What is poetry? School led us to believe that it was a rhythmic thing. Songwriters still think so. But poets see it differently. Poetry explores new ways of expressing ideas. It puts vague feelings into words. There is no need for heroes or villains to distinguish good from evil. A good poem, in fact, reveals its secrets slowly, over multiple readings, providing interpretations long after you’ve turned the page.
Poems record history, illuminate revolutions, tear you apart and put you back together again. For this issue of Brunch, we asked poets from across India to compose about new beginnings. Virat Nehru’s works, in Urdu, help him connect with his roots. Janice Pariyat’s poems are blueprints of modern day love, loss and life Akhil Katyal’s poems posted online bring a sense of stability to everyday emotions. Akhila Mohan CG’s haikus are almost a form of therapy. Get a little poetry for your weekend here:
Sestina for new journeys
By Janice Pariat
In the new month, early in the morning,
Colonist and you go ashore;
Now we have to leave the river and walk
and a small boat behind.
You are here to inquire after a guide,
A native Laplander. But an empty search
Hot, you go to another – also empty,
About a mile away, looks like grief
Unseen death. But you can find a guide
Half a mile ahead? The third hut, near the shore?
You meet with little success. sit back
Here, send your companion, upriver,
In the fourth, when you look at the river,
Blue and filled with empty ends
the sky At your feet, great stones; behind
You, scattered tall cedar trees, fresh morning
Frost, when you wait alone on the shore –
But where do you want to be directed?
No one returned, neither the colonists nor the guides,
And should be decided by the river
Even if you go far from shore
Or wait. How can it be empty?
Night or morning is not a soul,
Water in front, forest behind;
Although the directions—forward, backward—
matter? unaccompanied, directionless,
Your way is fresh and free as the morning;
You can sail a boat across a river
And walk light and empty-handed.
But not you, clinging to the edge,
Because all roads can be taken from shore.
You can hear the redwing call in the background
you Are you tempted by empty roads?
Of past travelers? You will play the guide
yourself? You stood silently by the river
Know that soon you will see the morning
Light itself empty, the water flows from the shore,
Grieving for the time was now left far behind.
Perhaps the only guide is the river.
Meet the poet
39-year-old Janice Pariyat lives in Shillong. His first book, Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories (2012), brought him instant fame. She has deeply handled sensitive topics like love, trauma, healing, self-care, growing up and grief. Her most recent work, Everything the Light Touches, a novel, combines prose and poetry.
“Poetry still does what poetry has always done, helps us think about the world in new and startling ways, captivates with love, shapes grief and loss,” Pariyat says. “It gives voice to opposition and provides resistance and community.”
She says that poetry, like everything else, has sometimes been literally reshaped by social media. The square or portrait mode of an Instagram post affects how the poet breaks up his lines or plays with form. “A lot of people think that social media has neglected poetry, which I’m not sure is true,” she says. “There’s always bad poetry and good poetry, it just feels like it’s somehow more visible.”
Today, poets are allowed to write in blank and blank verse. There is also a welcome resurgence of poets using formal structures (rhymes, couplets, sonnets) but also in informal, everyday language. “So, there’s a delicious tension between contemporary, almost colloquial language that works in very strict metrical verse and rhyme schemes.”
On his reading list: Jeet Thayal, Tishani Doshi, Kinpham Singh Nongkinreeh, Robin Nangom, Srikanth Varma, Vijay Nambisan, Namdev Dhasal and Mamang Dai.
Ghazal: After you
By Virat Nehru
A broken nest since you were gone;
Look! The dove flies in to make it new once again
Our destinies are thus intertwined;
Whenever your name comes, it follows me
Pain – who can say – who is greater?
A quitter or quitter
Why this wall of propriety and formality, you ask –
Some walls are meant to keep people out, others to keep people in
Sometimes – a sadness – that loneliness awaits this heart for eternity;
Sometimes fear – what if this heart falls for someone again?
Ghazal: After you
By Virat Nehru
Who was drunk after you
Use Bunegi Phir Ek Fakhta Tumhare Ba’ad
Tumhare Naam Ke Aage Nahi Padhi Ferist
Naam Lekha Aayega Tumhare Ba’ad
You are lucky who left first
Ke jahar ho g.i ab-o-hawa tumhara ba’ad
Where did you get this habit of taklufi?
When we read, I said to you
Kabhi ye gam ke ye dil ab kahi lagega nahi
Sometimes this fear takes place
Meet the poet
Virat Nehru, 30, was born in Delhi, grew up in Lucknow, Prayagraj, Meerut and Bhopal and now lives in Sydney, Australia. He turned to poetry, he says, when he was growing up, as a response to bullies. “You want to know what our history is? Read poetry,” he says. “I like to think that clever poets are actually historians. The world around us is in constant flux – how we interact with each other, socio-political issues, the language we speak, surviving epidemics – poetry is witness to all these changes.”
Poetry itself is changing. In India, protest poetry, hip-hop, and spoken word or performance works have emerged as popular genres. “One of the reasons why protest poetry has emerged so strongly in Urdu is because Urdu is seen as a language that is seen as the language of Muslims only,” he says. “That is a dangerous lie.” Varun Grover’s Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhenge was written in 2019 amid protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Aamir Aziz’s fiery Sab Yad Rakh Jayega, 2020 came out of the attack on students at JNU, Delhi.
And the lines between some art forms are blurred, again. “People can no longer tell if a spoken word has lyrical or poetic meaning unless it is accompanied by a guitar!” He said. “I lied about it, but there’s some truth to it. Nobody has time to read poetry. Nobody buys poetry books anymore. Performance poetry, at least, gets bums on the seats. But my goodness, 90% of it is unbearable!
A collection of haikus
By Akhila Mohan CG
my first day
end of age
Koel is relentless
Even its scent
Gets into my skin
full moon night
Fulfill their love
A sparrow on a seal…
Her phone rings
one last time
Meet the poet
Akhila Mohan CG, 36, is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer. She turned to poetry during the pandemic, to process her experiences as a survivor of domestic violence and abortion. Mohan works with haikus, a Japanese form in which a poem consists of three lines, the first with five syllables, the second with seven, and the third with five.
Her first collection, Tamarind: Sweet and Sour Poems About Love, Loss, Longing and Life, was released in 2021. “Haiku isn’t very mainstream, but there’s a lot of experimentation going on in this space,” she says. “Haiku poets are more open to experimenting with their syllabic count and structure. Poets translating English haiku into regional languages is a welcome sign for the form.”
The form seems particularly suited to short attention spans on social media. And haiku clubs and poets abound on Twitter and Instagram. Mohan warns against chasing numbers to value your craft. “The only Instagram poet I follow is Aditya Rahbar, who I’ve recently discovered. I read his works almost every day,” she says. She likes Shloka Shankar, Kala Ramesh and Lee Gurga’s haiku and Kamala Das, Jayant Mohapatra, Urvashi Bahuguna, Jerry Likes poems by Pinto and Ranjit Hoskote.
By Akhil Katyal
Like a rose pressed on paper,
Like an old print,
Like a ticket stub
For the forgotten show.
I always catch it
I am careful
that it does not fall
Pieces in my hand.
You can ask for it.
Meet the poet
Akhil Katyal, 37, published his third book Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue: Delhi Poems in 2020. He also teaches the creative writing master’s program at The School of Culture and Creative Expression, Ambedkar University. But it’s Katyal’s poetry posts on platforms like Instagram that have catapulted her into the limelight in the last few years.
Don’t confuse contemporary poetry with what appears in online feeds, he says. Social media is also promoting names that would otherwise resonate only in college classrooms. “From Langston Hughes to Dorothy Parker, from Mahmood Darvis to Mary Oliver, from Vinod Kumar Shukla to Uday Prakash, profoundly influential poets in their original printed book forms achieved a new trend, a new distributability, if I may say so. Digital, says Katyal. “Their poems are … branched out into new contexts, read by new readers, they jump through hoops and reach places.”
Katyal is drawn to poets like Naomi Sihab Nye, Ruth Padel and Agha Shahid Ali. He started writing poetry while studying in Lucknow. He began sharing his work on Facebook in the late 2000s and enjoyed the smooth interface the platform allowed. “It allowed me to say things that other genres wouldn’t allow,” he says. He also posted poems on Twitter, but found his niche on Instagram.
A persuasive poem, he says, will create its own magic circle, no matter where it is being read. “Until we replace the library with a digital one, until we can keep both of those types of reading and thinking alive and coexisting, I think there’s no reason to just look at the past or put it away,” he said.
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From HT Brunch, May 20, 2023
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