Monday, February 13, 2006

The crime of rhyme

Chandrahas, over at Middle Stage, links to this interesting piece by Keki Daruwalla on the difficulties of Indian poets writing in English. The part of the article that resonated most with me (as, it would appear, it did with Chandrahas) was the bit where Daruwalla talks about the difficulties of coming out of a University education focussed on Keats and Shelley, and having to then fashion a harsher, more realistic idiom of one's own. Reading Daruwalla's comments, I was reminded of an early poem by Agha Shahid Ali which talks about more or less the same issue. I don't remember the poem exactly now and don't have a copy with me (it's 'Note Autobiographical' from In Memory of Begum Akhtar - my copy of which is back at home in India) but he essentially talks about how, in Kashmir, "our teachers taught poetry under the chinars / their eyes misty with odes to autumn" and it was only "At eighteen / a PhD from Leeds mentioned vers libre / Casually brought the waste land"). It's a poem of his I'll always remember, because, ironically, I had almost the same experience when I first met with him, a generation later, and found him intrigued by the fact that I could quote Milton from memory, but had never heard of Elizabeth Bishop (forgive me, I was eighteen).

The trouble is, I think, that the Indian schooling system does an almost obscenely inadequate job of introducing people to poetry, especially modern poetry[1]. We claim we teach our students English, but the truth is all we teach them is grammar and the short story - everything else they pretty much need to figure out by themselves. Take my final four years of schooling, for instance. If memory serves, we had no poetry as part of our assigned text in Class X or in Class XII, and the poems we covered in the other two years included Shelley's Ozymandias, something from Blake, Yeats' An Irish Airman foresees his Death, one obscure Ezekiel, and a D. H. Lawrence poem called 'Snake'! [2] (NB: I also seem to have some vague recollection of Dickinson's Success is counted Sweetest, but I'm not sure). Not exactly a resounding introduction to the art of modern poetry. In the larger context of everything we were being taught, poetry seemed very much a necessary evil, something that you had to check off a list, not something you seriously put any effort into.

This was made worse, I think, by the fact that the few teachers we had who were actually enthusiastic about poetry, had clearly been taught under the system that Daruwalla mentions, a system that focussed almost exclusively on the Romantics and the Victorians. These were teachers who would wax eloquent about Swinburne and Keats, and considered Browning avant-garde. Not that I'm ungrateful for their efforts (certainly my own passion for poetry owes, in considerable part, to their interest in it), but all this meant that the first time one read William Carlos Williams, say, or cummings - the effect was like trying to read the instruction manual to some particularly complicated piece of equipment in the original Chinese.

The other problem, looking back, was the extreme anglophilia of the selections. Thinking back on it, I can't remember doing a single 'American' poet - no Whitman, no Emerson, no Wallace Stevens, not even a simple little Frost poem to tide one over. In retrospect, this seems like a huge omission, and it's hard to imagine anyone coming up with an entire syllabus of poetry that so completely ignores so grand a tradition of verse.

Whether this focus on pre-20th Century English poetry continues at the university level, I cannot personally say (having switched to Economics for my undergrad), though a cursory look at the syllabi of friends of mine doing their English honours at the time suggested that, in the mid-90s at least, modern poetry was only grudgingly beginning to make its way into colleges.

The key impact of this lack of adequate representation on the development of Indian English poetry, is not, I think, so much on the poets themselves (all it takes to 'discover' poetry is a little extra initiative) as on the audience for poetry in India. The trouble is that for most people, even those who are genuinely interested in reading, poetry remains, literally, a closed book[3]. I personally have dozens of friends who are avid readers when it comes to novels / fiction but whose interest in (or knowledge of) poetry is tepid at best. I'm always running into people (and fairly well-read people at that) who tell me that they quite like poetry as long as it rhymes, but don't understand all this new-fangled stuff (free verse being of course, a modern innovation - it makes you want to throw a copy of Leaves of Grass at them - preferably a hard-bound one). Poetry sections, even in the largest of book stores in India remain, for my tastes, amazingly sparse in their selections (just try checking out the Poetry section at the Oxford Book Store in Bombay, for instance - you'll find hundreds of copies of books by unheard of and mediocre Indian poets, but try getting hold of any of the following - Brodsky, Milosz, Bishop, Lowell, Crane, Ashbery, Wallace Stevens, Ginsberg, Rilke, Langston Hughes, Ted Hughes - and I'm willing to bet you'll be mostly disappointed). Even Indian poets barely get shelf space - just try getting copies of Ezekiel, Kolatkar, Mahapatra, Daruwalla, Shahid Ali, Moraes. I went to three bookshops looking for copies of Kolatkar's Kala Ghoda poems this December - and finally found a copy at Rhythm House of all places. My copy of Jejuri was bought off Amazon.

The point is this - if Indian fiction has flowered in the last decade, and begun to show astonishing promise, I believe it's at least in part due to the large and growing audience for such work, and the resulting appetite of publishers to foster such talent. If we ever hope to see a similar blossoming of Indian poetry, we need to find ways of making Indian audiences more interested in and responsive to good modern poetry (or failing that, just good poetry per se) and that intervention has to come through our schooling system, though I'm not sure how, within the current system, such a change can be achieved.

In closing out this post, I'm tempted to quote Marianne Moore's famous 'Poetry'. But I won't. Instead, I'll quote a line from another of her poems ('An Octopus'):

"damned by the public for decorum";
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out - a public out of sympathy with neatness.

Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.

Let's not let that be the fate of our poets.


[1] I should clarify that I'm speaking chiefly of the CBSE - I don't know if other state boards or the ICSE are any better, though. Oh, and I'm speaking of the syllabus as it was ten years ago - though again, I'd be more than pleasantly surprised if it's changed much.

[2] That Snake poem was one I had a particular grouse against. Not that I have anything against Lawrence, per se - I think his poetry is, well, tolerable. But if I had to pick one poem to be representative of 20th century poetry, Snake is pretty much the last thing I would pick.

[3] There is, of course, a huge market for poetry in India - walk into any music store and you'll find racks of CDs with Ghazals, some of them by exceptional poets. Shahid writes:

I didn't listen when my father
recited your poems to us
by heart. What could it mean to a boy

that you had redefined the cruel
beloved, that figure who already
was Friend, Woman, God? In your hands

she was Revolution. You gave
her silver hands, her lips were red.
Impoverished lovers waited all

night every night, but she remained
only a glimpse behind
light. When I learned of her,

I was no longer a boy, and Urdu
a silheoutte traced
by the voices of singers,

by Begum Akhtar, who wove your couplets
into ragas: both language and music
were sharpened. I listened:

and you became, like memory,

- Agha Shahid Ali, 'Homage to Faiz Ahmed Faiz'



Megha said...

Had Whitman, Frost and Emerson in Class X and Frost again (Emerson too perhaps?) in Class XII in ICSE/ISC. Which is rather odd, since ICSE is usually touted as the most anglophilic of all boards.

No poetry in Class X and XII as part of the assigned syllabus? Surely you kid?

Falstaff said...

Megha: Aarghh! I knew I was in the wrong board. And no, I don't kid - I'm not sure about Class X, though I don't remember having any, but I'm certain about Class XII. It's pretty much the only reason I managed to pass my boards - the material was so boring that even I didn't mind giving the kind of boring, insipid answers that got you marks

Anonymous said...

There can be no one poem that can be representative of an entire century (ref to ur comment abt Snake)..

N yeah...I don't know if the schooling system can be blamed for ones awareness wrt many schools introduce kids to rock music?? n still u find a good number of kids developing a deep interest in rock n roll...

N hey...looking at the state of even the so-called 'good schools' in India..most English teachers would pronounce Keats an Yeats the same god help them kids!


Arthur Quiller Couch said...

The Indian school system is not alone at fault in this regard. Check out the Norton Anthology of English Literature, I believe it's atill a standard text up to college level.

dhoomketu said...

I don't know about this, but having been in school only 2 years after you, I don't even remember Ozymandias or Irish Airman.

Instead the syllabus was dumbed down further, with focus on 'applied English'.

Funny, how I wrote about this in my blog today.

DoZ said...

Had one poem by Frost over and over again, for some reason (Stopping by woods on a snowy evening), Ozymandias and lots of Keats and Wordsworth... and yes, obscure stuff from Ezekiel & AK Ramanujan, when they moved from Anglophilia to Indophilia...

Falstaff said...

Susie: I'm not saying that one poem can be representative of an entire century - I'm saying that a) there should be more than one poem to begin with so we can get a more representative sample and b) that the Snake isn't, in my opinion, representative of anything at all - so it's not hard to think of stuff that would be better.

Re: rock music - just because people can get input from elsewhere doesn't mean the school system is not responsible for providing them. That's like saying that some kids manage to do well in school even though their parents pay them no attention, so it isn't the parent's responsibility to look into his / her child's education. Though you're right that given the insurmountable difficulties of altering the school system there may be more creative interventions that can be made (a la rock music) to popularise poetry despite the schooling system not pulling its weight. Maybe if we started handing out marijuana at poetry readings...

AQC: Can't say I've ever looked into the Norton Anthology in much detail. I have to say though that my understanding is that it's meant to be a text on British writing (I don't remember what period it's supposed to cover) - that's fine. I mean it's totally okay to have a book that focusses on only one country's or period's writing - but you don't want to have a system where that's the only genre that people get exposed to. Just as it's okay to have physics textbooks that don't talk about biology, but it's not okay to say you teach science but not teach any biology at all.

Dhoomketu: Yes, saw your post and totally agree. I had a really tough time getting even average marks on the Boards in English (if memory serves, I had like a 67% in my class X exams). This was mostly because of a combination of random marking schemes and my total boredom writing the exam. I remember once, in my pre-boards doing one of these sell your computer type letters where I wrote a letter to Ms. Elizabeth Bennett from Mr. Collins complaining about her cruel treatment in selling him so worthless a piece of equipment. I really loved that letter. My teacher, on the other hand, was not amused.

Doz: Ah yes, the Frost. Was that actually part of the syllabus. I don't remember now. And yes, of course, there was Wordsworth. How could I forget? I was SO PAINED by that.

anurag said...

Nice post, especially the lack of interest on teacher's part. Our English teacher told us that poems are UNIMPORTANT as far as board exams are concerned and she was true too, there was not a single question on any of the poems. The year after us, Text books are changed and made more practical and not even poetry, the so called 'short-story' also suffered.
and yes I remember the 'Snake' but I didn't hate it, after all it was unimportant !!!

Aishwarya said...

I escaped the CBSE a couple of years ago, and I'm actually jealous of you. Our syllabus was far worse. The most 'challenging' poem we had was Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in the last couple of years we had articles on Eco-Tourism and modern communications systems as part of the syllabus.
(I beat you in the Boards though - 68% in English. Ha.)
I just blogged about the inadequacy of the CBSE too. Last night.

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