A poet is trouble. And that’s not just for those who happen to be around the individual being held captive to the demands of his Muse. Even after the feverish burst of inspiration has morphed into words, and the toils over metrical scheme and versification have ebbed half one’s life away, trouble still keeps lurking around the corner. Robert Lowell, the American poet, was well aware of that.
Lowell’s life was dedicated to ‘rethinking, reimagining and rewriting’ his already published works. So much so that when he published three books of his sonnets in 1973 (much of whose material came from a previous publication called Notebook), the Times Literary Supplement ran a sketch with the review that showed a meat-grinder chewing up the books as a Lowell look-alike stared at the reader with a demonic half-smile.
That is how Lowell, who served as the sixth poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress during 1947-48, approached poetry. Times have changed, so have manners and ideas. Across the ocean, and in our own times, Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has kicked up a lyrical tempest of her own by recently saying that the ‘poem is a form of texting’, that it is, in fact, the original text. Not content with bridging the gap between the ancient form of expression and what is the modern age’s handle of communication, Duffy added that a poem said ‘more with less’, just as texting did; that both of them were examples of ‘language at play’.
No one can fault Duffy for shifting the goalposts to meet her ends, which in this case is getting young people, otherwise hooked to social networking and instant messaging, more interested in poetry. If you are the occupant of that impossible, anachronistic and bureaucratic post called poet laureate (the head of a school of mediocre poets, or is it the conscience-keeper of all things poetic?), then you would have to justify the wobbly crown on your head by promoting poetry all around. And what better way to start than to zero in on the activity most popular (peering into your phone and jabbing at its keys day and night) and declare that it is actually the most profound?
The potential creativity that Duffy has unleashed with her statement is, of course, mind-boggling in its scope. No one would need to scratch their heads and wriggle out the pain by saying ‘To think that I do not have her/ To feel that I have lost her’. Instead a summary MUBAR on the screen and the world will know that one is Messed Up Beyond All Recognition.
Or why should an aged man be ‘but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick’, when we all know that old age cannot be but NICE (Nonsense In Crappy Existence). Purists be damned, it will reduce lifetimes of experience — love and hate, peace and war — to pithy, cryptic acronyms, poetry will stop being trouble in classrooms, and the trees, at least, will have nothing more to complain about.