Poetry is an unnecessary talent. Having written it since 13, I think I have earned the right to say this. That said, not all talents should be judged for their worldly utility. The real worth of poetry lies in its inspirational quotient.
I have not done a scientific study to say this but I am fairly certain that great poetry has inspired people to do great things. The poet is necessarily is an inspirer or an illuminator. Poetry is a catalyst. If a single poetic line inspires people with genuine utility-oriented talents to do great things that help humanity at large, then poetry serves its purpose as does the poet. However, it is not the poet’s business to do things. Poets lead a life of conceit where doing worldly/mundane/utilitarian things is anathema. I am reminded of a couple of jokes that the great poet Raghupati Sahay Firaq Gorakhpuri used to tell about poets. In one, a man falls into a well. A poet happens to pass by and he too falls into the well. Rather than looking for ways to rescue themselves, the poet declares that he would recite some verses from his poetry because he had found a captive audience. The other funny incident that Firaq narrates is about a haunted house which no one wanted to buy. A poet, unable to find any home for himself, he decides to buy it. He then drives the ghosts away by reciting his poetry.
In Hindi/Urdu and occasionally in Gujarati/English, I regard myself as a poet of unpredictable merit. When I am good, I produce some truly outstanding lines and literary constructs on a par with the best in the world. However, it is rare that I am good. Mostly, I am an efficient versifier who can engage prosaic minds for a short while. I say all this because I have been reading coverage about the poet Vijay Seshadri who has just the Pulitzer Prize. Prizes do not mean much other than what they do as a consequence of their being conferred. They help bring attention and concentrate a distracted public’s mind about something or someone.
For instance, I did not know about Seshadri until two days ago. Now I do. Pretty soon, I may not know much about him again unless what he writes engages me. I read some of what he writes and I think I am ready to move on. Notwithstanding the high praise he has received—and likely deservedly so—his poetry, or at any rate what I have read, is not for me. I do not judge poetry. I merely decide whether it is or it is not for me. Coming from the subcontinent—that would be South Asia—my ears are attuned to the cadence of the languages of the region when it comes to poetry; in particular Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. Unless poetry has certain incantational rhythm or cadency I struggle to like it.
I read some of Seshadri’s work and felt a sense of unbridgeable distance. It is no reflection on him so much as my inability to get into his realm. For instance, his ‘Descent of Man’ which begins with these lines:
My failure to evolve has been causing me a lot of grief lately,
I can’t walk on my knuckles through the acres of shattered glass in the streets
This is obviously a poetically inventive/evocative thought. Seshadri seems like a poet who expects you to know and understand the context within which his poems are set. You might ask if that is not the expectation of all poets. I am not so sure. The lines above have the merit of being meaningful in themselves even without being presented as part of a whole. That is certainly good poetry. My problem with it is mainly in terms of its rhythm. If I can’t get into the rhythm of the poetry, I generally avoid getting into its thought altogether. That is my failure and not the poet’s.
I am reminded of a ghazal I wrote sometime ago. It said:
खुश्क पत्तों के जंगल मे
दबे पाओं चलते हो
यह क्या करते हो?
Khushk patton ke jungle mein dabey paon chalte ho
Yeh kya karte ho?
(You walk tiptoed in a forest full of dry leaves,
What’s the point?)
As I mentioned before, for me the cadence and incantational quality of poetry is as much an attraction as its underlying sentiment or thought. Indian poetry tends to have that quality in large measure. It may have something to do with the Sanskritic origin of Indian languages as well as the oral transmission of ancient literature. In this context, I was struck by what the Open Magazine’s Divya Guha quoted Indian poet and writer Jeet Tahyil as saying about Seshadri who happened to be his teacher as well. Thayil said among the best things that Seshadri taught him as a student was that “the border between poetry and prose is not rigidly policed, it is breachable and porous.” That’s a fair point. Poetry is nothing but well-oiled prose.
Reading this post if you cannot tell whether I am praising Seshadri or not, it is not your fault. I am genuinely happy that a poet has got his due. Whether I enjoy his poetry is extraneous to his getting his due. The cause of poetry is more important than the cause of the poet.