I am a writer, and I teach literature, but I don’t understand poetry. It often happens that students, and sometimes strangers, show me their poems and I have nothing to say. This is a failing. It is embarrassing.
During my boyhood in Patna, poetry meant finding poems to use during the elocution contest: the search for rhetorical thunder. Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade was a staple. 'Forward the Light Brigade! / Charge for the guns!’ he said./ Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.
You could be forgiven for thinking that poems always had cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left of them. Matching the artillery fire, when it came to Hindi elocution, there was the local deity, the fiercely nationalist poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (left).
Thousands of boys and girls across India declaiming in shrill tones: Khojo Tipu Sultan kahan soye hain? / Ashfaq aur Usman kahan soye hain? / Bombwaale vir jawaan kahan soye hain? / Veh Bhagat Singh balwaan kahan soye hain? The Himalayas must be melting.
Later, bombast gave way to sentimentalism, to the damp poetry of Hindi film-songs about saawan and saajan.
Years would pass before somewhere in the middle of my teenage years, those lyrics began to appeal to me. I was stirred by their pathos. Partly because the words in the film songs were linked inextricably to the beauty of the women I was seeing in a new way on the screen.
But Rafi singing Kamal Amrohi’s lines about the delicate girl with the dusky skin – Kahin ek masoom nazuk si ladki, bahut khubsoorat magar saanwali si – suddenly seemed to take the form of language describing the people and real lives around me.
This sensibility – we can call it sensitivity – acquired a more playful edge in Gulzar. I was charmed by the way playback singers or actors interrupted their songs to engage in banter in Gulzar’s lyrics. How frantically I scoured the Palika Bazaar shops for a cassette from the film Griha Pravesh!
In one song from it – Logon ke ghar mein rehta hoon, kab apna koi ghar hoga – Gulzar himself makes a cameo appearance, serious-faced and with oversized glasses.
This was in the Seventies. I was in my late teens. At that time, Gulzar’s lyrics struck me as urban and utterly contemporary.
The freshness of this poetry was its precise naming of our neighbourhoods, and the naming of our fears – with adequate attention given, of course, to Sharmila Tagore’s luminous eyes and her smile.
A few years later, I began writing poems. I remember seeing a young woman removing a bindi from her forehead to stick it on the mirror before splashing her face with water.
I told myself that I needed to compose a poem about it. I wrote in English even though much of English poetry seemed alien to me.
An uncle of mine often asked me to recite Wordsworth’s Daffodils, but neither he nor I had seen a single daffodil. Indian poets who wrote in English and were familiar to me, Nissim Ezekiel and AK Ramanujan, didn’t appeal at first because I had read them in school. Like hospital food that always tastes of medicines, their poems smelled of the classroom.
But that was then. Today, if I were a young writer I could pick up a collection like 60 Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil, and make exciting discoveries on my own.
One night in the early Eighties, in the basement theatre of Shri Ram Centre in Delhi, I heard the Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena read his long poem Kuano Nadi. This was my discovery. I had taken a DTC bus from Delhi University to Mandi House to listen to this poet without knowing anything about him.
His reading changed me. His poem was about rural poverty and it took me away from myself; it presented a radical vision of art and the language he had used welcomed me as if it was the doorway of my home.
In the years since, I have attended countless poetry readings but they are rarely like Sarveshwar’s. I have a dim sense of the ambition of the poet who, in a few lines, with a fine choice of words, invents a new language and new sounds. But it still doesn’t work for me.
Poetry can be obscure. I’m a narrative man. I want a clear sense of time and place; I like a story with an arc. Yet, now and then, I go back to Hindi poetry from the heartland. This is a nostalgic act.
Here, for instance, is my translation of a short poem Train by a poet from Patna, Alokdhanwa: Every good man has a train / That goes toward his mother’s house // Stretching its whistle / Blowing smoke.
Amitava Kumar is the author of several books of non-fiction and a novel. His latest book, Lunch with a Bigot, is a collection of essays about the writer in the world. Kumar’s writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Caravan, and numerous other publications. He is Professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York.
The Bookist, Kumar’s exclusive column on books and the art of writing, will appear once every month
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From HT Brunch, June 14
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