On struggling with poems, language and culture

Last night I was thinking of the murderous Hindi tests that included a viva voce. Which meant that Hindi poems had to be recited by rote. Some of the poems were a blasted 30 stanzas long. The teacher would recite the first line of any stanza and you have to supply the remaining lines. The one that slayed me to bits was “Jhansi Ki Rani“. Poetry suddenly becomes a chore.

The introduction to poetry in English was no better. Lines written by white men already tumbling in their graves. Perhaps it is thanks to some like poets like Oscar Wilde that I found some stuff to read that I could actually appreciate and like. While like a lot of precocious kids I wrote broken prose and passed it off as poetry and laboriously found words to rhyme and finish dratted pieces of work on trees and birds, my first rush of blood to the head when it came to poetry had to be reading Pablo Neruda. (In retro, I’ve found that I find it easier to relate to fiction/ poetry translated from South Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America closest to heart.)

Some of my readers tell me that they switch off when I write poetry. Something to the tune of “I have never really understood/ liked poetry.”. I always like to probe that line of thought a little further. Is it that the person doesn’t like poetry per se, or poems written in English. Quite often it is the latter. As a person I find it close to impossible that someone cannot like poetry at all. From rhymes that tickle us, lyrics in film music and fond lullabies, everything is poetry really.

Then is it that our Education system (or at least the one that swallowed me whole) slapped poems on us that we don’t relate to emotionally or culturally? The motifs, the symbols and the rituals – none of them seem to evoke metaphors from our daily lives. For instance, when I first read Daffodils, it didn’t do much for me. I didn’t know what a Daffodil looked like. The flowers I know from my childhood are different. Marigold and jasmine are what bloomed in my yard.

I wish my English reader in school had more poems by AK Ramanujan, Ezekiel and the like. Perhaps then in young readers’ minds, poetry would have found more resonance. The poem could have then spoken to us, instead of us having to memorize it, comma for comma and struggling with the summary. Poetry doesn’t have to be a culturally insular experience, but it has to start at a point when we don’t struggle with its meaning or meaninglessness.

On that note, a lovely poem called A River by Ramanujan (on Madurai) can be read here. And Ezekiel’s The Patriot. Before this post ends, I give you The Professor. In all fairness, there is this whole mocking of Indian English, and I am not very fond of him as a poet but well…

The Professor – Nissim Ezekiel

Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good.
My wife died some years back.
By God’s grace, all my children
Are well settled in life.
One is Sales Manager,
One is Bank Manager,
Both have cars.
Other also doing well, though not so well.
Every family must have black sheep.
Sarala and Tarala are married,
Their husbands are very nice boys.
You won’t believe but I have eleven grandchildren.
How many issues you have? Three?
That is good. These are days of family planning.
I am not against. We have to change with times.
Whole world is changing. In India also
We are keeping up. Our progress is progressing.
Old values are going, new values are coming.
Everything is happening with leaps and bounds.
I am going out rarely, now and then
Only, this is price of old age
But my health is O.K. Usual aches and pains.
No diabetes, no blood pressure, no heart attack.
This is because of sound habits in youth.
How is your health keeping?
Nicely? I am happy for that.
This year I am sixty-nine
and hope to score a century.
You were so thin, like stick,
Now you are man of weight and consequence.
That is good joke.
If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house’s backside.

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0 Responses to On struggling with poems, language and culture

  1. km says:

    You should ask a 9th grader to write a “bhavarth” on your lovely Karela poem. I don’t know if you saw my comment on that post…

    I think a textbook needs both traditional poetry (including the 30-verse poets – Coleridge, Tennyson et al) and modern poetry (just remembered – a Class X english textbook that my uncle helped compile included both Edward Arlington Robinson’s poem on Richard Cory and the lyric by Paul Simon.)

    Can a kid respond to poetry if the poetry isn’t already in him or her?

    And why isn’t Gulzar in our textbooks?


  2. sowmya says:

    For a long time I thought poetry needs to be taught by a teacher. I still haven’t gotten over that. I keep reading your poems and like some of them, some I don’t get. But I am always in awe of people that can write poems. I am going to dig up some old poetry books and read them again. Maybe as an adults, who doesn;t have to recite by rote or give exams, I might enjoy them.

    BTW am reading ‘White Mughals’ – pretty interesting to history from a non text book.


  3. Falstaff says:

    Ah, a subject after my own heart. I could go on and on about how criminal it is to foist Wordsworth on anyone, let alone on unsuspecting fourth graders.

    Having said that, I’m not sure I agree about poems by dead white men written in English being inaccessible. Of all the poems I was made to read in school, the two that made a real impression on me were Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. The latter sparked off a long and passionate teenage love affair with the Romantics – for the longest time Keats was my favourite poet. Plus I’ve always enjoyed Pope.

    Also, I think there’s a lot one could do with picking more contemporary poets writing in English. I’d love to see a syllabus that included Nikki Giovanni, Billy Collins, Frank O’Hara or Raymond Carver. I think the thing that ends up getting missed in the way we teach poetry is the joy of it – the way poetry is just a different mode of expression and doesn’t always have to be profound or obscure. There’ve been so many times when I’ve read a poem out aloud to someone and they’ve said, “Wait! I understood that. I don’t get poetry, but I actually understood that.”

    See, I told you I could go on and on about this. You know who says it best though? Marianne Moore:



  4. max says:

    its true. some of us simply cannot appreciate poetry, and i believe i have told this before. but as u pointed out even film songs are ultimately poems and they do touch a chord somewhere. i really dont know if its the English language then. or is it the music with the lyrics? i did try reading up a few in the hope that reading might help me overcome this block i have, but the brain simply switches off.

    reminds me of a phrase in an old movie… “is this a disease doctor?”


  5. milosz says:

    neha, i would like to believe you are writing the new akananooru, and look forward to your poems and hope they number four hundred soon.

    but not really sure about poems being “taught” in school. As someone said, you shouldnt let your schooling interfere with your education.

    Maybe the best response to those who dont “get” poetry is already in Borges – Matthew 25:30



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  7. witnwisdumb says:

    I don’t believe poetry has to be from one’s own culture in order for it to be appreciated. When I first came across Daffodils, I hadn’t ever seen one in real life either. But the person who taught me the poem made all the difference – I still vividly remember each and every poem taught by that teacher, as opposed to poems taught by other teachers. It all depends on how well the teacher can share poetry.

    While on the subject, I seriously just can’t understand how somebody can find stuff like ‘The Professor’ to be moving poetry. What makes poetry poetry? Random line breaks and capitalization?

    In that case
    Even this
    Should be considered poetry
    Or perhaps
    I should add a couple
    Of lines where the meaning is obscured

    In my opinion, poetry should have meter and rhyme. There seems to be a fad for free verse, and a sort of disdain towards poetry that observes meter and rhyme scheme (quite like teenage guys who turn their noses up in disgust about pop music, and the only ‘cool’ music is death metal, which sounds like an electrocuted guy screaming convulsively while onlookers thrash steel objects). The attitude seems to be that the only ‘good’ poems are the ones which run randomly, and preferrably have their meaning deliberately obscured. And that poetry with rhyme is childish.

    Hmm. I come across a bit too intense. Sorry. Just airing my opinions. 😛


  8. Shivam says:

    Completely agree with you. But this cultural issue is kinda the same as the Karnataka government’s desire to rename Bangalore as Bengaluru. I’m not judging either. I’m just point out that the same people who will oppose the renaming of our cities for cultural reasons can write reasonable posts like this one on why cultural contexts matter.

    About The Patriot and The Professor, there are 6 more poems in this series, two of them being The Railway Clerk (the most touching one) and Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa TS (taught in schools and colleges all over the country – the only time they so much as enter the language debate). If you read all eight you wonder if he is indeed mocking Indian English or saying that people should be allowed to express themselvs in their words without being judged.


  9. reshma says:

    witnwisdumb…me too! I read the professor…and wondered the same. I thought perhaps i am missing something innately beautiful about this whole piece of writing that others can see…or perhaps the last line would be so soul stirring that it would make the reading worthwhile. neither of that happened.

    I have also struggled to understand free verse. I reconciled myself into thinking just like some forms of art – that are purely interpretative – and do not overtly aesthetic, free verse is a powerful expression of the poet strung into words.

    the problem with school poetry is as much with the alien metaphors as it is with the system of rote learning. alien metaphors are so true for poetry that reflected realities of another age. Why high school poetry…even nursery rhymes are just re-cycled year after year. Else why would you want 5 and 6 year olds singing rhymes like ring – a – ring of roses that had references to the plague. i spent a good few years in school trying to figure out what do they mean when they say ‘husha busha – they all fall down’. Rock a bye baby is another one of those! It just sounds so out rightly mean…

    Rock-a-bye, baby / In the treetop / When the wind blows / The cradle will rock
    When the bough breaks / The cradle will fall / And down will come baby Cradle and all

    Why would anyone want to make a sleeping baby from a cradle is beyond me ! And how difficult is it to get people to write new and more meaningful nursery rhymes ?

    Thanks neha for writing about this…i suppose it is one thing where everyone has angst to vent out 🙂


  10. km: I agree. Both sorts are required. I just wish there was more of work by Indian poets. Oh yes, Gulzar in textbooks – I’d like that! 🙂

    sowmya: That’s another thing. It’s a shame History is taught the way it is in schools – I just picked up The Last Mughal by W Dalrymple – it’s such an engrossing and lively way to communicate what could have happened in the past…

    Falstaff: I agree – Dead White Male poetry isn’t inaccessible. But the selection in our English Readers is almost poor. Perhaps unchanged over the last twenty years.

    max: My mind switches off quite rapidly too. I have to force myself – and sometimes I find myself deeper in a poem only when I forget that it is a poem and read it – almost out loud..

    milosz: But not every can access poetry isn’t it? We can hope that schooling doesn’t interfere with Education – but not everyone has a library around the corner – and unless the poetry doesn’t pique you a little – you may not even want to go down that road.

    witnwisdumb: I am no one to judge what is poetry and what isn’t. We have our preferences. What appeals to me may not to appeal to you. The Professor is an interesting poem – and while I may not find it moving, I find it interesting. While we may not share an opinion on poetry per se – surely it isn’t out of question to be more inclusive in the selection in English Readers?

    Shivam: I do not insist that children only read culturally relevant poetry – but in a way it provides for smoother introduction. The question of names is not the same – and while they both touch the aspects of culture – it cannot be a band-aid brigade. I do not oppose the renaming of cities on the basis of culture – I merely oppose it without some instrument of consent being applied.

    I have never been able to make my mind about Ezekiel. There is a faint element of mockery – but then I have to question myself – why do I think of it as mockery in the first place…

    reshma: Actually my reaction to The Professor was a bit different. I didn’t find it funny. I found it sad in the bitter way that old-age and loneliness manifest themselves sometimes. Poetry, art – are both interpretative in nature as you point out – sometimes they hit us – at other times they don’t. Sometimes we pay more attention to a poem because they are by a certain poet and we are willing to put in that effort. I read some very interesting rhymes in English that turn around the basic rhyme to something else – like poems about wanting more rain, rather than hoping that it doesn’t!


  11. Shivam says:

    The point about consent is well taken when it comes to renaming cities, but consent is implied through the ballot box 🙂


  12. witnwisdumb says:

    Reshma: Wow, this was exactly what a friend of mine had pointed out to me too. I had never noticed how so many children’s rhymes have morbid elements in them. Jack breaking his crown, Engine driver breaking piggy’s bones… Wonder why they evolved along those lines.

    Neha: Heh, sorry that did come across as very judgemental. What I was trying to know, was whether anybody can fill me in on what exactly it is that I’m being blind to when I don’t appreciate free verse. Like I’d asked an artist about abstract art.

    I was told that there are many works which do depict things that are supposed to make one stop and ponder. The most simple and popular example, is a painting of a banana eating a monkey. The sketchy and vague quality of the paintings is supposed to cater to the viewer’s imagination, giving it room to run free.

    However, in the mêlée, like everything else, abstract art too has been very commercialized, and there are a lot of pretenders in the field. The problem starts when paintings stop resembling paintings, and look more like Rorschach ink blot tests.

    Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there may be plenty of people who find abstract art to be the most masterful creations. But my problem is when people start pretending that such art has universal appeal, and that those who do not see what it is all about are some sort of savants.

    The same is true of poetry. What a poem may mean to one person, it may not mean the same to another – especially in cases where meaning is so obscure, it’s anybody’s guess what the poet intended to signify – or even whether s/he intended anything at all. That is another major problem with the Indian education system.

    Students are asked questions about poetry, and are supposed to answer those questions with what they have been told, not what they really think it means. Naturally, if a body reads a poem and thinks, ‘oh how marvellous, this is what it means’, only to be told that what s/he understood is completely wrong and not the meaning at all – s/he will be puzzled and ticked off.


  13. Ravages says:

    Poetry is prose on steroids. Simple enough, ain’t it?


  14. artismarti says:

    Neha, you are a very talented poet. Simple and eloquent.


  15. Vidya says:

    Interesting, I guess it varies with each person.It is only today after several kazhudai years that I am able to appreciate A.K.Ramanujan.The first Ezkiel poem was a morbid one that began with some hospital smell entering nostrils..On the other hand, I was able to relate to Wordsworth not because of cultural familiarity with Daffodils but because of an inherent metrical strucrture in the poem.When you read aloud it almosts sounds like one of the chandakkavidhais in Tamil.

    It is for the same reason, that I am never able to memorize any newer genre of Tamil poetry whereas I can reel off the Vasanta Saundari playing ball poem or another which mimics the mettu of monkeys jumping across the trees etc that I learnt in Grade 6 even now.Some of us relate to the music and structure, and some to content,context and interpretations I guess. (huh loong comment)


  16. Pramod says:

    Thanks for introducing me to the poems of A.K.Ramanujan and Ezkiel. I thoroughly enjoyed, reading both of them. Just recently, I have started appreciating poetry, and have enjoyed reading Tagore, Rumi and Pablo Neruda. There are points in life, when every person stops to ‘think and ponder’ and maybe this is something which should be encouraged by our educational system.