Dying art?

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

A procession depicting Rabindranath Tagores dance-drama Tasher Desh moving through a Kolkata street on the poets 131st birth anniversary (May 1992). Epics, songs, ballads, drama, dance  poetry has flowered into all these forms through the centuries.-PTI A procession depicting Rabindranath Tagores dance-drama Tasher Desh moving through a Kolkata street on the poets 131st birth anniversary (May 1992). Epics, songs, ballads, drama, dance  poetry has flowered into all these forms through the centuries.

A procession depicting Rabindranath Tagores dance-drama Tasher Desh moving through a Kolkata street on the poets 131st birth anniversary (May 1992). Epics, songs, ballads, drama, dance poetry has flowered into all these forms through the centuries.-PTI A procession depicting Rabindranath Tagores dance-drama Tasher Desh moving through a Kolkata street on the poets 131st birth anniversary (May 1992). Epics, songs, ballads, drama, dance poetry has flowered into all these forms through the centuries.

For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture that small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained to days in quiet, restrained rooms, and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars

THIS is what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Perhaps he was overstating it a bit, but then, he was a poet and the intensity and clarity of perception translated for him into such images.

Poetry is a part of every civilisation. Epics, songs, ballads, drama, dance poetry has flowered into all these forms through the centuries. But then it was written down, and poetry changed. We have only to look back at our own traditions to see that for ourselves. As long as poems were sung, spoken as dramatic dialogue or presented through forms of dance, they had an immediacy and a directness of appeal. This was lost when they were written down and emerged in books and manuscripts, to be read in solitude, and something of inestimable value was also lost.

There were exceptions, of course. The poems of Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharati, which were read in books, transformed generations with their intensity and beauty, but we must also remember that they were, in their time, also read out in meetings or sung. These poems, together with a few others, were the exceptions. By and large, poetry began, in post-modern times, to live only in books.

I have written earlier in this column of the slow dying of theatre. This has provoked some theatre lovers to incandescent rage, mistakenly, of course. I am personally committed to theatre; it is a part of my life in a way the civil service never was. But my decision to join the civil service and not live with theatre was one of the hardest I had to take and one, looking back on, I regret. It was my youth and desperate need to earn enough for myself and my family that decided me.

But this is what I have been trying to say. Theatre as a form of creative expression can never die as long as there are three people alive. But theatre cannot sustain people, and they have to have other means of earning a livelihood to enable them to carry on with their theatre work. Some of the finest personalities in Bengali theatre found employment in some office or the other, and then went on to write, act and direct plays. Badal Sircar, one of the greatest theatre personalities in Bengal, was a town planner of some distinction. And everywhere else, theatre persons are sustained now by television or by films. That they still have time for some theatre speaks eloquently of their love for it. In my very modest way, I found time, without ever neglecting my work as a civil servant, to be part of over 50 plays either as director or actor, and so have many others.

But, surely, one can see that this is not how an art form lives and thrives; the odd show here, the repeat there and a few more shows are simply not enough. Plays need to be staged for months together so that a significant number of people can see them. Even if plays are not done for months together, they must be done several times, over and over again. Do our theatre persons find the time for that, except perhaps in the Marathi and Gujarati theatre in Mumbai?

And, as it is with theatre, so it is with poetry. I quoted Rilke in the beginning to underscore the enormous amount of effort a poet puts into one single poem. And yet poetry is so little read today. One of my dearest friends, who was undoubtedly the most sensitive publisher of our times, once told me that he could not publish poetry because it cost him too much. The books simply did not sell. Not that he did not publish some poets. He published those whose poetry he felt were fine works and deserved to be brought into the public domain. But he said he just could not afford to publish all those he would have wanted to. And, he added, typically, irrepressibly, I dont understand it anyway.

This is the other side of this sad business. Written poetry has tended to become so dense and complex that apart from a few determined readers, people give up reading it because they find it incomprehensible. When A. Alvarez edited the volume The New Poetry, he prefaced it with an essay called The New Poetry or Beyond the Gentility Principle. In it he had this poem:

Picture or lover or friend that is not eitherLike you or me who, to sustain our pose,Need wine and conversation, colour and light;In short, a past that no one can now share,No matter whose your future; calm and dry,In sex I do not dither more than either,Nor should I now swell to halloo the namesOf feelings that no one needs to remember:The same few dismal properties, the sameOppressive air of justified uneaseOf our imaginations and our beds.It seems the poet made a bad mistake.

Perhaps the logic seems a little tenuous? Alvarez asks slyly, The shifts a little hard to follow? The content a little too fine-drawn? Then he reveals that the poem consists of lines from poems written by eight different poets. It is, as he says, synthetic.

The danger lies here, in moving from true expression of the kind Rilke writes about to the nonsense of the piece concocted by Alvarez. The trouble with obscure poems is that they let in the charlatan, the poseur, and they, like the proverbial bad apple, spoil the whole lot.

With the one exception of Writers Workshop, which has published all manner of poets good, tolerable and appallingly bad very few publishers venture to publish poetry. Some poets have actually had to publish their own poems, and then of course, no one reads them. There are a few select groups where poets read their poetry, but they are pathetic in numbers and consist basically of other poets or would-be poets.

There was a time when poets were able to write lyrics for Hindi film songs, but that age passed soon. Nobody would claim that those writing lyrics for film songs today are poets of any kind. There are mushairas and kavi sammelans, true, but these are occasional, and often the quality is rather poor, to put it mildly. Not that poets do not continue to write; they do, in all languages, and there have been some fine poets who have written while doing some full-time job somewhere. In Orissa, for example, Ramakanta Rath and Sitakant Mahapatra are acclaimed poets apart from having been Indian Administrative Service officers of some distinction.

But what one is trying to highlight is that poetry is not central to creative expression now. Partly owing to the advent of technology that provides mass entertainment like television and partly because poets have developed a propensity to self-destruct. They write to be read, so their poems have admirable allusions, assonance, images that need to be deconstructed, and so on.

They are not written to be read out loud. Had they been, and had poetry been something that was recited or sung, the experience that Rilke talks about would have been alive and would have been part of the common perception, which would have been the richer for it.

Perhaps, one day it will happen, but for the present it seems unlikely. Poetry will remain a marginal, if wonderful, mode of expression.

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