poetry workshop

The poet as architect: How poems are designed and constructed to convey the sense of space

The first in a series of workshops on learning the craft of poetry from the works of fine poets.

How does a poem make us move our neck and our eyes? Trying to explain to students how to create – produce; generate – space in poems, I often remind them of one of the first English poems that we encounter.

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.

Most of us were taught to act out this nursery rhyme. Our heads craned upwards, to the ceiling, the first metonym for sky in our urban lives. The adjective had acted like a pulley, a crane as it were: “high”. It’s a beginner’s lesson – how not verbs (not necessarily, I mean), but adjectives can be doing-words. By making our heads move by a few inches with just a word, the poet (best known to us as Anon) succeeded in creating the breadth of the universe, the earth to the sky.

How do we create space, how do we become architects in our poems?

The gate wide open; chairs on the lawn; 
Circular verandahs; a narrow kitchen; 
High-ceilinged rooms; arches; alcoves; skylights. 
My house luminous; my day burnt to ash. 

In Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s “January”, the four lines become the metaphorical equivalent of four walls as it were – it is a poem about a house, after all, or at least one where we see a house. “See” indeed, for Mehrotra opens the house for us, as one would a real house. So, first, the “gate”.

Like “high” in Twinkle twinkle little star, “wide” in Mehrotra’s poem makes our eyes and head move. If “high” covers the Y-axis, “wide” makes our eyes run through the length of the X-axis. “Wide open” – space has been produced.

Mehrotra lets our eyes stay on the same plane as the earth, the X-axis: “chairs on the lawn”. Space is being occupied, not by people though, but by other spaces that evidently hold people. First the chairs, and then the volume of space amplified – “verandahs”. The adjective makes our eyes move again – “circular” in “circular verandahs”. Our eyes move from one end of the verandah to the other, drawing an arc. And from there, after the widening of our eyes, their movement from left to right or right to left or perhaps both, caused by “circular”, we progress to their narrowing: “a narrow kitchen”.

It’s not difficult to see that two kinds of space are being created simultaneously – the spaces inside the house are being mimicked, in tiny proportions, by the enlarging or crinkling of the eye. Yes, things happen in pairs, almost like an interior decorator placing a mirror to create a sense of space and redundancy. Other geometric figures mimic each other – the “arches” are a geometric relative of the “circular” verandahs and the “alcoves” of the “chairs”, in their ability to contain space. It is a miracle – mastery, of course – that so much moves in a poem where there are no verbs. The adjectives create space, they make our eyes move, widen or narrow, as the poet wants us to.

Adjectives in Amit Chaudhuri’s “Community” (a section from his poem St Cyril Road Sequence) perform the role of paint-brushes in Impressionist paintings – they produce space in a manner that makes it mobile in our eyes. Here is the section:

In the oldest, bunched houses with tottering stairs,
the Christians live, like prophets dedicated
to the cause of being obscure. The men with guitars,
the old women knitting...all their lives, they’ve waited.

Here, lining the lane at systematic intervals,
the bruised bungalows squat with a wild beard of grass
in the gardens, and watered-down, twenty-watt bulbs
shine in the verandas. Around them, a mass

of tall coloured buildings rise, as each timid bungalow
is emptied, and Christians who lived behind those doors
generations together, now old as weed, sell their land
and property for drink. Their houses come down on all fours.

In their place, the large buildings burgeon with neat
rectangular gardens. I myself live in one.
But occasionally, I scan the lettering on those gates
 – Helen Villa, Rose Cottage – ironically dark in the sun.

— “Community” (From “St Cyril Road Sequence”)

Chaudhuri is looking at – and showing us – the houses from outside.

We see its residents too, as verbs, moving – women “knitting”, for instance. But it is as if the houses are animals, moving organisms, adjusting their spines to time, and gradually becoming obedient to gravity as the living must. The “tottering stairs”, the “bruised bungalows”, the “timid bungalow” – the uncertainty of the houses’ future and the injuries caused to them, by two invisible agents, time and money, kill them eventually: “Their houses come down on all fours”.

It’s interesting to see how space is being produced by the two poets in different ways. Mehrotra takes us to the inside of a house, from the gate to its interior, ending with the journey to where even light has failed to enter – the day-end soul. Chaudhuri takes us into the lane – which we know is St Cyril Road, from the title of the sequence – and we move with him, on foot, as we read. The houses move too (because of certain words Chaudhuri uses in the poem), with the lack of fixity of an Impressionist painting.

“Bunched houses” – that unexpected adjective forces us to squeeze our shoulders, turns us into a size smaller than ourselves, and that is entirely appropriate, for that is how time has changed the houses and their residents: time shrinks the frames of, steals space from, both – the houses and those who live within.

Bunched houses – that sense of diminished space is followed by “tottering stairs”, and our eyes move upward with the noun, “stairs”. In this case, the “ing” of “tottering”, not to mention the precarious motion in the word itself, the verb-like air of this adjective, briefly creates an expansion of space, a sense of action. But it’s restricted space – the eye has no mooring but the “tottering” stairs. This space is “bunched” too.

All through the poem there is the sense of space and locations being injured – “bunched”; “bruised”.

To give us occasional relief, Chaudhuri makes our eyes travel in different directions: the Y-axis in the stairs, and then the X-axis in the first line of the second stanza, which refer to bungalows “lining the lane at systematic intervals”.

“Lining” does so much: we see space being produced, the way a line generates space around it on blank paper; it makes our eyes travel horizontally, along the X-axis – our eyes and our feet walk together. “Systematic intervals” divides and apportions space as accurately as stanzas. It is almost as if words and caesuras are constructing the houses, with their particular idiosyncrasies, before our eyes.

All of this is happening as the elasticity of space is being tested in different directions: “watered-down” gives us a sense of dilution, of falling, and our imagination moves downward, but not for too long, for what is falling is light, which is intangible, and indistinguishable from space, and Chaudhuri mentions the source of the light purposely as it were, to make our sight travel upwards again: “twenty-watt bulbs/ shine in the verandas”. The antonyms in the construction of space continue: “tall coloured buildings rise, as each timid bungalow/ is emptied”. These come on the back of other binaries: the “wild beard of grass” of the houses of the Christians replaced by the “neat, rectangular gardens” of the new high-rises.

By the time the poem comes to “Their houses come down on all fours”, space, as if it were a living organism, is tired. It has given up. Chaudhuri highlights this through the form. Mehrotra’s poem of four lines, I’ve just said, is almost like a simulation of the four walls of a house. Chaudhuri’s poem comprises four quatrains. There’s not one house but a sequence of bungalows: hence the quatrains. They have the simple rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, and so on. But in the third quatrain, in which the “houses come down on all fours”, there’s a single departure from the rhyme scheme – the first and third line don’t rhyme. “Bungalow” and “land” cannot rhyme: they’re not meant to, not by capitalism, among other forces.

In both the poems, the seeing self appears at the very end: “my day burnt to ash” in Mehrotra’s, “I myself live in one” in Chaudhuri’s.

Both the poems record the sadness of a disappearing time – Mehrotra’s unit is the day, Chaudhuri’s a way of life, of the Christians in Bandra. The houses are extensions of the selves in these poems. In looking at houses, both the poems seem to interpret what Hemingway called the “clean, well-lighted place”, for it is no coincidence that both the poems (not to mention “Twinkle twinkle little star” with its “diamond in the sky”), in showing us constructions of space, come to rely and rest on light. “Space and light” is a phrase from Tagore Chaudhuri invokes often in his essays. Here, not light alone, but its antonym: “the house luminous”, the “day burnt to ash” in Mehrotra’s poem; the “lettering”...ironically “dark in the sun” in Chaudhuri’s.

In “January”, Mehrotra’s poem, the movement towards the “my”, the person inhabiting the poem and the house, is connected to the movement towards light – the last word of the third line, just preceding “my” in the final line, is “skylights”. And, like the contagion light is, the poem and the house light up: “My house luminous”.

Is that too much light for a house? Two light-related words used in quick succession: “skylights’, ‘luminous’. The end of the day is near – when else does one sum up “my day”? And so the lights are turned off, as inside a house – “my day burnt to ash”. In Chaudhuri, too, the houses and their light (first shown to us in the poem by the “watered-down twenty watt bulbs”) are disappearing. “I scan the lettering on those gates – Helen Villa, Rose Cottage – ironically dark in the sun.”

The eyes narrow (“scan the lettering”), space has narrowed, the sun is dark, the houses are dying, light is dying, and with it, space and the possibility of seeing. And because space cannot exist independent of time, time ends too – the day ends, the poems end.

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