Friday, January 16, 2009

Should you read poetry?

My dear students,

When a student of mine from Ranade Institute, Gauri Gharpure in Kolkata, sent in a quote on poetry I used it in the post, "The clarity of poetry" because as a journalist I have been obsessed by clarity. I had no idea then that some of my readers were great admirers of poetry.

One of them, Baruk Feddaboon, based in Bangalore, has his own blog called "bottle broke" Click on the pic below to get into "bottle broke"

"The clarity of poetry" got eleven (11) comments. But it was the diversity of the comments that astonished me, considering this was not a blog for poets. One of my readers, Baruk Feddabonn, who is not one of my students from any of the places where I teach in Pune, had early on introduced himself and I kept thinking to myself, "Here is my Eklavya." So I asked him to do this piece on poetry for journalists.

I have touched up the piece here and there, as is the time-worn custom among subs. I hope Baruk will understand.

By Baruk Feddabonn

Should you read poetry? Hell, I don’t know. Can I tell you why or how to read poetry? Hell, I don’t know! What I do have to offer are a few thoughts on what I have, over the years, got from poems.

The following five pieces:

1. What is Real?
2. Hope
3. Perspectives
4. Weirdness
5. Language and Poetry

are based on poems and bits of poems, some well known, and some not so well known. I do hope these poems help in convincing you that poets are not necessarily the useless buggers they are often made out to be!

1. What is real?

“When Prime Minister Gujral
planned a visit to the city
bamboos sprang up from pavements
like a welcoming committee.

But when he came, he was
only the strident sounds of sirens
like warnings in war-time bombings.”

(When the Prime Minister Visits Shillong the Bamboos Watch in Silence; Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih)

I often hear attacks on poetry for not being ‘factual’. Somehow, not being factual is seen as a bad thing. But honestly, what are facts? And how important are they? A lot of poetry deals with the metaphorical and the imagination. Things are alluded to; often not ‘directly’ spoken of. But is that wrong?

In common language, we speak of the sun rising. ‘Factually’, that is untrue – the sun does no such thing. Nor does it set. The ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun are our human explanations or metaphors for the natural phenomenon of the earth moving around the sun!

So while the Prime Minister was not ‘factually’ the sound of sirens, that line aptly describes the distance the rulers, even in a democracy, keep from the ruled – visually (bamboos on pavements) and aurally (sirens). And that ‘only’ – describes, better than an entire sentence, the alienation, which the poet felt. So while not ‘factual’, the poem is ‘true’.

And now you decide. Will you transcend the facts and opt for the truth instead?


2. Hope

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

(September 1, 1939; W.H. Auden)

Sometimes, switching on the evening news plunges me into despair. I see war, corporate greed and the non-stop destruction of the natural world. And this is only the news that is reported.

In the not-or-barely-reported news are farmer suicides, Bhopal victims and Binayak Sen. I watch the increasingly self-obsessed lives of the super-rich; the cynical manipulations of politicians and governments; the prostitution of religion to the dictates of power.

It’s easy to get lost in the darkness, at least for me, and I wonder whether it would not be easier, more practical, to pick up a gun. A messy proposition, yes, but maybe a simpler one?

And then I remember this poem.

Written on the eve of the Second World War, the poem by W.H. Auden speaks of the darkness and despair the world is under, trying to understand why. And though that question is never answered, there IS an answer – that what is important, in the end, is to see the “points of light”, and “show an affirming flame.”

I think I can try to do that!


3. Perspectives

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

(The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; T.S. Eliot)

A close friend and I are currently arguing on facebook. He feels, to quote, that “the Israelis have their heads better screwed on than the Palestinians do.”

I utterly and absolutely disagree.

I see the Israeli state as a creation of terrorist incursion, whether the original Israel of the Bible, where God apparently told the Jews to wipe out the Canaanites, or the Israel created in 1947 on the strength of British guns. This friend, by the way, is a reasonable person (as much as we can pretend to be), and hates war as much as I do. But the argument goes on.

Point: many people watch sunsets - on beaches, in the mountains, even from the rooftops of urban homes. Some of us photograph the sunsets. I doubt, however, that anyone has made such a grisly and unlikely comparison, as Eliot does. And while I appreciate the comparison – I find it humorous – I know many people who do not.

While no wars have been fought on what sunsets should be compared to, many wars seem to have been fought for, what to me seem, silly reasons such as country and religion. Then again, maybe you don’t think these are silly reasons. Maybe, we can all benefit from understanding each other’s perspective.


4. Weirdness

“Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.”

(Pied beauty; Gerard Manley Hopkins)

My grandfather was hardcore working class; when I say he built his house with his own hands, I mean that literally.

In a society dominated by an increasing desire for more power and status, Apu (Mizo familiar for grandfather) was suspicious of all things ‘big’ and ‘authoritative’, and proud, till the day he died, of working with his hands. Fiercely independent and bluntly outspoken, he made some very powerful enemies who almost succeeded in destroying him.

His name, appropriately, was Rualhleia, which loosely translated from the Mizo means ‘he who is not even’. He definitely had a lot of rough edges!

This poem by Hopkins reminds me of my grandfather, in its celebration of the strange, the common and the uneven.

We let others determine who we are and how we respond to the world. Being ‘acceptable’ is important, whatever the cost! Recently, I was berated by a colleague who thought it shameful that I did not, in my position in the company, drive a car.

I have been receiving a slew of emails telling me to forward them, if I am patriotic. I am constantly told that:
- the only hope for India is in the ‘new’ capitalist economy;
- I should be economically successful;
- I should buy more; from recognised brand names;
- crime is something the lower classes do;
- the army is good;
- beauty means fairness;
- I should want to marry, and have children, and care about what happens to the ‘family name’; and
- I should avoid 'weird' people who disagree with what society thinks of as 'acceptable'.

But I can’t do that. My Apu and I, we’ll stand by all that is “counter, original, spare, strange”.


5. Language and Poetry

“I am a venereal sore in the private part of language”

(Cruelty; Namdeo Dhasal; translated by Dilip Chitre)

“Poetry must be raw, like a side of beef,
should drip blood, remind you of sweat
and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch
and the sudden bullet to the head.”

(What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril; Mona Zote)

“I’ll go for words,
Words are my forte.

Words stab and jab,
Heal, hurt,
Mask, unmask,
Paint pictures.


(Power of Words; Malsawm Hriatzuali Jacob)

Language is fascinating. You know how they say a picture speaks more than a thousand words? Sometimes a sentence speaks more than a thousand pictures!

Language can be used like:
a warm gentle hand; caressing, hugging, loving;
a wall, to separate and segregate;
a whip, to subdue and suppress;
a rock, to retaliate.

Language can be like a scream of horror.

Language can be:
loving, harsh, angry, cold;
questioning, pleading;
full of laughter one moment, solemn the next.

Language can elevate the common; tear down the proud. Language can calm, hurt; goad, encourage; dream.

Language is like a knife – that can chop up food or slit a throat.


People ask me, “Why do I like poetry?”

I tell them, “Because poetry is to language what pottery is to mud.”

You may email Baruk Feddabonn at:


Henceforth, I will sign off, borrowing a phrase by Sushma Nair (nee Menon), a student of mine from 1992 when SIMC used to be called "Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication (SIJC)". She had had coined the phrase for me to use as the editor of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, the house magazine of Deepak Fertilisers and Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd, Pune, where I worked in PR and Corp Comm (don't be shocked!!) during 1996-2003. Thank you, Sushma.

I hope the New Year 2009 is taking good care of you. Keep in touch by phone, SMS, email or through the evergreen postman.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, 16th January 2009.


Vincent Pinto said...

Hello Baruk,
You say:
People ask me, “Why do I like poetry?”

I tell them, “Because poetry is to language what pottery is to mud.”

May I ask you to please consider:
"Because poetry is to language what a human being is to mud."

Isn't the human being far more staggeringly beautiful, and intricately crafted than pottery, even though both have their origin from the same earth?

feddabonn said...

@joe: thanks for the edits, and for the assignment! thrashing this piece out helped me re-look at a lot of thing i took for granted!

@vincent: thanks, and interesting point-one that has made me think. however, i'd have to stick by the original for two reasons: 1) i am rather uncomfortable with an anthropo-centric viewpoint. while yes it could be argued that humans are more beautiful than pottery, it couold also be argued that cheetahs are more beautiful than humans. and so on. 2) the story of humans being created from earth is specific to the judaeo-christian creation myth, and is not as far as i know, reflected anywhere else. it may therefore be easier for readers to identify with the 'pottery' metaphor than with a 'human' one.

thanks much for the comment, though-it has made me think about a metaphor i had intuitively used!

veena said...

Hello Baruk/ Pinto Sir,
Well, I'm not too sure if I can really comment on what has been said, I am too much of an amateur.
But the subject of poetry is close to my heart.
On the question - Should you read poetry??
I say - Yes, everyone should read poetry. But many people approach poetry in an incorrect way. Even before reading it, they are convinced they won’t understand it.
The beauty of poetry is that every individual can interpret it in his/her own style. Depending on your circumstance, the same poem will reveal new things each time you read it.

Personally, poetry gives me immense inner joy. People may argue that poetry takes you away from reality into a surreal world.
Instead, I think poetry reflects society/ humans as they are and as they ought to be.
It educates as well as entertains.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear Veena,

Tell us why poetry gives you "immense inner joy". Share with us some of your favourite poems.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Baruk, this long and worthy post required a time-taken reading. so this delay..

Of what you have written, the notes to Hope and Wierdness touched me a lot.

poetry, for me is a simplified outburst of thoughts. I was never able to analyze or 'study' it, for then, poems suddenly got a highhanded, specialised aura-- which I certainly think is keeping many people away from the joy of poetry. somehow, reading poems seems an intellectual pursuit and you would find many a simple souls, who are voracious readers themselves, throw their hands up and somewhat sheepishly say, 'Poetry is not for me'...

i have an extremely limited exposure to poems myself, for some very acclaimed poems even seem extremely boring and don't touch me.

I would like to share a site called brodasided ( )here.. they spread poetry on streets and restaurants, telephone booths and such places-- 'where poems may catch you unawares'.. beautiful idea...

Of the many lines that have touched me, I choose to share a stanza from Orwell's essay, Looking back on the Spanish war:

Between the shadow and the ghost,
Between the white and the red,
Between the bullet and the lie,
Where would you hide your head?

Thanks Pinto sir for initiating this discussion

Glassbeads said...

Baruk's notes on poetry are very interesting and valid.. here's one more important reason why i read or write poetry. Poems help me in understanding situations and even to introspect. Gauri you are right in saying that its an outburst of thoughts.. at the same time they can magnify the smallest of feelings as well as talk about the entire life in a few words, maybe more beautifully than prose can. Maybe thats the power of poetry.

One poem i love reading over and over again is H W Longfellow's Psalm of Life.

feddabonn said...

@veena: poetry is much too important to be left to professionals! completely agree with your other observations, and thanks for the encouragement!

@gauri: thanks for a thought out response, gauri! i agree with most of what you say. however, some poems do take a little work to really enjoy-something like climbing a mountain to get a really great view.

@glassbeads: thanks! and while i'm not much of a longfellow fellow (sorry, couldn't resist), there are quite a few lines in his psalm i like.

Joe Pinto said...

Vincent - that's my youngest brother, a computer engineer in Hyderabad.

Gauri - thanks for your close and thoughtful look and the lines from Orwell.

Glassbeads - thanks for the reference to the Psalm of Life by Longfellow, one of my favourites in school and even now. For those who have not read the poem, here's the link:

I never cease to be astonished at the response to poetry on a blog for journalists. Is that a healthy sign? Thanks Baruk, for triggering this discussion. I happy I persisted with pestering Baruk to do this assignment and he agreed, with such splendid results.

Announcing - "Ennui" a poem from Baisakhi Roy Tandon.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Sir, awaiting an article on cliches, how to avoid those..