Culture

Poetry, and All the Things it Does

On World Poetry Day, ask yourself – what will your verse be?

(Clockwise from top left) Mark Strand, Prasoon Joshi, Robin Williams in Deap Poets Society, Anna Akhmatova, Mary Oliver and Antonio Machado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Clockwise from top left) Mark Strand, Prasoon Joshi, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, Anna Akhmatova, Mary Oliver and Antonio Machado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As members of the human race there’s a common humanity we share; poetry reveals this very character to us. We belong to each other; poetry illumines and strengthens these bonds across time and space.

Antonio Machado. Prasoon Joshi. Two men. Different eras. Different lands. Different tongues. Speaking the language of human spirit.

Here’s Machado (born in 1875 in Spain, died in 1939):

I thought my fire was out,
And stirred the ashes…
I burnt my fingers.

And here’s Joshi (born in 1971 in India):

Aye saala
Abhi abhi hua yaqeen
Ki aag hai mujh mein kahin
Hui subah mai jal gaya
Suraj ko main nigal gaya

My translation of Joshi:

Yo, mate!
Only now do I believe
There’s a fire somewhere in me
It dawned, I am burnt
I swallowed the sun clean

A poet is a world citizen. A parochial poet is a misnomer. A provincial poem, a misrepresentation.

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Poetry – the thing that begins as a lump in the throat, as Robert Frost said, is the truth the poet knows. A poet cannot lie, for she gives of herself to get to that truth. And once articulated, it’s beauty that she has birthed. Incandescent beauty.

As readers of poetry, it is this truth and beauty that one is after. Once touched, one gets jolted into living from a mere existence. Poetry – it’s a life force. As Mark Strand would say,

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

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A paintaing of Rumi. Credit: Wiimedia Commons

A paintaing of Rumi. Credit: Wiimedia Commons

As I sit writing this piece, the wind flutters the curtains on the window beside my table. I draw them aside and look at the moon, high up above the concrete jungle. I don’t remember when it began, but every time now I see the moon through my window, I am reminded of Rumi. Translating Rumi, Coleman Barks writes,

The moon won’t use the
door,
only the window.

Poetry – it’s that conduit through which one reaches the natural world, engendering an intimacy that is a meditation.

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Since Auschwitz, we are more alone.
∼ Imre Kertesz, Nobel laureate in literature

Think Iraq. Think Afghanistan. Think Syria. There’s poetry coming from these war-torn places. Amidst all losses, poetry is a way people are choosing to make sense of their war-ravaged lives. This isn’t without precedent. Anna Akhmatova wrote her Requiem depicting the suffering of the common people under the Stalinist regime. Covertly working on this elegy for nearly three decades, she wrote,

Mountains fall before this grief.
A mighty river stops its flow.
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.

It’s poetry people are choosing to remind themselves of history’s worst trait: repetition. It’s poetry people are choosing to highlight our unifying strength: hope.

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Poetry exhorts us to live. It calls us to pay attention. In the words of Mary Oliver,

So come to the pond,
or the river of your
imagination.
or the harbor of your
longing.
and put your lips to the
world.
And live
your life.

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In discussing with his students why we read poetry, Robin Williams, as a teacher of English in Dead Poets Society goes on to say that the human race is filled with passion. He adds that while medicine, law, business and engineering are noble pursuits necessary to sustain life, poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for. Quoting Walt Whitman, he further impresses on the young minds the purpose of our lives here.

Oh me! Oh Life! Of the questions of
These recurring.
Of the endless trains of the faithless,
Of cities fill’d with the foolish,
[…]
The question, O me! So sad, recurring
–What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here–that life exists
And identity
That the powerful play goes on, and
You may contribute a verse.

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Today is World Poetry Day. An observance started by UNESCO in 1999, it celebrates the creative spirit of the human mind as captured by poetry. It’s a day that aims to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals.

 

Sangeetha Balakrishnan teaches chemistry at Women’s Christian College, Chennai.