Friday, May 25, 2007

Pale Parabolas of Joy

Have been reading a lot of poetry by Indian poets recently (mostly because being in India means I have better access to it). Some good stuff - Ranjit Hoskote's New and Selected, an interesting if slightly too-clever collection by Vivek Narayanan, and a set of poems by Amit Chaudhuri that just go to show that life is not fair (I mean really - it's not enough that the man can sing and write the most exquisite prose - he has to turn out to be a poet too?).

But perhaps most entertaining of all has been an anthology called Confronting Love edited by Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam (Penguin 2005). Confronting Love is entertaining for two reasons. First, because it includes some truly gorgeous and relatively obscure poems - mostly by the usual suspects - the kind of poems you've read before but never fully appreciated because you were always focused on other, better poems in their original collection. Thus you get Shahid from The Half-Inch Himalayas:

your furniture neatly arranged for death,

you sharpened your knife
on the moon's surface,
polished it with lunatic silver.

You were kind,
reciting poetry in a drunk tongue.
I thought: At last!

Now I loiter in and out
of your memory,

speaking to you wherever I go.

I'm reduced to my poverties

and you to a restless dream
from another country

where the sea is the most expensive blue. "

- Agha Shahid Ali, 'Leaving your City'

or Sujata Bhatt from Point No Point:

"Who speaks of the green coconut uterus
the muscles sliding, a deeper undertow
and the green coconut milk that seals
her well, yet flows so she is wet
from his softest touch?"

- Sujata Bhatt 'White Asparagus'

There's also a delicious, if not entirely relevant Kolatkar, a half-brilliant Ramanujan and a Tara Patel poem called 'Request' that I've always been inexplicably fond of.

But the second thing that makes Confronting Love so entertaining (though I fear unintentionally so) is the amount of really bad poetry it contains. In their Introduction, the editors claim they've actively looked for unfamiliar, less-anthologized poems. While I'm all for breaking away from anthologies, I can't help feeling that a lot of what they've ended up with is so trite, so cringe-worthy that it should scarcely have been published in the first place, let alone included in an anthology. Reading much of Confronting Love leaves you stuck between chortling at the puerile absurdity of the writing and wincing in near-horror over how anyone who writes like this can call themselves a poet.

Take, for instance, these lines from Rukmini Bhaya Nair's Usage (one of the worst poems in the anthology):

"Among your secret thoughts, of which such
Quantities exist, some spill, one's about touch.

Because the form's thickened you called 'petite'
And my arms, on the inside, turned to putty

The swan-shape of my neck, once a single span
Now quite escapes this measure of your hand.

Before I did, you noticed new lines cut me up
In the rough contours of an unfamiliar map.

Therefore these minefields are dangerous,
Memory may blow us up like enemies, strangers.

If all we remember, is a firm bend of thigh
And the toss of limbs, we could fight shy.

- Rukmini Bhaya Nair, 'Usage'

Forget the disastrous and childish end-rhymes. Forget the sheer tone-deafness of writing a line like "My arms, on the inside, turned to putty". Forget the gratuitous cliches (what exactly is a 'swan-shape' neck? and why would a lover measure the thickness of his beloved's neck with his hands? What is she, Porphyria?). Would someone care to explain to me the punctuation here? "If all we remember" comma "is a firm bend of thigh / And the toss of limbs" comma "we could fight shy." Huh? And "Before I did, you noticed" ? Groan!

It gets worse. We're then treated to Dinyar Godrej's 'Kiwi Fruit' which reads:

"Our love was like kiwi fruit
you gave me that I in the kitchen
the secret sharer, partook."

Can you imagine anything half-decent coming out of an opening like that? I can't.

The poem goes on to speak of "the same quotidian covering / of plain brownpaper as our lives / were then" and how "Now there is only languor / between assignments and the boredom / of expectancy." I particularly love "quotidian covering of plain brownpaper". As opposed, doubtless, to quotidian coverings of fancy brownpaper. Or extraordinary coverings of plain brownpaper.

Then there's Marilyn Noronha, sounding like Emily Dickinson at the age of three:

"There is one comfort now,
I don't fear death.

At worst, it will be
an undisturbed repose
and I am very tired,
God knows.

At best it will mean happiness
that I have never known.
If I am with you, once more,
it will mean going home."

- Marilyn Noronha, 'There is one comfort'
Never mind the banality of the idea or the complete absence of originality - whether in thought, image or language. What cracks me up every time is the "God knows" at the end of the second stanza. It's so complete an anticlimax as to be practically bathetic. For Ms. Noronha's sake I hope she wrote this poem as a spoof, because that's what it undeniably is.

But the award for the worst poem of the lot goes unequivocally to this howlingly bad piece by Menka Shivdasani, which I reproduce in its entirety:

"'How come your hair is so silky?'
the black musician asked, and she,
half-asleep, said Hong Kong was full of gloss
and sometimes the place got in your hair.

He was a professional, and they were playing
games with each other, fine-tuned notes
on silken skin. 'The trouble,' he said,
'is you're too sensitive,' and drew
music from the guitar strings on her head.

It was when he got to the bass
that something changed.
Later, he asked, anxious: 'Did you,
baby, did you?' for at a crucial moment,
there were silences he didn't expect.

'I always come quietly,' she told him,
not adding, 'I always go quietly too.'"

- Menka Shivdasani, 'Bass Notes'

Can you imagine anything more hideously juvenile? I'm reminded of being back in high school and having to read poems for my school magazine by hormone-crazed adolescents who'd never read poetry, had just discovered sex, and thought their ability to use 'come' in a play of words made them clever [1]. I mean seriously, if someone made that quip about Hong Kong getting in your hair in a random conversation I would break into groans. Reading it in a poem is physically sickening. And "Later he asked, anxious: 'Did you, / baby, did you?' for at a crucial moment / there were silences he didn't expect"? Tchah!

Don't get me wrong - Confronting Love is not a book you should avoid (though you're probably better off skimming it in the bookstore than actually buying it), on the contrary it's a book you must read, if only to remind yourself of just how hilarious truly god-awful poetry can be, as well as to wallow in nostalgia for what passed for poetry among us when we were 15.

[1] If you were one of the people whose poems I rejected for my school / college magazine, I apologize. Apparently they really were great poems and if only you'd had M/s. Pinto and Subramaniam as your editors instead of me, you could have been one of India's most celebrated poets by now.


pratima said...

Don't quite like it when ppl who have the goods, kinda jostle you to tell you that they have the goods! Not one of your best posts :(

Space Bar said...

Anthologies are great entertainment value...I haven't managed to find this one yet, so this is timely. And the Nair poem is way worse than Menka's -- come on! Though I admit hers is clumsy too. I'd be interested to know what it is the introduction said.

Falstaff said...

pratima: I'm not quite sure what you mean by 'having the goods'. I'm certainly not claiming that I can write better poetry than this. Only that I know bad poetry when I see it.

space bar: To be fair, there's a lot more to the Nair poem, most of it a little better than the extract I quote. I'm clearly cherry-picking the worst bits there, while with the Shivdasani piece I'm quoting the whole thing. Plus, well, they're both so bad that picking the worse one matters little.

The introduction (after a fair deal of froth about love poems in general) says:

"Our choices are unapologetically, happily eclectic. The poems here are not necessarily representative of the general tenor or style of each poet's work. We've sometimes dropped poems that have been widely anthologized, because we preferred to look for the unfamiliar option. In other cases, we were forced to drop poets whose work we like a great deal, simply because we couldn't find a recognizable love poem in their oeuvre."

It goes on to say:

"We've ended up choosing poems for different reasons: because they offer a variety of tones, moods, textures, approaches. Because we like them, because they surprised us and continued to do so, because emotion has not overwhelmed craft. And most importantly because craft has not driven feeling out."

Space Bar said...

because emotion has not overwhelmed craft

oh my. that should make for some strong poems. :D

pratima said...

No, you really do have the goods! :) Which is why am here...
But that bit abt rejecting silly poems in school, got to me!

Argileto said...

Isn't that from Leave it to Psmith? The title of the post, I mean.

Cheshire Cat said...

Even among bad poems, there are distinctions. The Nair poem is trying too hard to be clever; that's why it fails. The Godrej poem is such a trifle that to say it's bad seems overkill - something this insubstantial can be neither good nor bad. The Noronha poem is good bad poetry. It's bathetic, but I have a soft corner for it because it's so inoffensive. For the Shivdasani poem, there is no excuse at all - it's cringingly awful. The subject is half the battle lost...

P.S. Space Bar, I'm surprised at you!

Space Bar said...

Cheshire Cat: Because I preferred the Shivdasani to the Nair? I wasn't defending the poem, merely wondering why Falstaff thought the Nair wasn't worse - which, from the portion he quoted, seemed really bad.

One really has to compare the Shivdasani to 'White Asparagus' to see how bad the former is (and it is very bad; not merely clumsy. I take that back) Falstaff, sorry, I'm quoting the whole Bhatt poem here. It deals with a subject so rarely written about in Indian English poetry and does it with a delicacy and frankness that is refeshing.

'White Asparagus'

Who speaks of the strong currents
streaming through the legs, the breasts
of a pregnant woman
in her fourth month?

She's young, and this is her first time,
she's slim and the nausea has gone.
Her belly's just starting to get rounder
her breasts itch all day,

and she's surprised that what she wants is
inside her again.

Oh come like a horse, she wants to say,
move like a dog, a wolf,
become a suckling lion cub -
Come here and here and here --
but swim fast and don't stop.

Who speaks of the green coconut uterus
the muscles sliding, a deeper undertow
and the green coconut milk that seals
her well, yet flows so she is wet
from his softest touch?

Whoe understands the logic
behind this desire?

Who speaks of the rushing tide
that awakens
her slowly increasing blood -- ?
And the hunger
raw obsessions beginning
with the shape of asparagus:
sun-deprived white and purple-shadow-veined,
she buys three kilos
of the fat ones, thicker than anyone's fingers,
she strokes the silky heads,
some are jauntily capped...
even the smell pulls her in --

Space Bar said...

Cat: On closer inspection, mea culpa. I've just made a horrifying, uncomfortable discovery about myself: that because one knows a poet, despite oneself it becomes difficult to revile their work in public. All else is specious rationalisation.

I'm mortified.

Falstaff said...

space bar: :). Yes, I know. I can't help wondering what Ms. Nair's poem would have looked like if emotion had overwhelmed craft.

pratima: Ah, sorry, wasn't trying to be mean (though some things clearly come naturally). Just that reading these poems took me right back to the days of having to explain to people why their oh so clever poems weren't good enough to be in the college magazines. And it's genuinely true that some of them were better than the Shivdasani poem.

argileto: Yes, yes. So glad someone got that.

cat: Agree. The Godrej and Noronha poems aren't anywhere near as bad as the other two, though that's not saying much. I actually like the Godrej poem better, mostly because I think there's some hope that, with a lot of work and a good editor he may be able to make something out of it.

That said, I think you're being too kind to the Nair poem. If it had been at least technically correct - if the punctuation had made sense and the grammar been a little less awful - I would have agreed with your 'trying to be to clever' conclusion. But add the frankly inexplicable punctuation and it's truly appalling.

space bar: Thanks for quoting the Bhatt in its entirety. I considered it, but didn't have the enthusiasm to type it.

Tabula Rasa said...

don't normally comment on poetic matters but i had to say i like the title of the post.

Cheshire Cat said...

Space Bar, that's hardly a horrifying discovery. Actually, I guessed that that was the case, but in fact I think personal loyalty is important too. Collegiality is such a vexed issue - on the hand, without a certain sense of the "ideal" work and a willingness to make unprejudiced value judgements, it's impossible to be a good writer; on the other hand, poets need all the support they can get from their fellow practitioners because there's so much risk in writing poetry, in exposing oneself to the critical gaze.

If there's any consolation, it's that some of the greatest poets are capable of astonishingly bad verse - Wordsworth, Tennyson, Shelley...

Cheshire Cat said...

Oh, and thanks for quoting the Bhatt poem in its entirety; it's wonderful. I think the "green coconut milk" part is a bit awkward, but one can't have everything.