Book Box: A Poem A Day
Five poem books to celebrate Poetry Writing Month. And a chat with the multi-talented Jerry Pinto on ways to bring poetry back into our lives.
Converse in verse, my mother would say, at the end of a long day, when my siblings and I drowned her in cascading crescendos of complaints about each other.
Mostly, this shut us up.
But sometimes, when the offences were acute, there was much to refute. We felt compelled to take the extra time, to set our grievances to rhyme.
‘My precious dress she did tear, is that fair?’
‘You don’t even care, it’s too much to bear, he’s playing and all muddy, why do I have to study?’
On more relaxed nights, my mother would read us rhymes — The Highwayman, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Kubla Khan.
Then we grew up, past our high school Panorama, our Shakespearean drama, and things became terse, there was less verse. Glimpses remained — the poetry of protest, a reading at a lit-fest. But for the rest, the words we wear, are prosaic fare.
This April, let us detour from the run-of-the-mill. It’s the month for poetry writing, the perfect time for spotlighting; opening the door, to poems we adore.
Here are five you might like:
Book 1 of 5: A collection for every mood
Why take a pill, when a poem may cure the ill? From anxiety and loneliness to being unhappy, the editors of The Poetry Pharmacy have the antidote to every malady. Like these lines to assuage oppression, from Still I Rise by Maya Angelou.
‘You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise’.
Book 2 of 5: Mash up of sci-fi and Shakespeare
Shakespeare meets Star Wars in this dazzling ditty. And it sparkles! William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, comes in a print version and has a fabulous audio version too — both are recommended! Here’s R2-D2 in soliloquy:
This golden droid has been a friend, 'tis true,/ And yet I wish to still his prating tongue!/ An imp, he calleth me? I'll be reveng'd,/ And merry pranks aplenty I shall play/ Upon this pompous droid C-3PO!/ Yet not in language shall my pranks be done:/ Around both humans and droids I must/ Be seen to make such errant beeps and squeaks/ That they shall think me simple. Truly, though,/ Although with sounds oblique I speak to them, I clearly see how I shall play my part,/ And how a vast rebellion shall succeed/ by wit and wisdom of a simple droid.
Best known as Gulzar’s trusted translator, Pavan K Varma, writes this story poem, iridescent with inchoate possibilities between Yudhisthir and Draupadi. Like many people, I never sympathized with Yuddhisthra, but reading this, I see another side of the eldest Pandava. Here’s a flavour for you:
Arjun’s weapons were in the same place/ Where Yuddhistra was cloistered with Draupadi
Maybe it was bad timing, maybe it was fated/ But the rules between them couldn’t be flouted
No remedy was available, it was too late/Arjun was banished to the forest, alone and doubted
Yuddhistra was grieved, Arjun took it stoically/ Nobody ever thought of asking Panchali.
Book 4 of 5: Translations across India
From Sambhalpuri poet Haldar Nag to classic poets like Amrita Pritam who writes in Punjabi, A Poem A Day edited by Gulzar, is a prized volume to have at your bedside. Also, you get to read the poems, translated into Hindi and English. For those of us who speak both, it’s a fascinating exercise in bi-lingual reading.
Book 5 of 5: The craft of poetry
Editing may be exasperating, yet it is extraordinarily elevating — and here’s a fantastic book that demonstrates this. Read Visions and Revisions to discover the first drafts of poets like Owen and Auden, to deep dive into their many minute edits, and see the drastic difference a word here and a word there can make.
Finally, meet the multi-talented Jerry Pinto, novelist, writer, editor, and poet, who tells us how we can bring poetry back into our lives. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
When did you discover poetry?
Poetry flowed through the house in the flurries of conversations we had with my mother who liked to quote The Old Stoic and Invictus to us. I enjoyed things like The Charge of the Light Brigade and Lord Ullin's Daughter, which was even sung sometimes at family parties. The home library had everything from Edgar A Guest through Ogden Nash and Edward Lear to Palgrave with some Eliot and Pound.
I remember clearly the first time I wanted to write poetry. It was a poem I found in the Standard X Bal Bharati English reader. In it, I read my first Yevyushenko poem The Schoolmaster and my first D H Lawrence poem Ultima Ratio Regum. But the poem that burned into my soul was Futility by Wilfred Owen.
Yes. When I read it the daffodils faded and I was filled with a longing so large I felt I could not contain it. I diagnosed this later as the despair that comes from wanting to write poetry but having nothing to say.
If you look back at your life, what would the poetry 'soundtrack' be?
I think there has always been poetry since then. I remember each new experience with clarity. I remember the heat on the beach where I read Ariel by Sylvia Plath. I remember the bus ride on which I encountered Adil Jussawalla's Missing Person, the 86 from Pedder Road to Mahim. I remember buying Hymns in Darkness new at Strand and Mr Shanbagh insisting I add Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar. I said I didn't have the money. He said I could pay later. I remember my first Miroslav Holub, The Fly translated by George Theiner. I remember my first Snodgrass, introduced to me by Adil at his poetry reading series, Loquations...
We would love to hear about the first poem you wrote.
I wrote a poem called Victory. It had a line in it:
In your mouth/ The taste of saliva.
Nothing else remains. And if this scrap remains it was because I had left it lying around--perhaps deliberately in the hope that someone might read it--and my father read it and circled those lines and wrote, 'Interesting' on the paper.
Which poets have most influenced your writing?
I think of myself as a blotter. Everything I read remains in some form or the other. I do my final edit for echoes. I don't damp them down but I like to know they are there.
The truth is there is so much to read, one has to make a conscious effort to re-read. I find myself returning to Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Kolatkar and Jussawalla, Nissim and Eunice de Souza. I find my contemporaries irresistible too: Ranjit Hoskoté, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Mustansir Dalvi and H Masud Taj.
In one of your poems, you tell young poet aspirants to run. If you had to be contrarian, what are the reasons you would give to keep writing poetry?
That poem was written in a certain vein and in a certain mood. Poetry generally doesn't give you a choice. Once you start, you have to carry on. The deeper the poems go, the deeper the excavation, the deeper the soul hole you've dug.
It is brutal to be a poet. It demands a level of nudity that no other form asks for. You have to write just one poem to get hooked. Then comes the darkness of wondering where the next one will come from. And always that horrible question: are you sure this is a poem and not just hacked-up prose?
You've been a journalist, a teacher, a writer and a poet. What is your practical advice for poets?
Buy books of poetry. Read poetry every day. Write poetry every day. Or try.
For readers who love poetry but have lost touch, what are some ways to bring poetry back into their lives?
I would say to them:
Poetry has never deserted you; you have disowned poetry.
Poetry began in the womb when you heard your mother's heartbeat.
Poetry was there when you prayed.
Poetry came with you to the home of the beloved.
Where did you go?
You went to the market instead.
You saw the poet there, hoarse and defeated.
You hardened your heart because there for a sane choice or two...
You laughed at poetry because it reminded you of a softer, gentler version of yourself.
(You forgot, did you, that the anthem of resistance is a poem?
That nothing is more violent than a poem with a question at its heart?)
You remember that self as vulnerable and now you want to be stone.
Poetry still waits for you. And in a moment of sorrow, you reach for a line from a poem.
Poetry haunts you. When you have been betrayed, an Urdu sher comes to your lips and stumbles, blinking in the strong daylight of memory.
Poetry taunts you as you watch the poet die but the poetry live on, defying mortality.
On a more practical level, I would say begin with some anthologies. My favourites are These My Words, The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry, The Rattle Bag and Against Forgetting.
What are your favourite memoirs of poets?
The Complete Memoirs of Pablo Neruda, Robert Lowell: Memoirs, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, In the Afternoon of Time by Harivanshrai Bachchan and My Story by Kamala Das.
And lastly, what books are you currently reading?
I am reading Requiem for the East, The Hidden Pleasures of Life, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Nirmala Patil Yanche Atmakathan and Pratinidhi Kavitaaein: Gagan Gill.
What are your favourite poems — the ones you grew up with? Do write in with recommendations.
Until next week, Happy Reading.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal