Saturday, February 20, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Poets Are People Too

Recently, while discarding books from my overcrowded shelves, I found my copy of Daddy Long Legs. The book had a quotation inscribed in it – a fragment of a poem that read, I say, chicken unlimited,/ your kisses taste like wine/ but I am too old for this sort of thing. As a line addressed directly to my eighteen-year-old self, the sentiments were patently and entirely false, but even now it never fails to make me smile.

Poets are supposed to be mini-shamans or at least act as barometers of our emotional landscape. Everyone knows the charge of finding one’s feelings exactly expressed in poem or song. Sometimes the words are repositories of memories and sometimes they tell you in advance what it will be like to experience something, perhaps in the future. In Eunice de Souza’s ‘October 30, 1987’, the poet writes:

For you I wrote

“I don’t need words

any more.”

Now garrulous

with memories.

That’s the whole poem. When I read it first, there was no question of really understanding what it might mean to know someone so well that it didn’t need words to communicate with them. The idea also, that one’s store of memories of a person could be so vast and sufficient that they provided all the conversation that was necessary, was something beyond my experience. The poem was a sort of battery storing the charge of an emotion I would understand only later in my life.

There are two reasons why people who do not write poetry have truck with poets: one is – naturally – for the poetry itself. The other reason is to find out for themselves, first-hand, what makes this creature called a poet, tick.

In recent times, it has become absurdly easy to satisfy this very natural curiosity: every year there are at least three or four poetry festivals. In Chennai in December every year, there is the Poetry with Prakriti festival; once a year, Kritya has an international festival of poetry, though not always in the same city or town. The Jaipur Literary Festival also accommodates poets among all the other literary luminaries who attend. What is more, these festivals are free to the public.

Though there have always been poetry meets and mushairas, perhaps what is different is the kind of questions people ask. In the February issue of Poetry magazine, the German poet, Dürs Grünbein writes that there are some questions people inevitably ask him. One of them is: ‘Can you really live off it?’

The short answer to the above question is, of course, an emphatic ‘no’. To the questioner that must be nearly as unsatisfying as being told that the poetry books on display at the reading are not for free. (For the long answer you’d need to read the article online. It’s called ‘Why Live Without Writing?’)

There are all kinds of things people want to know about poets. In the online magazine, The Smart Set, the poet Kristen Hogatt has a column called Ask the Poet. It is a rash invitation to people to ask her all kinds of questions. Such as: What do poets wear to the office? How much does it cost to be a poet? What do poets eat for dinner? Do poets bathe frequently? Do I need a poetic license in order to be a real poet? If so, how and where can I get one? I'm sad. I just learned that my own country didn't score very high on the annual Happiness Index. I'm thinking of moving to Denmark. What does a poet do when he or she gets sad like I am? How many poems are left? There have been thousands of years of poetry writing; when will we have it all?

I feel deeply grateful that no poet I know in India has ever been asked to undertake the task of answering these kinds of questions. A really frightening one involved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Surely this is not what Shelley meant when he said poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world?

Me, I’d rather that people read more poetry to find answers to really important questions – though even there I can’t guarantee they’d find any solutions to mathematical problems.

(An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.)


Still extremely frazzled with deadlines both self-imposed and unavoidable, so blogging will continue to be this list of announcements for at least another couple of weeks. Apologies in advance.


km said...

Do poets bathe frequently?

No, and hence the frequent outbreak of Yeats infection among these Poets.

Space Bar said...

km: Yeats infection. heh!

and Yeats is prescient but you'll have to wait two weeks to see why.

dipali said...

SB- what's the weirdest question you've ever been asked?

km said...

Tell me at least one earnest kid with literary ambitions has asked you if you prefer to write with a pen or if you type all your poems? (Or whether you write in the morning or at night?)

That earnest kid deserves to be flogged.

Cheshire Cat said...

The really important questions are mathematical problems.

Space Bar said...

km: i think it was, 'why are you like this?' (will dig up link from old post).

cat: Huh.

Sheetal said...

Where's your 'like' button? Nicenice!