Monday, September 08, 2008

Meditations on Reading Poetry

This is me thinking aloud. Coherence will not be my strong point here.

What is poetry? Rahul asks. Increasingly, my answer to a question like that one, in my own mind is, when you meet it you recognise it. How, though?

One form of recognition is physical. The body reacts before the mind has sorted out 'meaning'. Some lines give me goose pimples:

Send paper, friend, these are the last pages
of my journal I'm writing on.

('Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt'. Ranjit Hoskote)

....At eighteen hundred
degrees Farenheit, no loss is unimaginable.

('Kiln'. Sampurna Chattarji)

Or the ones where realisation comes, like deja vu, a second late; sensation reiterated:

Trees arrive at themselves,
each one ready
to give an account of its leaves.

(No. 8, from 'Pi Dog'. Arun Kolatkar)

...a swollen, gusting sheet—
revenant in sunlight—

('Sea Ode'. Sudesh Mishra)

Those that make one cry or want to do something, that inspire a surge of energy :

Dear Runu, everything moves here
but nothing really comes.

('Predicament'. Jayanta Mahapatra)

I could match her now, word for word.
I could meet her now, on equal terms. I think
I could draw blood.

('Lines on Meeting a Cousin, Long-Lost'. Revathy Gopal)

Even taken out of their context some words hold the power of recognition. We would know them anywhere. Even if we knew nothing else about it or what it meant, we would know (like the pi dog in Kolatkar's poem) the words Tat savitur varenyam/Bhargo devasya Dheemahi/Dhiyo yonah prachodayat. Does this mean poetry lies in the interstices of one's own, unique memory? And when the words that fit are found, the experience is called 'poetry'?

Perhaps words gain power when they achieve resonance in the listener's mind. Here, meaning and sound are as close as they can be without becoming one. And yet they are not - cannot be - because in the delay between sound and meaning is where both sensation and understanding lie.

And yet, context is everything. I can imagine that not everybody is moved by the Gayatri mantra. I can imagine that someone reading the lines I have quoted above, will ask what the big deal is. Perhaps poetry is delayed reaction. When the experience is acquired, recognition comes.

All this sounds very mysterious. What of the kind of poetry that is deliberately cerebral and playful?


('Genderole'. Rukmini Bhaya Nair)

10 syllables each line - as against the sloka's traditional 16 - but with words running together until they have to be separated to make sense of. (I can imagine the invention of sandhis in English to ease the transition between two words and make them one.) A puzzle, in effect; a way of saying, 'look at these words that I have put together for you to take apart.'* A way of making literal the game of poetry. If the puzzle is too easy it is unsatisfying. But difficulty is a matter of experience.

Exhiliration. Somehow that's a cerebral pay-off, the experience of it. Tears don't exhilirate you; they might produce exaltation but that's different - that's cathartic, a matter of ridding the body. To experience exhiliration is to be in the body and watch it contain immensity.

*tease 'em apart, n!


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I like that all your examples are from contemporary Indian sources. I can't claim that they all make an impact on me, but some do (eg, Ranjit Hoskote, Revathy Gopal).The Jayanta Mahapatra is a bit reminiscent of the white queen in "Alice". I think you are right that context, in particular the context of your own experience is everything. That's why I am in favour of translations: I can read French but a good English translation, even if not perfect, will make it closer to my experience. I may understand nearly every word of the French but I wouldn't find it so evocative, because I haven't read much French literature.

I am one of those who doesn't go out and read poetry very much, because I don't like most of what I see. Perhaps I should get a reading list from you.

sumana001 said...

Lovely, Dala!
You brought back a piece of lost music to me ... thanks!

swar said...

a simple curiosity re 'Kiln' and 'Red Chillies':

Why Fahrenheit? Is this a continuation of an old tradition or is it used for an Indian reader like me (comfortable with the metric system) to pause, convert and assess the magnitude? Is it simply for the width and sound of Fahrenheit, a foreignness? Is it that I am just too daft to get it?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

swar: many Indians (especially oldtimers) prefer Fahrenheit, and Tamil newspapers continue to print temperatures in Fahrenheit. Don't ask me why. (The same people measure distance in furlongs.)

Space Bar said...

Rahul: I can do no better for the moment than point you to Poitre where you find not only poems, but poems read out - as they should be - and with a little bit by the contributor on why they chose it and what they liked about it.

swar: I can speak only for myself, and your guess is correct. I chose Farenheit in Red Chilies for the way it expanded the number, made it enormous (as if a word could add heat) and for the gravitas of its three syllables. Celsius is just sibilant and hesitant in comparison. I can't off-hand convert Farenheit because I'm too used to Celssius.

Ludwig said...

> ...they have to be separated
> to make sense of...

You can say that again. I first read the second half of the second line like so:

...forge tits...

before I had to rewind at "slokas" and go figure it all out again. In fact, for a bit there, when trying to parse "...forgetitsslokas...", I think my mind had jumped to the conclusion that there was a "...tits and ass..." kind of phrase there, thanks to the "ss" appearing, and the unfamiliar "slokas" and all...

Some poems certainly reveal a lot more about the reader than the poet :PP

Falstaff said...

SB: If you're looking for three syllables, why not centigrade?

I wonder if anyone has ever written a poem in Kelvin.

km said...

Awesome post,great examples.

/Ludwig: you aren't the only one who read that word :)

//Falstaff: Remember, at zero-degree kelvin, there is no poetry in motion.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I wonder if anyone has ever written a poem in Kelvin.

Here you go. (yeah I googled. The guy seems to have been a geek in real life.)

Space Bar said...

Sumana: Oops - didn't see this. Thanks.

Ludwig: :D indeed it does.

Falstaff: you know, I'd forgotten that word. I wonder why? But that's not the only reason - the higher numbers of Farenheit also decided me.

km: Thanks.


Falstaff said...

rahul: Thanks. One can always rely on google can't one?

SB: Ya, I know, which was what made me think of Kelvin. After all 113 F is 318 K.

For the record, I didn't find the Nair particularly puzzling or difficult. If anything, I thought it was a little annoying. But that's just me. Love the Kolatkar, though. And the Hoskote is an old favorite.

Space Bar said...

falsie: I didn't say the Nair was 'difficult'; just cerebral and/or playful. She is experimenting with a form and inverting some things in the course of the poem. My point was that it's possible also to experience poetry in a cerebral way for the pleasure of it. I admit it's not an especially difficult poem but then again, difficulty is relative.

gaddeswarup said...

The only one that has some impact on me is Revathy Gopal's. About Fahreheit. But then I do not read much poetry. For old peole like me before the days of fans, air-conditioning, easy transport etc, temperature and distance had a lot of impact. I used to look for the next furlong stone when I walked to the teacher's house (the distance was around two miles). On hot days we would wait for the radio news for the temperature of the day. I guess that over years they sort of became closely associated to physical pain and pleasure and I still think in terms of miles and Fahreinheit when temperatures are high and centigrade when it is low.

Space Bar said...

swarup garu: I still think in terms of...Fahreinheit when temperatures are high and centigrade when it is low.

There's a poem in there somewhere. Thank you!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Fahrenheit when temperatures are high,
Centigrade when temperatures are low.
That way you see a hundred in July;
Frosty winter nights go below zero.

(sorry about that.)
(to quote a line from another pseudopoem of mine: It's always fun when I exaggerate.)

gaddeswarup said...

That Revathy Gopal got me. I am trying to see how to say it in Telugu.

Space Bar said...

rahul: sheesh!

swarup garu: revathy died last year weeks after her first book of poetry cam out. i'm sure her family will be delighted to see translations. you could mail me if you know someone who'd do it:

gaddeswarup said...

Sorry, I did not know. It was such a raw and common emotion that I saw among many relatives and even sisters, it stood out by itself, just as you said.

Cheshire Cat said...

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

There's something alarmingly Emily Bronte-esque about Dickinson at times.

I've got to say none of your examples did anything for me, Space, except for the Nair, which I think is brilliant.

Why does Réaumur get so little love?

Space Bar said...

cat: ah there you are. hmm...i must suppose it's a matter of context? without the full weight of the poem behind it, perhaps lines don't mean anything very much. in fact, they very likely do the poem a disservice by being abstracted like that. i was merely pointing out the places in the poem at which certain reactions take place.

Space Bar said...

oh and you knew there's be a bunch of people googling reamur, didn't you? :D

Cheshire Cat said...

Space, maybe the point is that these things are subjective, and maybe we shouldn't feel compelled to justify them. For example, my favorite closing line in all of English poetry is Elizabeth Bishop's "And it was still the fifth / of February, 1918", but I can easily imagine readers being unimpressed with that line.

Re: Reaumur, it's no secret I court obscurity. But we actually learned about him in high school...

equivocal said...

"but difficulty is a matter of experience" - i must say that's a rather brilliant way to put it. Especially if you meant what I think you meant-- a response to the charge against "difficulty" in poems.

And all in all a really perceptive and useful post, one that actually describes the experience of reading a poem as opposed to dissecting it the way a critic would, or the way one is taught to read in schools.