Why Read Poetry?
This is a question I often get asked in a moment of exasperation by students and friends alike. Why read poetry? Most of it doesn’t even make sense, I cannot understand it, I have never liked it. These are thoughts I have endeavoured to deal with, myself. Although I cannot claim to have found answers to all of these, here’s my two cents.
Most of us make the mistake of approaching poetry with a sense of needing to understand it completely, contextually and how the poet “meant” for us to understand it. This view is coloured by our reading of fiction and non-fiction, which, for the most part, is detailed, adjective-heavy and exhaustive (here’s looking at you, Moby Dick). Additionally, it doesn’t help that the poetry we are exposed to at school is by decrepit old white men. They might be classics, but we didn’t become ardent readers by picking up a copy of Beowulf now, did we?
The poems we come across in learning English as a second language only serve to make it boring and complicated. Poetry is supposed to excite your senses, how can I be expected to appreciate Daffodils if I have never seen it before?
A host of golden daffodils? No sirree, show me ponds of lotuses, fields of sunflowers, maybe. Show me paan stains on the city walls, the colours of Holi, leather-skinned grandmothers braiding their granddaughters’ hair, lounging on the red-oxide floors of the verandah. Or show me a stubborn bull in the midst of traffic.
Induction into anything new must be though a lens of familiarity. That is when one is able to truly assess whether one likes or dislikes it. Unfortunately for us in India, our education system still seems to be caught in the throes of colonial deification. It is only through personal research that we come across Indian poets and other poets of colour, by that time, it might be too late — we will not have any more of these godforsaken daffodils or dreaded petrarchan sonnets.
Poetry demands time. One needs to reflect, to read and reread and maybe recite out loud to understand it. It is not an something you take up, underline, memorize, google and regurgitate in examinations; which is what the present system is making us do. By not letting students invest enough time in poetry, it is effectively robbing them of the joy of reading poems.
If only we were introduced to Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Eunice de Souza, Rajagopal Parthasarathy or A K Ramanujan, our perception of poetry would be drastically changed. They echo our skepticism of a foreign tongue — their poems, though written in English, sound like our mother tongues — it isn’t scary or appalling, it is home. Here’s what Parthasarathy says in Tamil:
My tongue in English chains
I return, after
a generation, to you.
I am at the end
of my Dravidic tether
hunger for you unassuaged
This feeling of homelessness is something we are all too familiar with. Granted, these poems might not match the literary merit of Shakespeare or Shelly, but does it even matter? Dead poets are just that, DEAD. It is up to the living to tread the waters of verse the way we see fit.
Poets like Nissim Ezekiel also make a conscious effort to write the way an Indian would speak English. It is merely utility, we butcher the language, true, but communication is achieved, most times. Ezekiel’s poetry is usually greeted with boisterous laughter in an English Honours class followed by uncomfortable silence when they are reminded that there was a time that they spoke like that as well. To the lay reader, someone who hasn’t chosen to pursue a study in English Literature, Ezekiel’s poetry is like a breath of fresh air. Here’s an extract from The Professor:
Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good.
My wife died some years back.
If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house’s backside.
It is all too easy to dismiss poetry for being too complicated or too out-of-reach. However, to dismiss it owing to lack of exposure seems too hasty. I believe poetry enriches our lives, like all reading does. It also adds to our understanding of rhythm and history besides being a great source of entertainment.
Poetry has this strange magic of making one read between the lines — putting all your creative juices on overdrive. It invokes images that are familiar-accessible and yet somehow different. Sometimes, you get held up at one single word and think about it the whole day — sometimes you carry the rhythm of the poem to bed and wake up with it. Sometimes, none of this happens, and its okay. Poetry just needs to be felt. Give it a chance. Meanwhile, here’s a cheeky comic by Grant Snider: