Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Few quirky, lovely poems and how poetry can breathe free in face of censorship

It's strange how you read what you do. Looking back, I realise that my appetite to read and my choice was directed by a series of coincidences — due to statements made by the way, interesting blurbs, names referred persistently by disconnected sources...

It was through one such convoluted reading spree, that I got curious about Allen Ginsberg. Having read Jack Kerouac's On the road, and having finally decided that I wanted to read more of him, I began surfing the net for beat writers. A series of web links enlightened me about people like Ken Casey, beat weirdos like Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg rang a bell for some reason.

After a very long time, in Ginsberg I have found a poet I quite enjoy. Here's an except from A Supermarket in California:

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! --- and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?


Ginsberg has that typical focussed link between him and his words — he seems to obliterate everything else. There's no room for explanation, he doesn't bother to cut out ambiguity and his thoughts flow unrefined and unmanipulated. That Ginsberg saw Whitman in the supermarket may be due to the psychedelic drugs beat writers indulged in to get 'poetic visions'. But the fantasy has been written crisply, with a sense of real time and humour.

I tried to see how many figures of speech I can find in the lines and here's what I got...

In my hungry fatigue


Metaphor, Personification: Fatigue given the animate quality of being hungry

Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands- Hyperbole

Wives in the avocados, Babies in the tomatos- Is this Assonance? (the sound of avocadoes and tomatoes)

And you, Garcia Lorca- Apostrophe

I saw you, Walt Whitman..... Apostrophe

...and eyeing the grocery boys- Perhaps hinting at Whitman's (debated) homosexuality

Who killed the pork chops?

Synechdoche: Pork chops mean pigs
Personification: The idea that pork chops can be killed...

Another racy poem is Velocity of Money. An excerpt:

Now everybody’s atheist like me, nothing’s sacred
buy and sell your grandmother, eat up old age homes,
Peddle babies on the street, pretty boys for sale on Times Square -
You can shoot heroin, I can sniff cocaine


Reasons why I liked this:

1) Brevity: Thoughts are short and crisp, the flow is quick.

2) Vivid imagery- Peddle babies on the street, pretty boys for sale...

3) Conflict- While he says everyone is an atheist like him, there's a pinch of regret in the statement, nothing's sacred.

4) The poem is full of metaphor, including the title...

5) The economy Ginsberg complains of is all the more relevant today...

Other (tad lengthy poem) that caught my attention was September on Jessore Road.

Jessore Road is near the airport and stretches all the way to the Bangladesh border. That it had caught Ginsberg's fancy made me curious about the poem. Here are the lines that touched me the most:Allen Ginsberg- September on Jessore Road

Where are our tears? Who weeps for the pain?
Where can these families go in the rain?
Jessore Road's children close their big eyes
Where will we sleep when Our Father dies?


This site has 48 poems written by Ginsberg.

Some other refreshing poems come from D H Lawrence.

The ones I particularly enjoyed are Lies about loveD H Lawrence- Lies About Love

We are a liars, because
the truth of yesterday becomes a lie tomorrow,
whereas letters are fixed,
and we live by the letter of truth.
The love I feel for my friend, this year,
is different from the love I felt last year.
If it were not so, it would be a lie.
Yet we reiterate love! love! love!
as if it were a coin with a fixed value
instead of a flower that dies, and opens a different bud.


Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives D H Lawrence- Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives

Good husbands make unhappy wives
so do bad husbands, just as often;
but the unhappiness of a wife with a good husband
is much more devastating
than the unhappiness of a wife with a bad husband.


I love these poems for the bold, sweeping statements Lawrence has made.

Such a non-committal, nonconformist streak is the reason I like the medium of poems. Here, writers can seize their right to speak their minds off without bothering to leave trails of explanations and footnotes. This kind of freedom of creativity — that includes the acceptance of the ambiguous and the abstract — is accorded to no other medium.

A reason why poets may evade the 'scanner' is perhaps because no one ( or certainly not many)takes a poet quite seriously. Poems are passed off as art, and given the belief that 'all art is useless' the controlling mechanism doesn't quite bother to eye it with such zeal as they try to keep a tab on journalists..

In this context, let me quote some paragraphs George Orwell has written in his essay, The Prevention of Literature:

..It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet, at any rate a lyric poet, might possible find it breathable..

..There is a whole series of converging reasons why it is somewhat easier for a poet, than for a prose writer to feel at home in an authoritarian society. To begin with, bureaucrats and other 'practical' men usually despise the poet too deeply to be much interested in what he is saying. Secondly, what the poet is saying — that is, what his poem 'means' if translated into prose — is relatively unimportant even to himself. The thought contained in a poem is simple, and is no more the primary purpose of a picture. A poem is an arrangement of sounds and association, as painting is an arrangement of brush marks. For short snatches indeed, as in the refrain of a song, poetry can even dispense with meaning altogether. It is therefore fairly easy for a poet to keep away from dangerous subjects and avoid uttering heresies: and even when he does utter them, they may escape notice. But above all, good verse, unlike good prose, is not necessarily an individual product..
(Here, Orwell cites examples of ballads)

.. And the destruction of intellectual liberty cripples the journalist, the sociological writer, the historian, the novelist, the critic and the poet, in that order..


While Orwell has written the essay with the thrust being on prose, the above words show that the position of a poet is relatively safe.

7 comments:

Calliopia said...

Very interesting post, gauri. And yes, while I've often noted that poetry can be a damning indictment of ills, it rarely has quite the same impact as a similar indictment in prose but I'd always thought that was because most people just don't have the patience or stomach for poetry. That it puts them off because it's an art is something that never really struck me before. Thanks for the eye-opener.

Jack said...

Poems ought to be the most bizarre form of art. While I, like everyone, have learnt to love and live with the classics, it is beyond me to rate a new poem especially if the poet's bio is missing. The 'dissection' has had me a little enlightened though :)

feddabonn said...

good post, G. i strongly disliked the beats when i first read them, and never tried again. your write up is now making me wonder if i should try again. thanks!

Anu said...

I loved the way you ended up reading those posts. I sometimes do the same. One thing leads to another and I am so totally lost reading.

Some cater to my taste and some don't. But they all remain the same.

I love non-conformity which is risky.

Loved the post in general.

Kaushik Chatterji said...

Funny how I just finished reading Lawrence's novel last week. Now after having read this, have made a mental note about reading his poems as well.

The beatniks were radical back in those times, but the problem is that they are used as an excuse by almost everyone to justify free-verse which is sad.

The analysis is commendable though I for one would never do it.

About the censorship part - it is that very idea that I like to keep my poems as far away from the word 'abstract' as possible and instead make them convey something concrete. Then again that's just me.

Kaber Vasuki said...

Like Jack said, the dissection is giving me a little bit of insight into how to decipher poems.

Gauri Gharpure said...

Callopia-- I didn't like many of the long, never-ending poems i studied in school books. But some, short and sweet as they were (like fire and ice), were nice.. the art bit, i started realizing quite recently and the paragraphs by Orwell added weight to that line of thought..

Sudhanshu-- Agree with the bizzare bit. abt the poet's bio thing, I always go with the poem first, the poet later :)

Baruk-- beats came up with many interesting things... reading one flew over a cuckoo's nest. after the initial pages that seem a little vague, the material is pretty nice..

Anu-- yes, the linking thing is esp. true with blogs.. thanks for dropping by.. hope you are doing good.

Kaushik-- i haven't read any of his novels yet :) abt the censorship thing, i think as long as one is conscious of abiding by or breaking it, one can't produce an honest piece.

Kaber-- i did the dissection for the first time myself. thanks for visiting the blog, be back soon!