Thursday, June 19, 2008

Poetry 101 or Poetry Basics

(Written as a review/critique of Sisters in Rhyme, an anthology published by sulekha; See here for details)

Required reading for the people who wish to be called poets (and poetry editors)

1) Poems by Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, Wordsworth, Frost, Neruda, Tagore, Lorca, Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, Knott, TS Eliot, Pushkin, Akhmatova, Charles Simic, Ted Kooser, Rilke, Rumi, Kabir, Goethe, Ghalib, Mir, Dard, Dag, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Gulzar, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, DH lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Dinkar, Subramanium Bharati, Tulsidas, Kalidas, Mahadevi Verma, Bachchan, Nirala, Subhadrakumari Chauhaan, Sarojini Naidu, Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil, Nissim, Ezikeil, Dom Moraes, Ramanujam, Sahir Ludhyanvi, etc. (Included a lot of female poets, just to ensure that sisters in rhyme can see them if they consider male poets as too confined)

and some essays and guidelines:

2) Best words, best order by Stephen Dobyns
3) Letters to a young poet by Rilke
4) Poetry handbook by Mary Oliver
5) Rhyme's reason by Hollander
1000) Primer for poets by Karl Shapiro

Poetry requires craftmanship, creativity, labor and talent. If any one of these is not good enough, it fails to inspire, last, please, exist!

{Adding lines from my comments}

I suppose people agree with what I said here, or maybe they consider me as someone whose opinions are irrelevant or irreverant. In either case, my idea was to foster a useful list for anyone who is willing to use it for their own progress.

I personally think that sulekha has transitioned into a popularity contest, and therein lies its success and failing. The idea of publishing authors from sulekha is brilliant; but if they want the published books to be taken seriously, the content must be chosen by editors and writers who know grain from chaff. Many of the poems linked to the blog would not qualify for publication in the most ordinary of magazines and journals. If sulekha seriously believes in "sulekh" and wants to nourish "good writing", they must have people on the board who take literature and creativity seriously.

Art is hard work. Talent is as easy to find as is a toothpick. But someone who can fashion a masterpiece is rarer. Value the talent, value the effort, but it takes a real discovery on the part of someone to be revered as Einstein, Newton, Heisenberg, Poincare. It takes some real talent and work from someone to become Van Gogh, Mozart, WS Maugham, Rushdie, Ghalib. It requires "tapasya" or penance, and a devotion that is there irrespective of what rewards are offered or not.

But neither these ideas or the practice comes without long drawn effort; and even then not every cup will hold the "amrita" or "nectar". Yet sing on, o bards, for every poem has some audience and some purpose, like every food item has. Delicacy is not for everyday, and also not for everyone to offer or have.

(More from my response to comments)

I do not quite agree with the common stance that success and greatness is relative, and depends upon how you choose your standards. There is perhaps no one who won't know difference between Tagore poem and the one written by a five year old rhymster. There is a difference between Tendulkar and Dravid, Lara and Chandrapaul, Kumble and Sunil Joshi eventhough in these cases, we are still comparing relative greatness and success. But if you say that Ganguly is no better than the best batsman in the streets of Baraelli, I will be obliged to think that your knowledge of cricket and standards of comparison are flawed. The reason why Tolstoy and Dostovesky are considered great writers has something to do with how well they write, how profound and universal their stories are, how well crafted characters are part of well orchestered narrative, and how they engage the minds and hearts of readers across space and time. Don't you think so?

(and more)

Once a piece of writing leaves from personal notebook, and if you want anyone to read it and maybe appreciate it, all rules of communication, grammar and composition apply. I have said this before that the world is more musical because of bathroom singers, and I guess I am one myself. But I don't expect all bathroom singers to take the stage and become performers. But if they wish to do so, they must be ready for putting in the hours of "riyaaz" (practice). A shoddy performance, even if excuses exist, is still a shoddy performance, and the spectator who criticizes it may not do it due to jealously, envy (sour grapes), but because he feels cheated when he must clap for something, that the performer himself thinks is average at best.

Fortunately, I have read most of the poets I listed, and trust me, it is a rewarding experience. When every sentence is laden with aethestic beauty, every word is chosen becuase it provides both the right music, and contexual meaning, the poem itself transcends the page, and becomes a part of your intellectual and emotional experience.

As I already said before, I can see why sulekha has chosen to pick and publish people, and in my own way, I have always supported sulekha's efforts. Like a loving parent or teacher, who chides his kids or student, for their faults, I sit here and comment on things. I suppose I love poetry and literature too deeply. I expect to read the writers who act and perform like a cricket team, where I will ever wish to see a competitive unit, a proper demonstration of every skill, and attention to every aspect of the game. Maybe I will sit and watch "gully" (street) cricket at times, clap at it, participate in it, pat a decent performance. Yet I think it wise and important to keep everything in perspective!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

God Particles: Poems by Thomas Lux

God Particles by Thomas Lux is his eleventh book of poetry. His verses contain rather striking and unusual images that disturb or amuse at first and then coalesce into feelings more lasting than the initial reaction. Look at some of the titles in this collection: Hitler's slippers, Sleep ambulance, Stink eye, Gravy boat goes over the waterfall, Jesus' baby teeth, Apology to my neighbors for beheading their duck, The deathwatch beetle, Sex after funerals, Toad on golf tee and of course, the title poem, God particles.

The words that flow out of these striking titles make us traverse through landscapes that are vivid and well-crafted. The abstract world of poetry is absent from the lines that saunter through (natural) elements that have pleasure for children (and adults): ants, bees, stink eye, peacocks in twilight, toads and moles. Lux hunts for words and metaphors in realms that most poets would not venture into: the harmonic scalpel, the republic of anesthesia, vinegar on chalk (all poem titles). His similes are as uncommon as "His thoughts like a deck of cards hit/ by a howitzer." (from Puzzlehead).

The unmistakable skill of Thomas Lux lies in creating an aftertaste, which is like the coolness felt after water evaporates away. As we discover the tenderness with which he deals with human frailties, we realize that all this satire, wit and imagery is just there to make us stop and listen. As we scrape off the last words of a poem, we sense how subtly Lux commanded compassion, tolerance, morality and honesty to float into our hearts and minds. He propels us into his poems as if we were to watch the gladiators fight to death. After the initial thrill of watching the struggle is gone, we are left with an experience or an heartache, maybe sympathy for the loser, admiration for the skill of a fighter and maybe even disgust at the bloodshed, that seemed entertaining only moments back.

Let me take a step back here, and confess that my admiration for Thomas Lux is influenced by my endless regard for him as a teacher and a mentor. In Indian tradition, we believe that every seeker (of knowledge, truth or beauty) needs a Guru to guide his way. For countless students like me at Georgia Institute of Technology, Sarah Lawrence, Warren Wilson and numerous other places, Thomas Lux has provided that mixture of care, knowledge and guidance characteristic of a Guru. For this very reason, I always refer to him as Gurudev (Gurudev means teacher-God, and we refer to Tagore as Gurudev). In the opening poem of this collection, Gurudev Lux writes (the poem is dedicated to Peter Davidson): "The gentleman who spoke like music/ was kind to me/ though he did not have to be./ Who brought into the world a thousand books./ (Right there: a life well lived.)" The poem continues: "Who corrected my spelling, gently and/ my history too, who once/ or twice a year/ would buy me lunch/ and later let me leave his office/ with shopping bag of books to read." Our beloved Gurudev has nurtured poetry in seekers precisely like the gentleman in his poem, and this kindness and compassion form an essential backdrop to his writing. The language is simple, yet profound. The word weaving taught and presented in these poems makes them accessible to everyone, which has ever been the hallmark of the work by Thomas Lux.

When I first read poems by Thomas Lux (New and Selected Poems), I frowned at the mention of library of skulls, lake of snakes, shooting off a bird at close range and about sex in history. I was in fact perplexed by those weird, ‘un-poetic' references. I wasn’t too excited by reading poems that were lucid, tangible and written as free verse. But when I set the book down, I found myself meditating on the thoughts seeded by his poems, and re-opening pages to revisit the poems. The aspects of life that remain somewhat unspoken of in the ritualistic diet of abstract, obscure poems served to us these days, were surprisingly alive in his poems. Now I realize that his poems have a rhythm, a music that is felt when they are read aloud. Working class people, small town people, hunters, fathers, mothers, daughters and army soldiers all unfold their daily worries or joys into his poems. While the idioms are very American, they speak of emotions and aspirations of all human beings. I have found at least two dozen poems that translate really well into Hindi and resonate with Indian themes (e. g. A Little Tooth).

Typically a poem meanders through similes, metaphors, line breaks and syllables like a river that has a source, a terrain claimed by it, and the sink is the ocean of understanding expected from the reader. Most poets thrive on either an intellectualism or erudition associated with academic circles, or they thrive on a hobo lifestyle, where they extract potent lines from a mist or a fog of highly unconventional, unworldly life. Poems by either of these schools of thought are perhaps most apt for reading by their followers. Hence even though a common man, at times, is amazed, confused or startled by these verses, these contain emotions, examples and philosophies beyond his realm. The presence of occult, obscure, obscene, Oriental and/ or opiated ramblings does not always amount to original and good art. Great art can be extracted by reinventing or reinterpreting the obvious or the ordinary. To illustrate an idea simply, to present an emotion that resonates with feelings of a the non-literary, 'untrained' majority, to produce a sonnet or a song that is deep in meaning and yet contains everyday thoughts and objects, I believe, requires the greatest scholarship. Even though the poems of Lux revel in absurdity of the modern life, by a clever mix of humor and satire, through understatement and careful attention to craft, they leave the reader with a clearer idea and a sense of understanding and joy. For this one reason, he is a poet who will ever be read, and should be read.

The poems of Lux are often full of self-effacing humor. In a poem titled Invective, he says: "I pray your son wish to be a poet." He laughs at himself and at his community by writing: " Vatricide/ i.e. the murder (metaphorical) of poets,/ is not such a bad idea in some cases:/ the case of the poet who put fish poison in her poems/ the case of the poet who put his life,/ every part of it, over/ and over again, in his poems." His satire is telling in Autobiographophobia, where he conjures up an absurd biography for a poet. Judge the poem, and not the poet is somewhat unacceptable to the gossip-mongers that abound in public and in media. The dense poetry and prose that is celebrated by intelligentsia gets satirized in The General Law of Oblivion, where he says: "Though one cannot deny/ its genius, Mr. Proust's prose/ kills me, it loops me over and out." Poems of Lux have endless lessons from history, served to us as humorous anecdotes on one hand, and as parodies of whimsical present on the other. So in the same collection we found an account of a Greek poet (second only to Homer) as well as a poem about Jesus baby teeth on sale!

At times, his poems seem irreverent: like talking about Jesus baby teeth or "the Buddhists quick-change from bright orange/ to camo robes, pointing their howitzers eastward" or where he says "God's expository writing lacks lucidity/ and he or his scribes often write sloppily Yet if you put these lines in perspective, read them in the context of the poem or the argument, these very lines display a respect for humanity and the divine, that wants to help us transcend our limited, orthodox or nonsecular thinking. In other words, if there is a flame or two here or there, it is to light or corner. I will leave you with the exemplary first three lines from the title poem, God Particles:

"God explodes, supernovas, and down upon the whole planet
a tender rain of him falls
on every cow, ladle, leaf, human, ax handle, swing set."

and at the end:

"...and He wanted each of us,
and all things we touch
and are touched by,
to have a tiny piece of Him,
though we are unqualified
for even the crumb of a crumb."