Friday, February 11, 2005

What is Poetry?

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose, --words in their best order; poetry, --the best words in their best order.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Read this and let me know whether this is prose or poetry:
"I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice. Parting with his poison..."
I have been running this question in my head ever since I read Nissim Ezekiel's Night of the Scorpion (quoted above). I really never liked it then (I was all of 12-13 years old). I haven't changed my opinion much, since. Then I was in love with Daffodils and The Listeners (Walter De La Mare) and in all my revelry, Night of the Scorpion seemed to be one man's plea to call his handiwork a poem.

A couple of days ago I read a translation which seemed to support Ezekiel's idea of poetry. I fail to see the reason behind it as much as I fail to see reason when young girls tell me that jeans are the true expression of their self and salwar kameez or the South Indian paavaadai-davani is so crass. I do not say that they are wrong; all I wish to appeal is that Indian wear is not crass.

Read this page. I disagree with all the statements on that page except Samuel Johnson's statement (its tough to disagree with him!).

If poetry must sound like prose cut across several lines, then I'll be damned. I prefer poetry which has the meter and lyrical rhyme of the poetry of yester-years. I would like to hear these modern "poets" define prose for me. Doesn't seem to make sense. If one studies Urdu or Japanese poetry, they have rules. The need is not for rules, but for creating something that is unlike others. The uniqueness of the piece is what makes it what it is. If poetry and prose sounded alike, then we are purely appealing to a man's decision to call it one or the other. In Urdu, a ghazal has rules and exceptions (gair-muraddaf ghazals are an example of the latter) and the beauty of the ghazal is its realisation within the glass walls of the definition of a ghazal. Such lyrical constraints exist even in English poetry (usually categorised under closed form
poetry of which a sonnet is an example), although they are most often forgotten.

I read the following on a university's course site and had to beat myself out of the shock:
This worksheet is designed to give you some information about the structure of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poetry and how this structure fits together. By the end of the class, I hope that you will have the necessary skills to compose an Old English-style poem.

Compare that to a potter's statement to his apprentice:

Here, sonny, is a cartload of clay and hay and there is a wheel. Spin that, splat this on that, sit steady even when the bee gets to your backside, and you can make pots.

I agree that the potter had more right in his gambit than the professor on that page. This premise, that a little reading and little more course work, can make a poet out of anyone seems to me the cause of downfall of poetry as I have come to love it.

Anyone can write poetry. Anyone who can feel his toes can write about the feeling. Anyone who sees the sun rise and pulls the soft blanket over her ears can write about the early morning warmth. She who holds a child and watches it wake with a smile, can write about happiness cupped in one's hands and he who shields a scared angel from a lizard on the wall can write about his pride. Ask a mother of a ten year old who owns a new pen and she'd tell him, "Of course, you can write poetry."

Now lets re-visit what was written:

Anyone can write poetry.
Anyone who can feel his toes can write about the feeling.
Anyone who sees the sun rise and pulls the soft blanket over her ears
Can write about the early morning warmth.
She who holds a child and watches it wake with a smile,
Can write about happiness cupped in one's hands and
He who shields a scared angel from a lizard on the wall
Can write about his pride and all.
Ask a mother of a ten year old who owns a new pen
And she'd tell him, "Of course, you can write poetry."

This is poetry in the modern sense of the word. Well, give me one reason that this isn't while Night with the scorpion is. I definitely feel that "can write about happiness cupped in one's hands..." is more poetic than "May the sum of evil balanced in this unreal world against the sum of good become diminished by your pain." I do not call the above poetry. I believe that the urgent egotistic need to be a called a poet has pushed lazy souls to banish the necessity of lyrics and meter in order to suit their needs. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I could liken this urge to that of inept painters who wished to summon great accolades for their canvas covered in swishes of an errant brush.

It is far more difficult to compose a poem capturing all your sentiments and emotional washes about something, than it is to write about it as it comes to your mind. I don't believe that wonderful poems like Daffodils or Abou Ben Adhem or Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening or Youth and art, were written without pain.

Consider me not a Stoic,
For pain means less to me,
Where words can charm and,
Red roses abloom can be.

That was merely my answer to a possibly floating doubt of an undercurrent of Schadenfreude wants to assign poetry to works steming from strife and a hundred pages yielding but one.

Am I building a case in favour of gradiose? No. Not at all. Study Daffodils, or If, to realise that simple words can do magic too.

We need to distinguish between poetry and prose. A philosophical take on that would be "Why bother? Anything that makes your heart sing is good enough. Call it poetry or prose." Yeah, and as I was saying, we need to distinguish between prose and poetry. Why? Because we have two words being abused (I shall assign another post to the abuse of prose as well). If everything was called wrote (the new noun form denoting something written) then I have no qualms. I have no qualms if you call everything as poetry, too.

I propose the following:
Stream of thought (called SOT by those who love abbreviations)

Modern poetry will fall under SOT. Sonnets, quatrains, haiku (recently even this has been corrupted to allow varying number of syllables) and all that was called poetry before some wiseacre decided to write modern poetry, will fall under poetry.

Prose is beautiful writing which can convey the emotions of the characters and the scene through brevity or grandiose without resorting much to flights from the real and actual into worlds made of beautiful words and lyrics.

Please find time to read the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and if one finds it tiring to the mind and eye, the prelude shall suffice to convince the reader of the care that goes into composing a poem and how one stands criminal to deviations.

I find poems, and I find them often in the least and most likely of places, of contemporary pens to lack the lyrical quality in their quest to sound modern and unlike a limerick in a child's game.
Poetry must express what the author wishes to, but not as a mere conversation chopped across several lines. Pray, tell me why does that requirement not die to the modernity demanded of poetry? Why shouldn't we write poetry in a paragraph, as I fear it might be while I speak to me children and grandchildren, and not cut across lines devoid of meter or reason for their lengths?


  1. Parvati8:21 PM

    True. Very True.

    Always the intention to take the easy way out, out of laziness to put in the effort needed, to write poetry that is indeed poetry.

    And I cannot see anything becoming better in the realm of writing poetry any time soon or ever. People in this fast age will always take the lazy way out. Deliberation, dedication and hard work is needed just to get the form of the poem write, not to speak of the inspiration of content in it...

    I feel very pessimistic on this count..

  2. Parvati11:41 AM


    Replace in the third paragraph, "get the form of the poem write" with "get the form of the poem right"...

  3. you surely made a lot of questions rush to my head but by the time i reached the end of post i was convinced with what you wrote


    more power to you!