I mean, sometimes I know why I write individual poems; more often than not, the making of a poem is a mystery to me – I don’t know where it comes from or how the ‘I’ that I know in everyday life made it.
How does one read a poem?
As for reading it, I can examine strategies I use from poem to poem, but the truth is I really don’t have a fixed position from which I read poetry. I change, and the way I read poetry changes. All I can do is make provisional claims, contingent on my current state of understanding of the world and myself.
Schools teach us one way of reading poetry. They teach what they call the “greats” and they teach prosody. They want to ‘torture a confession out of it’. Poets seem to agree that this is not a useful way to read poetry; that in fact the poem needs to be experienced more than it needs to be understood, as if it were a living, breathing entity of its own.
Neither approach seems to be a politically neutral way of understanding poetry, but that is something school never explicitly states. If the one insists on a canon consisting of work that is largely European, white and male (and mostly dead) then the other assumes that poetry can exist as if it had no antecedents or bloodlines to people and places and conditions of living or as if it exists in a perfect, indestructible bubble.
But I don’t know. A part of my frequent inability to know how to talk about poetry comes from the knowledge that there is so much of it and that I can never know enough to be able to say anything useful. Why would anyone give me the authority, or I assume it, to say anything about poetry when I know so little of it?
And yet, the poetry world – in some parts of it, they call it the poetry business (or pobiz) which it also is – via its journals and award systems and editors of anthologies, attempts to create canons that shape perceptions of what poetry is and should be, with a amazing degree of sureness.
Discover though curation?
In India in the last decade we have had two huge anthologies of Anglophone poetry, one edited by Jeet Thayil and the other by Sudeep Sen. We know, living where we do, that there is a great deal of poetry being written, not just in English but in every modern Indian language. One can hardly keep up with the variety and wealth of it. Yet, if you visit Poetry magazine – to take one example – and look for the work of poets from India, it can’t but escape your notice that there’s very little of it.
Despite knowing that this imbalance exists, chances are that we take our cues about reading poetry – what is worth reading, how to recognise it when one hears it, what the cultural and political arguments about poetry are – from people whose own knowledge of poetry is demonstrably incomplete.
The fact is that it will never be possible to know enough about the context in which individual poetries are born. Nor is every reader interested in acquiring that degree of knowledge before reading poetry. For many, the poem itself is sufficient.
For me the work that poetry does is both inward and outward. It is possible to read a poem and form a relationship with its words as it speaks to my personhood. With time and re-readings, it also works outwards, makes me ask in what ways I and the poem are ‘caught up in the flurry of the world’.
I can keep a record of what I read and how. And sometimes, that informal, journal-like response to poetry, my enthusiasm for and difficulty with it is all I have to offer as gyan.
Sridala Swami's second collection of poetry, Escape Artist, was published by Aleph Book Co. in 2014. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and blogs at The Spaniard in the Works.