USES OF POETRY

If the Internet and social media have not destroyed poetry, then why all the criticism?

The way people consume poetry is changing and that’s both good and bad.

From rare yellowing anthologies waiting to be discovered in the last aisle of the library to backlit daily Instagram feed, poetry has travelled a long way. Unlike some successful Tumblr and Instapoets, the most celebrated poets of our world cannot claim to have gone “viral”. It fascinates me how the digital world has almost entirely altered how poetry is produced, shared and consumed.

While each one of us millennials has strong opinions on how the internet has ruined/revolutionised parts of our life, we have yielded to its power and played along. Poetry readers are no different. There is a lot to celebrate about poetry on the Internet along with legitimate concerns raised by the alert witnesses of this overhaul. Before sharing my poetry on social media, I wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding by weighing my cynicism about ‘trends’ against my love for poetry itself.

To borrow Neruda’s words, has internet done to poetry what the spring does to the cherry tree? Perhaps, yes. But has the industry been very keen on publishing poetry in the first place? In her note published in 1993 titled “Those Two Shelves Down There,” Adrienne Rich writes about visiting a mall bookstore, to find aisles and aisles of fiction and self-help, before reaching the tiniest corner for poetry. If this wasn’t traumatic enough, this corner also gave refuge to misplaced books from other section. Over two decades later, whenever I visit Crossword, I live through what Rich must have felt.

The lack of published poetry or rather the lack of our willingness to pay for poetry has been a painfully persistent problem of our culture. While the Internet couldn’t change this, it opened up spaces for abundant sharing of poetry, which in the offline world was reserved for an exclusive elite class. Blogging websites empowered many to share their poetry with the world without the approval of a white/savarna/male editor. It has democratised to a good extent, if not entirely, both the writerly and readerly communities.

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If it were not for the phenomenal success of Instapoet Rupi Kaur, there wouldn’t be a lively discussion on the merits and threats of “pop” poetry. Several poet bloggers like Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, and Nikita Gill subsequently got published in print as well. Personally, finding the poetry of Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, Harnidh Kaur has been a joyful experience. Voices of women of colour, people suffering from anxiety or depression, queer persons – poetry is advancing hitherto unheard narratives.

The readers of poetry seem to have multiplied with the Internet. Here, relatability is the priority for engagement, rather than an appreciation of the craft. The emergence of spoken word on YouTube has unleashed a whole new art form which borrows from theatre, dance and storytelling. Universal themes like love, desire and migration infused with flavours of languages other than English led to a poetry that pursues global appreciation.

Then why the cynicism? What worries poetry lovers who have seen it before hashtags? For starters, plagiarism. It’s easy to copy a poem and add a little tadka to it but equally difficult for anyone to call people out on such theft.

Appropriation is more damaging than plagiarism as it stems out of a deeply flawed politics. When individual poets pretend to single-handedly bear the collective pain of being brown, being queer, being fat without enough of the claimed experience, they become the mascots for marginalised voices, silencing and discrediting others with similar struggles.

I discovered an experiment by a poet named Thomas Young. He made a parody account on Instagram to demonstrate the instant popularity achieved by short and trite poetry. The younger generation, he suggests “is mostly interested in ‘fidget-spinner’ poetry. Like they’re just scrolling on their devices, to read something instantly, while the libraries are empty. I think people today don’t want to read anything that causes a whole lot of critical thinking.”

Poetry has shrunk to fit into Instagram squares. Apps like Your Quote and Terribly Tiny Tales allow you to pair your writing with fancy typography and “stunning visuals”. This prioritises glamourous aesthetics and undermines the immense power of words to create images in our mind.

These issues are enough for some to reject the charm of social media poetry. However, I was curious if short, simple, chic poetry is the problem or just a symptom of a deeper problem.

While it is evident that length of poetry has been decreasing with the screen size of our devices, it is crucial to remember that length was never the sole parameter of good poetry. Kabir’s dohas, Japanese haikus by Basho, poems by the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami can all testify that short and simple poems can be as legitimately poetic as sonnets and epics.

The popularity of short poetry is alarming not because it is short, but because it reveals our abysmally low attention spans. A lot of poetry on the internet lets you hover over a stray thought for a minute or two before you scroll for the next stimulating thing. Only a few poems have a lasting effect on the reader.

Time spent with the poem, then, could be a better way to measure a poem’s value, rather than length. Poetry taught me patience, something that’s severely endangered online. If poetry is food for thought, most poetry on social media is as nutritious as Maggi.

Whether being at our fingertips has helped poetry to reach our depths demands some contemplation. Going viral and reaching deep are two different achievements. I often meditate on these questions: Do people still memorise good poetry? Do they still quote poets in intimate conversations? What does sharing poetry mean? How is forming a huddle around an erotic poem in the college library, different from sharing it on Facebook and tagging a few friends? Is loving poetry a lonely act, impossible to carry out without a connected device?

This is not misplaced nostalgia. I feel sorry that ink, typewriter, kurta-clad poets are still more romanticised than the keyboards, Microsoft word and poets who don’t look like poets should. Poetry referring to texts, sexts, pixels and other elements of our digital world will allow us a fresh, real context. Poetry could be both, a statement about our times and a statement about what is timeless, joys that are essentially found “offline”.

Can libraries ensure more space for poetry than commercial bookstores? Can poetry circles and open mics carve a space for critical feedback? The Internet may have connected poets to readers, but it has ensured a certain loneliness for both, which needs to be mitigated creatively.

Buying anthologies or printing poems is allowing me to regain the patience I lost due to social media. I touch each poem, breathe with it and read it thrice before urgently tapping on that “heart”. When I write, I try to prioritise images created by my words over fonts and backgrounds. I give my words the gift of time.

I realised that consciousness is imperative. By being conscious of our interaction with poetry, printed or on our devices, we can gravitate towards better, more inclusive poetry.

This article first appeared on Torchlight: A Journal of Libraries and Bookish Love by Bookworm Trust.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.