The poet and painter Sushmita Gupta.
There’s something happening in poetry at present which ought to make many very proud, and a smaller, but a still significantly large amount of people, uncomfortable.
The best poetry in English right now is being produced by non-MFA poets from India.
We can name this phenomenon anything we want—some have called it the Bolly Verse phenomenon. Its center is Kolkata, or West Bengal, where a great deal of poems today are written in English. Kolkata (Calcutta), which we hear is an enchanting, mystical, modern city, was the cultural capital of British India. Rabindranath Tagore, the Tolstoy/Hugo/Poe/Borges/Shakespeare of India, was Bengali.
Contemporary Indian poets are inspired both by modern ways and old leather books from the 19th century.
These amateur Indian poets, amateur in the best sense of that word, are dimly aware of Whitman and William Carlos Williams, but they are just as likely to be inspired by Rumi or Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
These Indian poets have an advantage over American sophisticates—who are brutally and self-consciously modern.
Rumi sells far more books in America than any modern American poet—Rumi’s popularity rolls over the chilling influence of MFA programs; Rumi has an immense following in spite of American MFA-program success—a kind of pyramid-scheme success, if one is honest, and which, to be critically valid, demands a kind of anti-populist, historically-blank, hyper-individualist poetry: the kind published by university presses; academically rewarded—but since popularity is considered by sophisticates to be a bad thing—MFA-produced poetry has an almost nonexistent readership.
These indie Indian poets are not consciously writing against the MFA. And we do not bring these Indian poets to the world’s notice to make an anti-MFA point. Live, and let live, is a fine motto. These Indian poets have as many admiring readers on Facebook as the most successful American poets do, with the exception of poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver—but even these are, relatively speaking, no lions; Rumi is a thousand times more influential.
These indie Indians are probably a little better, however, just because they are not beholden to Modernist or MFA sensibilities—which is sometimes a bee hive, death star, hodgepodge of crackpot, over-educated impulses.
These indie Indians are good, in large part because they are good in the way poems have been good and will always be good, despite the Modernist, MFA detour—confusing many Western hair-shirt wearers since 1913.
Joie Bose writes like a foul-mouthed Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The foul-mouthed part is not “modern.” The ancient Roman poets were foul-mouthed. Peel the Modernist onion and you find ancient, and then perhaps nothing—the good poet happily and desperately on their own. There is no need to advertise Bose as modern—because she’s good.
The poetry of Joie Bose, and to be less pretentious, the poems of Joie Bose, belong to the center of what poetry has always been; when you’re drunk and you get up close to someone at a party, or any situation where you find yourself in a position to really hear what a person is really thinking—not what they think about X, Y, or Z-–but what they are thinking, as a person navigating this absurd, strange, beautiful, threatening world just like you, and navigating it means feeling along with the thinking, you get the total human experience. Too much of poetry is somebody thinking about something and then coming up with a poem (let me use this image! let me use this rhyme!)—the good poets actually do less work and skip that step of “thinking about what they are going to write” and instead plunge right into it, so we experience the thinking—the thinking does not orchestrate the correct sort of speech behind the facade of the poem. The thinking is the poem.
And let’s quote a Joie Bose poem so you’ll see exactly what we mean:
Stop talking! Shut your trap,
You better shut the fuck up!
Revolution is revolting and
we see that it’s the same
phrases and people on both sides
not knowing much about the cause
for these causes are mere pawns
and their quest is the same.
Why do you get up in the morning
Everyday and gear up to get out of bed?
I do, to board a train called Hope
It passes by many stations
For my destination changes.
I am a vagabond. Home is where I am.
People die when I rub them off
And I don’t believe in obituaries, ecologies and funerals.
Don’t ask me to stop if you can’t be me
And when you become, you will cease to care.
This poem is very heavy on the attitude. And to its credit.
Because that’s what poetry is. It’s attitude.
Think about it. Poetry isn’t science. When Keats famously said beauty is truth, he was presenting an attitude. Think of Byron. He was all attitude.
Poe made great efforts to get across the important point that poetry is neither moral nor intellectual, but resides in an area between the two. Once poetry attempts to be moral, it dies, because poetry is too truthfully subjective to be moral; when poetry becomes too intellectual, it perishes for the same reason, losing the subjective thrill which is the key to poetry’s expression. This does not mean that the moral and intellectual faculties of the poet are absent; the poet is aware of these—but the reader wants cohesion, not precepts.
Joie Bose’s poem has its reasons. “Causes are mere pawns” is the same thing as saying causes are effects—which they certainly can be; there is a sound and playful philosophy going on here. The way hope inside hope rides a train which stops, but doesn’t, carries more interest—the poet is calling the shots, and that’s refreshing; she’s not letting the world and its stock images (train stations, destinations, these normally dull objects of sorrow and limitation) spoil her fun. But this is not to say the poet is making a train a nice thing on a whim—the whole poem follows out the entire essence of what the poet is saying at every point, and, finally, “Don’t ask me to stop if you can’t be me” which is piling on more of that “shut the fuck up” attitude—and “cease to care” opposes “hope,” and these two opposites interact precisely because the poet’s attitude is strongly expressed—we connect with the poet who apparently doesn’t give a fuck (or does she?) There’s a person in Bose’s poem—one is bumping into an attractive stranger, not hearing a lecture. Her poem is exciting.
The poet Sushmita Gupta also makes poetry from a plain, homely, yet gracious place—poetry coming out of a tradition which sells the human. As with Bose, Sushmita Gupta is not interested in intellectual or aesthetic distance, something modern poets often do—and why must they do it? What if poetry is harmed by intellectual distancing, and modern poetry has made a horrible miscalculation? For calculation is at the center of modern poetry—if nothing else, it is highly intellectual and historically and theoretically conscious, and if it does take its calculations seriously—and this means miscalculation is possible—the moderns need to at least acknowledge this. In speaking of a “modern temper,” and speaking of it pejoratively, we are sure our modern readers, every one, will say to themselves, “Well this isn’t my attitude! I have no “modern” limitations! Scarriet is building a straw man!” This indeed may be true, but any sophisticated reader who reads the following poem by Sushmita will find themselves immediately confronting what their modern education tells them is insufficient, even as their very soul is swept away by the beauty of this poem:
Beyond the forest
By the river swollen,
Stood a single tree.
I ran away
From it all,
And sat underneath,
From the sun,
Barely covered me.
On a day of betrayal,
I sat sobbing.
And by the time
The sun was gone,
And tiny stars
Just began showing,
My quiet sobbing
Had turned to a howl.
Out of deep dungeons,
They were on a prowl.
Of the wildly hungry,
Why always me.
Wind to a frenzy.
It threw me
In the river,
Of fast flowing,
That was used to
In a day,
I was blown away,
By just that one question.
I cried for help,
But the waters rumbled,
The winds roared,
My cries drowned,
To a tiny yelp.
I was cruised,
Till I was thrown,
On the shores,
Of an unknown land.
My clothes in tatters,
My head and hair,
Covered in wet sand.
Was beginning to rise,
But I just wished,
Happy to be alive,
I once again asked,
But more in gratitude,
You saved me o divine lord,
Why in spite of my failings,
This poem by Sushmita Gupta succeeds not because it’s telling a highly realistic story; it is not successful for any modern reason at all—it succeeds almost mathematically—the pure timing of “why me,” its musical repetition. If Sushmita’s poem is mathematical, it seems unobtrusively musical, instead, seeming to spring directly from the heart. It succeeds where all great art succeeds; not in some critical guide book—but with the audience.
We found this poem by Payal Sharma printed out on Facebook recently, and include it in our random piece on a great nation’s poetry; it reminds us of Emily Dickinson or even Sylvia Plath. We have no great motive for sharing this, except as a pleasing addition to the vague idea that Indian women writing by their wits alone are making great poetry today. Payal lives in the north of India, works in an office, is intelligent, passionate, and counts among her influences Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Virginia Woolf, William Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, Wilfred Owen, Lord Byron, Kahil Gibran, Mirza Ghalib, Sarojini Naidu, and Rabindranath Tagore. If William Shakespeare or W.H. Auden or Oscar Wilde find you in offices in Mexico, childhoods in India, or MFA seminars in the U.S.A., they find you. That’s all that matters.
In the following poem by Payal, we find “exhaling sad to inhale relief” exquisite, and the conclusion of the poem sounds like the pure yelp of divine Miss Emily herself: “demurely silent pearls, which nobody earned more so!”
As you may
treading through the narrow waters
in numbing black void,
greased with slippery layers
of lard extracted from my old epithets.
Dear lover, come as you may-
A chrome door to murky corridor,
leading to the virgin smells
of crushed black olives
in medieval castles.
A faint hint of corrosive carbon,
peered with miraculous oxygen,
released in deep audible
breaths of night trees,
exhaling sad to inhale relief.
A knight in decent armour,
sent by gown-less fairies
from the oppressed villages of
valour and essential ignorance.
A tang of air from several yards,
carrying the mental notes
from past teachers,
coiled around my neck for a while,
like demurely silent pearls,
which nobody earned more so!
These three Indian poets, Joie, Sushmita, and Payal are different, independent—and magnificent!
We are proud to be able to present them.