They say it’s enjoying a revival. Why poetry never really goes away
In recent times, poetry seems to have been dusted off the back shelves and hauled into the public eye. Literature festivals dedicated to poetry; poets being invited to open proceedings at regular lit-fests; poet laureate awards; poets being commissioned by daily newspapers to write, not features, but poetry; and even that grand occurrence, a poetry biennale.
This buzz of a “poetry resurgence” leaves the poets themselves smiling ironically. How wonderful to be drawn out of near-invisibility into the roving spotlight. But also, how absurd, when we remember that some seasons ago the most commonly circulated rumour was that poetry was dead or, at the very least, dying. In both situations, “poetry” seems to be a patient, resuscitated by expert attention and treated to all kinds of goodies before being written off as a lost cause and left to sink or swim, until the next round of inspection.
What poets know, and hence the sense of tragi-comedy, is that poetry is neither a seasonal disorder nor a terminal illness. Each poet will have his or her own response to the question: Why poetry? But there will be one thing in common—how essential it is to our lives. To the way we understand the world, cope with its brutalities, respond to its beauty. In his essay, “The Hour of Poetry”, John Berger writes, “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labour … There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”
But does the world care about this, beyond its “flavour-of-the-month” celebrations? Does it have room for this particular kind of labour, this intimacy?
Despite persistent doomsday prognoses, poets insist that the true answer to this is: Yes. Given the indifference of publishers, the ignominies of distribution, the impossibilities of survival, how does poetry thrive? By the sheer writing of it. The reading of it. Both necessary acts of faith, sustaining and sustainable. So, what goes on when the world is looking away?
Poets create circles and convergences. There could be a multitude of co-existent circles, each with a different locus. For example, in Mumbai alone, there is The Poetry Club, Words Tell Stories, And The Amazons, Poetry Tuesday, the Caferati Open Mic (which hit a century in April), to name just a few of the initiatives by young spoken word and performance poets. Two words keep cropping up—“community” and “collective”. While cliquishness may keep circles from overlapping, there is, increasingly, a new permeability, a remaking of relationships between old and new, a crumbling of hierarchies and hostilities, a desire to listen and learn. Senior poets being invited to discuss process or read as featured poets at Open Mics are just two examples of convergence.
Poets create readerships. With big publishers shying away from poetry, the shift towards the digital has been marked and inescapable. While the bulk of online publishing is rife with mediocre poetry and an utter disregard for editorial and critical judgement, there are pockets of excellence—powered not by the narcissistic need to be read, but by the wider goal of growing a sensitive, informed and articulate readership. (I’m thinking here of Almost Island, Poetry at Sangam, Northeast Review.) What happens when poet turns publisher? Cynics may sneer and call it self-promotion, but only in the worst cases. The best do precisely what big publishers lack the nerve to—publish new poets, take risks, refuse to be ghettoised into one language enclave and, miracle of miracles, sell books. I am thinking not just of the historically celebrated publishing collective Clearing House started by Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, Gieve Patel and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in the 1970s, but of more recent, surprisingly dynamic and as-yet un-archived movements such as the one powered by Poetrywala. Being in the middle of a mo(ve)ment makes it impossible to see it with the kind of awe that those earlier, brave and short-lived enterprises have come to assume in the minds of English-language poets. Marathi poet Hemant Divate has—through Poetrywala—brushed aside the traditional divisiveness of English versus bhasha; created a successful model of publishing, marketing and distribution; and enabled a rare conversation between poets and translators, India and the world, the centre and the margin.
Poets create awareness. Poetry as a place for protest and social conscience is reaffirmed by initiatives like Indian Cultural Forum’s anti-war-mongering week which asked poets from all languages to submit anti-war poems. Surges in public awareness are reliant on current events. The rest of the time, who reads poetry, and where? The PEN All-India Centre’s monthly sessions, while not restricted to poetry, have been very kind to poets. At Mumbai’s Cappuccino Readings (featuring local and visiting poets with the aim of fostering a literary café culture in Mumbai) and Delhi’s Poetry@Toddy (curated by Jeet Thayil) the gatherings are convivial, the quality of listening keen. The recent Mumbai Poetry Festival (with 47 poets from across the country and abroad) is perhaps unprecedented in terms of an event designed by, for and of poets. In all these instances, it is the poets who have taken on the responsibility of creating the atmospheric they need, giving voluntarily and generously of their time and talent. Institutionalised, unimaginative festivals are no longer the “only hope”.
Poets create the culture. Neither occasional generosities nor conceptual grandiosities can save a culture that has no space for serious critique. The best critical appreciation of contemporary poetry is not being written by academics or professional reviewers but by practising poets. The dire need for in-depth, rigorous and insightful literary criticism has led us to ignore accusations of complicity and do it ourselves. As Adil Jussawalla says in his charming essay, “The Book Should Be the Thing”, “in more than thirty years of reading book reviews, and, of late, commissioning them, I’ve found that the most perceptive reviewers of books of poetry are poets.” So too, I find, the best translators of poetry are poets. Take one look at the roster of Indian-English poets translating texts ranging from Lal Ded to Andal, Iqbal to Kalidasa, and you get a sense of the richness and scope of the poet-translators’ enterprise.
All this is happening, yet, all this is not enough. The anodyne of popular acclaim; the addictive and illusory idea of “success”; the haste to be published; the avoidance of genuine criticism and the aversion to hard work are, and will continue to be, perils we must acknowledge, face and surmount. Away from the public eye, not because someone noticed us (at last!), but despite it.
This article was published in the July-September issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine. The issue is based on “Class”.