In school, I sincerely believed that I could understand Shakespeare and poetry only if I studied English in college.
I realised by the end of school that Shakespeare wasn’t as bad as I had made him to be in my head. I read Julius Caesar and As You Like It in 11th grade and then there was no turning back. With close attention and some assistance from Google, I was all set.
But poetry continued to intimidate me. Even when I started studying English in college, my approach to it was as if I was trying to sail through a terrible storm.
I was blessed with wonderful teachers in college, and they held my hand as I made my way forward. They gave us some clues and tips but allowed us to make our own exploration.
During my first year in college, we studied poetry starting for Chaucer up to the Victorian age. Before the end of the first year, I was already in love with poetry. But at the time I believed that the beauty lay in the rhythm of the words – in the beat and the sound and the rhymes and the alliteration and the tune.
In second year we were introduced to the Romantics and the Modern poets and that’s when I had to face what I then believed was blasphemy – free verse. I remember telling my professor that I though free verse was simply a bunch of sentences with major grammatical errors. She just smiled and said that she’d like to know what I thought about it on my graduation day.
I enjoyed Coleridge and Byron; I absolutely loved Keats (and still do! I remember reading Ode to a Nightingale and thinking – well, THIS is poetry) but I never quite got Wordsworth. Except a few lines that caught my eye, Wordsworth never touched my heart. Perhaps because I have always been more comfortable in cities; while the countryside is beautiful, I could spend only my holidays there – not a lifetime. Another poem I really loved was Alexander Pope’s Ode to Solitude. I understood then what people meant when they said a poem “spoke to them.”
But there were two things that made my second year in college most remarkable –
- Stephen Spender’s Elegy to Margaret: The most poignant verses every written; the most heartfelt elegy to a loved one.Couldn’t find a link to the entire poem online, so let me just quote:
“Yet those we lose, we learn
With singleness to love;
Regret stronger than passion holds
Her the time remove:
All those past doubts of life, her death
One happiness does prove. “
- The beginning of my love affair with W.B. Yeats [which I struggled with when I read about her personal life, but over the years I have made my peace with it]. Yeats is GENIUS. He is the best.
His powerful words and imagery have been with me ever since that first time I read The Second Coming on the train on my way to college.
I was in my third year and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around most of modern poetry. [Seamus Heaney was an exception. I read Mid-Term Break and I was sad for weeks afterword. I think it was the first time a poem made me cry. Auden was pretty great too, but I think I liked him because he wrote a fabulous elegy for Yeats]
A friend recommended Jack Kerouac’s On The Road during the autumn break that year. I fell in love with the writing; it just… flowed. I was fascinated and I read more about him, and that’s how I discovered The Beats. [Our syllabus focused on Indian and British Literature. The only American poets we studied were Whitman and Dickinson]
Oh what a time that was! I felt like I had found a whole different world – of madness and freedom and anarchy. And that’s when my endless internet trolling led to me a recording of Allen Ginsberg reciting his magnum opus Howl. [Love the animation in this video]
I understood then what the hullaballoo about free verse was. It truly set you free. To use words as you please, to create a unique rhythm, to allow the words to form their own music, for the beat to arise from the string of passionate words that were just seamless – like the ferocious flow of a river. It was powerful and emancipating. I may not agree with a lot of what he says, but it is a stellar poem nonetheless.
I then went back to Whitman and Eliot and Auden and read their poems aloud – a full-throated recitation. It was poetry, it really was. One didn’t need a rhyming scheme and a meter to create poetry. One only needed to feel. And the ability to translate that into words without any inhibition.
It wasn’t always passionate the way Ginsberg was. Every poet had a unique style and quality. This was something I observed most clearly in Indian poets [who wrote in English. I am not very well verse with Indian poetry in other languages, except some poetry in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil] There was the quiet resilience in the works of Kamala Das, the poignant observations of Arun Kolatkar, the love of words and life and Bombay in Nissim Ezekiel’s poetry, the sheer brilliance on the simple tranquillity in the poems of Adil Jussawala.
While exploring Indian poetry, I also found some wonderful translations of Rumi, Hafez, Ghalib, Hiraoka and Basho. I wondered what I had been doing all my life – I’d spent over 20 years unaware of the existence of these gems.
There are still poems that I find difficult to understand, especially some works of Ezra Pound and Alice Oswald and many others. But they don’t intimidate me – it is only a beautiful mystery I must take time to unravel.
It was only towards the end of college that I consciously took notice of the world of poetry that was beyond what I had learned in college. One couldn’t always classify poetry in convenient categories based on time periods and genres. There was so much to read, so much to explore – and just like any subject in the world, you can never claim to have read it all. And that’s wonderful, because you always have something new to discover.
My perspectives have also evolved – I find more meaning in some poems I had read all those years back, while some seem less appealing than they did then. My tastes have changed and expanded; but even today, I do enjoy a verse in a perfect iambic pentameter.
Poetry, today, is my good friend. It offers little joys and some sorrows and some music and some wonderful evenings. It accompanies me wherever I go and inspires me in moments of sadness. I am grateful.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
PS – Having quoted Rumi, let me also post a poem by my dear friend Sookie. It is one of the most important poems written in this century, and throws light on a topic we all come across in our daily lives but are embarrassed to discuss 😉 Presenting –
Ode to Panties:
There was once a young girl in ASR’s office
who purchased underwear like a novice.
they tugged and twisted at all wrong times,
she twitched and flailed to hide their crimes.
Cheap polyester gave her rashes
expensive lace gave her itches.
mixed cotton stuck to her skin
and nylon was its closest kin.
A miracle occurred during junk food run
when she pulled a package just for fun.
Lo! Behold! A panty fell
was it destiny, she couldn’t tell
Caressing fingers all but sighed
the item was immediately purchased.
she is now a darling of the parties
thanks to her lovely Jockey panties.