B S Raghavan

If only poets ruled the world…

B.S.RAGHAVAN | Updated on March 19, 2013

Poets have also been movers and shakers, from Mughal times to the present.

The wish is not as whimsical as it sounds. World Poetry Day, solemnly observed on March 21 every year since 1999, when it was so proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), celebrates the role of poetry as a supremely transformative factor in human affairs.

The day is nothing but a reaffirmation of poetry’s three resplendent attributes immortalised in India’s ancient lore: Satyam (truth), shivam (goodness) and sundaram (excellence). These were regarded both as imperatives of kingship and as the prime movers of life itself.

No wonder William Shakespeare was categorical in asserting that: The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The reference here to music should be taken as pointing to the beauty and power of language to bring about human efflorescence in all its dimensions.


As the resolution unanimously adopted by Unesco aptly puts it: Poetry has the unique ability “to capture the creative spirit of the human mind…(and enables) individuals, as well as whole societies, to discover and assert their identity.

The art of poetry is the foundation of diversity, allowing different languages to express their voice among the community of nations. By facilitating dialogue, poetry encourages tolerance and respect; it's the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.”

No greater tribute can be paid “to all those men and women who strive to build a better world using words as their only tool.” The mention of poetry immediately summons to mind conformity to certain patterns of choice and sequence of words. There was once a time when poetry was bound to rules of rhyme and metre and number of lines, and there were even topics and expressions that were eschewed as being ‘unpoetic’.

Over a period, form and convention did not matter as much as the capacity of words to stir feelings and emotions, and conjure up visions and dreams that impel the human spirit ‘ to step on sunlit silver summits and light up furnaces of fancy’.

Free verse acquired a new brilliance and became a new force in the hands of poets. Whether conformist or liberated, the litmus test of poetry is — as its messiah, T.S.Eliot, once posited — that it should be felt before it is understood.

Thus, any arrangement of words that unleashes the noblest urges and creative energies of humankind qualifies as poetry. In this sense, the language of Ashoka’s edicts, through which he brought about a unity of purpose and sense of mission to people in his sprawling empire, was undeniably poetic. No less poetic and effective in achieving their objective were Winston Churchill’s and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s rousing perorations during the Second World War and the Great Depression.

But they, though soul-churning as sculptors of phrases and masons of metaphor, were not acclaimed as poets.

There is nothing that dedicated poets cannot accomplish if they set their hearts to it. Subramanya Bharathi, by his highly passionate and combative poems, single-handedly made the freedom struggle come alive for the Tamil-speaking people.

So also, in their own way, were the poems and songs of Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore instrumental in infusing a sense of self-pride and determination to throw off the colonial yoke.


It is not as if poets have not also been rulers or at least movers and shakers in some sense. Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, was a poet, and so was the last of the Mughal emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

In our own times, we have had a poet, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as three-time Prime Minister. His poetry is admired for being marked by nationalist fervour and human values as also for awakening a sense of duty and social responsibility in people.

We have it on the authority of Bhagwat S. Goyal, the man who translated Vajpayee’s poems into English, that Vajpayee was firmly convinced that politics and literature did not belong to separate compartments but, rather, enriched and refined each other.

He was further of the opinion that when a litterateur got involved in politics, he brought great sensitivity and refinement to that profession. Also if a politician had a literary background he would respect human beings all the more. Vajpayee certainly lived up to his own definition of a poet-politician.

World Poetry Day is a good occasion to remind ourselves not only of the grandeur and majesty of language but also of its power and potency.

Published on March 19, 2013

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