Tragic irrelevance

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

Poet and film lyricist Javed Akhtar reciting his poetry at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in May 2005. As a few like him have done, poets must find the means to bring their work out and place it before society.-A.M. FARUQUI

Poet and film lyricist Javed Akhtar reciting his poetry at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in May 2005. As a few like him have done, poets must find the means to bring their work out and place it before society.-A.M. FARUQUI

POSSIBLY from the time human beings began to use some kind of language, they used poetry. Perhaps words and gestures were not enough, and something more was needed for communication, and that something more was poetry. It should not surprise us, then, that the oldest chronicles that have come down to us have been written as poetry: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and many others. Poets recited their verses in royal halls and courts, bards narrated tales of valour and romance in poetry and song.

For centuries, poetry was an integral part of communication and respected as a higher form of language. Poets were admired and in many communities and civilisations they were revered. Sanskrit plays that had a theme or tale of high seriousness were in the form of poetry while those which were comedies used prose and poetry together. This is, coincidentally, the manner in which theatre developed elsewhere; in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare and his peers wrote their plays in poetry, using prose to bring the mood either to a more down-to-earth level or for comedy. That was more or less the French theatre tradition, too, around the same time.

As the years passed, poetry gradually moved away from recitation and into books, although for a good many generations books of poetry continued to be widely read, and poets greatly admired. Rabindranath Tagore had an enormous number of devoted admirers, and in the mid-19th century Byron had a large cult following, much in the manner of a modern rock star.

But the years passed, and poetry became more and more eclectic; in their quest for new ways of expressing themselves, poets distanced themselves from society in general. They began to be regarded as odd. From the early stereotype of a man with wild, long hair, and an other-worldly look who progressed or degenerated from a figure of some wonder to a curiosity to an object of derision, to the modern poet who does not always cultivate a poetic look but passes for just another figure hurrying somewhere, the appearance has changed for a number of reasons.

What has really changed, though, is the nature of poetry. It has receded almost completely from the sensibilities of the common man, who vaguely remembers it as a kind of June-moon thing he had to learn in school and found either boring or strange or distasteful. And those who write poetry have looked continually for a personal language, finding standard ways of expressing themselves ineffective.

True, in some parts of this country, there are mushairas and kavi sammelans where poets recite their works, often to large appreciative audiences. But that happens largely in northern India; one is not aware of similar gatherings of poets in the south. There certainly are no such events in eastern India. But generally, poetry has gone into the closet, as it has, perhaps, the world over.

It is ironic that as Indian novelists writing in English have been recognised and admired the world over, and a play written by an Indian has won an international award Harvest, by Manjula Padmanabhan won the Onassis Prize in 1977 Indians poets writing in English have become more and more isolated. They are certainly not alone in this; poets have been drifting away from the mainstream of writing for some years now.

For three years, out of key with histime,He strove to resuscitate the dead artOf poetry; to maintain thesublimeIn the old sense. Wrong from thestart.

Ezra Pound wrote these lines in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly in the early years of the 20th century, and their relevance today is as sharp as it was then.

One may, however, quarrel with his definition of poetry as a dead art; true, that is how it seems to most people, but it is not really dead. Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, got the Nobel Prize in recent times and some of his poetry is not easy to comprehend when one reads it first. Poets have become very contextual, and the contexts are sometimes so private as to appear nonsensical.

Spring too longGongulais a classic example of this.

Poetry has become irrelevant to everyday life, which is tragic. It means that a great deal of depth, richness of expression and awareness is now confined to the circle of poets who read one anothers poems, and to a small number of lovers of poetry.

This may be contested by those who write in other Indian languages, but the hard fact is that publishers are not just reluctant to publish poetry, they quite often absolutely refuse to do so. One publisher, known and respected for his fine sense of discrimination and faultless taste, told me that he generally did not publish poetry except for the works of a few, because no one bought the books in even modest numbers.

One big reason is that, given the present freedom poets have to use such forms as they think appropriate, a number of people have begun writing garbage and passing it off as poetry. A. Alvarez, who edited a collection of poems by English poets called The New Poetry in 1962, prefaced the collection with a rather mournful essay called The New Poetry, or Beyond The Gentility Principle.

He reproduced a poem and said of it, Perhaps the logic seems a little tenuous? The shifts a little hard to follow? The content a little too fine-drawn? They should do. The piece is synthetic; it contains eight [lines from] the New Lines poets. His intention was to show how close new poetry (as he called it then, and as it may well be called even now) is to being nonsense.

Some poets have gained respect among those who love poetry, but the tragedy is that it has remained confined to those few. No poet can hope to make a living by being a poet. Some write lyrics for films and can be said to live off their poetry but that is not quite what one means, as is obvious. Some have tried to bridge the gap; Sumon Chatterjee in Bengali set his poems to music and won admiration for the effort, as did the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen for doing the same thing.

But poetry still remains in the closet. And, as I said, to that extent we are all impoverished, and society is more ordinary, monotonous, superficial. In an age when, thanks to technology, we are individually and collectively inundated with many forms of communication, much of which shape young sensibilities in ways that take them further away from the richness that poetry can bring them, the onus, huge though it is, is finally on the poets themselves.

As a few like Javed Akhtar have done, poets must find the means to bring their work out and place it before society. They must find the language that makes this possible without in any way compromising their essential skill and sensibility.

Years of endeavour will be necessary before something begins to change in the general perception. But it can be done; the way has been shown by a handful. It is now up to poets in general to determine what the future of poetry as an attribute to our society will be.

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