Friday, June 03, 2011

Kavi-speak: Poetry contests, science awards, scholars & fairness

There are far too many card-carrying poets, scientists, singers, artists; so many that we run like roaches fighting battles over little corners to claim tidbits of glory. I know only a handful of us will matter when we are gone, I will be happy if I am able to produce one poem, one scientific article, one story that would live-on after all my friends and all other traces of me are gone. Time is the only true test of talent, and yes many saplings never grow into the trees they promise to be, but in time, we will neither remember the number of saplings nor who planted them or crushed them, but only the flavor of the fruit (perhaps). Yes, I will like to win a poetry contest, a science award; yes I will like it to be fair; yes I will like to get degrees for free after I have done my share of work and shown my share of intellectual growth and yes I will like to get jobs that value my learning more than my degrees or where I obtained them from; yes I will like to be part of a collective that publishes great scientific/artistic/scholarly material; yes I expect fairness from science, poetry and humanity; yes I am an outlier in most rooms I choose to sit in... yes I know that most of the human enterprises are corrupted by human failings and fallings, and so the only thing I revere, respect, clap for is the rare human who rises beyond human foibles, follies and trifles. But I get to clap very rarely! 

I subscribe to the idea that true scholars are a rare breed. We can only soar as far as our ability and imagination allows us. Perhaps the true seekers of knowledge, wisdom, poetry, truth, beauty will always find a way to reach their ...goal, in spite of critics and competition (or lack of competition). And yes, the ancients say, the path is tortuous/ sharper than the razor's edge (paraphrasing a shaloka from Katha Upanishad &/or a line from Amir Khusrao)... The greatest mistake of our times is the assumption that scholarship can be acquired through college/university degrees and by the virtue of being employed as a critic or a teacher or a writer or a professor or an editor. Many people stand tall in their lifetimes on basis of such fallible assumptions, and after they are gone, their traces disappear from the very pedestals they once graced. Poetry, its writers and readers, will outlive, as always, all the critics, criticisms, politics, and even the languages themselves. I hope and believe the true keepers, seekers, lovers of poetry in every era can/will see beyond the noise, rabble, gibberish... Similarly the only true measure of a scientist is his or her science. In spite of ancestries and nexuses that aid in scientific publishing or in winning awards or in obtaining faculty positions; a thousand slips and a million errors, honest or cleverly-cloaked mistakes and chance or chosen misunderstandings and jungle-like, rabble-rousing, selfish politics that decides who gets what often; the faults of the system that wants to turn every graduate student or a post-doc into a coal-miner, supervised by a professor who works in a similar dark coal-mine half the time and in the other half of the time thinks his/her life is better as he/she has put the coal-mine behind him/her (almost): I believe in spite of an endless list of shortcomings, follies, deceits, conceits, failures, pretenders, in spite of every obstacle, in the end, the experimental fact and theoretical construct that is true, scientifically coherent/cogent/correct and aesthetically pure/pleasing/'close to perfection' will prevail. Maybe the progenitor of the idea will not see its success in his/her lifetime, maybe a pretender will get the credit, maybe the idealist will die poor and disillusioned, but I believe for every million-failed recognitions, there are a few right ones, well-deserved and well-chosen ones. I clap for them!

There are only a handful of American poets who have risen internationally to the level of timeless popularity as Darwish or Neruda or Tagore or Yeats were able to... I am not moved by the poetry written by most of the award-winning poets of the US and elsewhere. Specially US where the publishing, awarding of degrees and awards is systematized; elsewhere the title 'poet' is still synonymous with jobless or writing poetry is not a skill that earns you a penny unless you have risen to a popular appeal which often results in great peril and punishment, less often in a comfortable life. I can easily get killed in India or Middle-East or Africa for writing a line that stand out or stands for or against something, and hence maybe when I write, my life depends on my words or I am writing my life off for I chose the Word above whatever follows the pronouncement! Perhaps a constrained society needs poetry more and perhaps it receives poetry at a greater risk to the writer or the reader, perhaps a freer one allows poetic expression and must to be celebrated for providing greater possibilities, and perhaps great poets live in societies that they create within their inner world more than the world outside, so where they live matters not. There are almost no rock-stars like Einstein ushered on to the world-stage these days. Noble prize winners have their day of reckoning, other award winners get nods from their own select clubs and perhaps some honest recognition there, but again I am not necessarily impressed with a person just because the resume shows a fellowship, a prize, a recognition. There is enough politics in academia, science and art to ensure that nearly every award is issued with a few nods and far too many frowns. Every age and every country has one good poet, one good scientist for every thousand irrelevant ones; maybe in our times, one for every ten thousand bad ones. So yes, most of the poetry is poetry only in the name, most of the published science is science only in the name and would qualify as gibberish if we were to judge it honestly. But there is some science, some poetry that is truly remarkable, and when I see that, I forget everything else -- all despair, aches, tiredness, travails, journeys, searches, hurts, sweat, politics, pettiness, past. When I see that lotus blossom appear, I break into a spontaneous cheer, and the clapping is at that moment the rhythm of my every breath...  

(PS: many of the ideas expressed here emerged as comments on articles in Huffington Post by Anis Shivani and some lines echo my thoughts expressed during discussions with friends like Marc-Antoine Fardin, Mayank Kumar, Renato Dopotelodico, Matija Črne and Bavand Keshavarz to name a few)

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