by Manash Bhattacharjee
And it was at that age . . . Poetry arrived
in search of me . . . I don't know where
it came from
~ Pablo Neruda
The arrival of poetry is catastrophic. You are seized by indescribable wonder and an equally incomprehensible terror. You face a blank page to write what no one has asked you to write, with very little idea of what you will end up writing. The absence of a commandment marks your freedom. You stray away from the familiar house of grammar, and for the first time feel lured by the forest of language. It is a fearful moment of infinite responsibility. Nicanor Parra's advice to young poets is precisely this: "In poetry everything is permitted. / With only this condition of course, / You have to improve the blank page."
Some are initiated into poetry more knowledgably than others. In my case it was purely accidental and arbitrary. I did not have any library, family member, relative or friend, to educate me about poetry. But I nurtured the craft in creative ignorance. I shared my poems with friends, but their adulation did not disturb my sense of dissatisfaction.
I met my mentor later, in the most lacklustre room in the world. There were six empty chairs of other English lecturers, thankfully absent from passing judgement on a student of politics who knew nothing about literature. Today that room seems to appear out of a Kiarostami film. My mentor told me to read a few writers whose names sounded like signposts to an intriguing universe. Then he gave me a magical word that transformed my world: metaphor. The heart was no longer just a heart. It was an ailing moon.
The arrival of poetry is deeply autobiographical. And love is as autobiographical as poetry. Perhaps that is why both often arrive together. In perfect consonance, you may say, with the Wordsworthian paradox of being fostered alike by beauty and fear. I used to write passionate letters in school to the girl I loved. Yet I also began writing poems. Perhaps poetry opened up another window between us. Love alters your relationship with the world and shakes your roots. The poetic impulse most intimately expresses that event.
I could express the feeling of the lover's body only through poetry. The lover's body, like the body of the poem, is not a recipient of our desire. It breathes and speaks to us with a mind of its own that does not merely lie in the head. The mind (like memory) lies everywhere in the body of the lover and of the poem. Just as John Donne had found, "her pure and eloquent blood / Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought, / That one might almost say her body thought".
I also grew up in the thick of what Faiz Ahmad Faiz called "agonies in the world other than love". I was only in the third standard when I was called an "outsider" in the place of my birth. It was a ridiculous accusation. But I was forced to reckon with it as it was backed by dangerous hatred in the streets. Mahmoud Darwish, faced with similar communal acrimony, was urged to express a loftier love for Palestine than Yehuda Amichai, whom he admired but considered a rival. The desirable other in love is overshadowed by the despised other in history. Poetry is often a way to reclaim the territory of memory.
There are also agonies that aren't your own. Having grown up rebelling against my upper-caste privileges, I savoured Namdeo Dhasal abusing back the "mother fucking God" who had abused his people for centuries. Bertolt Brecht's A Worker Reads History, upturning the imperial discourse by saluting the victim, the underdog, the worker, had a deep impression on me. I later found the Brechtian fire in Hindi poet, Vidrohi, who writes: "Go tell Caesar / We will collect the slaves of the world / And one day enter Rome."
I understood writing poetry is writing against power. I felt a deep sense of solidarity with the proletarian dream. But the Soviet myth was exposed by Akhmatova and Mandelstam's poems, Brodsky's letter to Brezhnev and Mayakovsky's suicide. History, I came to realise, is messier than ideology.
Mandelstam had said with dark irony that only in Russia poetry is respected, as "it gets people killed". In a democracy, the state feels unthreatened by poets. If poetry was expected to be a miming doll on the stage of revolution, it has been turned into a useless fetish object in the marketplace of capitalism.
But we sing, like Brecht, in the dark times, of the dark times. And we never give up falling in love.
Manash Bhattacharjee's debut poetry collection 'Ghalib's Tomb and other poems' is available on the Amazon Kindle Store for only £2.99.