October 31, 2007

WHAT IS POETRY?

Posted in Poetry tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:33 pm by randallbutisingh

WHAT IS POETRY?

I was asked to tell a gathering what I thought was Poetry.

First of all I must tell you that I am a writer of Poetry in the traditional style mainly. There should be no wonder in this as I have now reached my ninety-fifth birthday, and have all along been exposed to the writings of the great traditional poets.

During my ninety-five years of existence, I have felt the impact of two world wars, witnessed the rise and fall of Communism, the almost total disappearance of Colonialism, inventions from the motor to the rocket, and man’s excursion in space.

I have also seen the erosion of moral and spiritual values and their effects in society. All these events and changes have changed concepts and also changed the form of poetry.

I believe in the universality of Poetry. Poetry, in whatever language it is written must be able to reach the civilised human heart regardless of ethnicity or cultural differences. I believe that the themes of Poetry must be lofty if it must play that role, as one writer puts it: “serviceableness for the moral and spiritual needs of men”, and if it must survive.

Poetry, like the soul and truth cannot be defined. To try to define poetry is like trying to paint the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we can feel its power and the effects it has on Nature. It is through poetry that one can introspect into reality or transcend the mundane and have glimpses of that which does not undergo change.

To give you one example, it was chiefly the Poetry of the Ramayan, with its exquisite verse form extolling virtue that sustained the spirit of the Indian forefathers in the most difficult period of their lives – Indentureship in a hostile environment with its concomitance of brute labour, lack of freedom and subservience. The Ramayan, in its verse form is chanted in various melodic airs which are memorable, and no prose, however elegant could have the same effect.

There are parallels to this in the cultures of other peoples, e.g. the Jews who found comfort and hope in the Psalms of David. I have often resorted to the Twenty-third Psalm and found comfort and solace in its Poetry.

Poetry is born of inspiration. Ever so often poets go into solitude to woo the Muse of Poetry or to recreate a touching experience. A poet should not try to write for others but should truthfully express his feelings. Good Poetry reaches further than the intellect; it touches the heart and probes the feelings and emotions. That is why poetry can draw tears from an empathetic reader.

Illiteracy is no barrier to the creation of good Poetry. The Vedas of the Aryans were handed down by word of mouth. Kabir, an Indian poet was illiterate, but his large collection of poems was written down by others. They are now enjoyed and studied by scholars.

In both the oral and written form, the poets can clothe his thoughts with words which can make it a work of art. He can use verse with the various devices of rhyme and rhythm. He can use figures of speech to beautify his language and to appeal to the aesthetic taste of the reader. But all that alone is not poetry. They are as the body is for the spirit. If the reader cannot enter into the feelings of the poet and capture his emotions, or his imagination is not fired up then he has missed the woods for the trees.

Literature would have been the poorer had it no been for poetic writings. Imagine what it would have been without the works of Homer and Virgil, the Ramayan of Tulsidas, the Gitanjali of Tagore, the Psalms of David, the works of Gibran and Omar Khayam, of Shakespeare and Goethe, of Byron, Keats and Shelley and the many others, ancient and modern.

Our music too would have been the poorer. Consider the influence of the Christian Hymns, the Bhajans and Kirtans of the Hindus, the Gazals of the Muslims and the numerous secular songs of all races; all being Poetry set to music.

The man who said that what is expressed in verse could be better expressed in prose might have been right, in so far, that all verses are not Poetry, and Poetry may emanate from the lofty themes of great prose writers. So, Poetry to me is not merely verse or exquisite prose, but it is more that ineffable element which transcends the outward form and is one with Truth and Beauty.

I leave with you a short beautiful poem by Francis Bourdillon for your contemplation and appreciation:

The night has a thousand eyes
The day but one
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes
The heart but one;
Yet the light of the whole life dies
When love is done,

Here’s another by William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Poetry can put in a small capsule what it will take reams of prose to do.

Randall Butisingh
E-mail: randallbutisingh@hotmail.com

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