In search of poetry

Dharminder Kumar | Updated on September 19, 2014

Sound bytes: Members of a kavi sammelan record Hindi poetry in a BBC studio.   -  The Hindu Archives

Lend me your ears: Packed kavi sammelans, such as this one in Bhopal, are becoming rare. - Photo: AM Faruqui

Today poetry provides more questions than answers, but maybe it continues to exist, and has simply changed address

If poetry ever provided answers, these aren’t those times. That’s what I thought returning last week from the Hindi Academy’s annual function, Bharatiya Kavita Bimb, that celebrates Indian poetry. Thirty-seven poets who write in 20 languages gathered in four sessions for an audience of about 500. For most of us, poetry evokes nostalgia for those student days when it burnt in our hearts and lit up our lives. But I came away with prickly questions and tedious arguments.

The sight of poets writing in Tamil, Oriya, Hindi, Rajasthani, Bangla, Urdu, Kashmiri and English together on one stage, reciting Hindi translations after the original, could fill anyone with nationalist pride. It was a sarkari ritual that reminded me of my favourite sarkari poem, ‘Ek Chidiya’, which was the background score for a Doordarshan animation film on our unity in diversity. But nationalism aside, can we really speak of an Indian poetry? Don’t we have many ‘poetries’ instead? What is common among these poetries? And can our link language, English, also be our language of choice for translation? Or is Hindi a better literary arbiter since most of our poetries are parallel traditions, not different, the way that Spanish poetry is different from Scandinavian poetry? Such unpoetic thoughts, you would say, when all I wanted was some unalloyed nostalgia.

I remember I enjoyed reading regional literatures more in Hindi or Punjabi than English. I even read Altaf Hussain Hali’s key text on Urdu poetry, Muqaddama-e-Shero-Shayari, and another classic, Muhammad Husain Azaad’s Aab-e-Hayat, in Punjabi translation. I also read Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya in Punjabi. When I read the Urdu original, it did not add much to my experience. And later, when an English translation came out, I found it lame. Despite the best efforts of translators, the English text cannot fully reproduce the Indian flavour the way another Indian language translation can. Is it our civilisational ethos? I can’t quite close my fists around this.

I found AK Ramanujan’s otherwise brilliant translation of Nammalvar, Hymns for the Drowning, so clinically bare and stripped of Indian sensibility that the hymns could as well have been written by William Carlos William. Like Bhakti poetry, which freely mixes the carnal and the spiritual, most Indian poetry can be daunting as it poses the challenge of translating a whole culture and not just a language. I have found that poetry today has more questions than answers.

From its lyrical state it has lurched wildly towards a paraphrased reality. And to think that once even mathematics was written in verse: Aryabhatta gave the value of pi in a sprightly Sanskrit meter. What we find frozen in textbooks and poetic symposiums today was once poetry in motion. There were poets more popular than filmstars. Girls wrote letters in blood to Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi, who outshone Rajesh Khanna in those parts. Poetry gatherings could become sites of mass hysteria with rockstar poets such as Gopal Das Neeraj, Majaz Lakhnawi and Harivansh Rai Bachchan. At the recent Hindi Academy function, I remembered Neeraj’s poem ‘Kaarvan guzar gaya ’, where a line reads Karvan guzar gaya, gubar dekhte rahe (the caravan passed and I kept staring at the clouds of dust). Such functions are the clouds of dust that the bygone caravan of poetry has left behind.

So what killed poetry as we knew it? Many blame the modern trend of obscure poetry that fails to connect with the lay reader. When American poet Wallace Stevens wrote ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, it became famous not as a poem but a puzzle. The secretary of the Amalgamated Ice Cream Association, afraid that it showed his product in bad light, shot off a letter to the poet demanding to know what the poem meant.

I look on with amusement at numerous thin editions of Faber & Faber and Carcanet lying on my shelves. Despite their dense and heavy writing, they look lithe and nifty, as if made to dodge all future onslaughts on poetry. But it’s hard to believe that once I actually ‘enjoyed’ reading these. I notice another thin Penguin book by Sujata Bhatt, My Mother’s Way of Wearing a Sari, probably one of the last poetry books to be published by a mainstream Indian English publisher. Sometimes I do dip into one of my many Rajkamal paperbacks of Hindi and Urdu poetry, but I can’t bring myself to read them the way I did earlier. I guess it’s the same with most people who used to once read poetry by the racks.

I believe poetry is not dead yet; it has just changed address. The democratisation of taste, wider availability of diverse aesthetic experiences and fragmentation of leisure time have created new homes for poetry. Purists look disdainfully at advertisements and cinema but that’s where poetry is today, take it or leave it. It also thrives in email forwards and Power Point presentations. It’s certainly not with Paul Muldoon or those who write in The Paris Review. We forget that what is high literature today — Hamlet, Great Expectations or Huckleberry Finn — was once pure groundling entertainment. Every age has its own poetry. To Shakespeare, most of TS Eliot or Wallace Stevens would have seemed all sound and fury signifying nothing. For long, Urdu purists begrudged Sahir Ludhianvi the full status of a shayar. He was considered just a lyricist. Though we took inordinately long, we have finally accepted Gulzar as a poet. I am sure the day will come soon when, along with cinema, advertisements too will be taught in universities — as a literary genre and not as some condescending semiotic analysis. After a few hundred years, Burma-Shave’s roadside doggerel (for example — His cheek/Was rough/His chick vamoosed/And now she won’t/Come home to roost) from mid-20th century America might find place alongside Shakespeare’s sonnets. It may be a dreaded prospect today but Prasoon Joshi might come to be known as a Renaissance man of letters who could sell anything from washing powder to revolution. Hindi poetry collections might begin with Maithili Sharan Gupt and end with the Nirma jingle. Who says poetry is dying?

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)

Published on September 19, 2014

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