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On Writing a Poem
For poetry makes nothing happen...
- WH Auden famously wrote in his elegy ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’ in 1939.
For a while now, I have been using this line to initiate debates over the relevance of poetry in our time. Every time, I arrive at the same conclusion: Poetry doesn’t need to make things happen. It’s enough that it exists.
In a consumerist world where everything exists for a reason (to make something happen, as Auden would argue), the existence of poetry signifies that we are still in touch with the emotional core that makes us human.
In India, particularly, in the last couple of years, we have seen a resurgence of poetry, in all Indian languages, including English. For this, the credit must go to the internet. This is the thing about poetry — it needs readers to thrive. The internet, first the blogs, then the social media sites, offered poetry a platform denied by the traditional publishing setup.
Seriously, there is so much poetry in my immediate vicinity, sometimes I wonder if there’s enough readership for the amount of poetry being produced. This is not a good question. The good question is, are these poems any good? Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I can only offer my views on what makes a good poem.
I have seen a lot of poets embrace Wordsworth’s adage about poetry as ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, without bothering to listen to the next part of his argument that poetry is ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity.’ Since I studied EngLit, I prefer to listen to Eliot, though selectively.
For me, poetry is an act of letting go, a conscious exercise in erasure. You start like Wordsworth. You remember a powerful experience and jot it down. Here begins the craft of poetry. You start deleting everything that’s superfluous, word after word, sentence after sentence. Finally, you will have some stray phrases perhaps. Imagine painting. These stray phrases are your outline. Now, start filling them with colours. Follow Eliot. Make the references indirect, make them obscure. Create a colourful maze and hide the ‘powerful feeling’ which prompted you to start this exercise inside it. Let your readers find it, or let them reflect their own ‘powerful feeling’ inside the maze.
In parting, allow me to share a poem which I have been erasing for the last three years. From 2,054 words, I have managed to trim it to 976 words. The goal is to keep the word count under 500.
In which we are born
Hiranyagarbhah samavartatagre bhutasya jatah patirekesita
Sa dadhara prthvim dhyamutemam kasmai devayahavisa vidhema
‘Ex nihilo nihil fit:
Out of nothing comes nothing.’
‘Were they created by nothing?
Or were they themselves the creators?’
‘Who created the world?’
‘I have no idea. It was long before my time.’
We do not remember our first cries.
The blinding light; the first touches.
Someone severed the umbilical cord.
Our divine Mother, who was she?
Who was her consort?
Whose seed did she nurture?
This is the search for the umbilical cord
Who was the existence before the golden embryo?
Someone was there; this much is certain, but who?
The beginning was a void. The sky did not exist.
There was no existence; there was no nonexistence. Nothing.
Then something happened. What?
Something stirred? Where?
In the beginning, there was no death; so no birth. There was no night, or day. Everything was liquid, malleable, like molten gold, like melting ice. Someone drew a breath? Who?
The beginning was measureless water.
It was dark, though darkness itself did not exist.
There was nothing to compare one with another.
Then something warm appeared. Where?
This is all but a conjecture.
Who can tell what ensued in the dark void?
Who could see through the dark void
beneath measureless water?
Who could claim to have witnessed the creation?
Who could have known the one who created?
Everything came afterwards,
even the gods, with this creation.
So it was not them, they with powers,
they with immortality.
In the beginning, the Earth was vast, empty and silent — like space, like eternity, like death. From this evolved two forms — a man and a woman. There was no forbidden fruit, and they copulated without guilt. Aeon passed. The woman gave birth to seven eggs. From the first two appeared the gods. The kings came from the third and men from the other three. The last egg to hatch was the largest and what came forth was ugly and evil — our despised twin.
No, they were not human, but two birds Aham Guru created, which produced three eggs. Aeon passed and the eggs would not hatch. In desperation, the mother bird broke one egg and lo, it was empty. Aham Guru wasn’t pleased. He was busy and could not decide what to put inside the shell. He asked the birds to take a flight and wait, for god’s sake, before he made up his mind. The birds carried the broken shells of the empty egg and scattered them over the empty earth. From these were born trees, worms and insects and the evil spirits who would hound us until eternity, for we are their kin. The trees covered the Earth and one day, the eggs hatched. Form one appeared a man and from the other a woman — our primal parents, an evolution from feathers to skin.
Much before that, there was only water. It impregnated itself and gave birth to a pair of boys, who floated and drifted. When hungry, they drank water and they peed and pooped in water. The poop gathered and created the earth. They were bored and they doodled on the sky, a sun, a moon, and numerous stars. They were bored, and they created a man and a woman and they were bored no more.
The two brothers were the masters of the sky and the only possession they had was a lotus plant. They threw the lotus stem down to the Earth and as the lotus bloomed, they created air to ferry the scent everywhere. With the scent, the air carried dust particles and spread it; land emerged.
Then emerged the golden embryo,
like the yellow sun,
like kitchen fire during winter nights,
like our indomitable desire to live.
It was the moment time started to tick;
it was the moment gods were made.
There was a beginning; there was the golden instrument.
And there was something else besides — someone.
A man? A woman?
Or someone with indefinite gender?
Brahma appeared old. He opened his mouth, to cry, to suckle on his nonexistent mother’s breasts. A word left his oesophagus — bhuh, and land emerged. He was surprised; another word came forth — bhuvah, and there was air. Then another word — suvar, and there was the sky; as if someone switched on a light in a dark cell. Surprised, the old man with four heads opened his four mouths, and gods stepped forth, one after another, from the sea of his saliva, crossing the hurdles of his old, yellowed, broken teeth.
And the gods, they left to live out their lives and forgot Brahma, as children do. And no one asked how exactly did Brahma come into being. And no one asked what exactly was this golden embryo?
And there she is, the Mother, the Absolute.
She with ten thousand names, none of which she needs,
because every name is her, everything you notice is her,
everything you imagine is her, everything you cannot imagine is her.