With these two new collections, there is very little which celebrates the necessary visceral response that poetry requires.
Fighting for Peace, Daisaku Ikeda; A Life Lived Later, Anurag Mathur; Penguin, Rs. 150 each.
PENGUIN INDIA recently published two volumes of poetry by Daisaku Ikeda and Anurag Mathur both men, both famous for things other than their verse. These follow hot on the heels of two other Penguin collections this year: The Life Tree: Poems by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and St. Cyril Road and Other Poems by Amit Chaudhuri. Oddly enough, famous men again.
Indeed, on perusing their entire poetry catalogue, gender withstanding, you'd think it necessary to be either famous or dead in order to have your poems published. While publishers may justify this by bemoaning waning readerships, a quick surf of Indian contemporary poetry websites will show that poetry is still a concern for a decent number of people mainly people who write it themselves, and are desperately scavenging for places to publish it.
Three years ago, Ranjit Hoskote edited an anthology of 14 contemporary Indian poets, which was an excellent move to giving a few unknown poets a platform to air their voices. Why Penguin hasn't made this an annual venture is hard to fathom, as there are certainly no dearth of exciting voices waiting to be heard.
This is not to take anything away from the peace poetry of Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda. Fighting for Peace is, by all means, a worthy publication, but it falls short of the striking metaphorical language usually found in Japanese poets of the immediate post-war era. Ikeda's poems, instead, could well be read as musings, speeches with breaks in the lines, entreaties, a philosophy to change the world. Here's a sample:
No matter how the call
for vengeance may justify it,
people must never kill
their fellow human beings.
For to do so is
Hellish and brutal,
Forever without redemption.
Ishmael Reed, one of the most august, controversial African-American literary figures, has written the foreword to Ikeda's book. In it, he's said, "One doesn't have to be a follower of the Buddhist religion to appreciate the universal appeal of Fighting for Peace... [Ikeda] speaks for millions of people who have become frustrated with the lethal shenanigans of the world's politicians..." Fair enough. But by this measure, I could also pick up a copy of the wisdoms and sayings by the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Ikeda demands that we transform our lives, but his vehicle of poetry isn't evocative enough to allow for this transformation; rather, it is a directive:
Everyone is equal
in their humanity.
If we focus on this fact
this principle, this law
false distinctions disappear
and there is no reason for fighting or conflict.
After a while (100 pages to be exact), the collection reads as one long sermon, and one imagines it would be much better enjoyed as an oral performance.
FOR Anurag Mathur, still riding on the success of a novel he published nearly 10 years ago The Inscrutable Americans poetry is definitely a different avatar. Considering he made his mark on the literary scene with humour, the poems in his collection, A Life Lived Later, are of an entirely different oeuvre. They are nostalgic; dominated by themes of weariness and longing; poems of in-between worlds, of leaving and belonging and accommodating "odd-shaped bones".
In fact, there are so many shadows in this collection, supplemented with abstractions like "pain", "sorrow" and "loneliness" (all oft-repeated), that the reader is left with no option but to get lost in the strange repetitiveness of Mathur's lands. Ultimately though, the search becomes a giant cliché: how many times to return to the streets of one's youth, how many old men musing on the days gone by, how many scenes from childhood, how many ex-lovers in the shadows? Despite all this sifting and searching, ancestors in the dust etc., he leaves little room to fall, escape, take off.
Better at wryness
Mathur is better at wryness than sentiment, better at images than ideas. A few of his poems do have that necessary moment of revelation or epiphany "Drunk, Confessional" is one of them. Here, old friends over many a drink (yet again) move towards exposing something that can only be described as an exposed vulnerability. The drunk friend rants about how the world says hello with a knife in its hand, how "you marry a wife/ for the benefit of your friends,/ damn whores... " while he falls into the potato chips, leaving his bachelor friends to look on the pleasant, gracious wife with new eyes. It is that rare poem which lingers long after the words are over, something that doesn't happen nearly often enough in Mathur's collection.
Emily Dickinson gave, I think, one of the best definitions of what "good poetry" constitutes. "I know it's poetry," she said, "when the top of my head blows off." With these two new collections, there is very little which celebrates the necessary visceral response that poetry requires. Certainly nothing which blows the tops of our heads off!
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