Ear, ear

Avtar Singh | | Updated on: Mar 15, 2019
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For poetry to thrive, it has to be heard. The audience completes the circle

I was a fellow at an arts programme in the US last summer. Aside from the solitude, of a scale and quality I haven’t known in more than a decade, what I treasured most was the companionship of women and men finding their own paths in the arts. Film-makers, dancers, performance artists, sculptors, writers like myself.

I was glad to see the word- walas weren’t all prosers. There was a generous sprinkling of poets as well. I pointed this out to one of my fiction peers. “Yes,” she noted drily. “They walk among us.”

Poets face the same issues over there, of course. A friend’s next project is in the pipeline with one of the better-known poetry houses in the US. That means he’s looking, at best, at a late-2020 release. Of a few tastefully designed copies, which won’t be marketed aggressively, because the publisher will be pumping out a rash of other titles as well.

The alternative? Self-publish. Or take a chance on a smaller press who’ll make a bigger effort with marketing.

Till then, teach freshmen at a large American university how to write. Because poets have to eat too.

But you don’t become a poet for the career options.

Not these days.


Poetry isn’t dead in India, of course. I know many keen practitioners, their interior lives beating to a rhythm that taps metres, if not feet. At least in my social media circle, Mary Oliver’s passing occasioned more comment than Keith Flint’s. And in a very different context, the success of Gully Boy would suggest that the poetic impulse can still elevate a narrative and an audience.

But I don’t think I’m being a cantankerous old man in thinking that there was just more poetry in our lives, and not all that long ago.

In my north Indian milieu, I grew up in a time when the finest Urdu and Hindi poets still earned a living writing “lyrics” for films. Their words, lines and metaphors were literally everywhere. There were films about poets! Pyaasa and Kabhi Kabhie didn’t just showcase beautiful words set to music. They were also about the struggles of poets; the difficulty of finding both source material and respect, and always, the difficulty of getting paid, whether in money or in attention.

Poets need to be “heard”. That was always the case. Because of course poetry is that written art where the writing doesn’t meet its end when put on the page.

When the world was young, I’d watch the mushairas that would periodically be aired on Doordarshan, fascinated by the poets sitting next to each other, trusting each other, sketching worlds in a language I dimly understood.

Now, with YouTube — haven’t you listened to Dylan Thomas raving against the dying of the light? Haven’t you tingled at Ted Hughes reciting Crow ?

But where would you go, now, to hear the cadence of the perfectly tuned verse?


Luckily Beijing has quite a brimming verse scene. And I’m talking only about the poetic world that I — wretchedly, still almost exclusively Anglophone — have access to. There is slam poetry, poetry in translation, people handing their stuff to each other for feedback in public groups and in private. There is a semi-regular event where poets are paired up with musicians, and their work is performed.

Beijing has always been fertile ground for writing. Indeed, wordplay is foundational to what the Chinese believe is their own culture. Walking into a restaurant the other night, I stepped past a bust of who I thought was Joseph Stalin. It was, instead, Lu Xun (1881-1936), a writer who is as revered as the other chap is reviled. Lu Xun’s words covered the walls of the restaurant we were dining in. Their superficial resemblance was grounds for slightly boozy merriment. But in the main, the people that frequent that restaurant won’t even make the Soviet connection. What matters to them is the writer.

Walking around, you hear snatches of verse being sung or declaimed. Chinese students would grow up with the classics, learning them by rote in school, trotting them out at the appropriate time at festivals and other occasions. When there is an intentional misquotation by a “clown” — on TV, in films, on stage — the audience recognises their cue, and laughs. Historically, even the “mandarins”, the elite civil servants who passed the Imperial Examinations, were required to write poetry, and not merely to recite and analyse it.

If Lu Xun had survived to see the founding of the People’s Republic, he would probably have lived out his life in comfort. But it is also true that contemporary Chinese poets are just as bereft of patronage as their counterparts anywhere else.

It would seem that nobody really cares.


I’m told that the success of the local rap scene provided the fuel for Gully Boy . In China, too, local rap — notably in places such as Chengdu — is solid enough to spawn interest from around the world, both in terms of column inches and monetarily, which is of course much more important.

Yet other, less “hip” poets ply their trade in ways and along paths that don’t attract that sort of attention. My tin ear precludes my being a poet. But I’ve always been a keen listener. But when was the last time I went to a reading?

I need to go to an event and listen to the words of a person who has worked up the courage to bare herself on stage. The audience completes the circle.

We are necessary too.



Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing;

Published on May 31, 2021

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