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So you dig poetry?

Just because you don't know about something doesn't mean it's not true. The usual chatter about whether the Nobel Prize committee specially seeks out people you haven't ever heard of to award the literature Nobel started as soon as the name of Tomas Tranströmer was announced as this year's winner. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Oct 08, 2011 23:35 IST

Just because you don't know about something doesn't mean it's not true. The usual chatter about whether the Nobel Prize committee specially seeks out people you haven't ever heard of to award the literature Nobel started as soon as the name of Tomas Tranströmer was announced as this year's winner. The fact that he was known to only a very select few people on this planet before Thursday seemed to confirm that despite British betting company Ladbrokes having better-known folks like singer-songwriter Bob Dylan and novelist Haruki Murakami on its list of Nobel favourites this year, the Nobel committee likes to show how against the grain it is in its choice. (Although, to be fair, Ladbrokes had that Syrian poet Adonis No. 1 on its list.)

But who said the Nobel for literature was based on a readers' sms poll? After all, it's not like the Vodaphone Crossword Popular Book Award that is actually - and ludicruously - chosen by online 'readers'. By awarding Tranströmer, the Nobel jury brought to the fore a fine, relatively unrecognised poet allowing us to get to know his work.

The problem, of course, is that it's the literature Nobel one is talking about. The fact that very few people have heard of Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman who won this year's chemistry Nobel isn't a bother for anyone. And if you had put your money on Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess getting this year's physics Nobel, good on you. But science, rightly seen as a 'specialist' zone, isn't expected to throw up names that you hear while you get a haircut at the barber's. Not too many people understand, let alone can judge, the discovery of an accelerating universe.

Somehow, when it comes literature, this respect for 'specialisation' goes out of the window. The idea being that everyone understands novels and poems and can judge the 'good' stuff from the 'not so good' stuff. Which boils down these days to the paradoxical logic of judging a writer good if you've heard of him, and not so good (or, worst of all, 'too high funda') if you haven't.

The problem about unknown entities winning the literature Nobel is compounded by the fact that the Nobel committee has awarded the gong to people who you've not only heard of but you may have actually - bring on the dancing girls! - read. Last year's winner Mario Vargas Llosa and 2006 laureate Orhan Pamuk immediately come to mind even as I try to fix it in my head that the name of this year's winner isn't Transformer but ... oh let me just copy-paste the name.

The more well-known Chetan Bhagat was bang on when he said last week, "I know I will never win the Man Booker Prize" - the way I will never win a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award - "but I will win a million hearts." But not everyone in the business of writing has Bhagat's kind of one-point plan. Especially if you're writing good poetry and are not just a high school student writing dreadfully mawkish poems after discovering Dylan Thomas. (Sorry, I went a bit auto-bio there.)

There are more poetry writers roaming the Earth than those who read poetry. And, frankly, if Kapil Sibal can write "Geospatial images in/ digital mode display/ enabling introspection/ in a most effective way", who am I to blame folks for believing that everyone can write poems as an 'outpouring of their thoughts'.

There is nothing as easy as writing terrible poetry. And nothing as hard as writing a great poem. Which doesn't mean poets can't be popular. Sunil Gangopadhyay, who started off as a poet, poses as a model in a cooking masala advertisement. Gulzar is mobbed at literary festivals. But poets essentially write with their backs turned against the readers. If Bhagat-style 'hearts' are won, that's a by-product.

Lines from Tranströmer's poem, 'Alone', captures this through the back door: "To be always visible - to live/ in a swarm of eyes -/ a special expression must develop./ Face coated with clay." And if you had never heard of Tranströmer before, be glad that you know of him now. Because in Sweden, hardly anyone has heard of Sahir Ludhianvi (pictured above with Tranströmer).