Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is poetry?

Just for fun, I tried in my previous post to respond to Kapil Sibal's poems "in kind", as it were. JF, in a comment, inserted appropriate linebreaks and asked why I "hid" my verse. I'm not sure why, but here is some of what I was thinking:

First, writing lines that rhyme and (more or less) scan is easy. As JF surmises, I took about half an hour over this. Many people can do it better and faster than me (eg, TR). Sibal wrote his Parliament poem (on whose rhyme scheme mine was modelled) on a flight, if I remember him right; at any rate, in a narrow window of time between the events in question and the publication of the book.

Second, his poems (as read out that day) seemed to lack something. I liked the Tehelka extracts, but they seemed more like light verse to me -- wry, humorous, biting comments on today's world. It turned out that his poems are meant to be more serious than that. Take the "nano" poem (which he proclaims his favourite): what was a brief and cutting verse in Tehelka turns out to be an excerpt of a much longer and rather meandering poem.

However, I did not want to be too judgmental: I have strong likes and dislikes in poetry but they may not be shared by all. I don't like a lot of "classical" poetry (an overdose of Wordsworth can get tedious), and I do like some poetry that doesn't have any traditional qualities. Also, compared to some other poetry by public figures (like a recent President), Sibal's poems were really pretty good. It was just when he tried to be very serious and philosophical that it didn't quite work out for me. I am not an expert on poetry and many people may well love his poems. Also, I didn't pick up his book that day (it was getting late for us) so I based it on what I heard; a second, third or fourth exposure to the same poems may well cause a different impact on me.

I wrote that post in verse for my own amusement, and to empirically prove the point that rhyming is the easy part about writing poetry. I've written lots of rhyming text in my time, which I would hesitate to call poetry. But I then formatted it as prose, because I didn't want to sound too snarky. Also, I thought that most people who actually read the thing will immediately spot that it's a poem. A colleague, Kapil, asked me if I was inspired by Wodehouse. It is possible. The epilogue of one of the Blandings books (Full Moon?) is a similar verse-in-prose news item. Also, Leonard Cohen's lyrics, as printed on recent CD inserts, are formatted as prose, though they rhyme and scan perfectly. So I'm not really breaking new ground here.


gaddeswarup said...

I guess that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Here is a layman's response. Possibly a reasonanly short piece in which one conveys and evokes emotion through imagery, ideas, sounds, idiom things which usually cannot be conveyed in a logical fashion in a short period. This already is problematic. I grew up until the age of thirteen with Telugu. Sounds I hear better in Telugu and to some extent idiom and imagery are easier in Telugu. I still mispronounce English words and some of the western mythology which evokes images is not immediate to me. So, I guess that it is more ideas with English poetry. But then I find something like Donne's "Go and catch a falling star" very poetic even though some lines do not male sense to me. Or a line like "In this world of hard trying, nonchalance is a good thing and really, it is not the business of gods to bake clay pots" from Marianne Moore (I probably messed up some of the words and punctuation). Or "...hour of splendour in the grass, glory in the flower". Some phrases like 'mixing memory with desire". Well, they seem to stay with me for a long time and often appear in unexpected moments for unknown reasons. More often, it is Telugu poems and songs.
I am sure that there are lots of treatises on this topic and one can only say what poetry means to oneself. I must add that I did not read any sort of literature systematically, I just spensd some time on a piece if it catches my fancy and if it is not hard work. Perhaps, you can tell us what it means to you.

JF said...

Rahul, I've decided that my ideas here about poetry-type writing fall under this category: obnoxious ideas about competing in the market place of ideas.

You answered what I was thinking with my question.

I'm reading some into what you said, but what I was thinking when I asked "Are there other reasons?" is that you thought putting poetry on your blog might not be good for your image (snarky, you said, among other reasons, I would think).

I've decided that among professionals who write, there are lots who write poetry periodically, when they're inspired, but they will never put it out for public consumption. And I've decided it's because with poetry, there's almost nothing to be gained from publishing it, and potentially something to be lost. At best, probably 99.9% of the population is ambivalent about poetry, and at worst there’s the chance that the cheesy label will be attached to any poetry.

Poetry: the favorite medium of wannabe self-confessed artsy-intellectuals

But part of the image problem could be that poetry conveys presumptuousness, especially when someone calls themselves a poet. The title above kind of describes the thoughts I get when someone calls themselves a poet. About the only time I accept someone as a poet is when someone has gotten the official stamp of approval from the establishment. Why argue with the establishment over who they say is a poet? It’s poetry. Who cares.

I was teaching a developmental algebra, and I got to know this student who was a punk skateboarder, and who never combed his hair. He was a nice guy, and I liked him because he was worse than me at trying to get philosophical, but he kept talking about being a poet, so eventually I visited his online journal, and his type of poetry was totally obnoxious to me, as opposed to merely obnoxious, which is what most poetry is to me. His poetry showed no skill; it was just a bunch of fragmented ideas thrown together.

My motive in relation to poetry

I could go on and on, but my main interest in poetry is as a means to an end. In fact, I don't like poetry for the most part. Really the only interest I have is when I can be a part of it in a way that gives me an attempt to try and be creative.

If you would have put it in verse form to begin with, I probably wouldn't have put as much thought into it. But it still has the basic elements that I try to achieve when I do some lyrical prose or poetry, which are rhythm, as much visual symmetry as possible, and if there's rhyme, no cheesy kiddie-rhyme sound unless it's for effect.

Ulterior motive

One idea of mine is "unauthorized use" of other people's rhythmic sounding prose or poetry. For example, suppose you wrote something profound and deep that I wanted to use with music in some form or fashion. I would do a title like "Unauthorized Rahul Siddharthan: The Catchy Profound Song". That way, when the song became so popular that you found out I didn't ask your permission, you'd get ticked off, but after thinking about it you'd say, "But I did get lots of exposure, and I was never gonna make any money off of it anyway, and because he didn't ask permission, no one can blame me for being associated with that freak, and it didn't mess with my image as a professional either. I’ve gotten all the fame and glory with none of downsides. I love that JF, even if I hate him. But I'm still gonna get my lawyers on him so he never does that again. I'm famous now. I don't need him." (That’s an idea. Ideas are not a problem for me. Implementing them are.)

But first you have to publish your rhythmic poetry/lyrical prose. I'll eventually give you advice on how you can subtly do that in connection with your blog without adversely affecting your professional image. You'd have already asked me for the advice, but you've had other things on your mind.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

JF - that was a heckuva comment. Be assured that I'm neither the self-image-obsessed type (if I worried about the impact of my writings, I wouldn't be blogging) nor the lawyer-happy type.

Poets may be pretentious but people in any field may be pretentious. It depends on whom one is talking about. Also there's the question of what people mean when they call themselves a poet. People who say they are mathematicians, lawyers, writers, musicians, usually mean they make a living that way. If someone makes their living from poetry, great. If they have other resources and do poetry on the side, it's like calling yourself a gardener because you water your plants in the evening. (I suppose gardening isn't such a desirable-sounding profession, though.)

I don't see why you care about the stamp of "the establishment". Why bother about that, and anyway, what is this "establishment" of which you speak?

I believe in fair use, and your idea of "unauthorised use" is fine with me as long as credit is given to the original. It may or may not be legal without my permission, but I wouldn't sue. Also, parody is fair use in many countries, and doesn't require permission.

Some more thoughts about poetry, especially the "obnoxious" kind. (If any poets are reading this -- Space Bar? -- your thoughts are welcome.)

1. A common rule, in many fields (mathematics, music, sport, whatever) is "you shouldn't break the rules unless you know the rules." Dirac got away with his "delta function" because he knew his math. Though mathematicians initially regarded it as illegitimate, they eventually made it good and rigorous. Modernist composers knew their music thoroughly: Schoenberg or John Cage may sound like noise, but it's not the same as a kid banging away on a piano. It seems to me, though, that many would-be poets do not know the basics of "classical" poetry. Jumping directly into free verse is not a recipe for success.

2. While aiming for popularity is not a great thing, aiming for obscurity isn't, either. Classical music may not have as large an audience as Eminem, but it does need some audience to survive. Only a handful of 20th-century composers are regularly played, which is not healthy. I think the same is true of poetry. People don't dislike poetry: they don't understand the modern stuff, don't want to make the effort, don't think the effort is worth it, and are probably right. Some poets -- eg Robert Frost, some of the "beat poets" -- did become popular anyway, but they were the minority.

Non-poets are entitled to their opinions. As Johnson said, "I can criticise a carpenter who makes me a bad table, though I cannot make a table; it is not my trade to make tables."

3. Rules of form and structure don't constrain creativity: they enhance it. (I came across that in a book on computer programming, but it applies generally.)

4. Where's the fun? As Robert Frost supposedly said, "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down."

Rahul Siddharthan said...

gaddeswarup -- what appeals to an individual is a very individual thing (perhaps I'll come up with my own list .). But a minimal criterion is that it must mean something to the author. (I don't go by the postmodern viewpoint that the author's interpretation doesn't matter). In the case of my own verse, it means nothing to me -- it's just versified prose. So I don't think of it as poetry

km said...

Second, his poems (as read out that day) seemed to lack something

Or, as the Duke put it, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.

I think it's easier to recognize that something which is not poetry. A poem that tries too hard is the easiest one to spot as "not-poetry".

//Are Space Bar and Falstaff reading this post?

Space Bar said...

Space Bar certainly is. And will merely point y'all to more poems that attempt to answer the question(s).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

space bar - thanks. I await JF's reaction.

Here is one of my favourites, by Piet Hein:


There is
one art,
no more,
no less:
to do
all things
with art-

JF said...

It's Sunday night (Monday morning for you), and I'm having to make money. My reaction is slowly brewing right now. It'll have to wait to explode in the morning, or possibly later.

But the poem you left in your last comment is composed of a sentence that's fairly grammatically correct, or is grammatically correct. Therefore, it's capable of being stand-alone prose. And your poem which brought all this about consists of grammatically correct sentences, or reasonably close, which is what allows it to be put it in paragraph form.

Anyway, I've thought a lot about using that style; that is, breaking up complete, grammatically correct sentences into verse, especially when there's no rhyme, but yet the sentences have rhythm, and use colorful language or have good symbolism.

I think doing that helps prevent poetry-type writing from being incomprehensible, and incomprehensible poetry is one type of poetry I don't like, although I don't really understand the one sentence poem you left, unless it means that good art should always be transparent, that it should feel very natural.

I have a question. I think you had a post linking to an Indian musician. I can't find that link. He had longish hair, and I remember the picture on his blog as photo that had been altered to look like a drawing. He might have had a scruffy beard also. Do you know who I'm talking about?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

JF: I agree, abuse of "poetic licence" is annoying, and the great poets wrote poetry almost as if it were very elegant and structured prose.

It's not unknown today either. Consider Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate". It's a novel entirely in sonnets, and while he doesn't use the traditional rhyme scheme and meter, he uses his own form consistently in every single sonnet without exception. And it reads as smoothly as prose. (I like his other poetry too.)

I can't think what musician I'm referring to. The only one of my acquaintance whom I remember mentioning on the blog is Madhav Chari, who doesn't have long hair (and I don't think I supplied a picture). I have mentioned several well-known musicians whom I don't know personally but I don't think you are talking about them.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

JF - ps. Are you thinking about this guy? He seems to be an amateur musician of some sort, and I have linked to him before, but I don't know him.

pps. I think the Piet Hein poem is about simplicity/honesty in doing everything, not just art. But I think a poem's meaning should not be totally clear and transparent, or susceptible to only one interpretation. Nor should it be totally obscure and meaningless. It should basically make you think a bit, but there should be something there to think about. A lot of modern poems are in the "emperor has no clothes" category.

Falstaff said...

Are Space Bar and Falstaff reading this post?

You called? Since SB's already cornered the poems about poetry market, I shall content myself by pointing to Clive James' recent essay in Poetry, which makes several apposite points, even if it does make some very sexist comments about women poets and end by unfairly vilifying WCW.

The other question to ask, of course, is why does whether something is 'poetry' or not matter? You either find a text engaging or you don't. The whole "yes, but is it poetry?" question is a bit of a red herring.

Oh, and on prose poems, see also - The Prose Poem.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Falstaff: interesting links, both. But are bizarre imagery and strange metaphors a requirement for poetry? (Perhaps James answers that, I haven't fully read it: will do that later tonight.)

I like Shakespeare's sonnet 130.

Falstaff said...

Rahul: James does answer that, in a way, though his answer - "A poem can do without satisfying that demand, but it had better have plenty of other qualities to make up for the omission" - strikes me as a little extreme (but then, I suspect James is trying very hard to be provocative). The more interesting observation in James' piece, to me, is:

"All the dull poetry that was ever praised for its technique is effectively no longer in existence. Churned out by hundreds of poets, published in thousands of volumes, there was a whole stretch of correctly genteel English poetry composed in the British Empire from the late Victorian era onward until the Georgians were invaded by Modernism. It was fully matched by an American equivalent that was far less influenced by Whitman than we might retrospectively wish. All of it—comprising millions of lines impeccably turned—is gone as if it had never been"

The point, I think, is that a good poem needs something unexpected - a startling image or metaphor, an interesting play on words, technical innovation - to lift it beyond 'verse' into poetry. In the absence of that spark what you get is, at best, bland verse (think Swinburne) or at worst, the kind of silly doggerel that Sibal has the gall to call poetry.

(Personally, I find the extracts from Sibal's collection excruciating. The language is banal, the voice artificial, the rhyme choices uninteresting, the lines tone deaf and the ideas trite. This is the kind of 'poetry' one dreads receiving as editor of one's school magazine, and then summarily rejects.)

Finally, the point of "Thrush's eggs look like low little heavens" isn't that its bizarre or strange, on the contrary, the point is precisely that it's vivid but entirely natural; you or I would never have put it that way, but you have only to read it the first time to see how right it is. It's that shock of revelation, the text's ability to make us see the world more clearly and in more interesting ways, that makes for good poetry.

Space Bar said...

falsie: thanks for the reminder - i haven't yet read this month's issue of poetry.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Falstaff - not convinced. Of course I can't comment on forgotten poems, and I agree (as I did above) that form and structure are the easy part. Though my Sibal-review was bumpy in both meter and rhyme, I could do verse that is perfect in both respects if I tried. But it would appeal neither to me nor to anyone else.

But as for imagery and metaphor -- none of the memorable lines I can think of offhand do that. Say, "They also serve who only stand and wait". All of "Ozymandias". Or "Do not go gentle into that good night". What metaphor there is -- dying is like night, eyes blazing like meteors -- is rather ordinary. It is the phrasing that is memorable. I must say the "thrush eggs like low little heavens" left me unmoved, but I suppose I'm not capable of reading poetry.

The question is will this sort of thing be remembered in 100 years -- and we are not really capable of answering that in the thrush-eggs example, but if much formulaic 19th-century verse has been consigned to the dustbin of history, so has much modernist/surrealist/absurdist 20th-century verse. Only the best survive.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ps - Of the examples Space Bar gives of memorable modern lines, none rely on unusual metaphor or imagery.

Falstaff said...

Rahul: Actually, in the case of 'little low heavens' we can answer the question - will these lines survive a hundred years after they are written, because they have.

And again, I'm not saying you need metaphor or imagery, I'm saying you need something unexpected. Take the Kolatkar that SB quotes - a) the idea of a tree 'arriving' is surprising (we usually think of trees as standing still); b) the idea of a tree 'accounting' for its leaves is unexpected yet, when you think about it, entirely apt. The Mahapatra uses the contrast between 'moves' and 'comes' to create a sense of surprise that then resolves itself - when you think about it - into a perfectly logical statement. The Chattarji takes you up to 1800 F (which is surprising in itself), and then startles you by discussing loss - which is unexpected because it sets up a contrast between a factual, quasi-scientific statement and something more meditative (your expectation is that 'at 1800 F' will be followed by a factual statement about, say, some element boiling, etc.) - if that isn't a bizarre speculation I don't know what is. I'm not sure the Gopal works out of context, but in context it's surprising because it comes at the end of an imagined meeting between the narrator and her mother, so that the "I could draw blood" line is a shock.

A similar principle applies to the lines you quote. 'They also serve' works precisely because we tend to think of standing and waiting as being a form of idleness, so that being told the opposite focuses our attention; 'do not go gentle' works as a poem because it goes against the usual celebration of a quiet death - a celebration captured by that lovely inclusion of 'good' without which the line would be totally devoid of tension (try it: "do not go gentle into that night" - see?).

I'm not sure where you've got the idea that I'm claiming that all good poetry must be built on imagery / metaphor - I've never said anything of the sort, though I do think a great deal of good poetry is. More generally, I think most good poetry is built on innovation and surprise, on the avoidance of the cliche (which, of course, is a cliche itself), of which the use of language in interesting / unusual ways is an important subset.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Falstaff -
Actually, in the case of 'little low heavens' we can answer the question - will these lines survive a hundred years after they are written, because they have.

Ah, my ignorance shows.

I wasn't accusing you of insisting on weird imagery/metaphor. But Clive James seemed to be insisting on it, on my reading 1/3 of the article and skimming the rest, and the "prose poem" had nothing else to commend it that I could see.

Yes, the element of surprise and the avoidance of cliches (avoid them like the plague, I say) is important in good poetry. It is also important in good prose, and good writing in general. There are two ways to avoid cliches: invent your own metaphors, or avoid metaphors. The latter is fine by me.

Falstaff said...

ps. Oh, and since you like the Hoskote - that works, I think, because of the absurdity and consequent pathos of a poet of Ghalib's stature running out of paper. This is not a problem one is likely to ever have considered, so that reading it in the poem startles us into emotion.

pps. And come to think of it, "What metaphor there is -- dying is like night, eyes blazing like meteors -- is rather ordinary. It is the phrasing that is memorable" is entirely true of 'little low heavens' as well. Hopkins could just as easily have said "Thrush's eggs are sky blue" and the sense would have been more or less the same, but I doubt we would be celebrating Hopkins a century later if he'd put it that way.

Falstaff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Falstaff said...

sorry, didn't see your last comment before I posted mine.

So we're clear then. As an aside though, I would argue the McGrath has more going for it than metaphor. It also has some lovely phrasing - 'shallow swale', 'wind-sewn cornstalks poking up their shaggy ears', beauty 'ramshackle and unexpected'.

And to be fair to James, his central argument is actually for the use of technical innovation. As he puts it:

"the idea that a poem can be made poetic by its structure alone is open to question, at the very least. I would still like to contend, however, that any poem which comes to exist without having first been built might be destined for the same pit of oblivion that all the well-wrought dross went into"

So he's actually arguing not so much for metaphor as for the use of meter and sound - 'the way things are written' - and raising the possibility, at least, that a good poem could be built purely on structure without any metaphor / observations at all.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

So we mostly agree. But I should read the James in full. (I write faster than I read, sometimes.)

About the Dylan Thomas, my theory is this: he was writing in pentameter, so "do not go gentle into that night" doesn't work. What do you add, then? Well, "good night" is such a banal phrase, but is, as you would say, startling in this context. Also, it provides a contrast with the "do not go gentle" message.

"Do not go gentle into the twilight" would have satisfied the meter, and is what I may have written, which is why I'm not Dylan Thomas.

Falstaff said...

Rahul: Yes, exactly. There are dozens of one syllable adjectives Thomas could have used to complete the pentameter (dark, gray, etc.) but he chooses good - thus setting up the contrast with the 'do not go gentle' (if the night is good, why should we not go gentle into it?). There is, of course, more than surprise to the line - there's the age-old contradiction between believing that Death is a kind, peaceful state ("from rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be / much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow"), and wanting to keep our loved ones alive for as long as possible, a contradiction that Thomas miraculously captures in a single line, which is why he's such a memorable poet.

JF said...

Rahul, that's the link to the guy I was looking for. Thanks.

[I see that the number of comments has increased from 13 to 22 in the time that I was composing this comment, so I don't know what I missed that's pertinent to what I'm saying here. I've enjoyed it Rahul, but adios amigos. Like I've said, blogs mess me up with respect to the time I have available, especially when I start commenting on posts, although I'll add a few of your poet friends to my blog list.]

Back to me, me, me and my extremely important ideas

I've decided that this comment of mine, and probably most arguments about poetry, should fall under the category "skilled art vs. unskilled art."

Also, I've decided that there are two other factors which will color a person's perspective on poetry: "good vs. bad experience with poetry" and the role of poetry in one's culture.

First commenting on your comments

It looks to me that we basically have many of the same likes and dislikes. One part of what hit stuck with me in your poem was this:

No modern verse here:
his metre is clear
and he's meticulous with his rhymes.

Basically, this is half of my "bad experience" with poetry. The other half is "totally incomprehensible" (as opposed to "tastefully obscure or tastefully cryptic.")

The above stanza also gave me the impression that you've studied a significant amount of poetry mechanics, like meter. (I haven't. I've read about two pages on meter. Iambic pentameter: that's about all I remember, meaning merely the vocabulary.)

But both of us being technically minded is probably a big part of what influences our preferences. Math and physics is about structure and non-arbitrariness, although randomness comes into play.

This also hit with me:

But though it's form-perfect,
I feel, with regret,
a lack of a deeper emotion.

The rhythms may groove,
but poems that move
you are more than just phonemes in motion.

But that's really a complaint about content rather than form, and my "obnoxious ideas" in these comments is really about form. As I'll elaborate on below, if a composition doesn't take any more skill to write than prose, then don't call it poetry, because poetry, unlike the general category of prose (where some types of poetry could be categorized as prose), is an art form more in the category of music, painting, drawing, theater, and film. If someone takes on the label “poet”, they're claiming to be a different type (stronger type?) of artist than someone who says, “I'm a writer.” “Poet” has a different status than “writer.”

The poetry establishment: my rejection of their stamp of approval of who should be considered “great poet”

Of course these are my opinions, but I've decided that the poetry establishment, which I suppose should include communities of people heavily involved with writing poetry, is not something I should look to as the definitive guide to who the great poets are, what great poetry is, and what bad poetry is. You asked who I consider the poetry establishment to be. Yesterday, I considered it to be academia and professional publishers. Today, I'm including “poetry societies.”

There's always something I could learn from anyone who's in the poetry establishment, but Walt Whitman represents all things bogus about poetry presumptuousness and represents people taking on the poet label when they've shown no skill beyond the skill required for general prose. When I see that my Norton Anthology of American Literature gives Walt Whitman more than 100 out of about 1000 pages, then that convinces me it's time for me to start coming up with my own criteria for what poetry should be. (At least, what poetry should be most of the time. In connection with what you say about rules, sometimes a person is going to get bored and want to break all the rules, possibly just to be a rebel.)

On the other hand, I can see that prose can't completely describe what Whitman does, but...(insert some profound, insightful comment to be remembered for ages to come).

Unskilled vs. skilled art

falstaff says: The other question to ask, of course, is why does whether something is 'poetry' or not matter? You either find a text engaging or you don't. The whole "yes, but is it poetry?" question is a bit of a red herring.

One type of argument I almost always dislike is a “what is art” argument. I try to have a very general definition of art, and my definition of art is basically “an act of creativity.” I think that, generally, when someone says, “It's not art,” they're really saying, “It's not skilled art.”

But what's unskilled art or skilled art is completely subjective, and where I would argue that paint thrown on a canvas is unskilled art, after hours of arguing, after I came to my senses, I'd finally concede and say, “Okay, whatever, it's all subjective.”

However, my complaints about Walt Whitman type poetry is a technical argument. Basically, if two forms of communication deserve different, non-synonymous labels, then according to my reasoning, they should require different skill sets, or at least one skill set should be a subset of the other.

Okay, but subjective opinion has to be given some latitude even when talking about form, so it could be that all this again starts to fall under skilled vs. unskilled art. But key in all of this is “skill set being used.” It's obvious to me that the skill set that Walt Whitman uses for his poetry is not significantly different than prose.

I think two words could describe the essence of traditional, old-style poetry: repetition and structure. Rhyme, meter, stanza length, verse length, these are all repetition of some form that puts structure of some type on a poem. And that's significant because these types of repetition and structure are more constraining than the repetition and structure that prose generally requires, and “more constraining” generally means “more difficult”, especially with epic length poems.

Def Jam Poetry type presumptuousness

Okay, all this all ties into that obnoxious pet peeve of mine, “presumptuous wannabe intellectual artists.”

I watched a video on Youtube, and not that I know much about Def Jam Poetry (a poetry competition that was broadcast from New York?), but I'd think, like Walt Whitman, it's representative of this “Look, I'm a poet, and poetry is the most cerebral and intellectual art form, aren't you impressed?” The reason I think it's representative is because the guy went on for quite a long time, and by all appearances it was Walt Whitman type verse (although you can't really tell when it's spoken rather an than read).

So to me, because they label all this as poetry, rather than creative prose, it's like they're saying, “Hi, I'm a poet. And did you notice how long my poem was? That's right, it's epic length, which shows I'm a stud poet. Did I forget to mention that I write epic length poetry. I bet you've never written an epic length poet. Aren't you impressed?”

And in my imaginary conversation, I say, “Well, actually, no, I'm not impressed. The fact is, the restrictions that put on your poems aren't much different than the restrictions that I put on an essay. For the most part, the only difference between your poem and a colorful essay is you hit the return key more often. And if I didn't have restrictions for what I consider poetry, and I considered poetry a performance art where I could use the dynamics of my voice to obscure any lack of skill on my part to write poetry with structure and repetition, with a little work, I could turn any 3000 word essay of mine into a poem.”


Enough of this stuff, other than a note about poetry in one's culture. As a popular culture, here poetry is dead. It might be different there, but here, music and movies rule as populars forms of entertainment and social activity. Everyone and his brother wants to be a rock star, a pop star, a rapper, or a movie star, so the supply for the demand of these forms of art is met. And music with lyrics captures most of what poetry is, so other than the occasional poetry club in a big city, poetry is the domain of academia here.

I say that because if poetry had been more a part of the culture I've been raised in, my “good experience” would have been better. I've started to tolerate poetry more, but it's taken a while, and if I had been immersed in it, especially as a performance art, I might have ended up more tolerant of unstructured poetry.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

falstaff - ps. Thanks for the detailed commentaries on all the examples.

JF - will respond tomorrow, if need be.

Rachel Fox said...

You say 'writing lines that rhyme and (more or less) scan is easy' but I'm not sure I agree... or at least I think that writing such lines but making them interesting/clever/insightful/playful/properly funny etc. is not that easy.
Personally I love writing in rhyme (of all different types...the more and the less obvious) and partly I enjoy it because it is not what the majority of 'serious' poets are up to just now (running with crowd=bad).
But some people just think I'm crap no doubt!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

or at least I think that writing such lines but making them interesting/clever/insightful/playful/properly funny etc. is not that easy

Yes of course. I didn't mean those things were easy.

Rachel Fox said...

Oh well, that's alright then.

equivocal said...

Rahul, if you were willing to give 20th century poetry a little more time and patience, I wonder if you might feel differently about Kapil Sibal's poetry: to make a musical comparison, Kenny G is not jazz!

So, if you'll permit me a rant, I'd just like to echo a point of Falstaff's that can't be overstated enough, in these times: Kapil Sibal's poems are execrable. Shit. He sometimes manages mildly entertaining verse that promotes his political agenda, but it's really no better or capable or insightful or entertaining than what thousands of ordinary people on places like "" are writing. Why should we give a damn about his "poems" just because he's minister of state and a celebrity? It's disgusting that Sibal's book of verse should be reviewed in all the major newspapers as if it were poetry when some of the country's senior poets, with two or more books already behind them, can't even find a major publisher. How many serious book review pages in major US newspapers review Jimmy Carter's or Paris Hilton's books of poems? Can you imagine something like this happening in Ireland or Poland, places where even lay readers know their poetry and will not consent to being duped? And it speaks not only of innocent ignorance of poetry but also sycophancy, corruption, deep cynicism on the part of publishers and editors.

You are right: anybody can rhyme adequately with a little practice, although only very very few poets (even among great poets) can produce great rhymes. As for meter, anybody can also do that with a little practice and attentive hearing, but as it happens: Sibal's useless at it. He's unable to muster any control over English meter for more than two lines at a stretch, so I'm guessing that when he does do it, he does it by accident.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

equivocal -- as I think I made clear, I liked some of the brief snippets in Tehelka, but not what he read out at the shop. I would not have considered the Tehelka snippets serious poetry but I found them quite adequately amusing light verse -- though perhaps made more remarkable for the fact that a politician was writing them. Of course, he can't keep it up for a whole book and Tehelka probably published the best bits. Plus it turns out he didn't intend it to be light verse.

Complaining that he can get published and serious poets can't is like complaining that Kenny G can get a major label to publish his CDs and Mulgrew Miller can't. Publishers go by what sells, even if it's "execrable".

I haven't read all the newspapers, but here's a reviewer who doesn't think Sibal's stuff is poetry (and makes that painfully clear in the first paragraph).

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...

Dis anyone catch this?