On Poetry & Poets by Abhay K.June 16, 2020
I have been dreaming poetry
and I see in my dreams
poems written in the eyes of galloping Pegasi
on shells of crawling snails
printed on colourful wings of swarming butterflies
on the serrated teeth of giant killer sharks
on the claws of eagles hovering in the sky
poems on the bodies of naked angels
poems flowing in the veins of buffaloes
on the petals of roses
poems rising as cacti thorns
I see poems swimming like blue whales
rising like a phoenix from the ashes of burnt books
I see poems smiling, whispering to me
in weird voices.
'What is Poetry?'
Most of the poets and even those who are not poets ask this question at one or the other stage while writing or reading poetry.
Poetry has as many definitions as there are poets and poetry readers. Poetry is like a giant elephant and poets are blind men, each with their own description of this humongous creature.
The great German poet Goethe pronounced that those who had no ears for poetry and music were barbarians.
Kavi Bhratihari's bold pronouncement -'Sahitya Sangeet Kala Vihinah, Sakshatyapashu puchhavishanhinah' , echoes Goethe's sentiments.
For the English poet William Wordsworth, poetry was spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.
This is also the view of Sumitranandan Pant who wrote - Viyogi hoga pahla kavi / aah se upja hoga gaan/umad kar ankhon se chupchap/bahi hogi kavita anjaan.
But there is much more to poetry than spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Wordsworth and Sumitranandan Pant probably forgot about the art and craft of poetry.
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as best words in the best order which also holds good for prose or other writings. Charles Dickens, though not known as a poet, thought poetry made life what lights and music did to the stage.
The British poet Matthew Arnold had a philosophical take on poetry. For him poetry at the bottom of all was criticism of life. He thought poets as nagging creatures, complaining about life.
Echoing the sentiments expressed by Goethe and Bhratihari who compared humans with no taste for poetry with barbarians and animals, Russian Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky said -'What distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom is speech, then literature - and poetry in particular, being the highest form of locution - is, to put it bluntly, the goal of our species.' Brodsky describes poetry as a unique art form, like no other. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech he elaborated on this uniqueness of poetry- 'There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the Biblical prophets, revelation. What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them at once (gravitating primarily toward the second and the third). For all three of them are given in the language; and there are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has ever been before him, further, perhaps, than he himself would have wished for.' Poet and poetry readers are surprised at poetry’s power to reveal rare and unexpected relationships among words, thoughts, ideas. I have found my own poems revealing to me. For example-Quark of a poet/blossoming in the subatomic space/writing the uni-verse.
What is revelatory here is quark as a poet and universe as one verse being written by a quark-poet. I have come across such revelation often in my own works that has left me awestruck, breathless.
Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century believes that poetry reveals the secret manifestations of nature. He writes in his memoirs - 'I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature.' Here is my poem ‘Neem’ that reveals relationship between Delhi and itself-Under my ubiquitous shade/lie scattered cities of Delhi/I and Delhi are one and the same/my yellow-greenish fruits/ delicious when ripe/ bitter when raw/only the wise know the difference.
The great poet from the Caribbean Derek Walcott echoed the sentiments of Brodsky and Neruda when he spoke in his Nobel lecture- 'poetry is perfection's sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue's brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery.'
One should mark these words- ‘the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery.‘
And I made a self discovery when these lines came to me one evening while walking the stretch that connects Kirorimal College to Delhi School of Economics, St. Stephen’s College and the Delhi University’s Rose Garden-I was always here/as the blowing wind/or the falling leaves/ as the shining sun/or the flowing streams/as the chirping birds/or the blooming buds/ as the blue sky/or the empty space/ I was never born/I didn’t die.
Here poetry rhythmically restructures time. It transforms the mortal into the eternal.
Seamus Heaney, who passed away in 2013, called the process digging. A rather well known line from his eponymous poem-Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests, snug as a gun/I’ll dig with it.
As a man dedicated to poetic form he observed- 'Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor... what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.'
Poetry provides us with daily dose of ecstasy. It takes us to a higher plane of existence away from the quotidian existence. Emerson says 'Take all away from me, but leave me poetry.' I believe Poetry liberates.
Why write poetry
As per Brodsky a person sets out to write a poem for a variety of reasons: to win the heart of his beloved; to express his attitude toward the reality surrounding him, be it a landscape or a state; to capture his state of mind at a given instant; to leave - as he thinks at that moment - a trace on the earth.
The nature of poetry one writes evolves with time. Almost all of us start writing poetry with love poems. Then the subject of our poetry gets diversified slowly with time. The highest stage of writing poetry comes when the poets become the voice of the voiceless.
Brodsky further adds- 'one who writes a poem, however, writes it not because he courts fame with posterity, although often he hopes that a poem will outlive him, at least briefly. One who writes a poem writes it because the language prompts, or simply dictates, the next line. Beginning a poem, the poet as a rule doesn't know the way it's going to come out, and at times he is very surprised by the way it turns out, since often it turns out better than he expected, often his thought carries further than he reckoned. And that is the moment when the future of language invades its present.
I started writing poetry to express my inner awe and angst, the wonder and disgust I felt in Moscow. The river of poetry started flowing out of me. There was nothing stopping it. It was Wordsworthian 'spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions'. I had no idea how my poem was going to shape itself. I wrote to preserve the exquisite beauty of the moment against the incontestable ravages of time.
I wrote love poems first. Only afterward death, immortality, nature, heroism, beauty, time, universe, cities, bureaucrats, became subject matters of my poetry.
If you look around carefully, persons whom you love are going to leave you, for heavens or for better opportunities, the career you love is also going to end some day, you are also going to leave this earth one day. Only your words, your poetry will never leave you till you are alive and chances are that your poetry may outlive you. This is one strong reason one should write poetry. Derek Walcott puts it very elegantly- 'I have kept my own promise, to leave you the one thing I own, you whom I loved first: my poetry'.
How should poetry be
Maria Tsvetaeva believes-'Poetry should be delirious and lucid. The very nature of voice in written poetry must be metaphorical, it cannot be literal.' This may be one of the reasons people feel that poetry is esoteric art inaccessible to the common man.
Edward Hirsch writes in his book How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry- 'It is said in great poetry there is always a dialogue between the individual and history. There is powerful dialectic operating in our lives between reality and imagination, between history and philosophy, bet ween the temporal and eternal'.
Two contradictory elements meet in poetry: ecstasy and irony.
There is no ideal form or content of poetry, only approximations. Each poet and society values its own kind of poetry. Truck drivers all across South Asia cherish their own poetry as Philip Larkin or Sharon Old do or the lovers of shero-shayari do, Kabir with his pithy couplets, Walt Whitman with his long prose-poems, each poet to his own.
What it means to be a poet -Many of us write poetry, few of us are published poets whose works have appeared in various poetry anthologies. But how many poets are sure about being poets, about our art and craft of poetry? Wislawa Szymborska, winner of Nobel Prize in Literature in1996 in her Nobel Lecture interestingly titled ‘The Poet and the World’ said – ‘Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it.’
‘We are poets’ has the sound of outcasts. (Maria Tsvetaeva). 'The poet confronted nature's phenomena and in the early ages called himself a priest, to safeguard his vocation. Today's social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with the darkness, and now he must interpret the light.' (Neruda)
The word poet comes from the Greek word poesis which means ‘making’ and a poet is foremost a maker. Edward Hirsch writes in his book How to read poetry – ‘A poet's function is not to experience the poetic state, his function is to create it in others. A poet is recognized by the simple fact that he causes his reader to become inspired.’
A poet never speaks directly or writes literally, there is always a phantasmagoria, figure of speech involved in his writing.
For example here are my two poems titled Delhi & Chitwan
hordes of human flesh
from faraway lands
up on the hill
the feast of eagles-possessed,
A river full of crocs
a canoe filled with dreams
eerie silence in the jungle
an elephant riding a human
statue of a frail man
at the central square
in the city of rhinos.
Brodsky in his Nobel lecture said- ‘The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of conscience, of thinking, of comprehending the universe. Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience; one falls into dependency on this process, the way others fall into dependency on drugs or on alcohol. One who finds himself in this sort of dependency on language is, I guess, what they call a poet.’
This addiction, this dependency on poetry, on language for daily dose of ecstasy makes one a poet. A poet gets condemned to poetry as a drug addict to drugs.
Brodsky brings the poet to the centre stage of language and literature stating -'The poet, I wish to repeat, is language's means for existence - or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation. '
Writing poetry I have come up with new words ‘Bureaucrab’ or ‘Spritensual’ to exactly convey my thoughts and feelings. This only reflects how much language is capable of mutation and the role poets play in keeping the language alive, enriching it with their new words and thoughts.
Neruda has his own thoughts on who is the best poet - ‘I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity.’
Neruda obviously was a people’s poet. He was not a recluse as many poets are.
He loved to be among the masses, eat and dine with them, share their joys and sorrows. Once he read his poems in a stadium full of over a hundred thousand people in his country Chile. Though at times poets have to find their solitude and confront the blank sheet of paper, abandoning their crowns and glories. For their poetry is finally what really counts.