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Linda Ashok believes poetry is a way forward.

Linda Ashok is a poet from India with a deep and abiding interest in poetry being heard and felt around the world. English, fortunately for English speakers, is a window into Indian poetry (and India) which any lover of poetry (and humankind) would be wise to use.  She has been kind enough to send Poetry Mail our way, of which she is founder and president, and this number is organized around “read  7 Indian poets a month” (84 Indian poets, through January 2019).

We could not resist.

Curiosity will never be satisfied, but Criticism, its enemy, can produce, selfishly, moments of satiety and rest, as the Critic deludes himself into thinking perhaps poetry, in pieces, and as a whole, can be grasped and explained and understood in a somewhat satisfactory manner.

What follows is a brief Criticism of the February 2018 Poets—the First Seven, as chosen by Linda Ashok, and now altered, every so slightly, forever, by Scarriet

1. Aryanil Mukherjee
HarperCollins Indian Poetry in English (2011), Indian poetry issue of TLR, engineer, lives in Cincinnati.

A scientist, Mukherjee, writes scientific poems—what is a scientific poem?—alas, there is no such thing.

Mukherjee writes poems like a scientist—or, more accurately, writes poems for scientists who might think this is the way a scientist should, or would, write a poem.

Can poetry be brainy?

It can be. But poetry tends to rebuff smart. The smart will not be placated, however. If a poet is smart, why should they let mere poetry tell them what to do? They are much too smart for poetry. The whole modernist tendency, which impacts so many, is to eschew grammar and use simple juxtaposition of words to generate interest. This wields tremendous power—too much power, which is the problem, which is why there is so much tedious and obscure poetry by otherwise extremely smart people, and why this type of poetry is always best in small bites. We will quote a single stanza of a longer poem by Mukherjee. The phrase “blue liberty” is a poem in itself.  Note the lack of punctuation marks. It is all about putting “liberty” next to “blue.”

how much of yourself do you reflect in this wood
how many mirrors have you seen
the apple under sky was expected to be blue
wasn’t it?
is blue liberty? what does the atom say?

We don’t know what the atom says, but we will think about it for a very long time.

2. N Ravi Shankar
Lives in Palakkad, Kerala. His book, Architecture of Flesh, was published in 2015 by Poetrywala.

We love his strange poem, “Bullet Train,” which opens, “The Shinkensan Model accelerates to 217 miles per hour, cutting journey time to 3 hours from Ahmedabad to Mumbai,” and ends in the following haunting manner:

This train now will pass through
Under skin arteries and veins and nerves
Tunneling through bone marrow and muscles
Till it comes to rest on a magnificent spine bridge,
perched like a toy train in a full moon night
till the slightest breeze causes the compartments
to topple into a depth less soul, one by one.

3. Kazim Ali
MFA from NYU, born in UK to Muslim parents in 1971.

We quote the following short poem, “Autobiography,” in full—lack of grammar (sense) is the poet’s artful use of suggestion—the lack of direct meaning and grammar (including punctuation) is the poetry.  Indian poets writing in English have been swept up by Anglo-American Modernism as much as anyone else.  Poetry which tells nothing, and only suggests what it means, strives to satisfy the most important criterion of the New Criticism—poetry is that which cannot be paraphrased. Ali’s poem, “Autobiography,” more than meets this critical standard.

we didn’t really speak
my summer wants to answer
the architecture doesn’t matter
this is not my real life
when I am here I want to know
why do I believe what I was taught
a storm is on the way
close all the windows
begin at the earliest hour
is there a self
It is what Ali’s poem doesn’t say which makes the poem powerful.  How is it possible to speak about a poem which doesn’t say anything?  Is “Autobiography” the kind of poem which ends all Criticism, making the critic astonished, and mute?  Modernism was ushered in with Imagism, and the reticence of the image played a great role in moving on from the oratory of the 19th century. However, (up speaks the Critic) in this poem we notice that there’s very little imagery, but in fact a great deal of activity in terms of stage direction/speech/action: “speak,” “answer,” “believe,” “storm on the way,” “close all the windows,” and “begin.”  The Indian poets are not resigned. They don’t rest.  And yet, a modernist minimalism is still at work.

4. Binu Karunakaran
Online journalist from Kochi, India

To quote Karunakaran’s poem “The Railway Platform Weight and Fortune Telling Machine” reveals how much he fits into what we have been saying about the previous poets.  There is a marked fascination with everything artificial, presented as both comforting and strange—as if modernity were destined to be friend and enemy.  Is this kind of poetry sensible? Or schizophrenic?  I assume the latter, since no one really wants to read “sensible” poetry, do they?  Of course a smart person is usually sensible, and the Indian poets all seem particularly brainy. Is technology a horror, a toy, or a comfort?  We aren’t really sure.

looks like a casino sun
flowering in the night, full
of calibrated science, flashing
coloured lights and a Newton’s
disc that refuses to stop
spinning until the last pollen
of weight left by that moth
of a man before me is blown
away by the wind from the train
that passes. After a throated
clang it spat out a cut cookie-
coloured card on which is
written your lucky number
and a hooking line about fate
in proportion to your weight
in the world.

5. Nandini Dhar
Teaches at Florida International University and also lives in Kolkata.

“Map Pointing At Dawn,” by its very title, throws us immediately into the modern Indian theme: science bumping up against nature—it obviously consumes the modern, educated poets.  Here’s the first 8 lines.

When we tear the petals of polash with the edges of our fingernails,
we are claw-marking our ways into a history of rust, from which

the little girls are to be kept buttoned up. A night-storm is carving
the polash-petals; manipulating the effulgence of a bruised sun

to fashion its crimson. Ghost Uncle is a calligrapher who cannot hold
a pen between his fingers. This is just a sentence in this history of rust

we are trying to creep in. This history of crimson petals illustrated
with upturned nails, secret rooms at the back of a police station:  interrogation.

Dhar’s style is matter-of-fact; she does not choose to jettison grammar and punctuation, but the fragmentary syntax, the fragmentary meaning, is the same.  Social commentary replete with horror is indirectly stated; good poetry is indirect.

6. Sumana Roy
Lives in Siliguri, India and has published in Granta and Prairie Schooner.

Roy’s poem, “Root Vegetables” gathers together a theme and puts it on the table for you—all these poems so far have been tangible, material—not flighty, or airy; the Indian poets are smart, observant, grounded and serious; and this poem is no exception, though it is less fragmentary, and can be paraphrased.

Root vegetables are less beautiful and more profound than plants which grow above ground—“just so, that taste, the righteousness, of vegetables/that grow below the earth, hidden from light.”

Roy gives us a clever but blatant contrast with light: “The dew on green each morning is politically correct, being equalist, and only a gesture. For darkness drinks less water than light.”

The rather grandiose “pathetic fallacy” argument of the poem ends appropriately enough: “When, at last, they are forced out of the ground…they discover fire and utilitarianism,/And knowing both, realise that life is as ordinary as food.”

The Indian poets bend over backwards to appear rational, sane, and grounded in common sense.  The ‘standing about’ prose style of modernism adds to this grounded sensibility, such that it almost seems modernism was invented for what the modern Indian poets are trying to say. This is sometimes a good thing. It is not always a good thing. The facile is not always good for poetry.

7. Mihir Vatsa
Is from Hazaribagh, India. Winner of the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize.

“My Mother Visits A Beauty Parlor” is another poem which combines the natural (mother) with the artificial (beauty parlor), the overwhelming theme of the new Indian poets.

The story of the poem—Vatsa’s poetry is more discursively intimate than most, which is good, since poetry, after all, is speech—does not end well.  The poet wants to go to a restaurant, but his mother insists on the beauty parlor, where the poet waits outside, “counting scooters.” The panorama of businesses catering to women’s vanity depresses him, and when his mother emerges from the parlor “with shorter hair and sharper eyebrows” he’s not pleased, and she does not speak to him “for the next two days.”  The poet, while waiting for his mother, reflects: “I remember the many TV commercials with smiling women speaking about freedom and other liberating nouns.”  This is a depressing description of freedom, a freedom cancelled by the most material limitation one could imagine—freedom is a noun.  The noun joke is clever, but terribly depressing, somehow.  Trapped in the thing-ism of a noun. This seems to sum up the modern Indian sensibility—stuck in a melancholy, materialistic modernist style, which walls itself up in a perfected type of Imagism (I’m thinking of the English World War One poet, T.E. Hulme) which the Indian poet knows too well, almost too well, so that it slows them down. I would not speak to this particular noun for two days, either.

—The Scarriet Editors



Eliot’s pal, Ezra Pound: cabal criticism “sold the wares.”

“Reflections on Vers Libre,” the very short essay, published in the middle of WW I and the Russian revolution, when Eliot was still an unknown writer in his late twenties, appeared in the New Statesman, founded just a few years earlier by a couple of socialist aristocrats.  If  you think a socialist aristocrat sounds like an oxymoron, you probably don’t know the kinds of circles Eliot and Pound were moving in at this time, and you probably aren’t sophisticated enough to detect the trick Eliot played on his readers as he apparently dismissed free verse—another oxymoron?

Pound and Eliot weren’t revolutionaries, they were gangsters, and they were moving deeply into cheap merchandise (modern poetry) because they thought it was a good way to enrich themselves. It was working with modern art; Eliot and Pound’s lawyer (and art collector), the Irishman John Quinn, (Golden Dawn, British Intelligence) was making a killing in modern art, and Quinn would help the boys strike a multi-level publishing deal with Eliot’s Waste Land—before Pound had even finished the edits.

“Reflections on Vers Libre” is one of the top ten documents of Modernism, and famous for it’s closing line, “there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”  

What was good verse? 

That was easy. 

It was what Eliot, Pound, and their associates were writing. 

Bad verse was Romanticism and Pope and Poe and Shakespeare, the old order which was about to topple. 

And chaos?  Pound and Eliot’s friend: War, racism, and social instability—so that good and bad could be turned upside down.  1914–1945 would not be a pretty time in Europe, but when the smoke cleared, two men would be canonized in world literature forever, and “chaos” was the factor which made bad verse seem good.  Eliot’s powers of persuasion didn’t hurt, either.

We usually don’t like it when someone publishes opinion anonymously, but there’s another dubious practice which may be worse: when we write essays as ourselves but present persons as real—who do not really exist.  Keep in mind Eliot’s piece appeared during a time when young men were being slaughtered in a war, a Communist revolution was shaking the world, and women were fighting for the right to vote; he introduces us to “a lady” of obvious leisure and sophistication who he quotes as saying, “Since the Russians came in I can read nothing else. I have finished Dostoevksi, and I do not know what to do.”  The poor “lady” does not know what to do.  Eliot rolls his eyes at the “lady” as he unsuccessfully points out to her that Dostoevski is a mere sentimentalist, like Dickens, and then adds, “she could no longer read any verse but vers libre.”  And we are off to the races:

It is assumed vers libre exists. It is assumed that vers libre is a school, that it consists of certain theories; that it group or groups of theorists will either revolutionize or demoralize poetry if their attack upon the iambic pentameter meets with any success. Vers libre does not exist, and it is time that this preposterous fiction followed the elan vital and the eighty thousand Russians into oblivion.

Pound’s school, Imagism, does exist, however, for not only does Eliot respectfully mention this school in his essay, he copies one of its founder’s poems (T.E. Hulme’s) to show the excellence of vers libre—which Eliot says does not exist.  Yea, we’ll get this eventually.

T.E. Hulme, one of the original Imagists, will die in WW I, months after Eliot’s essay sees print.  Eliot’s other “contemporary” samples proffered in this essay are by Pound, and Pound’s American friend, H.D.  Eliot doesn’t name these “contemporary” writers in his essay, for it must have been a little embarrassing that the great modernist revolution in poetry was being fought with a sheaf of mediocre poems composed by a tiny group of friends under the banner of Imagism, a movement which, to speak frankly, had little more to recommend it than its vers libre.

The delicious irony here is that Imagism was nothing more than vers libre—a style Eliot rebukes with great fanfare in front of the house—as vers libre strolls openly into the house from the rear. Eliot isn’t really objecting to vers libre at all.  He only pretends to do so. This odd mixing-yet-separating-out of the two movements (Imagism, which was Pound’s, and vers libre, which was nobody’s) occurs after Eliot smashes manifesto-ism in a dazzling display which could have been an attack on the very con of modernism itself.  It is so on the mark, we must quote it in full. It occurs early in the essay:

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat’s worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement. The theory which sold the wares may be quite false, or it may be confused and incapable of elucidation, or it may never have existed. A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them. In modern society such revolutions are almost inevitable. An artist, happens upon a method, perhaps quite unreflectingly, which is new in the sense that it is essentially different from that of the second-rate people about him, and different in everything but essentials from that of any of his great predecessors. The novelty meets with neglect, neglect provokes attack; and attack demands a theory. In an ideal state of society one might imagine a good New growing naturally out of the good Old, without the need for polemic and theory; this would be a society with a living tradition. In a sluggish society, as actual societies are, tradition is ever lapsing into superstition, and the violent stimulus of novelty is required. This is bad for the artist and his school, who may become circumscribed by their theory and narrowed by their polemic; but the artist can always console himself for his errors in his old age by considering that if he had not fought nothing would have been accomplished.

This could have been Eliot writing privately to Pound to tell him, look, I can’t go along with this madness—but here it is inserted into one of Eliot’s first published essays, an essay which transparently does Pound’s bidding.  Eliot is describing modernism as a fake revolution by a small circle of “second-rate” friends quixotically attacking “great predecessors.”  Eliot knew he was selling his soul to this modernist enterprise; Eliot’s ability to pinpoint what Pound’s “revolution” was, right under Pound’s nose, while pushing the very modernist agenda  he ridicules, should be proof, once and for all, that Eliot was a little more clever (precisely because of the depth of his doubts) than Pound and all the rest.

Who does Eliot quote as praise-worthy in this essay?  Hulme, H.D. and Pound, the “inner circle,” as well as two of Eliot’s predecessor stand-bys, John Webster, the Elizabethan playwright, and Matthew Arnold.

Reading carefully, we can see precisely where Eliot, in a sly manner, hints that what he is actually doing is defending his friend Pound’s Imagism—under the guise of seeming to banish vers libre:

Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but “free,” it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content. I am aware that many writers of vers libre have introduced such innovations, and that the novelty of their choice and manipulation of material is confused—if not in their own minds, in the minds of many of their readers—with the novelty of the form.  but I am not here concerned with imagism, which is a theory about the use of material; I am only concerned with the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast. If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can only define it by negatives: 1. absence of pattern, 2. absence of rhyme, 3. absence of meter.

Note Eliot’s implication that imagism is a legitimate “theory” re: the “content and the method of handling the content,” which is implicitly priviledged over mere “verse-form.”  We see Eliot’s true thesis: Imagism is “a theory about the use of material,” a theory which Eliot passes over in silence, and thus tacitly approves; but Eliot is “concerned with “the theory of the verse-form in which imagism is cast.”  In other words, Eliot is afraid (concerned)  a certain “verse-form” called vers libre will discredit his friends the Imagists.  Given the fact that examples  in the essay which Eliot gives in praise are Imagist works of Hulme and Pound, what are we to think?  

This is how Eliot introduces his two friends’ extracts: “I have in mind two passages of contemporary verse which would be called vers libre. Both of them I quote because of their beauty.” 

What follows is clearly second-rate verse.

First, a complete poem by Hulme:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

Is Pound’s associate and chief founder of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who repudiated the Romantics and claimed poetry must reflect the times they are written in—is this revolutionary Imagist poem—which Eliot in his illustrious essay has dragged forth as an example of good vers libre—is this poetry as well-written as prose?  

“Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy”  “Now see I that warmth’s the very stuff of poesy?”  Comparing the sky to a blanket?  A revolution in poetry is about to happen!   Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstacy!

Can it get any worse?  It does. Eliot brings forth a second “contemporary.”  Surprise!  It’s Eliot’s friend, Pound, the master of ‘poetry-as-good-prose’ himself:

There shut up in his castle,  Tairiran’s,
She who had nor ears nor tongue save in her hands,
Gone—ah, gone—untouched, unreachable—
She who could never live save through one person,
She who could never speak save in one person,
And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors…—

Is this the revolution?  Is this the “new?”  Shut up in his castle?  Who needs Tennyson, when we can have this from Pound, savored by Eliot for its “beauty?”

No wonder Pound wrote in the press the same year, “Eliot has said the thing very well when he said, “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.”  Ah, there’s nothing like brotherly, manly, forthright praise!

Eliot, always the historian, now moves into another phase of his essay. Following the display of “contemporary” vers libre success by Hulme and Pound, Eliot ventures back to the Elizabethan era, (when people also wrote about being “shut up in castles”) in order to demonstrate how the playwright John Webster “who was in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare” (fie?) turned to vers libre when his characters were at the height of tragic emotions.   Eliot’s logic runs like this:  Pound wrote bad poetry, but so did John Webster—for a dramatic purpose.  And since John Webster is “in some ways a more cunning technician than Shakespeare…”  well, there you go!  Sold!

Eliot writes, “Webster is much freer than Shakespeare, and that his fault is not negligence is evidenced by the fact that it is often at moments of the highest intensity that his verse acquires this freedom.  …In the White Devil Brachiano dying, and Cornelia mad, deliberately rupture the bonds of pentameter.”

But what happened to Eliot’s “there is no freedom in art?”

I recover, like a spent taper, for a flash
and instantly go out.

Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.

You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.

This is a vain poetry: but I pray you tell me
If there were proposed me, wisdom, riches, and beauty,
In three several young men, which should I choose?

So here are the quotes from the playwright John Webster, and surely it’s an interesting question: is it a good thing when pentameter breaks down to signal intense feeling in the plays of John Webster?  But what does this have to do, really, with second-rate, vers libre-which-is-not-vers-libre poetry by his contemporaries?

What about Shakespeare, the playwright “less cunning” than Webster, but slightly better known, and a begetter of that Romantic tradition which Pound and Eliot had no use for?  Eliot only looked at Webster, but I cannot resist glancing at Shakespeare, too.  Selecting Macbeth, at random, I’m curious to see how Shakespeare’s verse reacts to intensity of feeling.  Does it devolve, as it does with Eliot’s Webster, into forgettable vers libre? (which is good prose, at least, unlike Eliot’s Hulme and Pound examples.)  Let’s see:

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more is none.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.  When Duncan is asleep

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  One; two.
Why then tis time to do’t. Hell is murky.

To bed, to bed!  There’s knocking at the gate.
Come, come, come, come, give me your hand!
What’s done cannot be undone. To bed, to bed, to bed!

Well, guess what.  Eliot’s use of Webster proves inconclusive, since Shakespeare makes  powerful use of verse at the height of tragic intensity.

Vers libre, so says Eliot’s irrefutable logic, is defined by lack of “pattern, rhyme, and meter,” and therefore, as a positive category, it does not exist.  But Eliot knows all too well that, at least among his friends, vers libre does exist, and not as chaos, but as good verse.  Bad verse is merely the Shakespeare/Romantic tradition that Eliot and his friends, with manifestos tucked in their tweed pockets, are trying to overturn.

Eliot writes, “There is no campaign against rhyme.”  The vers libre invasion (which doesn’t exist) will let rhyme live.  But Eliot does think rhyme can be used more creatively, more sparingly, perhaps. “There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change of mood.”

But Poe had said the same thing 70 years earlier: It would require a high degree, indeed, both of cultivation and courage, on the part of any versifier, to enable him to place his rhymes—and let them remain—at unquestionably their best position, that of unusual and unanticipated intervals.”  This is from Poe’s “Rationale of Verse,” an essay in which Poe writes on verse that does exist, rather than on verse that does not.

Here’s how Eliot introduces his rhymeless samples:

So much for meter. There is no escape from meter; there is only mastery. But while there obviously is escape from rhyme, the vers librists are by no means the first out of the cave:

The boughs of the trees
Are twisted
By many bafflings;
Twisted are
The small-leafed boughs.
But the shadow of them
Is not the shadow of the mast head
Nor of the torn sails.

When the white dawn first
Through the rough fir-planks
Of my hut, by the chestnuts,
Up at the valley-head,
Came breaking, Goddess,
I sprang up, I threw round me
My dappled fawn-skin…

Except for the more human touch in the second of these extracts a hasty observer would hardly realize that the first is by a contemporary, and the second by Matthew Arnold.

H.D. (selected as the nameless “contemporary”) and Matthew Arnold are quoted in order to prove that vers libre is nothing to be afraid of.  We’re safe, you see, because Matthew Arnold didn’t rhyme.  As with the John Webster example, Eliot’s point is neither strong, nor finished.  Think of all the past poets who did not rhyme, from Homer to Virgil to Milton.  What does Eliot think he is proving by quoting Matthew Arnold?  Or H.D.?

Surely the key to Eliot’s strategy is his famous declaration that, “What sort of a line that would be which would not scan at all I cannot say.” 

This idea has been swallowed by many hook, line, and sinker. 

“Any line can be divided into feet and accents,” says Eliot, and here he presents the truth of an innocent child.  If Eliot really stands by this absurdity, however, he has no right to say there is good verse, bad verse, and chaos.  For if “any line can be divided into feet and accents” then there cannot be any chaos.

Eliot, the child, and Eliot, the astute critic, are two different persons, obviously, just as T.S. Eliot, independent man of Letters, and T.S. Eliot, servile lackey to Pound, are not the same—and we see the contradiction acutely on display in “Reflections on Vers Libre.”

Eliot, anticipating an observation he made at the University of Virginia in the 1930s, which got him in trouble, makes this general plea for purity:

Only in a closely-knit and homogeneous society, where many men are at work on the same problems, such a society as those which produced the Greek chorus, the Elizabethan lyric, and the Troubadour canzone, will the development of such forms ever be carried to perfection.

Don’t blame vers libre.  Blame democracy.

“The decay of intricate formal patterns has nothing to do with the advent of vers libre.”

But, wait.  Didn’t Eliot say that vers libre didn’t exist?  Didn’t he say it was only something that a “lady” only thought existed?  Now we find Eliot, at the end of the essay, defending it.

What is this so-called “revolutionary” essay, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” anyway? 

It’s Eliot under the sway of Pound.

It’s a couple of thugs moving merchandise.

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