A work of art is a reflection of life rather than life itself. Covering so many periods and styles, poetry has had an extraordinary impact on the course of art history through its ability to reflect, in most cases, the life of the world through the use of various impressions and imagery. And at every turn of century, there emerged a different branch of poetry, both in style of expression and poetic thought. In a sense English poetry as a form is like a giant diagram of a tree, with poets representing the leaves and poetry the fruit.
Recently, the University of Chicago hosted a poetry reading session which was followed by a roundtable discussion on poetry at its center in Delhi. Cole Swensen (author of 15 volumes of poetry), one of the leading poets of her generation in contemporary American poetry and Rukmini Bhaya Nair (author of poetry books: The Hyoid Bone, The Ayodhya Cantos and Yellow Hibiscus), another celebrated poet and scholar, graced the occasion with their insights into the art of poetry. The event expanded and extended the dialogue between the two poets and a small audience assembled. The discussion after a brief reading session, where both recited a couple of poems, circled around the poetry, creative writing, translation, limitations of a poet and the creative process that goes in making of a poem.
Both the poets conveyed their thoughts on the artistic aspects of writing poetry and how they began to write. They acknowledged the fact that there has been a decline of interest in poetry. Swensson says that, “In the United States of America, we have a culture where most people don’t read poetry. Many would say it’s not readable due to the emergence of boutique culture.” In spite of that, American Universities offering courses and workshops in creative writing are at large compared to India, where, according to Nair, the notion that good writing cannot be taught still persists. In her case, Nair points out that she grew up among books and learnt a lot from the leaders of her growing years.
Time is memory, they say, the art however is to revive it and make it worth remembering. In between the period of Geoffrey Chaucer, with whom begins the history of English language and poets of our time, English Literature saw many of major and minor poets facilitating the process of making time memorable through poetry. A congruous definition of poetry in the words of William Wordsworth is that, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Considering we live in an age of nuclear bombs, terrorism, unmanned drones, mass surveillance, artificial intelligence and what not, perhaps in all aptness, it would be wiser to tweak Wordsworth’s definition a little by replacing the word ‘tranquility’ with something more suitable to our age.
Under the values and ways of thought of the implications of scientific discoveries, art too, has evolved. In poetry’s case imagery and impressions have evolved so has the language. “As a linguist, we ask this question” says Nair, “Can we have a thought without language? And it’s a debatable question; obviously people have thoughts because if you are driving through a street, you have all those impressions around that you see. What poetry does is: it brings one closer to the unconscious thoughts, soundscapes and visualscapes.” No wonder, why the English Romantics attached so much importance to the imagination. The special view that they held the imagination with, is the single characteristic that differentiates them from the poets of the eighteenth century. They insisted that the most vital activity of the mind is the imagination. And on the imagination alone they relied, for them it was the source of spiritual energy. William Blake wrote prophetically: “The world of imagination is the world of Eternity”.
So what does a poet mean through a poem and what does a poem mean to a poet? The prominent poets renovate the long poetic tradition to engage in political crisis, personal crisis and the sweeping pressure of globalisation but there still remains much more to say. Nair on the limitation of a poet says, “The question really is how limited and how wide are the latitudes of the poet’s interpretation, how much are they allowed to say when they put it down. The self doubt is at the heart of writing poetry. There are things that I may not to be able to write about, which is different from not choosing. I think everything is in the realm of poetry. American poet, Archibald MacLeish, once famously said that a poem should not mean but be. It should be a thing. But my idea is that, a poem should not mean, it should be confectious. There may be some subjects which would not touch me. There is a question of ability too.” In Swensen’s case, she believes that the sound triggers a desire to recreate. She adds, “I write very much from sound. In the process of writing, the observation comes very much from sound. The self leaves out of the self and goes out and actually occupies those objects, projecting the self in the objects.”
A poet is always striving to bring characters to life and to convey through the images he is putting out in words for the world to see. Swensen says, “When you read someone deeply, you do get a sense of their character. You never know if it is correct or not. But you feel like it is. I think we feel that too, leaving behind an artistic trace. The poet’s intention has very little to do with it because once you have written it and put it out in the world you are letting it go and it is completely disconnected to you as a writer and when you read it, you read it through your own lens and experiences. So the idea is that a poem is unfinished until it reconnects.” Poetry is the language as art rather than the language as information. It can be best explained in the words of John Keats who wrote that if poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.