054 - All you who Sleep Tonight
Disjointed questions on poetry and poems
The evening's clouds have departed, taking the heavy haze with them. An October moon hangs bright and big in this autumn sky, as if announcing it will see us through the dark of winter. Sleep comes but slowly, and in this curve of the night, a letter.
Poetry is the true spirit of Daak.
I have tried reading poems on my kindle, but it feels less. I don’t enjoy them much on Instagram or Twitter either. At best I can indulge in them digitally when they are performative as say in a video or a reading. I believe Paper is true stage of poems.
Poems stutter and shrink when they are a scroll away. They grow instead in silence and in solitude. And yet, in serendipity lies a different feeling. A feeling as if these words found me as if I wandered in to them, that they lay waiting, expecting my arrival since long.
It is the first of January, 2021. A new decade begins. My first act was to read a poem. I read Hand by Vijay Nambisan from his collection These Were my Homes. It spoke of an old Sanskrit 'Good-Saying' that I myself repeat every morning as I wake up. In the poem are these lines -
Perhaps he's still there; perhaps lingers From my boyhood, from when I was praying.
It is here, in these lines, I meet a kindred soul. The poem comes at the end of the book, page 166 of a 167 page volume. I went through an entire collection thinking a man can’t be more different to find we were the same boys.
Why are poems written in lines, and why do the lines break where they do? How can a reader acquire a reliable feel for the qualities of rhythm, tempo, and cadence that give a memorable poem its visceral appeal and expressive resonance? Is "free verse" really free -- and if so, what has it been liberated from?
What would you choose, if you were to translate a poem, between meaning and rhyme?
In a note on a translation Arthur Rimbard's poem, Kenneth Koch writes that when translating a poem, if you focus on the rhyme you might lose more than you gain. In his estimate, it is the choice of words and what they convey that matters more. For a translation true to both words and rhyme scheme might choose the wrong words for the sake of rhyming and I paraphrase here, the poem will appear constrained and restricted, and not true to its original.
But without a the rhythm, how is poetry different from prose?
Poetry though tugs at me at a level I am often not able to explain.
What did it offer? Was the rhythm, the sound such that it evoked a lost memory? Or did the words take me to a place I longed for? Was I left amazed purely on account of the poet? Were the words filled with meaning I had not seen before? Did they say things I have been meaning to say without knowing how?
What amongst these matter?
If ask you to picture an apple and then stay with it, what happens? Where did your mind wander looking at them?
An orchard in the valleys up north, their cool breeze and silent air? Are you in the morning light? Or a patisserie smelling of apples and cinnamons? Did the mind wander to sketch books and paintings of still life? Is it just the colour red? Are you in Egypt against a limestone backdrop? Is it a Sunday morning in the year 2002? Where’s your mind at?
Having written this in 2020, I often wonder how is a poem different from that apple?
I have heard Billy Collins say — Poems, in a way, are thought moving to a feeling. It is working something out.
Two years ago I considered my influences in writing poems and wrote:
I have Carver in my mind O' Hara And Girish Alcoholic Men I will Add Nambisan then Is that the well I must Fetch my words from?
In the past two weeks I have found myself going back to two collections — Jeet Thayil’s These Errors are Correct and Vikram Seth’s All you who Sleep Tonight.