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A Lovely Strangeness

Poetry transforms through contagion. It’s at the beating heart of literature.

A Lovely Strangeness
Illustrations by Saahil
A Lovely Strangeness
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For A Poem, Still Unborn

Over tea we wonder why we write poetry.
Ten people read it, anyway.
Three are committed in advance
to disliking it.
Three feel a vague pang
but have leaking taps and traffic jams
to think about.
Two like it
and wouldn’t mind telling you so,
but don’t know how.
Another is busy preparing questions
about pat ironies
and identity politics.
The tenth is wondering
whether you wear contact lenses.

And we,
as soiled as anyone else
in a world addicted
to carbohydrates
and conversations without pauses,

still groping
among sunsets and line lengths
and slivers of hope

for a moment
unstained
by the wild contagion
of habit.

***

‘How can poetry be revived?’ Periodically, a sprightly journalist asks the question with an ill-concealed funereal glee. It has to die first, I remind them. And since it’s not even comatose, we needn’t worry about rev­i­val just yet. That’s a dampener, but they persist: ‘But poetry doesn’t sell!’. Nor do several novels, I say. That doesn’t stop novelists from writing. Or publishers from publishing them.

The real question, the concealed question, is, of course, something else: why isn’t poetry more readable, less obscure, less formidable? A little more ‘time-pass’? In short, why is it so scary? I have two responses to that one.

The simplest is the old Randall Jarrell line that says that people haven’t stopped reading modern poetry because it is difficult; they find it difficult because they’ve stopped reading it. That places the onus squarely on the reader.

But if the questioner sounds genuinely baffled, I am inclined to share a more personal story. I remember being in my grandfather’s home in Chennai on an annual family holiday at age thirteen. Rummaging through his shelves, I discovered the poetry of someone called T.S. Eliot. I had no clue who this was—man or woman, canonical or inconsequential. But as I turned the pages, I realised, with a growing sense of wonder, that I was in the presence of poetry. I didn’t understand any of it, but I responded to it—exuberantly and exultantly. Above all, I recognised it.

At that moment, poetry ceased to be ‘scary’. I realised that no matter how abstract or complex the form, you could respond strongly, immediately, viscerally. This was a form uncannily similar to music: you could fall headlong in love with it before you knew why.

I made two more discoveries. One: that hundred-watt illumination was a trifle boring. Two: that I didn’t really want to inhabit a fully decoded universe. Mystery was poetry’s province, and I had no problem with it. I had come home. 

The crux of the problem is the question every schoolgirl and boy has been asked at some point by a well-intentioned but weary teacher: ‘What do you think the poet is trying to say?’

That rings the death knell. Poetry may not die (to the disappointment of those who enjoy writing its obits), but a future reader of poetry is extinguished then and there. The question assumes that a poet is incapable of saying something; she can only try to say, allowing a superior tribe of scholar to decode her incoherent and fragmented utterance.

The assumption is also that the only thing that counts in a poem is its meaning. The form—the juice of a poem, its sensuous heart-centre—is cast aside as mere husk, superfluous, forgettable.

The lyric poem works vertically. It’s the shortest and most direct verbal route to the self, inhabiting the present like none other.

What’s overlooked is the sheer joy of poetry as sound rather than mere semantics. What’s overlooked is the excitement of patterned language, of verbal choreography—the breathtaking ability of a line to leap from one place to another, without joining the dots. Unlike terrestrial (and often ploddingly pedestrian) prose, poetry is capable of flight and underwater acrobatics all at once. Diving, soaring, careening, it is a dizzy carousel, a dark art, intended to offer not sociology but sensuous delight, not just meaning but magic.

Poetry transforms you not through conviction, but through contagion. You turn to it for its unique cocktail of insight and mystery, illumination and ambiguity, consolation and awakening, precision and passion, beauty and truth. It works best when you hang around it, marinate in it, allowing its  enchantment to take you unawares.

Often, however, we turn to poetry for the consolations of prose and find ourselves disappointed. We forget that unlike the horizontal seductions of fiction, the lyric poem works vertically. It compels you to inhabit the present moment more fully than you would otherwise. It is, in fact, the shortest and most direct verbal route to the self.

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden said famously. And yet, a poem with its toxic shock clarity can be the stoutest companion in life’s liminal situations. Arun Kolatkar’s poem Old Woman has altered the way I look at quest forever. John Burnside’s A Theory of Everything, with its haunting last line—woman, blackbird, man”—is a reminder of the ever-present fullness of the present moment. Jaan Kaplinski’s small, untitled poem—“The washing never gets done.../Books never get read./Life is never completed” has subtly inflected my notion of what constitutes a fulfilled life. Tukaram’s “When a catastrophe wipes you out.../ God is visiting you” has changed the way I look at crises.

Poems can ambush you. For poetry is a verbal art that embraces pauses like none other. It’s those pauses that make a poem the intense chemical compound it is—explosive and molten. The poet Rilke spoke of “the news that is always arriving out of silence”. That news can derail you. But it can also offer moments of startling stillness and transformation. Those blank spaces on a page of poetry are high-voltage zones. They need to be treated, as poets and readers find out, with respect.

Poetry doesn’t change anything. But a single reading of a poem can alter your map of the world, the way you inhabit your skin, even your pH value. Poetry changes you. Can one ask for a deeper alchemy than that?

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