Debate: It’s Time to Embrace Poetry

A response to Tathagata Bhowmik‘s recent article ‘It’s Time to Reject Poetry’, published on June 29, 2020.

The impact that this pandemic, that has grown only worse since its nascency, has had on the way we perceive the world has been immense. Consequently, it is only natural that we seek solace in those things that give us humans some hope.

Poetry is somewhere there too, staring into us with its rhyme, metre and verse as we stare into it, giving it meaning by reading and re-reading and drawing meaning and hope from those few lines as we grapple with a pandemic. What a word that is. “A pandemic”. One whose relentless and determined march to mount more casualties each day seems unsubdued.

Surely, in such grim times, one would not think of writing poetry or even reading it? Surely one would ‘reject’ it? At that question, I smile, as do those millions of poets who have for long, fought a war of attrition by those propounding the idea that “poetry is a break from reality we can ill afford”.

For generations, poets have gently pushed aside the barrel of a gun that seems to be forever trained at them. I smile because that question is so naïve. But, a question nonetheless, and one meriting a response.

Putting poetry on trial, in the wake of something that shocks the world, is not novel. The oft quoted Theodor Adorno had once ruminated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz, is barbaric”. But statements like this attract a short burst of intellectual discussion only to soon collapse – for such an idea simply cannot sustain itself.

This is principally because the very act of writing a poem is an expression of feeling. A poem is linked inextricably with feeling. One cannot seek to rid humans of such an instrument of expression in times when it manifests itself in forms that are closest to human emotion – in times of collective suffering. In the time of a pandemic. Maybe, Adorno himself realised this, for he went on to rescind his statement and instead say, “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”.

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It is true in every sense that dreams have been shattered and intricate plans set aside. It is true that we now are impelled to seek recourse in things that only half fill our heart and half fill our pockets. It is true that we are now loathe to think of what could have been and are staring point blank at what is.

It is whilst being surrounded by such overbearing truths that a poem serves us faithfully. It is no mean surprise when one says that we should wrap our heads around reality instead of resorting to fiction and poetry. But I ask…is poetry not real? Anything fictional too, for that matter. Anything that stimulates your heart and soul as you struggle to keep afloat when the news headline everyday tells you that the world is drowning. Succumbing to reality cannot be separated from succumbing to poetry.

Indeed, it is the language of poetry and all things poetic that aid us in clinging onto hope that this age of despair might soon pass and give way to an age of reflection, when we sit back, once again among friends, and shake our heads solemnly at these dark bygone times.

Poetry is your cheap spirit that you spend little on to give you a momentary break.
Poetry is also your darkly clad fear with a hooded face, carrying a bent staff, wearing a macabre appearance.
Turn around, and poetry is a prudent and dependable friend, forever jubilant but erudite in thought and amiable in character.
And while you sleep, poetry speaks to you, about what is real.
Who said poetry isn’t real?

Do not be beguiled into thinking that poetry is only a condiment and a sweetener. It might as well be the very instrument that helps you face the devastation around you, supplementing, not suppressing, its malevolent image. But it does more. It teaches you. It teaches you to make sense of what has come to pass, and it teaches you acceptance. It draws from the experience of millions, from their imagination and poetic prowess, and touches on the multitude of things that are recurring tropes of the past few months.

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Death. Loss. Despair. Hope. Life. A poem has visited all, and it now tells you what it has seen, so you better comprehend what you are seeing all around you. I am reminded of Thomas Hardy’s ‘aged thrush’ who had chosen to “fling his soul upon the growing gloom”. To him, the thrush was mirthful in desolate times for no apparent reason, but there was reason alright, only that Hardy did not understand it, as he admits that the thrush knows something he does not.

Amidst all the suffering and hoping today, let a poem be as near your heart as it can possibly be. Call to it, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz does when he says, ‘Mere qaatil, mere dildaar, mere paas raho’.

Let anything or anyone endeared to you, give you hope. A friend, a person, a story or a poem. Hope is a poetic word.

The number of victims of COVID-19 only seem to grow day after day. Death is indeed today a more frequent guest in our daily life than usual, or whatever the ‘usual’ was. I wish to end with a quote from the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood starring the ever delightful Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers:

“To die is to be human and anything human is mentionable. Anything mentionable is manageable.”

Now isn’t that poetic?

Bashir Ali Abbas studies at School of Social Sciences and Business Studies, Christ University, Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Bady Abbas/Unsplash