INDIAN POETRY DECEMBER

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December is here, and now Scarriet has looked at 77 Indian poets who write and publish in English, with one more month and seven more poets to go—84 in all, and what an illuminating exercise this has been!

Here’s what I learned and am learning. Indian poetry in English rivals Britain and the USA.  Let’s stop ignoring India.

Thanks, again, to Linda Ashok.

Now let’s look at this month’s poets:

Sharanya Manivannan is young (born in 1985) and writes of romantic episodes with feeling; the goal is: memories enhanced by tokens traced in the poetry become the reader’s. Wordsworth did this to wonderful effect with daffodils—the highest accomplishment of lyric poetry, in which Romantic pure feeling replaces poetry’s old task—history, scripture, satire—because the yellow flowers are both the memory and the reality; Wordsworth made sure reader and poet were on the same page; nothing gets in the way of daffodil fever.

The dilemma of describing a wonderful love affair is that the more wonderful it was, the more difficult (impossible) it is to describe. The love poet labors uphill; good Romantic poetry is  impossible. Classical, 19th century, Romantic poetry does not describe real love. Romantic poetry is a paradox, which is why no Modern has been able to replicate Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, or Shelley. The Moderns somehow did not get it. Perhaps because they look to old poetry, centuries-old poetry, much older than the Romantics, which depicts wild and passionate love in all its forms, with wit and natural imagery. The difference is, the love of the 19th century Romantics belonged to imagination, not love. In successful 19th century Romantic poetry, love has to be in the poetry itself, not only remembered. The “remembered” is all poetry is—except for the occasional poetic genius. Wordsworth: “And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.”

Manivannan is as close to the Romantics as any poet we have had the pleasure to read. Here is her poem, “Keeping the Change,” attempting to keep what is gone:

In the French Quarter I wrote you
love poems in yellow ochre,

unscrolled them like a trellis
of bougainvillea, paper
petals too intense to abandon,
too fragile to keep. How many
shots of thirty rupee citrus vodka
could we get for a ten dollar

bill? Everywhere you went you
told them to keep the change,

placing it palm-down back on
the table, so when I picked up

your hand to kiss it after, I
smelt metal on your skin.

I don’t know what you came
here looking for, but it
wasn’t in the cobblestone,
or in the rock-bordered

coastline, it wasn’t in the
prayer-dome or in anything
you filled those palms

with when I lifted those
dresses I bought on those
streets over my head,

needing you the way a vine
of thorns needs a spine.

And this much later, a
coffer in my memory still

rattles—your coins too
cheap to care for, too heavy
to carry.

But I have a weakness
for copper and weight, and

I have collected them all,
handfuls of ore and residue.
They function like paperweights,

burdening the wisps of things,
their threats to drift away.

This is a wonderful poem, even as it resembles, at moments, the slangy, breathless, love poem which has become a dreary cliche since Modernism made the informal everything.

But this is to say nothing—it is like saying 19th century masterpieces of poetry threaten to become too rhyme-y.  So what? An age has its idiosyncrasies, and it’s good to see Manivannan in her time rise above her time with this magnificent poem.

*

Priya Sarukkhai Chabria is a student of the love poem; the tanka (strong examples of medieval Japanese women’s poetry) classical Indian love poetry (explicit yet ornate, natural metaphors watching over human desire in poems bawdy or not). She tackles many old forms and stories and histories.  What I like is the attempt is Romantic—love and love beautifully remembered, whether it is considered moral, or not.

The challenge is the same. How does love live in the poem?  Perhaps the love cannot live in the poem?  Then how is the love poem interesting? What can the poor poem do, but be a lascivious peep hole of lost memory?

Sarukkhai Chabria, translator and scholar, as well as poet, has consciously tried to imitate the most passionate and witty love poetry of India’s past. She’s aware that speech, not just imagery, conveys the complexity of love in the most accessible yet intriguing sort of way:

She says to her girlfriend:

He said to me: Keep faith.
So I kept a stubborn faith in
him that grew
with every obstacle.
Swollen, taut, ready
I held this close within myself
feeling his absent presence
fill me full.

Suddenly—
this small spill,
for him a little thing.
His rapid pulling out of me
peels away my very skin.

I’m earthworm worming
in the red slush
open
to flaming skies.

Do we, the reader, want to be inside the very love of others? What do we make of her final image?  Does love poetry belong to the cheap and voyeuristic? How noble must the love be? What must we see? Not see?

These questions are answered if we return to the Romantics like Wordsworth. It isn’t about the love. It’s about the imagination. It is not a question of whether poetry should hold love at arm’s length, or not. The imagination is the filter, the authority, the judge, and the passion. This is why 19th century British Romanticism was a true renaissance of poetry—which the world neglects at its peril.

Sarukkhai Chabria is doing a good service by studying, translating and writing poems of love.

**

Ravi Shankar is a brilliant poet. If we can generalize, the best poets do five things well—1 use the language, 2 see, 3 feel, 4 think, and 5 manage the first four in a poem.

In poem after poem, the American poet Ravi Shankar, excels at all five. He prefers the loose sonnet form—four stanzas of three or four lines. He builds poems. Most poems are written. Shankar’s poems, like most we remember, are built.

No one would ever be foolhardy enough to say a poem must be this or that.

However, to reject completely the idea that a poem is something we recognize as a poem is to miss out, perhaps, on the secret.

We enter a house and recognize it as such—it is not a tunnel; it is not a field; it is not a forest. It is a house.

Shankar seems to have stumbled upon poem—and the result (of course poems and houses are infinite in their variety) is always poetry of the highest order.

“Buzzards” is a classic example—every word in the poem profits its neighbor, until the last startling phrase hugs the theme and crowns the whole.

Gregarious in hunger, a flock of twenty
turn circles like whorls of barbed wire,
no spot below flown over uncanvassed.

The closer to death the closer they come,
waiting on wings with keen impatient
perseverance, dark blades lying in wake

until age or wound has turned canter
into carcass or near enough for them
to swoop scrupulous in benediction,

land hissing, hopping, tearing, gorging,
no portion, save bone, too durable
to digest. What matters cannot remain.

“Contraction” is equally accomplished.

Honest self-scrutiny too easily mutinies,
mutates into false memories
Which find language a receptive host,
Boosted by boastful embellishments.

Self-esteem is raised on wobbly beams,
seeming seen as stuff enough
To fund the hedge of personality,
Though personally, I cannot forget

Whom I have met and somehow wronged,
wrung for a jot of fugitive juice,
Trading some ruse for a blot or two,
Labored to braid from transparent diction

Fiction, quick fix, quixotic fixation.
As the pulse of impulses
Drained through my veins, I tried to live
Twenty lives at once. Now one is plenty.

There are more Shankar poems like this: the language Shakespearean, the themes razor sharp, the expressiveness iconic.

It might as well be said. Ravi Shankar is at the top of the heap. There is no better poet living; we suspect a painful, heart-breaking, rueful quality prevents his work from being universally admired.

And another thing: we live in an age of social confusion.

The poem, in our time, which makes an impression on us like pigeons which wheel in a flock over our heads and come to a perfect rest on a church roof, is no longer the standard.

A dubious conversation of intense feeling we don’t quite understand, but puzzle over, is the model of the day.

Shankar’s poems are a product of these days, nonetheless; time will prove Shankar’s work to be excellent in every way it is possible to measure.

***

Abhay K, is like many Indian poets, an important compiler and translator, as well as a poet. He has published “100 Great Indian Poems,” most of them not originally in English.

He is also a diplomat. “Of Drugs and Drug Addicts” falls into the didactic category, but it’s an arresting and important poem, nonetheless, and is not without irony: the powerful “need help themselves” is as ironic as the very notion that the greatest addiction involves no apparent “addiction” at all. Power is a tricky concept; without power, we can’t effect good, either, yet all of us understand immediately the point which “Of Drugs and Drug Addicts” makes.

When we talk
of drugs and drug addicts,
we never talk of power,
the deadliest drug of all.

Cocaine, heroin or grass,
everyone knows,
are harmful for all,
and we have made them illegal
passing laws
but everyone craves power,
the deadliest drug of all.

Once tasted,
it surpasses the most addictive of drugs,
making a person mad,
numbing his senses
to the suffering and pain
of the millions
waiting in vain

for their deliverance
through these prophets insane,
power addicts, abusers,
who need help themselves.

****

Harnidh Kaur is in her mid-20s, and she’s what is loosely known as an “instagram poet,” with “followers,” if not “readers.” She voices concerns, which are called poems.  Enlarging the context of what poems are, and what they do, can be challenging, or so open-ended, poems no longer are.  But why should we care what poems are?  When context is “followers,” or “readers,” (the more, the better) perhaps democracy is enough to define poetry—so that we don’t need to define poetry at all.  The narrow definition of poetry by someone like Poe, for instance, can comfortably sit off to one side, and instagram poetry can do its thing. Everyone should be able to be happy.

did love seem like the scariest thing you ever did
because every time you tried to love
you made an unwanted political statement?

This is a good question.

Does it matter whether this is a poem, or not?

*****

Shalim Hussain is a political poet who hides his politics behind beautiful poetry, so that one wonders, is this poetry more beautiful because of the politics, and how can that be? We know beauty doesn’t allow her charms to be handled by others. She owns them, and will not permit their use for other ends. Politics, too, eager to be adorned by beauty, hasn’t got time for beauty, save as an adornment, for so much has to be explained. Politics is attached to history, religion, and all those things which requires scholarship and time.

Poetry which lends its voice to politics is dutiful in the extreme—it is anxious to be poetic, knowing there is too much to explain without metaphors and myths, and now there is so much work to do: myth, metaphor, politics will overwhelm and confuse, if the poet is not expert in sorting it all out.

I love the lines in this poem—“His downy heart bleeds over the bliss beneath” and many others are exquisite, delicate, first-rate. I love this poem—but honestly, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening—and the explanation at the end is not poetry, but an explanation.

The topic and the lines are so beautiful, however, that we’ll take it.

Witness the beauty of Hussain’s poem:

Dighalipukhuri*

One claw on a bar,
and the crow
lifts the other to his lips
and blows the day’s first puff.
His view races the smoke through the fencing,
conductors spank their buses on-
“Dighalipukhuri. Dighalipukhuri.”

Long pond.

He stares at a chirping he can never touch,
at entwined buds,
and pigeons floating together in air bubbles,
and lovebirds in love rows,
their heads under their wings.
His downy heart bleeds over the bliss beneath.

At home his vulture
awaits him,
the spear in her hair and
a carcass in her beak.

Here he makes his day long,
sometimes swoops down and scoops up a
beakful of love from the face
Dighali.
Love the blushes of hyacinths
skimmed behind the boats.
The trees smell of Duryodhana’s incense
and Bhanumati’s anklets still tinkle beneath the paddle-boats,
her tumeric and potfuls of milk
and wedding tears
and a few thousand years of love.

He will return to blow the night’s last mists.

(*Dighalipukhuri, literally, ‘long pond,’ situated in Guwahati is an ancient pond frequented by lovers. It is connected by an underground tunnel to the river Brahmaputra and was supposedly dug for Duryodhana and Bhagadatta’s daughter Bhanumati’s wedding bath.)

******

Jerry Pinto is a novelist as well as a poet—which is often a hopeful sign to some; they cannot help but think, ‘A novelist! A good chance the poetry won’t be bullshit.’ But others may worry, ‘A novelist! Treason may be lurking! Not a real poet, perhaps!’ Neither of these positions are at all fair. Let’s thrust aside these predjudices, and read the following with an open mind.

Prayer

Lord of the linear narrative,
Show me the point at which I should begin.
Stop me when I have said as much as I should.
Regulate my voice, I boom too much
And my whispers are shrill.
Feed me words on those long, slow afternoons.
Allow me the grace of serendipity—
To find lost continents on my tongue.
Give me the gift of silence,
And then set me adrift.

*******

Seven more remarkable poets for this December installment!

We’ll see you in January!

 

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