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Every time we read a poem, it gives us a new meaning.
I don’t need World Poetry Day to make a strong case for poetry. Those who read poetry will always do it. And those who write it may always carry an unfinished poem in their hearts. But the occasion that is observed on March 21 is just one more reason for me to believe in the power of poetry and in what its light can do.
When I wrote my first poem as a 16-year-old, she was my friend. A friend I fashioned out of stumbling words, a friend who understood my awkward solitude and weird longings. I never imagined I would end up becoming a poet or that I would start taking my craft as seriously as my life. But I was certain even then that it was a relationship I had forged through the unfettered world of imagery and imagination.
You need the bad to identify the good
Great poetry – whichever language it’s written in – prevails in the toughest times, even when “peotry” (a word I heard someone use to describe bad poetry) is popular, perhaps nudged along by social media. But this doesn’t worry me terribly because great poetry shines through all the fake glitter. And without the bad, how can one appreciate the good?
It is the good poetry that can truly become balm for the soul. (I speak for poetry written in English as that’s what I read and write, but it applies to all languages.) Besides the calming effect of writing verse inspired by one’s darkest hours, there is enduring therapy in reading it. I remember feeling utterly humbled when a friend said one of my poems helped her while she was grieving the death of a loved one. So, one doesn’t have to be a poet to reap its benefits.
As William Sieghart says in the introduction to his Poetry Pharmacy – a set of poems he chooses and prescribes for various “afflictions” – “you don’t need to be a poet to find solace in poetry” and goes on to mention various poems that comforted him during different troubling phases in his life. The book itself is a reaffirmation of the power and role of poetry in our lives.
Depression, unrequited love, self-doubt, lack of motivation, mental and emotional well-being, love and loss, grief…every malady and experience known to humanity finds a poem in the book; a poem to help us cope with life in its full madness. Can there be a better poem than Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman’” to reinstate confidence and courage? When she says, “I’m a woman/Phenomenally./Phenomenal woman,/That’s me,” the soul sings along and rejoices.
A prescription for sadness
A poem prescribed for glumness is the delightful “Celia Celia” by Adrian Mitchell. It’s short enough to be quoted in full:
“When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.”
That unexpected turn at the end, the gleeful surprise is bound to bring a smile to any one and that’s what clever poetry can do. Such lines can turn even someone who doesn’t read poetry into someone who turns to it for the sheer pleasure of it. Who isn’t moved by the forceful simplicity of Arun Kolatkar’s “Pi-dog”?
When Kolatkar writes, “This is the time of day I like best, / and this the hour / when I can call this city my own; / when I like nothing better / than to lie down here, at the exact centre / of this traffic island / …the concrete surface hard, flat and cool / against my belly, / my lower jaw at rest on crossed forepaws;…” we see a beautiful sepia photograph of this dog lying somewhere in Kala Ghoda in Mumbai, watching the world come to life. And we become part of his gaze. Poetry, when it is as subtle and unassuming as this, can offer such simple joys as well.
What poetry can be about (hint: anything)
The subject of poetry can be drawn from anywhere, as Kolatkar proves. And I’m reminded of what poet and critic Ayyappa Paniker used to tell me: We can write poems about anything and any experience, including sipping a cup of tea. He himself wrote about subjects as varied as the pig to the fringe of a sari. In “The year of the pig” he says, “Most respected, honourable hog! / This is thy annum. / The poets haven’t yet heard about it: / so it seems; / Glory be to thy patience, / for waiting so long! / Where are the crooners? / Let them sing a love song for you.”
Some poets are able to say the most profound things in the most minimalist fashion. Take “Fairytales” by Hollie McNish: “don’t end / they just finish on a high / like a sensible athlete / or a butterfly”. The poem says so much by not saying much.
But when it comes to brevity, it is WS Merwin who strikes literally a deathly blow. Here is his single-line poem, “Elegy”:
“Who would I show it to”
This line leaves us with a lingering sadness and gains all the more significance in light of his recent death.
The universe in a grain of sand
Poets can choose to make their universe external or turn them into their private gardens. It is a freedom and right they exercise, but whatever they choose, it is only the powerful words that transform. When readers recognise their trauma or emotions in the words of poets they have never met, the most incredible thing happens. And this catharsis helps people deal with the most overwhelming situations in life.
I can’t think of a better example than “Funeral Blues’” by WH Auden. This poem has helped many a soul deal with the grief of death. For me, the most powerful lines from the poem remain these:
“He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.”
As a genre, poetry may be demanding. It may ask you to return to read it many times, but gift you each time a certain meaning, a particular message. For all the power it holds, for the humanity it contains and imparts, it will always be one of the most transformative art forms.