I used to be of the opinion that poetry was dying because readers were killing it. And maybe that’s true. In fact, maybe it’s dead already — I don’t know anyone who reads poetry anymore, though I know of people who do flip through a collection by Byron on occasion. But, rather than accepting its death, thinking of poetry as more of a secret society that publishers, consumers and the market don’t understand, is a much less depressing way to look at it.
I spent much of my childhood with poetry, thanks in part to a copy of the Oxford Book of Verse from my grandfather’s school days. There was something that drew me to old books and scribbled verses, and this was perfect. It was old, dog-eared and beautiful. The brown hard-cover had a faded gold title etched into it, the pages were slightly yellowed and rice-paper thin, and the font was reminiscent of medieval manuscripts. I was hooked from start to finish, surprising even myself. Sure, I’d always loved reading, and I loved to write poetry. But my obsession with reading it began to grow after I finished reading through this collection. I would have forgotten about it and moved on to my next obsession, but my grandmother gave me a quick follow-up with a book by Milton. And although she was told I was too young to grasp it (and I may have been), I lapped it up nonetheless, moving on to a little collection by Emily Dickinson, who has since become a poet whose work I can disappear into when I need a little break. Unfortunately, I never read much Indian poetry — and sometimes I think it may have been because even book stores in India promote the Plaths and Hughes more than the Gieve Patels.
Vijay Seshadri comes up often in the debate against the dearth of good poetry in India, the same way Naipaul quickly jumps into the picture when you’re talking about quality fiction. Both are only still tied to the country through links and origins, and while there’s nothing wrong with being proud of what they have achieved, I’m always wondering about the little guy — the poet in the corner without the awards and the accolades, the poet who won’t give in to self publishing, or the poet whose artistic endeavours aren’t ‘relevant’ or ‘cultural’ enough to applaud. And I’m always hoping to run into him, so I can make as much of a fuss and assure him that his art isn’t dead — not for me anyway.
Only recently introduced to his poetry (as most of us have been since the Pulitzer), Vijay as a poet writes work that resonates with me — but not for all the subjects he delves into — not those that have made news at least. While certain articles assume that most readers would instantly pick up on the Yudhisthir allusion in ‘The Long Meadow’, I read it quite oblivious to the subject matter on a first scansion. As purely verse, if that’s all I had read, I would not have been as hooked as when I stumbled upon ‘Bright Copper Kettles’ early this year. I was hooked. The poem was not new, but I had just discovered it. I felt ashamed, because I had become just another consumer, unable to find new poets unless the media told me about them (of course, that guilt lasted all of five seconds), and then judging them by a single poem that I wasn’t fond of. But I was suddenly determined to delve deeper. Not too many of his poems were as emotion-inducing as that one — maybe it was the state of mind I was in at the time, maybe it was because of the hard-hitting lines, including the very first one that drew me in:
Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly’s,
mercy shining from their comprehensive faces —
I was stuck in a vortex of my own thoughts, a little bubble of my own imagination, where faces were rising up, deathly pale but smiling, with butterfly-sized footprints floating in the air and pictures forming faster and faster while I moved through each line of the poem. This ability to transport me into another world so I was almost startled by reality when I had to look up from the last line — I hadn’t felt that for months, before which I had been as deeply immersed in Ginsberg, from my poetic period of the moment.
Even when I studied Literature, I took on mostly English and American authors, so Nissim Ezekiel was (apart from the eternally popular Naidu and Tagore) the only Indian poet I had been more or less familiar with up to that point. I’d heard great things but I was not impressed; it didn’t have what I wanted from poetry. The content was well-placed, relevant and poignant even. But the poems themselves did nothing to stir up the sort of inspiration or burning desire to pen my own that a Keats, a Dickinson, a Plath or even an Eliot had. But, I didn’t want to be a 20th century version of elitist Eliot. I didn’t want to walk around with my nose in the air claiming there was no one and nothing I could read unless it was written pre-Independence or in a style that ranged from the Romantics to the Beats.
Of course then as I quickly ran through a host of poets trying to find one here I was as much a fan of as I was of the rest, I remembered reading a little Ghosh (Aurobindo) in school, and quickly ran back to thumb through some to see if it was any different as an adult. While certain lines hit me hard, I told myself it wasn’t enough to thumb throw a few poems to form an opinion. And then I found my favourite verse, in ‘The Bigger Fields’.
Floating like stars upon a strip of sky.
This world behind is made of truer stuff
Than the manufactured tissue of earth's grace
Lines like that. That’s what I was looking for. But the metaphysical had always fascinated me and although Donne and Marvell were distant memories (so I couldn’t be sure), this seemed reminiscent of a style I had spent months lapping up. I needed to find something more current. I’d always known and lightly liked Gieve Patel, but I gave up soon, going back to the daily grind and sipping on some Sylvia when I needed a little verse boost to perk up my day (as strange as it sounds to think of Plath as a pick-me-up) — old habits die hard.
And then I was at a bookstore and poetry came back at me — well, the lack of it at least. After groaning and moaning extremely loudly about how terrible it was that the poetry section in most book stores had gone from one shelf to none, I despairingly browsed through the classics to find an affordable book to pick up — just to keep up with the habit of buying books (without breaking the bank). And I stumbled across a loosely placed, bottom-shelf friendly, Keki N. Daruwalla. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about him, and I smiled because I had been drawn to the book because of its title, Fire Altar : it was a collection of poems on the Persians and the Greeks. There, my dormant cultural side was popping up to say hello, even though I was a big fan of thinking, ‘culture shouldn’t figure so prominently in art that it becomes the only purpose of art.’
But, I enjoyed Fire Altar . I felt like I was finally part of a little piece of art, reading about lost eras, with familiar names such as Cyrus and Jamshed jumping up at me; names I could pronounce in a heartbeat and stories I had grown up with. I was gleeful and I kept wondering why. It didn’t feel such a massive switch when I went from a Dickenson to Daruwalla, but I grew up with the likes of her, so it didn’t count. I didn’t focus much on it after. Sure, I identified and loved the book for it, but as I read more of his poetry, lines like
What was it like before language dropped like dew,
covering the scuffed grass of our lives?
were the ones I kept going back for (from ‘Before the Word’, a personal favourite), not necessarily those that spoke of culture and religion as apparently. But, since I did feel like that in part, I promised myself that I would step out of my comfort zone soon enough to read less English poets and more Indian poets writing in English.
So, I scanned quickly through the Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets and while the poetry was enriching for the most part, I was suddenly hit by a line that explained why I was both relieved to find something I identified with in Daruwalla’s work and also horrified by because the thought had crossed my mind. There it was — written by R. Parthasarathy, suggesting that English poetry in India was “Indian first” – something that I seem to have read time and again. I may have read it out of context, but it really frustrated me, especially since my limited understanding of an India as it’s often described in most poetry is always front and centre for me — and not for any lack of trying. I have my India. But it’s not the same as the stereotypical poet’s India — and that’s more than okay, until these phrases pop up. A little more reading later and I began to agree (in parts) with N. Sharada Iyer about logic and emotion swaying the field enough for writing to lose sight of literature itself (from Musings on Indian Writing in English: Poetry ).
It bugged me, because there it was — everyone debating about whether Indian writing should indeed be written in English. Whether it should just be about India; whether anything that was written about anything deemed or perceived to be even slightly less ‘cultural’ (though in such a large, vastly diverse state that itself is a subject of debate — which is the most Indian and what are the rest of us that don’t fit in?) was an aberration on our values. That debate puts several art forms and poetry in particular, in a box, closed off to the art of the poem and thrown into the chaos of cultural values and that ubiquitous debate about what that sentence even really means. Poetry stems very strongly from cultures and from religions — from lifestyle and from the ties we have to our land. You can’t ignore that.
But, not to write about India doesn’t make the art anti-Indian or contrived. Still believing in the school of thought that appeals for poetry to be wildly separated from real life is not such a bad thing. To focus on the flow rather than the technical is not romantic gibberish — it’s where free verse stemmed from after all. Sure, there are poets who do skip past the cultural debate and write completely free of the chains of place and even time, but they’re not the ones in the spotlight (as much as a poet can expect to be in the spotlight of course).
Sure, self-publishing is a concern from the point of view of quality control — all over the world (as Valeri Macon found out when it was reason enough for her to step down as poet laureate in North Carolina) and poetry is no stranger to cultural controversy, as was true since anti-Semitic Ezra Pound was handed the Bollingen Prize. Readership levels will rise and fall according to what you put on the top shelves and push into the market with furore. That’s not a secret. But, even though I love the art form, dabble in it and would love to spend hours listening to someone talk about it — the constant cultural debate that forms such a central part of it in every book, poem, discussion and lecture of it makes it easier for me to keep my love of it in the shadows and stay at a slight distance from all the fanfare. It makes it easier to let it sit, embroiled in that constant debate, than to dive in head-first and come out with no art to speak of.
Who’s really killing poetry then? Readers have been in a love-hate war with it since its inception so let’s not put all the blame on them — after all, most pop culture is proof that are several ways to rope in an audience without talent on your side. Publishing houses are not guilt-free when it comes to its demise either — but, maybe, if we open up to poetry being about — well, poetry, there’d be a little more time to focus on the art instead of only focusing on its role in society or its cultural identity.