I too dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contemp for it, one discovers in it after all, a place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise…..
This is an extract from a poem on Poetry by Marianne Moore. She begins with the disclaimer ‘I too dislike it’. Her aim is to take the readers into confidence at the outset. And then to tell them how one gets something genuine in poetry, how reading a poem can be exciting and joyful.
This ‘genuine’ that Moore refers to is the truth of life a poet seeks to express in a poem. The poet is the articulate and the reader is the inarticulate part of that process. However the joy factor is not less important than the ‘genuine’ in Poetry.
Moore knew that poetry is difficult to understand. It is concentrated, full of associations and images. It is also subject to interpretations. Still she encourages the readers to enter the difficult terrain of poetry. She assures them that despite the difficulties, reading poetry can be rewarding. The complete poem is available here.
Why to evaluate
One should begin reading poetry for enjoyment, and not for evaluation. Acquiring the tools of evaluation at the initial stage is like putting the cart before the horse. But it is also true that the process of evaluation begins with the choice of our first poem. Otherwise we wouldn’t say that we like this poem more than that. Or X poet is my favourite. Our choices also change with age. In childhood we like nursery rhymes more but as we grow older we prefer poems with deeper meanings.
It is true that too much analysis could lead to a loss of enjoyment. But some knowledge about the important aspects of poetry can surely help us understand and enjoy it better. A good way to acquire the knowledge and a critical sense would be to read poetry for enjoyment and to reflect while one reads. One can pick up the tools for evaluation as one delves deeper.
Content & Form
What is the poet trying to convey and how does he do that? These are the two questions that can reveal the two important aspects of Poetry: Content and Form. Content refers to the world view or the theme of a poem. And its types are as many as the variety of life itself. Still content of poetry can broadly be classified into themes like Doubt & Faith, Life & Death, Love, Grief, Nature, Society etc. Form is the outer appearance of the poem that includes rhythm, rhyme, poetic devices, structure, length etc.
In an essay on The Criticism of Poetry, James Reeves says ‘content determines form and form modifies content’. According to him both are inseparable in a poem. While composing a poem a poet doesn’t work on the content first and then on the form or vice versa. Both happen simultaneously. Reeves cites the example of Alexander Pope, the most celebrated poet of the 18th century, to reveal how the rigidity of form puts restrictions on the content of Pope’s poetry. Heroic Couplet was Pope’s favourite and probably it was required for the content that he sought to create. He was ‘laying down the laws of thought and conduct in the polite society of his time. In one of his well known poems, An Essay on Criticism, Pope uses the following Heroic couplet to express:
Good nature and good sense must ever join; To err is human, to forgive, divine.
Fifty years after Pope’s death Wordsworth and Coleridge set new norms for a new age called Romantic Age of English Poetry. This was also the period of French Revolution when all over Europe the ideas of Freedom and Equality were taking shape. Wordsworth and Coleridge collaborated to produce a manifesto for this new school of Poetry through their book of poems called Lyrical Ballads. Their range of content had widened and also the range of their form. James Reeves says, ‘The novel ideas which he (Wordsworth) had to express in his poems could not be expressed in stereotyped forms. Nature was an integral part of Wordsworth’s poetry. The following lines have been taken from his two different poems:
Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher. The Tables Turned
I listened, motionless and still; And, as I mounted up the hill, The music in my heart I bore, Long after it was heard no more. The Solitary Reaper
Great poets are known for the experiments they make both with content and form. One of the leading American poets of twentieth century, E E Cummings, is known for several experiments in Poetry. An extract from his poem, [as freedom is a breakfastfood], below reveals how he did away with punctuation marks in his poems:
as freedom is a breakfastfood or truth can live with right and wrong or molehills are from mountains made — long enough and just so long will being pay the rent of seem and genius please the talentgang and water most encourage flame
Cummings is known also for many of his shape poems.
In modern Hindi poetry Suryakant Tripathy Nirala is well-known for his experiments. His poems, भिक्षुक or तोड़ती पत्थर are pathbreaking both in terms of content and form. He must be the first to have chosen a beggar or a woman worker as the subject of his beautiful poems, creating a new convention of using the deprived section of the society as the theme of his poems. He was also the pioneer of free verse in Hindi poetry.
दो टूक कलेजे को करता, पछताता
पथ पर आता।
वह तोड़ती पत्थर
देखा मैंने उसे इलाहाबाद के पथ पर
वह तोड़ती पत्थर
Nirala is followed by several other contemporary poets like Muktibodh, Nagarjun, Kedarnath Singh, Alok Dhanwa in Hindi poetry who broke the existing boundaries of content and form.
Poetry & civilization
A civilization is measured by the greatness of the poets associated with that. Elizabethan period in England, the periods of Guptas, Harsha, Akbar in India or Tang dynasty in China are known for the poets and other artists who were active during those times. Poetry used to be an essential part of social life during Tang dynasty. In order to be eligible for their civil services exams it was necessary for the candidates to be the masters of Poetry.
Great poems are those that stand the test of time. People don’t get tired of reading them even after hundreds or thousands of years. The poems of Kalidasa, Tulsidas, Kabir, Rahim, Subramaniam Bharti in Indian literature or those of Homer, Virgil, Chaucer or Shakespeare in European literatures and several others in Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Arabic have entertained and inspired the mankind for years together. They will continue to do so in the years to come.
Poets are gods
A contemporary Indian poet, Ashok Bajpei, says in a recent interview that poets are gods. Their work is to create works of art for posterity. God is known to be the greatest Creator. Bajpei says that through this process of creation the poets become one with god. One can certainly perceive a tone of arrogance in his statement.
But a similar sentiment can be observed in the following lines of a Shakespearean sonnet:
Not marble nor gilded monuments Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme Sonnet no 55
Shakespeare composed this sonnet to immortalise his love for a friend. He says that war, death, or time can destroy the magnificent monuments built in the memory of princes, kings but nothing can erase the words that I create to celebrate my love. They will remain forever. He was so prophetic. Even after five hundred years, I and a large number of English teachers were teaching this poem in CBSE schools until recently, thousands of kilometers away from the place of Shakespeare’s birth.
A stanza from Longfellow’s A Psalm of Life is also relevant in this context:
Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time
Most students living in the school hostels would go home during the Diwali holidays. But it was customary for the small group that stayed back to visit the house of Nazeeb Khan, a potter in village Gilpatti near Bathinda, Punjab. The purpose was not just to buy earthen diyas, but also to behold the process of making the age-old source of light.
A group of twelve students and three teachers set out on a short expedition on foot on 11th November 2014, the day of Diwali. Early morning they walked for two kilometers to meet Nazeeb, who received them warmly outside the village and escorted them to his house. In the past it was inconceivable that a potter would be free from work on a Diwali day. Nazeeb and his family members would start making diyas several weeks before in those days. Still they could not fulfill the demand of the customers. Things are different now. Very few people are interested in earthen diyas these days.
There was excitement among the students. They had come to observe Nazeeb making diyas and also to try their hand at pottery. It may appear to be simple, but a small diya has to go through various complex processes — selecting the appropriate clay for kneading, giving shape on the running chak to baking — before it reaches the hands of its user. Nazeeb is adept at these skills. He did not go to a school to acquire this art. It has come to him naturally by watching his elders. The students enjoyed watching Nazeeb’s fingers negotiating with clay dough on the moving chak. They were awed by the way he was able to mould the clay into the shape and size of his choice with a certain fluidity in his movements. Some of them even tried their hand at this creative process, but in vain. Little did they realise that what they were trying to do in one attempt has taken years for Nazeeb to master.
Nazeeb’s ancestors were potters who had come to Gilpatti some 300 hundred years back in search of livelihood. Since then the coming generations have been engaged in this profession. The difference between then and now is that pottery was the only source of income for his ancestors, but for Nazeeb and his generation it is just a part time job.
Fifty years ago when the majority of people still used earthen pots and utensils for their daily use, the potters were in great demand. They had to work constantly to meet the requirements of the community in the village. The times have changed now. The earthenware have now been replaced by the metal ones in every household, those of steel the most common. These pots (earthen) have just remained the works of art which may fetch higher prices in some high end markets, if recognized by the connoisseurs. But it is no longer a regular source of income for them. Nazeeb and his community wait anxiously for the season of Deepawali when he and his family would make use of their skill to earn as much as possible. In the remaining part of the year Nazeeb earns his livelihood as a barber. His elder brother, Anwar, works as a conductor in a bus. His uncle drives a horse cart.
The descendants of Nazeeb’s great great grandfather have expanded and have branched out. Most of these families live in close proximity with one another in a kind of ghetto but pottery isn’t a full time profession for any. Just as they live on the northern end of the village, their art and profession of pottery is also on the fringe.
Justice is no less challenging to teach in the classroom.
An interesting way to begin is to have a role play of the dialogue that Socrates had had with a group of young people on Justice. They ask him, Why should we be just when people who tell lies, twist rules, avoid paying taxes are more successful than those who are just? Socrates replies that if everyone violates rules and becomes unjust, then no-one would remain secured in the society. He explains further that it is in the long-term interest of everyone to follow the rules of Justice.
This conversation between Socrates and the young people must have taken place 2500 years. But their question and his answer for Justice remain valid even today.
Justice is to deliver to each citizen his due. Due and deliver are the key words here. What is due to the citizens from a state should be clearly defined. It should be known to one and all. And it is for this purpose that a constitution is framed by a state. The constitution is meant to spell out the dues/rights of the citizens. However mere granting of the rights is not enough. An efficient system is required to deliver these rights to the citizens.
In the ancient days when monarchy was in vogue there were several kings known for their efficient delivery system of justice. But the rights of the people were limited. In the modern times when political systems are more oriented towards the people, rights of the people have increased and so have the scope for justice.
I have heard some elderly people saying that the British system of justice was better for India. Probably they mean that their system of delivering justice was more efficient. But they tend to forget that the rights of the citizens were limited at that time.
Equality as a concept appears simple, but teaching it in the classroom may be as challenging. One may begin by asking the students to make a list of inequalities they perceive at home, school or in the society. These inequalities based on sex, income, caste etc can then be discussed one by one with sensitivity and care.
Complete equality is a myth, like complete freedom. A state may grant it to all its citizens by a rule of law but the society or economy may become the stumbling blocks. Political, social and economic equality are all interdependent. To achieve one without the other is very difficult.
The story of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic fictional story to let the students understand how difficult it may become to establish Equality. In the story the animals of a farm revolt against its owner and establish their own rule. Their primary aim is to practise equality in the farm. They write the slogan, ‘All are Equal’, at every nook and corner of the farm. They are very happy. However their happiness turns is short-lived as the theory of equality is not being practised in the farm. Even the slogan is changed. It becomes “All are equal but some are more equal than others”. I had given one copy of Animal Farm to each student for their extended study.
The students can then be given the case studies of two states, one a communist and the other a democracy, to evaluate the status of equality in each. USSR is a classic case for communism. It was a state whose entire edifice was based on equality and it crumbled. The examples of democracies can be many but it is advisable to avoid one’s own country. It is always good to begin with the study of a different country. The insights acquired can help understand one’s own country better.
Equality and Freedom are like two estranged sisters. A parent like Democracy finds it difficult to maintain a balance between the two. Very often one grows at the cost of another.
Teaching an abstract idea is always daunting in a classroom. I have experienced this year after year. Two years back something similar happened when I took the assignment to teach Political theory to the students of Grade XI. The topic was Freedom.
My first question in the classroom was What is freedom? And the students were tongue-tied. The expression on their faces said — if not asked, I know; but if asked, I know not.
In order to break the ice, I turned to a few questions related to their life. Do they have complete freedom at home to eat whenever they like? And if not, then what restricts that freedom. The answers were the availability of the foods or the schedules of time etc. Similarly I asked if they have the freedom to do what they like in the school. Could they move around the corridors, playgrounds according to their choice? If not, then why not?
Soon the concept of freedom started sinking in their minds. The ice had been broken. We then started discussing how absolute freedom is a myth, what were the restrictions on freedom and why some of these were necessary.
Interestingly many grey areas emerged for intense debate. The students got polarised on topics like the freedom of choosing the subjects for study or the parents’ role in limiting such choices. We also discussed various types of restrictions put by family, friends, society, nation etc.
The discussion got intense when the question came to the freedom of the boys and girls in choosing their partners, particularly in an Indian setting. We discussed how the degree of this freedom is increasing and the so called ‘love-marriages’ are not so uncommon these days. By now the students had become partners in learning of this concept called Freedom.
My own horizon broadened while exploring the concept in books like Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography.
In the following days I had to teach the concepts like Equality, Social Justice which were as abstract and challenging.
Security Council is the most powerful UN body with 5 permanent members and 10 non-permanent members who are elected from different regions after every two years. And we all know that it is the permanent members who call the shots with the power of veto.
Various attempts have been made to reform the Security Council in the past. The aim has been to make it a representative body that fulfills the aspirations of the member states and is able to work towards a democratic, peaceful and a just world order. But they all have failed.
In accordance with the goals of the UN, Security Council is expected to be a democratic body. But for that the veto power should be taken away from the permanent members. This seems most unlikely. But in case it becomes possible, then what would be scenario?
These five members, (US, China, France, Russia and UK) which are the most powerful states in the world, will start pulling the strings from outside the council. This might create problems of a new kind. It’s a catch 22 situation.
Now when the UN is celebrating 75 years of its existence, could we expect a global push for the reforms in the Security Council? Could we see the movement of even a small step towards a balance of powers in the council? The chances are very remote.
There was a time when there were no books. #Knowledge and #skills were transferred orally from generation to generation. You didn’t need to verify and examine knowledge so much. You just had to accept what your elders had told you. The jobs and professions were limited.
Then came the print industry and along with them, #books. Information, knowledge could be distributed to a larger audience then. In fact people having access to books could acquire knowledge easily.
Now is the time when information and knowledge are in abundance. But so is the misinformation. While searching for information you might get misinformation if you don’t know how to distinguish between the two. You should have the skill to understand the difference between what is reliable and what is not, what is fact and what is fiction. One can do that only when one has acquired the skill of logical thinking.
Logical thinking should be introduced at an early age, in the #schools.
My week-long voyage to Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh was full of excitement,adventure, learning and joy. Set in the historical backdrop of mid-nineteenth century the novel’s canvas is as wide as an ocean, carrying in its womb multitudes of stories, characters, themes, locations, languages…… yet remaining placid, cool and calm.
I became interested in the book after reading a reference to the opium factories in Gazipur and Patna in one of book’s reviews. I already knew that the main building of Patna College, much before the college was started in 1863, had been used as an opium factory earlier. This led me to embark on the journey of Sea of Poppies with the expectation to sail through the history, language and culture of the places, I thought, were known to me. Flipping through the pages of the book was an exhilarating experience. I got an opportunity to observe the places like Patna, Bakhtiarpur, Monghyr, Teghra, Barauni or objects like Barh ka Lai etc through the prism of a master story teller like Amitav Ghosh.
However these are only a few of the many items available on the plate of the novel. Just as the white Ganga merges with the Hoogly and finally disappears in the Black Water of the Ocean at Gangasagar, the story continues through the regions of Bhojpur, Bengal, India, China, England, Europe(the list is long); creating in its wake the conflicts of culture, language, politics and economics, evoking in the reader sympathy, love, hate, humour and nostalgia for a bygone era. Reading the novel is like having a smooth sail in a dinghy over the surface of a deep sea.
By the way what happened to Jodu, Kalua, Serang Ali, Neel and Ah Fatt after they escaped in the lifeboat and what was in store for the rest of the characters on the ship named Ibis? I must find out in the next novel of Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke. My next voyage has already begun.