Kushal Poddar is in the 2016 Madness

It is becoming more and more apparent to Americans—who, for all their worldly clout and influence, have recently become fixated on their Writing Program careers—that, holy cow!, there is something happening on the other side of the globe, in India, where totally mad people prepare for bed just when they should be waking up—don’t these people know how crazy that is? Well, give them a little credit: in India right now they are writing poems in English in the great Romantic Tradition, and, despite not attending writing programs, and despite their odd sleeping habits, poets from India are, at this very moment, writing better poetry than Americans—with the exception of Ben Mazer, who is a living Romantic Tradition unto himself: pilgrimages should be made to Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA—near Harvard Square.

Philip Nikolayev, an American, Harvard-educated poet, originally from Russia, had the good sense to go to India, and, to make a long story short, social media has led Scarriet to a world of heartbreak and beauty in which poetry exists as sweetly and commonly as a scent of perfume or a right arm.

In America, poets study at Writing Programs.

These costly one-year or two-year programs essentially teach the student of poetry one thing: Do not write like Keats—sound, in your writing, as different from Keats as possible, and this will guarantee that you will sound contemporary, and sound like yourself, because, after all, you are not Keats, and this is a good thing, since Keats is in the ground! We cannot tell you how to sound, for that is too complicated, given that poetry can sound like absolutely anything, it being defined by nothing, and so we cannot teach that; all we can do is make sure you don’t sound like Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Edna Millay. They are dead! Dead! Be a student of English literature if you want to sound like the dead. And, by the way, did we tell you the field of study at one time called the English Major is also dead? Good. Talk amongst yourselves, students, and commence writing! And just remember, I, with my degree from one of the most distinguished writing programs in the world, will be watching, to make sure you do not ever write like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Or anyone with three names! Horrors! Better to be known simply as Trudy. Or Billy. Or Sam. And write. poetry. like. this.

Laura Kasischke is a writing program graduate, and yet has still managed to distinguish herself as a poet of wonderful ability: she is known to write complete, comprehensible, sentences on comprehensible topics. This may be due to the fact, however, that she is also a successful novelist.

Her champion is Stephen Burt, a rising poetry critic star who teaches with Jorie Graham at Harvard; Burt broke into the big time with a damning piece in the Boston Globe on Foetry.com, Alan Cordle’s website which exposed systemic poetry contest cheating and reputation puffing in academic American poetry. It was fun, enlightening, painful (for people like Graham) depending on where you were on the map of poetry reputation. Everyone, due to Foetry.com’s influence, which was quite extensive, is sadder—but wiser. Wisdom has quietly turned to joy—and one can see it in Scarriet’s “To Sir With Love” exuberance.  Burt has edited an anthology of sonnets—the tacit assumption that sonnets were once written can be made with impunity once in a while, if a publisher is willing to suffer a material, if not a spiritual, loss.

Kasischke had one of the better poems in the latest (2015) Best American Poetry, Sherman Alexie, guest editor (The BAP Series has been edited by David Lehman since 1988) and we found her best line there:

but this time I was beside you…I was there.

Affection produced in prose language can, by its directness and homeliness, be extremely touching. Poetry can be iconic, but that doesn’t mean prose cannot occasionally outdo poetry by being more affectionate in its plainess. Prose may sometimes catch us off guard by smelling sweeter than poetry. This confuses the poets, who then proceed to drown themselves in the sea which the plain talkers successfully sail. Kasischke, we might entertain for a paranoid moment, might owe her success to this anti-poetry phenomenon.

Any language we do not understand sounds poetic to our helpless ears; as we come to understanding we come away from poetry, and by this formula the more purely prosaic we sound the more we understand and what we understand is the falsity of the one we once loved, dear poetry, the one who seduced us in a castle about 200 years ago in a frilly shirt—and now must die.

One solution to not sound prosaic and not sound 19th-century either, as a poet, is surrealism.

Kushal Poddar, from Calcutta, a self-taught genius, Kasischke’s opponent, writes very exciting poetry in a pyrotechnical inventiveness that fits the short, lyrical form to the unusual image—he never has a red wheel barrow in his poetic landscape unless that wheel barrow is fully on fire, and that is how he expresses his passions and his desires. Here is his line:

Your fingers are alight. Their blazing forest burns towards me.

Poddar, like a true poet, suggests as much as he presents—the shadows produced by his mind are as lovely as the flames. We think him one of the better poets in the world writing in English, and one more reason to visit Calcutta—if you can get your head out of your résumé.

So which will win? The plain-speaking or the fire?










  1. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 21, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    This essay has many fine points which I will think about for a long time, partly because I have to unravel them and translate them into my own framework but also because, they are just wonderful to think about.

    I do not however agree with the statement that poets in India are better than poets in America and I don’t like to think about contests of that nature. Poetry is not measurable. One of the flaws of the prevailing educational system is its insistence on measuring the immeasurable.

    I certainly do agree that it is exciting what is happening in India especially in terms of the unabashed enthusiasm and love for poetry which seems to abound and in what seems to be the greater emotional freedom of expression and the acceptance of the Romantic, not the dour consigning of dead poets to the dead ground as you point out so eloquently and with such charm.

    I thought a lot about your blanket statement that poets in America attend writing programs, graduate from writing programs. In fact there are as you know MANY MORE POETS IN AMERICA WHO DO NOT.

    Another topic worthy of consideration is to my mind at least, HOW AND WHY are those poets WHO DO NOT attend writing programs NOT EBEN CONSIDERED POETS AT ALL. This was certainly not always the case as writing programs have not existed all that long in our literary history.

    By the way, how long have writing programs, M.F.A.s existed? Is it the early nineties, or earlier? And are there comparable programs (shudder) in other countries, such as India? God, I hope with all my heart it hasn’t spread like Dutch Elm disease.

    One reason I continue to champion and defend Valerie Macon and her most peculiar poetic trial by writing program poets is that it seemed so necessary for her more credentialed opponents to ENTIRELY DISCOUNT HER AS A POET.

    We, the automatically disqualified rely on God and Scarriet to set these matters right. Hey, but don’t feel any pressure. (smiley face, not for the book jacket).

    • Surazeus said,

      March 21, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      I think the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, founded in 1936, is the very first creative writing program in the United States.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        March 22, 2016 at 12:27 am

        I’m not surprised. Iowa is a beautiful state.

  2. March 21, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Your judgemental generalic characterizations about poets on two continents (ok, one of them, a sub-continent) contains some flakes of truth, but not the nuggets of it you seem to think. Of course if your exposure to poets living in the US is only through the academic journals, it is easy to see how you may have come to your conclusions.

    I have a degree in English creative writing that necessitated a comprehensive study of English literature, but over the course of the last forty-five I am gradually becoming a poet by writing the infernal stuff. Often to serve as tinder and appreciation of romance, but for a mad myriad of other reasons too.

    I would maintain that true poets can not, with very rare exception, be that, without having studied and written poems in the huge variety of classic forms. Sonnets, sestinas, the list is nearly endless. To do so is like being an automobile mechanic with no understanding of how the internal combustion engine works.

    The degree in writing only exposed the bones of what I needed to study the rest of my life. That love of form has spread quite organically to the study of forms of poetry in many languages other than English as well. From haiku to ghazals or Irish Rannaicheacht Ghairid, I make it habit to try my hand at any form I come across that intrigues me. Free verse is the true measure of a poet. I think there is no such thing as being a poet; that it only possible to be becoming a poet.

    Frequently, my poems may be considered by some as surrealistic, though not for the reason you put forth. Rather because I have long had a love for the absurd–in theater, poetry or the magic screen I find before my eyes each day.

    From what I have seen, which is considerable, via facebook etc. Indian poets have an almost obsessive fear of western forms, or any forms at all for that matter. And, don’t get me wrong, there a lot of very fine poets and poems in the Indian sphere (and my exposure is limited to those written in English), there are thousands more who seem to just be running around spouting like chickens with their heads cut off. It might be argued that poetry is what poets write, and I would be the last to argue with that notion, but in my humble opinion, poets who are becoming good poets will not eschew educating themselves, not necessarily in institutions, about the art.

    Gorilla Glue Mirrors

    Straw mirrors reflecting vaporous wraiths
    attuned to departed memories like waters
    of streams awaiting return of salmon spawns
    rows of stakes tightly driven deep
    through hearts so we can remember where
    we planted what later became the thickness
    of our yearnings for a brace of tides
    that remembered how to shoot
    the rugged petals of our name.

    Straw mirrors squatting like puppies
    expecting master any moment at the door
    lapping mysteries from bowls slopping over
    with disheveled beliefs
    foaming at the frills of rampant
    rabid whispered responsibilities
    shirked beneath rug beaters
    relentless loom.

    Straw mirrors laughing at our attempts
    to turn their reflections into gold
    while idle motors endlessly
    drag the needle through the groove
    searching for ragged irregularities
    that will sooth our blister packed eyes
    treat them to uncateracted circumcisions
    of blind ungoings chasing their own
    precognitions down trails that bump
    in the night, blinking dreaded daylight
    horns of plenty with gourds of disbelief
    playing as orchestras devouring echoes.

    D. Russel Micnhimer 3-18-2016

  3. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 21, 2016 at 9:31 pm


  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 21, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    The notice of poetry is not the same thing as the poetry.

    What I write about poetry is what I notice about poetry, and perhaps, what I (in an ideal sort of way) choose to notice about poetry. No one can possibly keep up with all the poetry that is written.

    I’m glad you brought up Macon, Mary. When the controversy broke, Scarriet was the only one to say: Let’s look at her poetry!

    People go to MFA programs not to learn, but to get noticed.

    The good critic simply asks that ‘notice’ be intelligent and elevate poetry.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 22, 2016 at 12:14 am

      The strangest thing to me was that I kept reading on various NC literary blogs here and there at the time of Valerie’s appointment and subsequent resignation as poet laureate of NC due to the hostility (not all of them, to be fair), statements like ‘I haven’t read her poetry but I know people who have” so the whole shebang was going on with virtually no one having read what she actually wrote, that’s how bizarre it was. And, as you pointed out at one point also about your interpetation of this whole situation Scarriet really was the only outlet that actually discussed her poetry AT ALL, including newspapers (both NC and national, including NYT and Wasington Post) who wrung their hands or chronicled the hand wringers without quoting a single line of her poetry (except for one guy who trashed a perfectly delightful poem to such a ridiculous degree he was even criticized by other self appointed literary critics).

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        March 22, 2016 at 12:19 am

        And the best part was that you came down strongly IN FAVOR of her poetry. MAIN POINT: IT WAS NEVER ABOUT THE POETRY AT ALL. (all that literary infighting and nastiness). On the plus side Valerie Macon’s latest work, String of Black Pearls was lyrically endorsed by the next appointed poet laureate of NC, Shelby Stephenson, a person of real guts. The one the hand wringers kept saying about oh thank God we’ve finally got a real poet laureate now. I can’t help but hope his endorsement of Valerie’s poetry if and when they find out about drives them a little bit crazy.

  5. bmaat said,

    March 22, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    kushal poddar’s searingly exquisite line brought me to my knees in its own created instant. a cosmos apart. . everything else vanished before it. it and I in complete surrender. there are no choices there.

    ms. kasischke’s line is ever so poignant, ever so literally present. it is a surrender of another tender. one that speaks of long toil, of having arrived. it speaks of a choice long in the making.

  6. bmaat said,

    March 22, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    thank you for the enlightened discourse. i am off to pursue ms. macon’s work.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 23, 2016 at 7:17 am

      The thing I like about her poetry is in many cases she paints portraits of real people, small vignettes of people she glimpses here and there like a quick sketch artist that have a kind of cinematic vividness and always a certain signature warmth. She writes poetry from her real impressions and is never pretentious. And there is a mysterious trace of hope in her poems that you can’t attribute to poetic device; it’s just somehow = there.

  7. bmaat said,

    March 23, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    interestingly mary angela, exactly your words could describe the poems i read of kushal poddar when first i encountered him; the aging men on the streets, the cats in their social orders, the sweeping women in the temples. a quiet observational humility pervaded those early poems.

    as for hope, yes, that trace.

    • maryangeladouglas said,

      March 23, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      the difference is in the American countryside views, landscapes, attitudes I suppose. Anyway to write about poems is never the same as simply to read them. I only do the best I can.

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        March 23, 2016 at 7:03 pm

        re:bmaat, Very sorry for the omission. I also meant to say your description of your impression of Mr. Kushal Poddar’s poems is very intriguing, fascinating and beautiful, like India itself and certainly makes me want to read his poems. I just find, unlike Scarriet, that I cannot myself compare poets and poems, though I enjoy reading comparisons when they are made with imagination as on Scarriet.

        I can only read poems, poets and think about them individually, Whether this is a flaw in mind or soul I don’t know; I don’t think so. It’s just the way it feels to me.

  8. maryangeladouglas said,

    March 23, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    As a postscript to my last comment, another reason and perhaps the main reason I honor Valerie Macon above all other current poets anywhere is that she walked away from a high poetic honor (poet laureateship of North Carolina) to prove a point about Poetry rather than prizes something which I think is rare, if non existent in the history of world wide and American poetry. For this reason I cannot compare her to any other poet since I know of no one else who has done this. And I will not, though not meaning to give any offense.

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