03 February 2015

A Return to Poetry

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The Zee Jaipur Literary Festival reaffirmed, for me, at least, the value of poetry in our lives. On the first day of the festival, extraordinary tribute was paid to the art of poetry with a keynote address on the poetic imagination. Vijay Seshadri, Ashok Vajpeyi and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra talked lingeringly, lovingly, even anxiously, about the many indulgences of the poetic habit. They questioned the interiority of the poetic tongue and wondered if the art still had a home in India. While Seshadri pondered the function of poetry, especially in a country like India, Vajpeyi had no doubts about the imperative social role it performs, the integrity of the framework it is birthed in.

Poets, Sesadri said, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, harking back to that old, beautiful essay, ‘A Defence of Poetry’ in which Shelley writes: ‘Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ To which Vajpeyi countered that poets are, in fact, legislators of the unacknowledged world. Mehrotra seemed to agree, as he argued for the truth-telling propensity of verse, not its romanticized prettiness, but its hard, harsh perspective, the drama of the everyday world.

In his extraordinary Pulitzer-winning poetry collection, 3 Sections, Vijay Seshadri writes, in a poem called ‘Guide for the Perplexed’: ‘How strange would it be if you met yourself on the street? / How strange if you liked yourself, / took yourself in your arms, married your own self, / propagated by techniques known only to you, / and then populated the world? Replicas of you are everywhere. / Some are Arabs. Some are Jews. Some live in yurts. It is / an abomination, but better that your / sweet and scrupulously neat self / emerges at many points on the earth to watch the horned moon rise / than all those dolts out there, / turning into pillars of salt wherever we look.’

Literary festivals can be like that sometimes: perplexed souls wandering the pathways, only to find kindred spirits at every turn, book lovers on every seat. Poetry, it turned out, was to be one of the themes of the festival: there were live performances, readings and panels entirely devoted to poetry. The lyric found its way into the festival, as did rhetoric and music and gospel, all quietly reminding us of our poetic heritage. There was rain and there was fog, but poetry resolutely refused to be undone by the vagaries of the desert air. Umbrellas rose colourfully and people huddled together, clutching at tiny pots of tea – and the occasional flask of whiskey – and they listened hard for poetry in the rain and outside it.

And they found it everywhere: Salima Hashmi and Shabana Azmi talked about their fathers’ legacies, Lucy Hughes Hallet talked about the seduction of Gabriel D’Annunzio’s work, historians and poets discussed the ‘dingal’ poetic form of Rajasthan. Elsewhere, at designated poetry hours, poets – Keki Daruwalla, C.P. Surendran, Meena Kandasamy, Aruni Kashyap and many others – read their poetry, performed their work, sighed and cried for the art.

The crowning glory occurred when Arundhathi Subramaniam, as gracious and graceful as her poetry, won the inaugural Khuswant Singh Memorial Prize for poetry for her collection, When God Is a Traveller in a brilliant, funny, clever session called ’52 Ways of Looking at a Poem’. Jeet Thayil, Vijay Seshadri, Kevin Powers, Neil Rennie, Ashok Vajpeyi, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Ruth Padel – a panel that, at most places that are not Jaipur, would have outnumbered its audience – spoke thoughtfully about the poetry of our lives. When Subramaniam accepted her award, she said, ‘Poetry today is a muted form … poets feel inconsequential and unheard. An award like this is far more affirming than I imagine. It says that this art of murmur and whispers still counts.’

The collections shortlisted for the award – Escape Artist by Sridala Swami, Central Time by Ranjit Hoskote, Fire Altar by Keki Daruwalla, Selected Poems by Joy Goswami, translated by Sampurna Chattarji – are all powerful works that engage dynamically with a changing world, that challenge the twists of an evolving tongue, that slice the anxieties of a pluralistic society, that laughingly tease with the same words they use to accuse. The real win is, in fact, for poetry everywhere.

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