Big words, bombast and the poetry of erudition

Big words, bombast and the poetry of erudition

By ADITI CHAKRAVARTI | | 28 November, 2015
Poetry is to be found in simple words, which are capable of conveying the most complex of feelings. Sanjeev Sethi’s new collection of poems misses the point, writes Aditi Chakravarti.


This Summer and That Summer by Sanjeev Sethi
Pages: 53
Price: Rs 199 

After reading a music review, a disgruntled sub-editor in Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel Snuff had indignantly asked why people could not write simple sentences and common words. “Wherefore came that music?” for example, could very well have been written as “where did that music come from?” However, before the dreaded red pen could be put to paper, the editor had barged in and demanded that not a single word of the article be changed because the reviewed performance in question merited graceful, archaic language. Sanjeev Sethi’s This Summer and That Summer, his third collection of poetry, puts me in a bind. After reading some of the poems I had the disconcerting feeling that meaning was slipping out of my fingers just as I tried to grasp it. Sethi, like Faulkner, perhaps believes that big feelings can only be put down with the help of big words. In this collection of 53 poems, some were indeed fresh, shocking and memorable. But overall, the volume is a disappointment.
The work of a reviewer is easy if a book, movie or composition were enjoyable experiences. Even if you cannot put words to your feelings immediately, you feel good, happy or in rare circumstances, moved. You want to write about how you felt. How should one judge a volume of poetry? How do I decide whether the poet’s life, which he has put out in the open for judgment from the likes of me, did not “merit” the language he chose? What constitutes good poetry? If a poem resonates with you, if you can feel it dissolving into your blood and need to close your eyes and consciously release the breath you have been holding, it was good poetry. Sanjeev Sethi failed to move me and maybe this is not a failing. After all, what did not work for me, may very well be the type of literature other, more erudite readers, love.
Indians are not born to the English language but we have learnt to make it our own. Kamala Das, one of my favorite poets, faced a lot of criticism because she chose to write poetry in English instead of her mother tongue Malayalam. She had famously retorted in An Introduction:
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
I do not grudge Sethi for writing poetry in English. However, after reading his poems I recalled a scene from the Life of Pi where the author remarks in the beginning of the book that Indians love using big words like “bamboozled”. In Sethi’s poetry, there is very little effort to mould the language to his needs. Instead, he moulds his feelings and ideas around English words. In Conduction, he does get it right though.
When you undress a poem with dignity,
Delicately like a lover, it will disrobe you
Of excess, accessing your inner feelings
He talks here about the perfect way to approach poems. Did he then not realize that a reader may be too distracted by the clothes the poet has decided to pile upon his brainchild? Why needlessly adorn poems with “maquillage or habiliments”? With “Tintinnabulate”? A poet is, first and foremost, a lover of words, said Auden. He never said they had to be big words.
For Sanjeev Sethi, poetry is about his engagement with existence and that resonates through his work. In some of his better poems, like Confessions, there is a sense of static – like a moment frozen in time. You are there inside the mind of the poet as he is on the verge of making a decision. Other poems reflecting upon honest scenes from life like Sunny Chacha and Garrison Report and Holograph stand out in my memory. They were beautiful. His previous volumes of poetry, Suddenly For Someone and Nine Summers Later, were very well received. His newest publication has come after an 18 year interlude. In the DailyO, an online commentary platform, Sethi says that he carries mixed feelings post the publication of his new volume, which too has been lauded by many including the celebrated poets, Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes. One review said that “on a quiet evening when there is time on your hands this book may well manage to keep you company.” I agree.
Frost said being a poet is a condition. Sethi would concur. Poems help him make sense of life and perhaps, they need only do that.

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