and West Bengal.

Some of the poets take considerable liberties with language, thinking they are playing a part in this cesspool called postmodernism. A little caution could do their verse and readership some good. I refused to read beyond the first line of a volume that went: The jungle greets century a new year. If the first line has no grammar and makes no sense, there is no point in reading further, and this from a writer living in the West for two decades.

Saima Afreen’s Sin of Semantics makes an initial splash with a style that is oriental, meaning slightly high-pitched and emotional (Edward Said would not be happy hearing this). When she has her feet on the ground, she is excellent, as when the last muezzin drank his trotter-soup/ and dunked flat bread in the thin broth till it/ wet his beard. In her poem on her grandma’s house on the Pakistan border Afreen recalls that All that was left in her eyes/ was the print of barbed wires. But she lets herself down when her wounds bloom like morning prayers and follows this up with Broken stars are/ plucked wicks/ on the roof of eyes. In another poem she talks of her heart being a violent fossil. She seems to be following in the style of dated Urdu poets.

In a poem, ‘Hindustan’, she finds the Sindhu river is silent since time immemorial. Don’t lapse into clichés please. Time immemorial should be thrown out of the window even if one is writing prose. In the same poem she pairs kalimah and Vande Mataram. Madam, the two great sages of the 21st century, Mr. A. Shah and Mr. N. Modi, may not be happy with this formulation.

Mystic poetry is not my pipe of opium, not my cup of tea, not my hill to climb, not my sea. Usha Akella has just been fêted in Bucharest at an international poetry festival. Priya Sarukkai Chabria has written a fine foreword to Akella’s mystic Bhakti volume, The Waiting. “Usha Akella is a quester who was stunned by the Fana-fi-Sheikh experience which means assimilation or ego-self-effacement in the living personality of the teacher to effect spiritual growth.” This fana business means the murid (disciple) becomes extinct in the contemplation of the murshid (teacher).

Chabria says, “Having matured as a poet she [Akella] whittles language to a flame of single-minded devotion.” The poet says the lake was you, I was a ripple,/ I was a dent in your bowl. That is the standard Sufi narrative. Has it much scope for individuality? I liked her lines in Poem 20, about leaves dropping in the morning like unstressed syllables far apart in a sentence.

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 6:44:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-postmodern-poesy/article27233021.ece

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