© Arundhathi Subramaniam
Man’s World, 2005
“You write poetry? How nice. Now when are you going to publish your first novel?” I’ve heard the question more often than I can remember. The real question is: why poetry? Why on earth poetry?
My response is to grin sheepishly and mumble something about not really being a fiction person, about believing that poetry offers more challenges than I can negotiate in a lifetime, about being wary of the horizontal seductions of narrative. But it’s too late. By that time my questioner has invariably lost interest and has moved on to what s(h)e considers less fluffy matters (like the Sensex, the cricket scores, ICICI bonds, Kurdish refugees), and I humbly lapse into silence (or into poetry, which to my questioner is the same thing anyway).
A couple of months ago, a senior colleague at the cultural centre I work in actually looked at me with compassion and said, “But you really should try your hand at the novel, my dear. I’d like to see you do something with your life.” The implication was loud and clear: devote a lifetime to poetry? What a loser!
Perhaps she isn’t far from the truth. After all, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to write poetry. It doesn’t improve the rabi crop yield or the GNP or the quality of people’s sex lives. Recent American researchers claim that poets actually die sooner than other species of writers. (Terminal invisibility has a way of doing that.) And then, of course, everyone stays clear of you: readers and publishers in particular. You rarely see a royalty cheque. If you crave for fame, you’ve got to be willing to do something truly spectacular — like die a picturesque death with a bitter entry in your journal about preferring death to mediocrity. After that, if you’re lucky, some folk will leaf desultorily through your work (lucky you – posthumous or prehumous, you’re actually getting read), shake their heads sadly, and say, “Good poets die young”. But woe betide you if you live past the age of 33. There’s nothing as vulgar as a live middle-aged poet.
You get the picture. Basically, you’re a bit of a dowd and the sooner you accept it the better. Once you realise that anonymity has its advantages, you might actually start enjoying yourself.
How did we get here? When did poetry become passe? Why did we decide poetry was adolescent activity and fiction the adult genre? Good questions. Here’s why (or so I believe).
1. Because everyone endlessly paraphrased ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ in school exams till they began to associate daffodils with dyspepsia. 2. Because few believe any poetry has been written since the 19th century. 3. Because those who do believe in the existence of 20th century poetry think it’s esoteric and difficult. 4. Because most folk believe that poetry without rhyme is no fun. 5. Because most believe that free verse is self-indulgent stuff that anyone can do without much effort.
No, it’s not my mission to evangelise. I’m not going to say poetry is good for the soul to those who prefer to take chicken soup for that kind of thing. But yes, I do think American poet Randall Jarrell had a point when he pointed out that it’s not that people have stopped reading poetry because they find it difficult, just that people find poetry difficult because they’ve stopped reading it.
Of course, there’s plenty of bad poetry – as there are bad movies and lousy Thai restaurants. But if we aren’t put off cinema and Thai cuisine forever, why on earth have we sworn a lifetime of abstinence from poetry?
I’d like to share an unsettling hunch that has been with me for a while. I believe that one of the foremost reasons for poetry being unfashionable is the fact that we live in an age when it is increasingly difficult to hear oneself. An age that prioritises stridency over tentativeness, certainty over doubt, statement over question, certainty over ambiguity, self-projection over self-exploration, function over form. In the age of the megaphone, it’s easy to forget the need for a murmur. Poetry is a form for intimate spaces – for galleries and coffee shops, rather than the stadium and the auditorium. It is a form that, almost by definition, must speak softly. If it is to increase its volume, it distorts its own reality. Tone is its raison d’etre — if its minute shifts of register are ironed out, it runs the risk of losing its integrity.
Unlike prose that lives exclusively on paper, poetry is still a form meant for the spoken voice – but emphatically not for the raised voice. Poetry connects with our interiority, but not through the jingoistic reiteration strategies of advertising and propaganda. Poetry relies on an older magic. Its guile lies in taking you unawares – either by seeping insidiously into your pores, or by giving you that sharp sudden jolt of surprised recognition. Its effects are rarely visible, almost never quantifiable. And yet, it is capable of creating major shifts along your internal fault lines.
The culture of utilitarianism has taken over our lives more comprehensively than we realise. We live by irreconcilable dichotomies: work and play, day and night, weekdays and weekends, truth and beauty, precision and passion, ethics and entertainment, science and art, fact and fiction, prose and poetry, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Poetry disrupts these smug oppositional categories. It’s about allowing lunar concerns into your day. About bringing question marks rather than full stops into your life.
And if that makes life difficult for the reader, let me add that it isn’t easy for the poet either. I believe that those with some amount of verbal dexterity have a particularly important responsibility towards themselves. The responsibility not to allow their gift to turn into glibness. Not to allow that capacity to illuminate and clarify through language to turn into a love of their own voices. Not to allow the impulse to explore a world of word, rhythm and sound to turn into a self-aggrandising desire to impress, to conquer.
Words don’t come easy. And when they do, they’re meant to be watched, not censoriously, but with caution. Which explains why all writers are word-watchers before they are wordsmiths. They know that old secret only too well – that we don’t merely use language; we are also used by it.
Words are a means of making ourselves vulnerable – frequently to each other, but also to ourselves. For far too long we have used them as weapons, as armours, as territorial markers. And with every verbal parry and thrust, with every dogmatic full stop, we move further away from the possibility of opening ourselves to growth. To surprise. To the startling confrontation of self with self.
Which is what poetry – when it works – is all about.
Why write poetry? That’s why.
‘The Hindu’, April 2003
It was Thomas a Kempis who said he’d rather experience contrition than know how to define it. It is a sentiment I’m beginning to feel more and more deeply about particularly in relation to the whole question of ‘Indianness’.
There have always been self-appointed experts on the subject, of course. State propaganda, films, television soaps and advertisements have been doling out prescriptions for a long time. To uncritically applaud the country’s nuclear muscle seems to be one way of being Indian. To metamorphose from miniskirts to saris seems to be the popular media’s strategy of shedding Western contamination and becoming the real McCoy Indian woman. Local political parties believe Indianness can be acquired by banning Valentine’s Day and renaming the Prince of Wales Museum the ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’.
Then, of course, there are the myriad provincial strands of the cultural establishment. There are the local ‘back to our roots’ obscurantists who want classical dancers and musicians to be emissaries of a ‘pure untainted’ Indian culture. Or those who believe Indian theatre must draw on traditional indigenous idioms if it is to be meaningful and anchored.
And finally, there is the nativist litarary bastion. My generation may like to believe that the whole question of English being an Indian language is old hat. We may believe it’s been proved that English is as Indian as cricket or democracy. And yet, the same argument reinvents itself time and again in all sorts of insidious avatars. There’s a virtual knee-jerk reaction to English poetry in India in some circles, for instance, evinced in the impulse to instantly deem it precious, self-conscious, esoteric, navel-gazing — and, of course, nowhere as earthy, throbbing and vital (read ‘as Indian’) as poetry in other Indian languages.
If the Indian writer in English has the local linguistic reactionaries to contend with, she also has to negotiate another brand of ‘Indianness’ expert – a certain species of Western cultural commentator. An Italian friend tells me that an academic journal in Milan recently bemoaned the ‘new-Victorian’ hangover of Indian poetry in English, its inability to come of age, the absence of a strong representative voice (as exemplified by Rushdie in the novel). And just last year, a similar view was endorsed by a reviewer in ‘Poetry Wales’ who lamented the lack of an identifiably ‘Indian’ element in English poetry in India, so unlike the robust patois of Caribbean poetry. These are not isolated instances; they are part of a ‘not-quite-Indian enough’ chorus that has been around quite a long while. The trope of the simpering slavishly mimicking Peter Sellers brand of Western Oriental Gentleman reinvents itself in all these arguments. It will evidently take time for a certain kind of Western reader to accept that ‘the literatures of the world are not’, as Adil Jussawalla puts it (in his introduction to ‘New Writing in India’), ‘colonies in his empire of taste’.
I believe it is important to periodically reassert one’s resistance to this quest for the ‘identifiably Indian’ – a quest that tells us more about the seeker than the sought. Underlying it, clearly, is another guise of colonialism, based on the premise that there is a core Indianness that can and should be identified, labelled, itemised and brandished like a visa (to what might seem like Destination Literary Paradise but is actually a literary ghetto). Not so very different, after all, from the fundamentalists back home who are forever devising Procrustean means to arrive at unitary cultural identities.
What this kind of criticism ends up doing frequently is to reduce the role of the Indian artist to that of a vendor of exotica, ‘an alterity-manufacturing machine’. Will roughening our cadences and splitting our infinitives establish our distance from our colonial history? Do we still secretly believe that we must write about earthquakes in Bhuj, wars in Kargil, yogis in the Himalayas and pot-bellied children on pavements to prove our credentials as authentic Indians? Do we have to arrive at a cleverly packaged Orientalist formula to be artistically kosher, to prove that we belong? Are we in fact back to the stage of having to prove that English is our language? That we have the right to speak it the way we want? That each one of us – whether our idioms are mandarin or demotic – are as much part of the same bhel-puri that typifies the complexity of the Indian cultural experience?
I remember a conversation a couple of years ago with a group of Germans interested in finding out about ‘cutting edge’ work in the Indian arts. I realised then all over again just how vexed this whole business of Indianness actually is. I also realised just how long it would take an outsider to any culture to understand the complex negotiations that its people make with their cultural inheritance. For what might seem boldly transgressive to the outside eye could well be a shallow or derivative artistic endeavour within a certain context. Likewise, what may seem conservative to the outside observer may well represent a significant moment in a particular milieu.
A Hindi film in a grittily realist mode, for instance, is likely to be regarded as far more audacious in India than the flamboyant kitschy musical film that the West now regards as bold Bollywood pastiche. Why, given the complexity of the Indian cultural scene, we know that a Gujarati playwright writing a social realist play is clearly exercising a choice quite different from a Marathi playwright doing the same. An Indian poet in English employing an idiom that seems a trifle formal or self-conscious to a Western reader may actually be negotiating her way around the eroded linguistic terrain of the popular media and political propaganda. She may also be trying to walk that perennially challenging tightrope between what Adrienne Rich calls the ‘non-referential’ and the ‘paraphrasable’.
In his deeply insightful introduction to his book, ‘Lives of the Poets’, publisher and writer Michael Schmidt says that poetry is an art that flourishes when language itself is interrogated. And one may add that there’s no telling how many conceivable ways there might be of interrogating language. Schmidt also says that ‘the greatest reader in the world has a primary task: ‘to set a poem free’. For this to be accomplished, he says, ‘the reader must hear it fully’. To hear a poem fully, of course, one has to listen to the poem itself, not to some pat mantras and preconceived notions about poetic practice that one applies routinely to every work one encounters.
If becoming an artist is a process of growing into oneself, then there is, of course, never a question of arriving. As a writer, I believe finding my voice is part of a journey of endlessly deferred discovery. Yes, I do hope that in the process my voice does get more honest, more supple, more creative, more ‘me’.
And in this deeper quest for authenticity – of a very different kind from the kind discussed earlier – I’ve always felt empowered by Borges’ remark in his Harvard Lectures. None of us need feel anxious about trying to be contemporary, he assures us, because none of us has yet figured out the magic formula of living in the past or the future. And applying the same logic to cultural identity, I’ve decided Indianness is one of those things I needn’t worry about. I simply am – whether I like it or not – as Indian as they come.
The Times of India
‘Love poems, he says, are not easy to write/ because they’ve all been written before,’ wrote the poet, A K Ramanujan, and promptly proceeded to write one himself.
It’s a paradox that poets – and mystics – are familiar with. Everything that needs to be said has been said before. (Pundits tell us India said it all before anywhere else, so the historical burden’s redoubled.) And it’s always been said better than you could ever say it. So why add your discordant quaver to the symphony?
Good question. But one designed to silence you. Poets say the same things time and again, like the rest of humanity, because they need to. And what’s life without a little live birdsong?
The challenge, of course, is to make birdsong sound new – or at least, immediate – each time round. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in a line that
remains unforgettable because that’s not the way mistress’ eyes are conventionally supposed to look. ‘It’s all one skin and bone,/ one piss and shit,/ one blood, one meat./ From one drop, a universe,’ wrote Kabir and you remember that too because you don’t expect such violent diction from a saint-poet.
The business of making things sound like they’ve never been said before requires faith. Why? Because the scenario is pretty apocalyptic: language hardening into cliché all around you, thoughts turning into truisms even before they’re out of your head, conversations sounding like replays of eighties’ sitcoms, every moment a surrender to habit, to the crushing tyranny of history.
To believe that the same banal dank substance called language is capable of putting forth something green and unexpected an act of faith. It’s about accepting the miracle of the lotus in the mud marsh (except that image is too eroded to surprise us anymore!) It’s about believing you can recover the taste of cinnamon in a much-champed, molar-ravaged pellet of ‘babble-gum’.
It also requires guile. Reinventing love poetry, for instance, takes not just linguistic techno-savvy, but the cunning to find space for your utterance where none seems to exist. And so poet C P Surendran offers us the startling image of the heart as a grenade, Dinyar Godrej likens love to kiwi fruit, and Arun Kolatkar turns an amorous streetside scene of lice-removal into pure music: ‘her fairy fingers run through his hair/ producing arpeggios of lice/ and harmonics of nits’.
Faith, guile, and not least, innocence. To see the same ‘thing’ as everyone else, but to see it transfigured, requires innocence – or at least the willingness to be surprised. When Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan envisions a new world, he doesn’t churn out trite phrases about ‘critiquing fundamentalism’ and ‘rejecting illiberalism’. He gives us, instead, the arresting metaphor of the ‘stammer’: ‘Stammer is the silence that falls/ between the word and its meaning…./ God too must have stammered/ when He created Man./ That is why all the words of man/ carry different meanings.’
Poetry doesn’t merely change the way we look at language, but the way we look at the world. In a stroke Satchidanandan transforms the stammer from a speech defect into a paradigm for our times, a more generous and inclusive way of living on this planet.
It’s a reminder of the triumph of the fine-tuned image over the blunted implements of ideology, of poetry over propaganda. Birdsong over babble.
Time Out Column 22
What’s it about – this business of ‘finding your voice’ as a writer? For ages, it sounded pretentious to me. Joan-of-Arcish. Do we all babble in tongues until we suddenly find one that sounds like our own?
The answer to that, I admit, is yes. It took me aeons to realize that I’ve sleepwalked so long that I’ve spent a good part of my life in an unconscious séance. Other voices spoke through me for decades. They still do in unwary moments. I’m just a little more alert to them now. Whose voices? The dead white men of the literary canon? Well, yes. But also other voices of authority – teachers, parents, thinkers, writers, columnists, hairdressers… All the censorious voices that tell you how to be yourself.
From your first waking moment to your last, all you negotiate is opinion. How do you stop listening to that melee of privileged wisdom and find out how you sound? The answer is, with difficulty. You can never be as pristine as asli ghee or the Noble Savage. But the effort’s worth it.
I know that it personally took me a long time to accept that it wasn’t unfeminine to enjoy intellectual rigour in poetry, and it wasn’t anti-modern to want emotion in it either. Sounds pretty basic. But it sometimes takes that long to realize that you’ve internalized a divisive either-or aesthetic that’s eating up your innards!
As poetry editor, I keep discovering voices that go against the grain of their times, and are the richer for it. Quirky, even unfashionable voices, and memorable for that very reason. I think of Tamil poet Manushya Puthiran’s hushed poetics that records the silences of middle-class homes. Or environmental Malayalam poet Veerankutty who writes a quiet, ‘gently persuasive’ political poetry to puncture the bombast of our public life. Or Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan who spent two years in solitary confinement for his Maoist Naxalite politics. His poetry speaks of his mother’s laughter, the clang of the village school bell, the sound of prison gates. But it’s shot through with a deep silence – an abiding sense of the unspoken, perhaps the unspeakable.
There will always be writers who surprise us – who sing when we expect them to weep, murmur when we expect them to rant, speak when it would be wiser to hold their tongues. And none of those choices came easy.
A couple of caveats. After much unearthing, you could well find your ‘discovered’ voice sounds uncannily like someone else’s! That’s surely what Borges meant when he said writers invent their own precursors. But so what? Invented precursors are always preferable to inherited ones.
And truth be told, it’s an endlessly deferred treasure-hunt. You get ‘warm’ and ‘warmer’, only to discover something they should have taught you in kindergarten: it takes forever and a day – and a little more – to grow into yourself.
The rest is laryngitis…
Time Out Column
My friend says he’d always seen himself as a scholar. Then he discovered an even more primary identity – father. “Now I just want to hang around my kids,” he says. “Learning is still important. It’s just that I’m learning differently.”
Self-definitions are tricky things. They’ve tripped me up too. My primary definition, I believed (since Class Three), was ‘poet’. The rest of my life was about waiting for others to recognize the fact.
By the time some did, that self-definition had been derailed. There was something far more urgent, more basic about being me. By age 29, I’d fallen headlong into the spaces between words – dark, silent, terrifyingly wordless spaces. My encounter with those craters made me realize I don’t just hang around words. I hang around silences too.
I realized then that my fundamental self-definition is ‘seeker’, not ‘poet’. What’s more, the poetry is – and has always been – part of the seeking. Oddly, that wasn’t really a new discovery. More a rediscovery.
That brings me to my current preoccupation – the great deception perpetuated by so many systems of learning. What a laughable scam it is! Why does no one ever tell us that learning is, for the most part, not about acquisition, but about recognition? Not about foraging, but hanging around?
When I was thirteen, I stumbled upon a book by someone called T.S. Eliot. I had no clue who he was. But I found I couldn’t put the book down. And as I drank in that strange, dense, opaque text, I was exultantly aware of being in the presence of poetry. Did I understand it? No. And I couldn’t have paraphrased it if I tried. But recognize it I did.
It happened again when I read American poet Wallace Stevens. It was like meeting a relative – someone who spoke a language I knew, but had forgotten. That was when I began to dimly realize that metaphor – the magical ability to make abstraction crunchy and thinginess intangible – isn’t just about beauty. It’s about truth. And it doesn’t matter that one can’t memorise, decode or write an essay on it. It’s enough to recognize it.
Which probably explains the emphasis on ‘smaran’ or ‘dhikr’– remembrance – in so many spiritual traditions. Whether it’s chanting a mantra or working your beads, you’re only trying to find your way back home, not make a new one.
‘Seeker’ has to be dropped too, of course. I know it’s a comfort label, a useful replacement noun. Noun-collection is for hunter-gatherers. It’s those of us naïve enough to believe we are our bio-datas. Hellishly hard to give up, though.
And yet, when you look up after one long exhilarating moment of writing and find three hours of clock-time have vanished, you realize suddenly that those nouns have always been a myth. You’re no poet or scholar then, just verb – writing, seeking, remembering, hanging around.
And learning, relearning, re-re-learning the long way home.
Time Out Column
“So I hear you’ve turned Seeker….?” said a theatre friend the other day. He was referring, be both knew, to my recent stints at a Coimbatore yoga ashram.
The air crackled with embarrassment. His and mine. I was tempted to say something about Harry Potter’s field position in Quidditch. I think I ended up saying I’d been a Seeker since my feverish discussions in college about Art, Metaphysics and Who to Romance at the TYBA Social.
Flip but true.
We’d just emerged from a discussion on Art as a Source of Consciousness. Not that we needed any convincing. We were all allies out there. No Consciousness Tricksters in sight.
But what if we were accosted by one of those diehard utilitarian types? One of those who says, “Why theatre? Why poetry? They don’t change lives.” My friend and I would have sighed and offered the usual barrage of arguments: about art as the realm of the non-quantifiable, ambiguous, paradoxical, revelatory, healing, transformational and true.
It isn’t kosher, we’d say, to talk at a seminar about the wild sex you had last night, or to discuss Nagarjuna’s theory of shoonya at a friend’s wedding. But it’s possible in art to talk about both. Death, love, loss, quest, God – this is the blood and marrow of art. No artificial divides between mind and body and emotion here. That’s why the Mahabharata satisfies you in a way the Collins Thesaurus cannot, we’d say.
Or if we were impatient, we’d simply remark infuriatingly, “Art changes you subtly, even though you don’t know it.”
Justifying a spiritual search to a rationalist is a bit like defending art to a pragmatist.
The arguments are about the same too. About silences being subtle, life-changing, cathartic and potentially revelatory. If art is a deep knowing, structured meditation can be deeper. It can take you on a quiet, non-glamorous journey from compulsion toward choice.
Nothing in the least pious about it. I’ve found myself wondering about Koffee with Karan on a yoga retreat as often as I’ve contemplated the meaning of life at a wine-and-cheese literary soiree.
So why the embarrassment about ‘seeking’? Because there’s an unspoken agreement among those of us who ‘think’ that Art and Ideas ought to satisfy all our thirsts. The result: we’ve relegated the word ‘spiritual’ to the domain of tea-leaf readers and godmen in limos. We’ve othered it, trivialised it.
And that’s as unfortunate as allowing vested interests to equate ‘secular’ with ‘pseudo-secular’. Or art with self-indulgence. Or the intellectual life with navel-gazing.
‘Seeking’ is for those uncomfortable with artificial divides. Those who dislike the word, ‘ought’. Those who habitually spill out and unbelong. Those who want to make space for trivia and transcendence, Karan and Konsciousness, and more…
That covers quite a few people I know.
But yes, it sometimes does seem simpler to remark, “Spirituality changes you subtly, even though you don’t know it.”
Poetry and Craft in The Times of India, 2005
“Why must modern poetry be so difficult?” is the plaintive query that still surfaces at poetry readings.
At this point, the poet takes a deep breath and points out that simplicity and complexity needn’t be valourised for their own sake. That simplicity can be banality as often as complexity can be turgidity. That Randall Jarrell observed that people could well find modern poetry difficult because they’ve stopped reading it. That the poetic craft has to tread a fine line…
Another interruption. “Craft? But isn’t poetry a spontaneous overflow…?” Another deep breath. But before the poet launches into another speech, the interlocutor (who’s also a poet, of course; who isn’t?) shrugs, “At least, my poems just write themselves.”
Now battle lines are drawn. As a poet, one has become almost as allergic to the words, ‘spontaneity’ and ‘simplicity’ as the interlocutor has to ‘craft’ and ‘difficulty’.
Some perceptions don’t change: poetry is a happening; prose involves event management. Poetry is malarial, nocturnal, involuntary, an attack of verbal incontinence; prose is what you hammer out on your keyboard for five hours daily. Poetry is cosmic, prose terrestrial. One step away is the inevitable conclusion: poetry is fluff; prose, dependable stuff.
Clearly, ‘difficult’ has become the easiest escape route there is for the reader in a hurry. In an age that extols the virtues of five-step manuals for decoding the universe – from the secrets of your laptop to your deepest existential dilemmas – poetry that doesn’t yield its ‘kernel’ at a single reading is regarded as suspect. At a recent reading, the poets were instructed on the tastes of the ‘common man’ — a mysterious construct that seemed to dig literature that could be cooked, eaten and evacuated with minimum participation (scarcely even a grunt) on his part. And words like ‘crafty’ and ‘self-conscious’ are increasingly used to describe all writing that shows any formal concern whatsoever.
My problem, however, is with all that is lost in the rant of overstatement and the braggadocio of polemic. One is invariably tempted to greet a gasp with a sneer. To deflate the votaries of simplicity by becoming a rabid defender of obscurity. To counter the spontaneous overflowers and cosmic shudderers with a grim, no-nonsense technical tirade. Poetry is hard work, one says sternly, it’s about endless revisions, much rigour and a great deal of perspiration.
But this fetishising of craft isn’t the whole truth either. The fact is that the artisan poet’s work isn’t entirely terrestrial. Much of the activity is subterranean, even seismic — and guess what, there are those secret broomstick sojourns into mystical zones.
Yes, there are rigorous drafts, revisions and counter-revisions. But that’s only half the story. Artisans, like gardeners and parents, have always known that their subjects also need a break from their ferociously solicitous gaze. Poems – like plants, children, kettles on the hob, graffiti on urinal walls and Bukhara-carpets-in-progress – need the right amount of inattention as well.
It isn’t about a bleak grit-toothed wrestling with technique either. Poets do live in a flurry of word-shavings, but their art isn’t all about conscious construction. It’s also about some inspired eavesdropping. There’s, in fact, plenty of rasa in the toil of the technician and plenty of riyaz in the epiphanist’s art. Manual labour happens, certainly, but so does magic. And the two are frequently simultaneous.
Can we put an end to the simple/spontaneous versus difficult/ crafty debate once and for all, and live in a more inclusive universe?