Friday, June 12, 2009

Why still read poetry? - KARTHIKA NAIR

(First published in The Hindu Literary Review on June 7, 2009)

I shouldn’t be able to remember it with such exactitude. After all, as John Steinbeck remarked in Sweet Thursday, “Change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfum e of wildflowers in the grass.” But poetry was neither discreet nor gentle with me: it did not ruffle the curtains; it tore them down and the house alongside, in three distinct gusts.
The first came at 14, through an unlikely source: “Bhoole Bisre Geet” on All India Radio, a bedtime ritual in the midst of the darkness ushered by a mandatory load shedding. Perhaps it had to do with the total focus induced by night but the lines exploded in my head: humne dekhi hein un ankhon ki mehekti khushboo/haath se chooke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do/sirf ehsaas hein ye,/rooh se mehzooz karo/pyar ko pyar hi rehene do, ise rishton ka ilzaam na do.
This opening quatrain from an old Hindi film song displaced poetry from a clinical study of assonance, alliteration, metre and metaphor in the works of immortals alphabetically arranged in an I.S.C.E curriculum. “I have seen the wafting fragrance of your eyes,” wrote Gulzaar and synesthesia became tangible. Poetry could bend, stretch, torque and detonate the senses. Sounds had smell, sights took on texture and everything in the world turned fluid, interchangeable. Cosmic laws got rewritten. Poetry became a magic mirror; one that saw, not darkly as in the Bible, but tangentially; not removed from reality, but up close, much closer than usual lenses allowed.
New direction
The second came quite close at heel, a double second as it were. Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate arrived like some great mythical bird, maybe the griffin, showing off the sheer wingspan of poetry, giving new sense and direction to elements often considered old-fashioned and irrelevant: rhyme and rhythm, cadence and structure. Written in 663 sonnets, the book captured — almost literally — everything short of the kitchen sink: a treatise on nuclear warfare, metaphysical questions of death and love, advise on pruning grapes, to my favourite below — a pungent tirade on the presumed irresistibility of babies: How ugly babies are! How heedless/Of all else than their bulging selves –/Like sumo wrestlers, plush with needless/Kneadable flesh – like mutant elves,/Plump and vindictively nocturnal,/With lungs determined and infernal/(A pity that the blubbering blobs/Come unequipped with volume knobs),/And so intrinsically conservative,/A change of breast will make them squall/With no restraint or qualm at all./Some think them cuddly, cute and curvative./Keep them, I say. Good luck to you;/No doubt you used to be one too.
Poetry, I discovered, could tell a tale — or multiple tales, as The Golden Gate had demonstrated — just as prose or drama; tell it with verve and wit, passion and power. Formal poetry, with its musicality, its intentness and attention to detail became a portal towards a ‘parallel universe’, as a friend calls it, one peopled with acrobats and contortionists, dancers and lion-tamers that went by the names like sestina, terza rima, ghazal, rub’ai, pantoum and more.
Vital components
The other half of this double gust, T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, not only reinforced the impression left by its companion but unveiled another vital component: compression.
Do I dare/Disturb the universe?/In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Crispness, lack of indulgence for elaboration, restraint … they entered my lexicon here, proving how impactful verse could be in its spareness, its telegraphic quality of summing up and implying emotion, fact or state of being.
It took a few more years for “Lady Lazarus” to sweep in. Sylvia Plath’s poem did not just blow away the house, it snagged inside my eardrums, seared mind and tongue, left scratches on language and labels:
Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.
Jeanette Winterson says is all when she calls language a finding place, not a hiding place. This then is what draws me inevitably to poetry: the truth. Not factual, lyrical or narrative truth, but truth of expression and of emotion. The ability to pin down and identify the source and delimit its contours. Pain, love, fear, hate, even restlessness…. They become bearable when given a voice, they get reduced to manageable proportions and they become shareable.
I never felt it voyeuristic to read Plath’s work; it felt like signing a covenant with someone who had perhaps suffered from the loneliness of not having her words reach far enough, and would be as empowered as I, the reader, by my act of appropriation.
Still reading poetry? Yes, still. Just as I am still breathing, still working, still thinking, still – hopefully – learning: human actions that are not circumscribed by any era or erudition, technology or trend.


Rishi said...

This is really good. What strikes me most about poetry, and I am decidedly dense about it, is that when you get it, you GET IT! It can
hit you like a ton of bricks. Only in my case,it happens very rarely:)
Nice one Shashank.

Karthika Naïr said...

Dear Mr. Chauhan,

Thank you for posting my piece from The Hindu Literary Review in its entirety. I am really happy it appealed to you.

In deference to The Hindu's copyright policy, though, I would appreciate it if you could either give a link to the original piece in The Hindu:

or credit it accordingly (first published in The Hindu Literary Review on June 7, 2009).