Poetry, Politics and Poverty

Poetry, Politics and Poverty
Suraj Sharma

Let’s face it. Poetry today resembles the medieval art of alchemy. Not by the vice of being an exotic, esoteric practice reserved for a chosen intellectual elite but by the virtue of being one of the many arts nobody is interested in anymore. Poetry therefore, serves two purposes today, firstly as the benign indulgence for subversive minds who care not so much about the medium than they do about the message, especially when the message is their own; and secondly, as mild recreation for the mildly intrigued. Either way, it ends up on blogs, bulletin boards and so called “art-oriented” websites such as Deviantart.com where users believe that Poetry is now a “vocation” rather than an art.

Politically speaking, the condition is even worse, liberal democracy and its faithful sidekick – Capitalism, have done much to assign predefined roles for everyone including the poets. Their job is now to act as those delusional beings who entertain their counterparts by engaging in romantic discussions of revolutions which are never going to take place and the slow pace of country life afforded by a few people in this day and age. Poets, then, are little more than television sets who are very much a part of the very system that allows them to write and publish their anti-establishment views because that is the role it has assigned to them. Think about it, when was the last time a poet was censored/banned in your country?

Little wonder then, that the interest of the public-at-large has been slowly dwindling down when it comes to poetry, and deservedly so, it doesn’t achieve anything, so why bother?

Marx said capitalism is “nothing if not ductile”, and within this ductility lays its self-perpetuating elixir. Still, there are poets today who, unaware of this ductility, pour out their views in hopes of “expressing themselves”, this is a redundant exercise for their views are already informed by the world around them, so what they effectively end up doing is expressing the views of the system through them, instead of truly expressing themselves. What results is some sort of subliminal literary drivel, which nobody is really interested in, for it’s really not saying anything new. Hence the blame (if there could be any) for the lack of interest in poetry today, should fall squarely on the shoulders of so-called poets who write with honest intentions but end up polluting the mildly interested minds of amateurs. This is the reason why poetry is unable to “achieve” anything today because, as I once read somewhere, “if you keep on doing the same thing, you will get the same results”.

I’m not a leftist, neither am I a Marxist nor a Stalinist, but I believe that poetry is a profound tool that helps prevent stagnation and rigidity in a culture. This essay itself, I must proclaim, is a product of the very ductility I mentioned above. You must have downloaded it through Facebook or Google, it was written in Microsoft word, converted into a PDF by Adobe Acrobat reader and so on until it finally found its way to your computer. There is nothing wrong with capitalism or the ductility of it per se. What is wrong, however, is taking it all for granted. What is wrong, is the Kal-Ho-Na-Ho (Tomorrow may or may not come) attitude that seems to have caught our generation like a pandemic that inspires apathy and self-centeredness, because, believe it or not, there is going to be a tomorrow for the 40% below poverty line families in the world, and for those suffering from AIDS in Ethiopia, there is going to be a tomorrow, perhaps far more painful than today. So, poetry is obviously not the panacea that they need, it’s the catalyst that we need. We need to wake up from our hedonistic slumber and find that it’s high time we reinvented hedonism, and poetry- if anything- could serve as an alarm clock.

Mired in our naiveté, we have learned to relegate the truly profound means of social change to the backseat, disguising it as some kind of undesired ends. Have we forgotten the role played by poetry in the Russian and French revolutions, or how about the Struggle for Indian Independence? Almost every literate Bengali was writing something or the other at the time of the partition of Bengal in 1906. So the utility of poetry in times of political struggle is obvious, but what about other times?

The utility of poetry, in ordinary times, was explained by American Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky thus:
"I presume that the technology of poetry . . . evolved for specific uses: to hold things in memory, both within and beyond the individual life span; to achieve intensity and sensuous appeal; to express feelings rapidly and memorably. To share those feelings and ideas with companions, and also with the head and with those to come after us"

Essentially, therefore, poetry is a matter of evolution. Poets exist not because greeting card companies are running out of monkeys willing to work for bananas, poets exist because evolution is nothing if not the “naming of complex ideas”, and isn’t that exactly what Poets do? Plato banned poets from his utopian Republic because they concocted imagined worlds, yet one is forced to question: Isn’t Plato’s Republic based around an entirely imaginary word of “Ideas” or “Forms”? In this sense, Plato was a hypocrite. But we are on the verge committing the same mistake.

If the state of technological evolution of society could be measured by the kind of toys it makes, then surely, the level of cultural evolution could well be measured by its literature. Strangely enough though, we never bothered to ask ourselves the utility of toys, how then, do we have the temerity of asking ourselves the utility of Poetry? Utility is something that the evolution creates for us, not the other way around, we just go about seeking pleasure, not just any pleasure, but newer kinds of pleasure, for being so ahead in the evolutionary race has given us the curse of boredom, and hence if we’re not bored easily we’re not really human. I’m sure, J.L. Baird didn’t really wonder about the “utility” of television while he was inventing it, and who knew ARPANET would offer someday the kind of “utility” it offers today? Or look at it this way: who says “uselessness” is a vice? Utility is overrated. Let it not befool us into an immobile and decaying culture.

Ultimately, poetry is a tool that will help us evolve. Yes, it’s difficult to do something we hate but then, who said evolution was a painless process? To put it in terms of Gandhian philosophy: If I am to beat the crap out of my enemy, I must beat the crap out of myself first. So, if our enemy today is a mechanized, stagnant society, then all we have to do is quarrel with ourselves to show how wrong we truly are about ourselves.

The contemporary poet Adrienne Rich wrote:
“Poetry wrenches around our ideas about our lives . . . Poetry will always pick a quarrel with the found place, the refuge, the sanctuary . . . Even though the poet, a human being with many anxious fears, might want just to rest, acclimate, adjust, become naturalized, learn to write in a new landscape, a new language, poetry will go on harassing the poet until, and unless, it is driven away.”

But what is this “found place”, this “refuge”, this “sanctuary”? It is the now, the here. The idea is not to grow too comfortable in your environment, not to become too comfortable with yourself, for remember “pacifism is not something to hide behind”. So kids, do try this at home: pick a fight with yourself, see if what comes out is anything but poetry.

[Download A pdf version of this essay]


Jade said...

Save poetry !!

You are very wise =)

suraj sharma said...

@Jade: awww...thanks a ton for reading.

Shobhna said...

Mmm. It's nice to have read this the first instance that my university unblocks your blog. Very well-put, I'm actually going to save a copy of this and come back and tell you what I think in detail.

In the meantime though, it's really good to read you write again (wow, weird sentence).

Much warmth.

suraj sharma said...

@sho:blah. it's crap, thank for reading though, now you've got crap on you.

Shilpa said...

Dear Suraj...I am refered to your blog by a friend...
I am ashamed to say that i am not able to fully gauge the depth of your poetry... but...frankly...i want to and I am trying..
But I really liked your essay..
i know I need not say this..but please keep writing..even if people do not understand..


suraj sharma said...

Thank YOU Shilpa.

shubhra said...

this was my first encounter with ur profound writings...i barely survived.
honestly,am not sure if i comprehend u fully n rightly...n m no ardent reader of poetry but do believe that the right tool in the right hands carve out master pieces...

suraj sharma said...

Thank you Shubhraji. It's an honor to have you read my stuff :)

shubhra said...

That's very sweet of u.The pleasure was all mine.Eagerly waiting for ur nxt post...

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