Some thoughts on Poetry

Recently, a German friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook wall:

Am I the only one who doesn’t get anything out of poetry? It seems so pretentious to force meaning into something that rhymes to make it appear meaningful. It’s heavily constrained by the language someone speaks. I get music because the melody already has meaning on its own and the rhyming lyrics complete the “rhyming sounds”, but poetry seems like someone attempted to make music but thought “eh, works on its own as well”. The rhyming seems unnecessary. If you want to make a point, why not write a “quotable essence of an argument” instead? Maybe I’m missing something here.

I have loved poems since forever. From English rhymes to Shakespearean sonnets to Eliot’s Love Song to Wilde’s ballads to Ogden Nash’s fear of sitting in dentist’s chair to surrealist poems of Neruda. From Hindi rhymes to Rahim and Kabir’s Doha to chaupai of Ramcharitmanas to Magha’s Sisupalavadham. Occasionally, I have dabbled in Urdu poetry of Gulzar, Dehlvi and Ghalib, and Punjabi poetry of Bulleh Shah, Warish Shah, Nand Lal and Batalvi. Every now and then, I turn a page for reading Spanish poems of Antonio Machado, though I seldom remember his poem after I have read it. I read them for Antonio brilliantly made use of Shakespeare’s suggestion of brevity being soul of wit.

The above post of my friend sent me into contemplation mode. I am no expert on poetry or poems. I read them. I try my hand in writing them, every now and then, and the work, without any doubt, is banal. Also, I feel it’s no crime to have thoughts on something you have little handle on. Of course, I will make every attempt to make these thoughts as much qualified as I can and honest.

As a thinking member of human race, I find poetry as a crucial conduit of human expressions. Poetry is not for elite classes of society as is often paraded. Poetry is for proles. All of our early works – from Old Testament to Odyssey to Mahabharata – are poems. Humans learnt poetry first, prose later. Poetry came naturally to humans. Now, I do not blame my friend for such opinions about poetry for the poetry, as is taught in schools, during formative years, worldwide, is responsible for it. Our teachers used to, as Billy Collins pointed out, torture a confession out of it. Poetry is not merely about understanding the bland meaning of lines. Poetry is about experiencing the state of the mind, selection of words, their placement and the effect they produce or intend to produce upon the reader. Another way to read a poem is to consider a poem as a separate entity of its own. As I said in one of the earlier posts that when a writer writes, they write so to give their vestiges a separate existence. Poems are generated from poets’ experiences and memories, but they have their own existence and this is what makes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, probably to his homosexual partner, as enchanting for some male’s heterosexual partner.

If you know the poet or have read extensively about his life and times, then perhaps you may be able to “torture a confession out of it”, but poetry is more than that. Every word counts. I feel that the metre, the rhyme, the imagery and the aesthetics are purposely built into the poem, depending on the mood of a poet. Shakespeare, as per my own little study of his works, had fewer than 10 syllables per line of a sonnet, if a sonnet commented on something upbeat. When Shakespeare felt upbeat about something, he often violated rules; however, when his sonnets followed the rules to letters when he wrote on sombre subject matter in a sombre mood. Then, of course, this was not a “rule” that he followed. This is what I have generally observed from whatever works I have read of him.

Instead of gleaning meaning out of a poem, glean the experience out of it. If you know the poet or about his life, you will probably glean the meaning. If you have experienced something similar, you will identify yourself with the poem, and perhaps empathise with the poem or its creator.

My friend here doesn’t get anything out of poetry because he is torturing himself and the poem to get something out of it. Poem is actually the naked expression yet mysterious; prose appears straightforward yet clothed. He needs to, perhaps, relax and learn to appreciate the aesthetics. He feels that meaning “has been forced into something that rhymes” to make it meaningful. Again, his stress is on meaning and he ridicules the aesthetics. Not that we shouldn’t try to decipher what a poem is trying to say but that any work of art is lost in “forcing meaning” into it only for the sake of it. I confess openly that I don’t understand paintings as art. Sculpture, may be. I don’t consider photography an art at all, but that’s just my opinion. Photography is an activity. Stamp collecting is not an art, it is merely an activity, but then what I know of arts. People might term emptying one’s bowel in most efficient manner as an art too, and I am nobody to contest that claim. BUT – that’s because [with regards to painting and photography], I try to confess meaning out of paintings and photography. I do not let a painting and a photograph talk to me.

In schools, we are first introduced to poetry, through nursery rhymes [albeit without making us understand the imagery, the rhetoric devices et al]. The way to writing a good prose goes through at least some understanding of poetry. This, once again, reminds me of Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing, where he stresses “rhythm of the phrase” as one of technical elements of style in writing prose as well as verse. I, therefore, do not understand my friend’s qualms with rhythm and following a metre. Rhyme is just one method of maintaining “rhythm” while rhythms are of various kinds.  Some of my banal works follow rhyming as well as other “kind” of rhythmic patterns woven together. A discerning reader will be able to find that out.

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About Rahul

Read my blog to discover me.
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