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Poetry can provide us solace from life’s relentless pressures

One’s home is one place where we can abdicate from today’s barbarity. Provided, of course, we don’t regard our homes as assets accruing value in the property market, writes Mark Tully.

columns Updated: Dec 02, 2018 17:25 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
A poetry-reading event in Delhi. Poetry stalls time, makes you stop and go back. (HT Photo)

We live in times which can be called barbaric, crude and crassly commercial, times dominated by the making and spending of money. The market is king. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. What will it cost, how much is it worth, how much money can be made out of it, are the only questions which seem to matter. Money has undermined confidence in the medical profession and invaded academia. Culture is marketed, so is spirituality. The profit of developers takes precedence over the preservation of heritage.

In his poem, Translation, the 20th century English poet, Roy Fuller, says, “Anyone happy in this age and place is daft or corrupt. Better to abdicate from a material and spiritual terrain fit only for Barbarians.” But where can we abdicate to which is not ruled by the dominant business culture? It’s difficult to answer that one. Even fleeing to the Himalayas is no longer an answer because of the wounds the contractors and the speculator are inflicting on the mountains. I did, however, hear of two sources of solace and comfort in the distress caused by today’s barbarity, at the recent Dehra Dun literary festival called The Valley of Words. Dehra Dun incidentally is a once-beautiful town ruined by contractors and speculators.

One source is art. At Dehra Dun, Juliet Reynolds discussed the collection of essays and other writings she has edited about her late husband, the artist Anil Karanjai. Anil was an angry young man, angry at the exploitation and inequality he saw all around him. His art, with imagery Juliet describes as “grotesque and confrontational”, was an expression of that anger. However, Anil later turned to landscapes. They were an expression of a desire to “heal the wounds inflicted by our brutal, dehumanised society”. He emphasised the value of hope and solace.

One of the features of the frenetic age we live in is the pressure on our time. It’s become a commodity to be spent profitably and efficiently. Poetry can provide solace from this relentless pressure. Sumana Roy was one of the poets at Dehra Dun. Flicking through images on a smartphone with her thumb she said “ My thumb is acting like the tyres of an automobile propelling time forward at speed, never allowing any time for relaxation. Poetry stalls time, makes you stop and go back. Poetry is forever new. It’s new every time you read it like a musician playing a raag. As the poet Robert Frost said, reading poetry provides “a momentary stay against confusion”.

Aryaman Hakkar, a 17-year-old boy from Doon School, also read one of his poems at the festival. He told me he had turned to writing poetry to comfort himself, to find solace, when his three dogs died. If he doesn’t understand a poem, he reads it aloud. He builds his own context about whatever the poem is said to mean.

But even art and poetry are not immune to the all-pervasive power of money. Publishers and art dealers ask the question of “how much is it worth” before deciding to buy paintings or poems. In this way, they limit the art and poetry available to provide us solace. In the book she edited, Juliet Reynolds tells how her husband was cold shouldered by the art establishment in a later stage when he was painting landscapes to provide solace and hope. Just two small paintings were sold at his last exhibition, which was held in Mumbai. Sumana Roy finds herself unhappy with a culture in which authors are judged by their sales and they are expected by publishers to promote their own books. She rejects the literary groups and cliques of Delhi and continues to live in her home in Siliguri, feeling homesick whenever she goes away. One’s home is one place where we can abdicate from today’s barbarity. Provided, of course, we don’t regard our homes as assets accruing value in the property market.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 01, 2018 19:31 IST