Listen to this article:
In a poem titled ‘Facebook, Another View’, Mumbai-based poet Sanjeev Sethi describes the social media platform that has recently undergone a makeover: “It is a shelf for self-adverts drafted by dilettantes.”
This poem is included in Hesitancies (New Delhi and Calcutta: Classix, 2021) — Sethi’s fifth book. Most of the poems in Hesitancies and Bleb (Scotland: Hybriddreich, 2021) would easily fit into the limited space for status messages — described by Sethi as “nook to posit clever phrases” — on social media. They would also get many likes and shares.
Bleb has 31 very short poems, mostly in prose or free verse. The sub-title of the book calls them “wee poems”. The title poem reads:
Dialectics and dogmas: fountainhead of misguided miseries in mind, even as skin craves skin, you and I, next to each other empty of evanescent safeguards. The arrogance of touch nudges me to notice my littleness, smallness of search.
The other poems in the book – a few of them previously published in international literary journals like Berfrois, 3: AM Magazine, and London Grip – tumble one after other in a similar vein. They are as easy to scroll through as posts on Instagram.
Hesitancies is not too different, except that it has more poems (78) and they are sometimes a little longer. These are not divided into thematic sections, nor is a chronology provided to tell the reader why they are all together in a book.
New lease of life for poetry
Poetry on social media has, of course, in recent years laid siege to the age-old bastions of literature with their phenomenal popularity. Rupi Kaur, Amanda Lovelace, Najwa Zebian and Lang Leav are some of the globally known poets who first found fame on Instagram. There are millions of others who are moulding their languages and formats to make them consumable on social media.
While traditionalists have scoffed at what they describe to be easy popularity and a disgrace to the craft, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore these poets. Many of them are addressing subjects such as race, gender and ecology to which traditional poetry might not have done justice.
It is to Sethi’s credit that he is exploring this newer form despite being an author for nearly three decades and with three previous collections — Suddenly for Someone (1988), Nine Summers Later (1997), This Summer and That Summer (2015). His philosophy of poetry and its dissemination can be understood from the opening poem, ‘Rake-Off’, of Hesitancies:
There is no suitcase, no cabin baggage to pack. No air ticket, no hotel booking to be locked in. There is no fear of red-eye. When my poems glob-trot, a part of my longstanding love affair with myself, travels with them. They carry my flavors, my failures.
One might be tempted to dismiss such poetry by pointing out the lack of any metrical experimentation or the frothy quality of the emotions it packs. It is true, but perhaps the success of the poems is in their unobtrusive simplicity.
In fact, Sethi does not succeed very well when he performs calisthenics with vocabulary. Take, for instance, these two stanzas from his poem ‘2021’ (Hesitancies):
By virtue of a pangram holding the alphabets
doesn’t make it exceptional. It is the right one
at the right spot that kindles lapidary impulse.
We have altered vocabulary beyond repair.
The superbious us will have to correct this
or we will be sentenced to the stake.
One is likely to be reminded of a Shashi Tharoor joke as one seeks out the meanings of ‘pangram’, ‘lapidary’, and ‘superbious’. Big emotions do not come from big words, Ernest Hemingway had told William Faulkner — no writer must forget that.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published last year; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.