Sunday, 18 August 2013

20th Century American and Indian Poetry

Public Readings in Poetry Conclude

                 I don’t know what that means it but it sounds delicious.
                                                                                                 -Jeet Thayil     
Goa University’s first ever ‘Readings in Poetry’ series featuring Indian poet Jeet Thayil concluded recently. The sessions were held under the aegis of the newly instituted Bakibab Borkar Chair for Comparative Literature.  In a sense, the course (ONB 105) achieved a lot more than it set out to do. This writer who was present for all 4 readings (8 hours) held between 3-5 p.m. on 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th August 2013, went mostly to hear Jeet’s mesmeric voice. Indeed, poems leapt to life after he had finished ‘reading’ them, by which is meant, he also interpreted them. He always began with a juicy tidbit of the life of poet who wrote the poem we were reading and contextualized the poet in her/his time. That way he humanized them and made us more receptive to their poetry. After this preamble he invited a student to read the poem.

The first two days were devoted to 20th century American poetry and the last two to 20th century Indian poetry giving the course a very contemporary feel. Lamenting the fact that not enough American poetry is read, he observed, ‘We have an archaic notion of the poetic line.’ For this we have to thank our excessive dependence on British poetic forms and diction.  ‘Lowell’s words detonate on the page,’ he said of his spare poem ‘Skunk Hour’ written in honour of Elizabeth Bishop, his contemporary and his inspiration. Drawing on the careers of Rimbaud and Verlaine, Jeet dwelt on the singular lives of poets. Suicide among poets held centre stage while commenting on John Berryman taking his life by plunging into the icy Mississippi. His Dream Song 145 is an elegy for his father who also committed suicide by shooting himself.

‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg’ -- the title of the poem is very important, we were told as is this one by Richard Hugo. So are the first lines: ‘You might come here Sunday on a whim.’ ‘Nothing prepares you for the last line,’ Jeet said alerting us to ‘I have wasted my life’ in James Wrights’ poem, ‘Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.’ Sitting in the intimate setting of the senate hall of the Goa University as the rain beat on the panes, it seemed we were part of the creative process of the poet as s/he was writing the poem. ‘This is a very short poem which covers a lot of ground,’ said Jeet as he read ‘Origins,’ Joan Larkin’s poem about the sexual abuse of a girl child. He spoke of the music of poetry and the villanelle form in Bishop’s ‘One Art.’ We plunged into Hart Crane’s poem ‘To Brooklyn Bridge,’ not without Jeet’s note of caution, ‘Take some of these stanzas and unpack them. You will find alluvial deposits. These are lines you do need to look up.’

With Indian poetry we had a ringside view as Jeet personally knew most of the poets we were reading.  Every time I was forced to look at my reading practice - ‘We are not talking about the meaning of the poem. We are talking about the references.’ He regaled us reading, ‘How to Tame a New Pair of Chappals’ by Gopal Honnalgere; ‘Movements’ by Lawrence Bantleman; ‘Oranges on a Table’ by Srinivas Rayaprol and ‘I Feel Let Down,’ by G.S. Sharat Chandra who, he held, were the great four Indian poets who fell through the crevice of History. Nissim, Eunice, Manohar, Melanie, Dom, Adil and Arun had it better.

Copious photocopies of the poems greeted us every day as we sat in for the sessions, most from Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, 2008) and 60 Indian Poets (Penguin, 2008) both edited by Jeet. In the concluding session when he was asked to read some of his own poems he refused. The explanation was that since there was no time to read the other poets he had planned to, it would not be appropriate to read his instead. I was struck by his humility. As I drove home I heard the echo of his words, ‘I hope this will quicken your interest in your own poetic heritage which is so easy to lose.’ If there was a meeting of continents it was here, it was here, it was here. (From the Persian, ‘Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.’)

-Brian Mendonça
Published as 'Touching Upon a Poetic Heritage' in KurioCity, Planet Y, Navhind Times, Panjim, Goa,  Friday, 23 August 2013, pg. 3.Pix. source:  reslater.blogspot(dot).in

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