Poetry

I’ve never really got what the big deal about poetry is. I have friends on facebook and google+ who share bits and pieces of poetry that they like, and shag about it. And most of the time I never get why it’s so hifunda. Yes, I do like some poetry. Like I think Vikram Seth’s The Frog and The Nightingale (which appeared in our 10th standard textbook) is an absolute classic. I can still recite the few stanzas of The Highwayman which I had mugged up for an elocution competition in school. I don’t however, get “modern poetry”, the kind without any rhyme or rhythm. And so, faced with a deluge of such literature, I have been trying to figure out what the big deal about poetry is.

Think about the ancient classics and texts. Think about the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey. All of them written in verse. Think about the hundreds of thousands of Vedic schools spread all across India, some of them functional even today, where students did nothing but just mug up to recite the Vedas. Think about the ancient Indian oral tradition, which has managed to preserve the Vedas and our epics in something close to their original forms even today. Can you imagine mugging up all the words of a modern classic, and remembering it well enough to deliver verbatim to your students? I guess you can’t, and you don’t need to, for we have the luxury of writing, and written records. But what in those days in ancient India, where there was no paper? How have such long and magnificent texts survived our oral tradition across centuries? The answer is poetry.

Poetry is a concept that dates back to the times when there was no writing. It was a means to make it easy for someone to memorize a piece of text. By introducing concepts such as rhyme and rhythm, of allegories and metaphors, the poets would make it easy for the transmitters to remember the poems. I’m told (for I haven’t read them firsthand) that the Vedas also have several built-in checksums, to enable easy rememberance, in case a part of a verse gets lost in memory. By this insight, poetry is basically a means to render text in a format that makes it easy for you to remember stuff. That, truly, is the sheer beauty of poetry. An ancient concept designed to transmit, across generations. A concept that was essentially rendered redundant with the coming of writing, because of which it had to reinvent itself. And I’m not sure how successful that reinvention of the form has been (though given the number of people who claim to love poetry, I must say the reinvention has been rather successful).

Now, think of your school textbooks, any subject. And think about how many lines from the prose you can remember verbatim. Exactly as it was in the text. I would guess the answer would be something close to zero, which is the answer in my case. And now think about the poetry you read back in school, and how much of that you can remember. I would assume the number is rather higher. I may not remember complete poems, but I remember at least stanzas from several of the poems I studied back then. For example, I can recite verbatim several of the dohas written by Kabir and Abdurrahim Khankhana, which were part of our school syllabus as far back as when I was in 7th standard. Now think about it – how is it that I can remember entire lines, written in a language I was hardly comfortable with back then, in a dialect I hardly understood, almost twenty years later? It is down to sheer poetry! The rhymes and rhythms and allegories and puns which all make it so easy to remember!

So what is poetry? It is essentially a form of writing which is easy for the reader to memorize, and remember ages later in order to transmit. So what is good poetry? It is a piece of writing, written in a form that sticks in the reader’s head, which possesses him, to the extent that he remembers the words in their entirety, and not just the essence. The thing with great prose is that it enables the reader to easily grasp the idea it is trying to convey. With poetry, it is not just the idea that is to be conveyed, it’s also the expression. And how good a poem is depends on how successful it is in making the expression stick in the reader’s head.

In general, I must admit, I still don’t get ‘free verse’. I think it’s just prose written with lines broken in random places that the “poet” fancies. While they might have some nice puns or allegories, in most cases it is impossible to remember the exact words, for there is little that ties sentences, that creates checksums, that enables readers to remember the expressions. I still like simple good old poetry, though, but few people write that any more. I’ll leave you with a stanza from one of my favourite poems which I still remember:

Once upon a time a frog
croaked away in bingle bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn

7 thoughts on “Poetry”

  1. Skimpy.. what about poems which have widely varying structures/”time signatures”?

    For instance rhyme sequence could be AABB, ABAB, AAAB.. a poem could be in the tetrameter or pentameter.. Haikus are poems with a 5-7-5 syllable structure (which don’t have to rhyme as far as I know). Given the huge number of variations isn’t free verse simply another variation and therefore a little undeserving of this criticism?

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  2. wimpy, doesn’t poetry also convey emotions in a way completely inaccessible to prose? The poet can use a series of metaphors to make the reader experience the emotion… expressing it in prose ends up being descriptive. Similar fundaes can be applied to songs – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_c7tGdO2EdQ – the lyrics are hard to capture through prose, but good poetry, they make :)

    There is this other angle of using poetry (usually a few lines) as well
    for emphasis
    at the beginning of a book chapter or a speech.

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  3. What is so great about this poem? They are just slightly better than prose.

    Read Sanskrit poems, old Kannada poems (Champu) by Pampa, Lakshmisha, Kumaravyasa, etc. They were composed based on very specific metres (chandass). The second letter has to be the same in all 6 lines of a shatpadi (a stanza of 6 lines), each lines should have only so many letters, the nth letter has to be guru, the mth letter in line has to be laghu, etc. Now imagine finding the right words to meet all these conditions and then composing brilliant verses that mean exactly what you want to say!

    For example, see the 12th verse in Lakshmisha kavi’s Jaimini Bharatha (page 11): http://books.google.com/books?id=_pttfhgqZ_AC&pg=PA11#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Each of the 6 lines in the verse begin with the word ‘Nagendra’ but all of them have different meanings! The number of laghu and gurus match perfectly in ever one of these 1000 verses and are in perfect accordance with the metre called ‘vaardhaka shatpadi’.

    Kumaravyasa bharata is in a beautiful metre called ‘Bhaamini shatpadi’.

    I dont think your frog’s croaking or the nightingale’s can match that!

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  4. Wow ! This is an interesting perspective !

    I also think poetry is a ´rhetorical´ device designed to give authors a license to skip language rules (grammar, structure) so that they can focus on arresting people´s attention.

    It is like watching 24, they never show Jack Bauer eat or say, drink water, during the 24 hours, because it is not important :)

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  5. The structure of Samskrita prosody codified by Pi?gala in his Chanda???stra is so refined and perfect that it makes it perfectly amenable to rhythm and music. Prakrit prosody and prosody of all modern Indian languages, including Urdu (yes!), is based on Samskrita prosody.
    http://www.sju.edu/~rhall/mathforpoets.pdf
    The whole system of yatis (ceasura), short and long syllables, viraama (long pause), ties in so nicely with music – which is why versed Indian poetry in Samskrita or Khari Boli/Braja (Kabir/Rahim) or Telugu/Kannada/Awadhi is so easy to remember.

    As far as what is poetry is concerned, in the Indian system it is considered to be partly divinely inspired (the spontaneous flow) and partly human effort. The K?vy?dar?a of Da??in says that three things come together to produce poetry – a divine inspiration, the poet’s skills and the poet’s past experience. I can attest to the first part – I have had the fortune of seeing verses being composed effortlessly (like the flow of a river) in front my eyes in the Sragdhara metre. The Sragdhara metre is one of the most complex in Samskrita, in which the probability of getting just the long-short sequence right is at most 2 raised to -80!! This is just the beginning – we are not even talking about satisfying 4000 mathematical rules of Panini, making coherent sense and optimizing the figures of speech. The probability is so infinitesimally small that it is not humanly possible that Valmiki, Vyasa, Vedanta Desika, Tulsidas, et cetera, made efforts to compose poetry.

    Nice post and nice comments.

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    Nityanand Misra Reply:

    Comments on your site do not support Unicode IAST characters, so you can read the words as “Pingala”, “Chhandahshastra”, “Kavyadarsha” and “Dandin”.

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