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In defence of poetry

From the macabre to the merry, it’s rewarding to find your own flavour

brunch Updated: Nov 27, 2017 12:10 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
poetry,in defence of poetry,poetic
Move on from the Romantics and you discover endless flavours of poetry for every taste, from the macabre to the merry(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”

So begins Marianne Moore’s iconic and ironic defence of verse in the helpfully titled poem: ‘Poetry’.

Years ago in lit class, our poet-professor got to the heart of the matter -- this deep-seated resistance to poetry shared by many. The inspirational Eunice de Souza introduced us to a multiplicity of poetic forms and content, disabusing silly notions and planting useful ones. She said, in words more or less like these: “Not all poetry is Romantic poetry. Not every poet wanders lonely as a cloud, composing soulful odes to birds while pining away for damsels locked away in castles.”

When poetry is mocked or parodied (Roses are red/Violets are blue etc.) -- or even first attempted, it is in the Romantic style, that of the capital R. Of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Byron. Wordsworth famously described poetry as “[…] the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” (From the ‘Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’). But for all its considerable influence and merit, Romanticism is just one literary movement of thousands. Move on from the Romantics and you discover endless flavours of poetry for every taste, from the macabre to the merry.

Along the way you’re sure to encounter TS Eliot, owner of some of the finest lines in English poetry. Whether it is the pathos of Prufrock or the erudition of The Wasteland, the playfulness of Macavity or the succinctness of the Preludes, Eliot is one of those masters whose poetic influence on western literary culture is immense. But like all theorists, his criticism must be questioned. Mr. Eliot is what postcolonial, postmodern readers would call a literary snob.

As I grow older, I find his ‘Impersonality Theory’ (‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality.’) particularly damaging to poets who come from a different ethos. The Confessional poets, for example, stand in stark contrast to this so-called objectivity, whether it is Sylvia Plath’s gut-wrenching introspection or Robert Lowell’s deeply personal excavations. Beat guru Allen Ginsberg’s bardic chant Howl is another counterpoint to both Romantic and Modernist traditions. It’s interesting to see how Eliot himself collapses his own distinction between “the man who suffers and the mind that creates” in some of his most cherished works.

Far from the western literary canon (that many Indian poets in English also belong to) lies a world of eastern poets, steeped in their own traditions, imagery and philosophies. The Chinese poets give us a glimpse of distant landscapes and unfamiliar customs, with the most heartbreakingly recognizable characters. Whether it is Ghalib or Gulzar, the Urdu tradition combines depth with charm, reflecting a syncretic Hindustani identity. Mirabai and Kabir give us Bhakti poetry that is spirituality without the self-help. While reading Prakrit love poetry, you encounter gems such as the one below. (From the excellent ‘The Absent Traveller’, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra).

After much training,

The hussy’s mongrel

Licks her lover’s hand

And flies at her husband.

Poetry is so much more than dead white men proselytising from across the centuries. It speaks in whichever tongue the reader is familiar with, of every experience that counts, mainstream or marginalised.

Whenever someone tells me they don’t get poetry, I find myself taking up the deeply irritating position of defendant-in-chief. I swamp mailboxes with accessible poets of irresistible wit (Dorothy Parker), ironic contemporary poets (Wendy Cope), everyday poets with disarming styles (Billy Collins). Vikram Seth is a much-used argument, as are one-off poems from Theodore Roethke (My Papa’s Waltz) and Eunice de Souza (Women in Dutch Painting). If my victim shows a fraction of interest, there’s Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Agha Shahid Ali, Pablo Neruda and others waiting down the line. And for kids there’s the eye-opening anthology by Gerard Benson ‘This Poem Does Not Rhyme’ that even cites Shakespeare and Milton for its purpose. The strategy is effective, if not sophisticated. Reel them in with humour and sink them deep, poet by poet.

Goethe famously said: “He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living hand to mouth.” The German polymath would have had to add several more thousands to his estimate to the age of culture if he were to factor in non-western civilisations. But I agree with the sentiment and link it with poetry. Poetry, like all art, tells us more about ourselves than our official narratives ever will or can. It is conscious of the unconscious. Like Freud said: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.” So it’s tragic if an unimaginative teacher banging on about the Romantics ends a student’s love for poetry even before it has a chance to begin.

From HT Brunch, November 26, 2017

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First Published: Nov 25, 2017 21:38 IST