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Mangaluru: Poetry a way of resisting readymade language: Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam

Pics: Dayanand Kukkaje
Daijiworld Media Network - Mangaluru

Mangaluru, Aug 23: In an enlightening and highly engaging talk, noted poet and writer on culture and spirituality Arundhathi Subramaniam on Saturday August 22 elaborated on how poetry was much more than just its 'meaning', and said that it was essentially 'a way of resisting readymade language of any kind'.

Delivering the fourth annual James and Shobha Mendonca Endowment Lecture on Poetry - 2015 to an august, full-house gathering of poetry lovers at Gallerie Orchid in the city, Subramaniam spoke of her own life's journey of realizations at different points of time which shaped her poetry and sculpted her as a poet. The talk was organized by Kavita Trust in association with Gallerie Orchid.

At the outset, Subramaniam congratulated Kavita Trust on organizing a programme exclusively for poetry. "To find a forum that is exclusively dedicated to poetry is a rarity. I congratulate Kavita Trust and all those who support it."

Dwelling on the question of 'why poetry', she said, "There isn't honestly any rational reason for poetry, and certainly not in today's times. It is an utterly crazy thing to be doing, for many reasons - publishers, readers, buyers and royalty cheques are few and far in between, it is not lucrative, not glamorous and not high profile. There is even an American survey that says poets die sooner than other species of writers - I am not sure if it is true.

"The other question is of belonging or perhaps of not belonging, which has been a recurrent preoccupation for me in my work. Even in poetry which we talk of as such a marginal activity, it has taken a long time for me to make peace with that position of marginality and to actually see it not as a weakness but as strength - to see the position of the outsider, at least in public perception, as a position of tremendous advantage.

During the talk, she elaborated on five moments in her life which she said were significant in shaping her own understanding poetry.

"Poetry a space of magic"

"The first moment is my own image that I have of myself as a three-year-old just emerging into the verbal universe. I remember my early encounter with poetry - nursery rhymes in English, nonsense words in Hindi, growing up as a Tamilian in Mumbai, with a mother who lived in Delhi, and her parents from Burma... so as most Indians I grew up in a multi-lingual mess at home, never quite knowing where one language begins and another language ends - really not even knowing the distinction between one language and the other. So I had fragmentary bits of meaning when I heard these fragments of rhymes - I remember having glimpses of understanding.

"The book I remembered most of all was one that gave this tremendous sense of joy just being in the presence of patterns of language - of language that organized into unpredictable patterns. It seemed to me that the language that grown-ups speak was a kind of staid, unsurprising, everyday, pedestrian language, the language that walks. Whereas in poetry, whether it is English, Hindi, Marathi or Tamil, it was another kind of language - one that danced. It seemed to be capable of getting from one point to another without ever joining the dots. It took my breath away just as my earliest dance performances took my breath away. It was a sense of utter unpredictability, the sense that language was not subject to same laws of gravity that govern prose - it seemed to be magical language. It was language that could careen,swoop, plummet, dive, it could be terrestrial, aerial - It was capable of anything, it was a dangerous language - this was my earliest hunch of poetry," she said.

Asserting that there was so much more to a poem than mere meaning, she said, "We are so encouraged to believe that the only thing that matters in a poem is its meaning. Yet as children, we realize quite effortlessly that meaning is just a small part of language. The sensuous resources of the language we don't need to be trained to respond to, it is a primal ability, and I think it is very important for me to go back and tell myself that I can retrieve this moment to myself, that the ability to respond to poetry is not just my birthright, but an instinct with which I am born."

She further said, "The question that periodically comes your way when you are an Anglophone poets like me is 'why do you write in English', and why not in a host of other languages like Tamil or Hindi. But I am not here to justify that. English is an Indian language, it is as Indian as cricket and democracy - you can choose to make it your own. My early understanding of language was not about the distinction between languages - that was of no consequence - but what was of consequence to me was the distinction between prose and poetry. Whatever the language, prose seems to be plodding, terrestrial language, while poetry was another language - a space where words behaved differently. Poetry was a space of magic - of electric language, dark language - where it was feral, sly and full of surprise, and I think this particular distinction is one that still holds good for me. It is the reason why poetry is the oldest form of literary enchantment and why it is a dark art."

"Poetry not dissimilar to music"

Recalling a moment of realization that significantly paved the way for her, she said, "The second moment is a very specific one, that happened when I was 13. I was at my grandfather's house in Chennai during a muggy summer vacation. I remember pulling out a book from the shelf, and it was by someone called T S Eliot - I had no clue who it was then. I remember just flipping through this book and I began to read. I read his 'The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock'. I had no clue what it meant, I had absolutely no idea. But I recognized it and I think this was to me an important moment - the realization that it is possible to recognize something even before you understand it. I couldn't paraphrase the poem, but I responded exhuberantly, there was a tremendous sense of homecoming and I realized that this is where I want to be in my life - Here in this melodious tempest of sound and velocity and rushing air. I did not know what it meant but it seemed to be a mysterious place and I had no problem with mystery.

"There were two discoveries I made here - one, that poetry was not dissimilar to music. We all have the ability to respond to music, to say whether we like it or dislike it, never knowing quite why. And poetry is pretty much the same. I did not understand what poetry meant, but I felt invited. I wanted to be in this particular mosaic of words. That was a sense of homecoming. And the second discovery was that mystery was poetry's domain, and that was fine. I think we are so often encouraged to feel by a narrow utilitarian world that when we come across something we do not understand, it is a problem with us or with the person who created the work - there is simply no third alternative. But I did not feel the need to feel diminished simply because I did not understand. I realized that complexity and complicity are quite irrelavent. The only real distinction that counts is a good poem and a bad poem, and that distinction holds. I really do not need to live in a fully decoded universe. I want that patterning of shadow and clarity - moments of clarity and moments of shadows. In that patterning there is something beautiful and something very true," she added.

"Teachers asking 'what is the poet trying to say' extinguished many future poetry lovers"

"I say all this in hindsight, but at that time what was happening in a parallel universe - in school - was quite different. The question that teachers have asked for generations is 'what is the poet trying to say'. This was a question I was tyrannized with in school. Here I was having a magical moment with T S Eliot on a summer holiday, and here in school was a teacher asking 'what is the poet trying to say'. I suspect they still ask the same question. It amazed me that teachers never asked 'what is the poet saying', it was always what is the poet 'trying' to say. The implicit assumption is that the poet cannot say it, and that you with your 'superior wisdom' have to decode and figure out what the poet was trying to say," Subramaniam said.

"The other assumption is that the only thing worth keeping in the poem is the meaning. To my mind it is with this question that we have created a real fracture - an almost irrevocable divide between form and content, between style and substance, sound and symantics, almost as if the form, style and sound can be thrown away without any loss to the poem, that the only thing that counts is content, theme and meaning. In fact, if you have understood the meaning, you 'may' have understood the poem, but it is absolutely no guarantee that you have, because a poem is such an inextricable chemical compound where form and content cannot be separated.

"I really do feel many future lovers of poetry where extinguished when teachers asked this question ('what is the poet trying to say'). Everyone has written at least one poem, but it amazes me how all of us who have written at least one poem have turned into readers who do not read poetry. I feel school teachers have a lot to answer for. I do believe that somewhere along the way this idea that poetry is an adolescent genre, and fiction and prose is the adult form was something that we all picked up because of questions of this kind. When I ask students when was the last time they bought a book of poetry, there is a defeaning silence. The book that we take along to read on flight or train is not a book of poetry. And yet there was a time when poetry was our closest companion," she said.

"At what time did we start to believe that poetry was intimidating, difficult stuff? American poet and critic Randall Jarrell once said, it is not that people have not stopped reading modern poetry because it is difficult; it is because they have stopped reading poetry that they find it difficult. I feel there is an insight there. It is time to reclaim poetry as something we are all capable and fully empowered to respond to," she added.

"Language is a chemical you have to treat with respect"

Narrating her evolution as a poet, she said, "The third moment is a chapter in my life. It is an image of myself again, I almost imagine myself with a lab coat in a laboratory or a workshop. It is a phase I call my phase of apprenticeship. Every poet and artist goes through this. I knew I wanted to write poetry as it was the shortest, most direct and most pleasureable verbal route to myself. But it was not so easy, because it is one thing to be a lover of poetry, but another thing to find your own voice as poet. I went through a whole gamut of phases - when you try to write like those you admire and end up like those you dislike - all an integral part of the journey. But what kept me going was just discovering language as a chemical, as a live, explosive, molten substance, and just watching it was reward enough. I made discoveries that today stand me in good stead. I discovered that if you apply heat and pressure, its chemical property changes. I discovered that when you write a poem, different tones enter the poem than the ones you intended - this is the alchemy that poetry and language are capable of.

"Language is a chemical you have to treat with respect, because it can scorch. You may believe that you are the grand manipulator of language, and to some extent you are, but you also need to know when to stop and follow and let language take the lead.

"Poetry is not just about originality, inspiration and spontaenity - it is all that but it is also as much about perspiration, of creativity but also of craft, of 'ras' and 'riyaz', about endless revisions and re-drafts. I realized the finest critics are not enemies of poetry - they are truly healers capable of taking you into the heart of the poem, to caverns where its life energies flow. The best critics can open up the poem, while the bad ones pull the shutters down on poetry," she added.

"I am very deliberately talking about the form, language, sound and sensuous aspects of poetry and not its content. We already spend far too much time about content of poetry. Content matters, but it is not everything," she stressed.

"Poetry offers the third option"

"I will touch on notions of content in the fourth point that I would like to share. It took me time to understand that I was drawn to poetry as it seemed a place where it was possible to be not just this or that, but where it was possible to be this and that, where one could be in a state of rage and tenderness at the same time, talk of love and mistrust at the same time.

Unfortunately we live in a world that often encourages us to believe that the only way to be is in the 'either/or' paradigm, in a state of terminal earnestness or a terminal triviality. It feels like there are no options. To my mind, poetry can offer the third option. There is a space in language where it is fine to sound tentative, provisional - this is a place where commas are welcome, where you can pause and welcome a question mark. You don't have to be seduced by the full stop which seems to have taken over every aspect of our lives - whether our political life, our religious life and cultural life," she said.

Arundhathi Subramaniam then read her poem 'To the Welsh Critic who Doesn't Find Me Identifiably Indian', which she termed her 'rage poem', and though based on a real Welsh critic, was an answer to all those voices that are constantly telling one 'how to belong' and insisting on and legislating identities based on certain formulae. The poem was received with a thunderous applause by the audience.

"Poetry is essentially a way of resisting readymade language of any kind - whether it is spewed at us journalistically, or as commercial, political or religious propaganda, slogans and cliches of any kind are suspect in poetry. Sometimes the only way to resist another gatekeeper is to say 'I will be my own gatekeeper just for a little while', to say 'this is my turf and I am not giving it away'. The license to be uncertain, to be ambivalent, to be this, that and the other, not either/or - that is the license of poetry. And I will fight for these, simply because I believe that the license to be explorative is one of our greatest freedom. We don't have to succumb to the language of conclusion that has taken over our lives so comprehensively. It can be a sign of strength to be in a state of uncertainty. It is not cowardice, not weakness," she asserted.

"Poetry a verbal art that embraces pauses"

Recalling a near-death experience that changed her perception of poetry, she said, "The last moment of my life I want to share is a particular one which happened around March 1997, when I went through an experience for which I have no ready explanation. It was a near-death experience for which I have no physical or psychological rationale. I mention it only because when I started coming out of this, I realized for the first time that there were vast areas of myself that could not be matched by language. What I did realize is the fact that poetry is a verbal art that consciously embraces pauses. There is no other verbal art that does that. All those blank spaces in a page of poetry matter and have meaning. They have earned their place, they are the source of a poem's life energy. As a result of this realization my own work started to change, it became more perforated, little more open to bewilderment and willing to be little guided by the pause and a little less anxious to fill in the blanks. I began to realize poems mean not in spite of their silences, but because of them."

"Being on border allows access to other worlds"

"There was also the realization that a state of multiple identity was not a problem. Sometimes it feels like we have inherited such a welter of confused, conflicting identities - we are this, that and so much more - it somehow feels a recipe for confusion. For me a shift occured when I wrote a cycle of poems titled 'Shakuntala', on the mythological character Shakuntala. It seemed to me that Shakuntala the character's inheritance was perpetually fractured. She was genetically doomed as far as I could see, as she was a daughter of a sage and an 'Apsara'. She has to be torn constantly between forest and city, between hermitage and court, between nature and culture, flesh and spirit - a tragic story on many levels. But I realized suddenly by the close of the cycle of poems that something had shifted in my own perception of Shakuntala. I saw her no longer as a problem but as a tremendous possibility. I realized she was a person like every human being. By virtue of being split and pulled in so many directions she embodies the possibility of healing, embodies a point of integration. She has access to more than one world, because she has multiple citizenship. I realized being at the border allows you, in fact, entry to many worlds, and that is such a freedom, such a liberty," she said.

Reiterating that 'unbelonging is a state of belonging', Subramaniam concluded her enlightening talk by reciting her poem 'Home' which formed the basis of the theme of her lecture 'Give Me A Home That Isn't Mine'.

At the beginning of the talk, she also read her poem 'Where I Live' based on Mumbai.

The talk was followed by an engaging interactive session during which the audience expressed their thoughts and put forth questions to Subramaniam on various aspects of poetry.

'A Land Called South India', a book authored by William Pais and Vincent Mendonca was presented to Arundhathi Subramaniam as a token of appreciation and gratitude by the office-bearers of Kavita Trust.

Earlier, William Pais, trustee of Kavita Trust and propreitor of Gallerie Orchid welcomed the gathering and introduced Arundhathi Subramaniam. Malini Hebbar compered.

President of Kavita Trust Melvyn Rodrigues, treasurer Averyl Rodrigues, James Mendonca, Joseph Mathias, Titus Noronha, Rohan Monteiro, Andrew L D'Cunha and many others were present.

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Comment on this article

  • Kumaraguruparan R, Chennai

    Wed, Aug 26 2015

    Arundhathi Subramaniam's scanning of the elements of poetry is thought-provoking. Her argument as a swinging pendulum from form to content, art to science and the semantic deliberations excite us to lean towards poetry. Kudos to Kavita Trust and thanks to for sharing with photo-journalism (courtesy: Dayanand Kukkaje.. as if we-in distance mode- are there with the audience!)
    What Arundhathi Subramaniam is trying to say...lingering aroma of poetry still in my mind...I continue to enjoy...

    DisAgree Agree [2] Reply Report Abuse

  • John B. Monteiro, Bondel, Mangalore

    Wed, Aug 26 2015

    Despite my ardent wish to attend the Kavita Trust sponsored lecture by Arundhati Subramaniam, unavoidable duty took me out of town on that day. Daijiworld coverage of the lecture is a fair compensation. Her lecture reads like poetry in prose in slow motion. She has poise and attractive stage presence and must have mesmerised the audience into wanting more. I wish you had also included the two poems she is reported to have recited in your coverage.
    There is one more point. Website coverage broadly falls under transient and abiding subjects. Arundhati’s lecture falls into the latter category and deserves to have longer shelf-life rather than pushed down into the oblivion of archives. Is it technically not feasible to keep it upfront for a longer duration?
    While on the subject, I congratulate William Pais on providing such a cozy venue of his Gallerie Orchid. It can serve a duel role as silent art gallery and cozy vibrant venue for cultural/intellectual events.

    DisAgree Agree [3] Reply Report Abuse

  • Shsm, Doha

    Mon, Aug 24 2015

    Kavita Trust is taking a great initiative by organizing such events to encourage budding poets. Poet Arundhati narrated her stories and becoming of a poet. However, I do not agree with her view that poets may die early, my impression was that poets live long than others as we have seen many of our poets living long like Dr. Shivaram Kharant, Dr. Kinnanna Rai, and others....

    DisAgree [4] Agree [8] Reply Report Abuse

  • Gerry D'Mello, Bendur / Canada

    Mon, Aug 24 2015

    I salute Kavita Trust & it's poet leader Baab Melvin Rodrigues for taking such a great and an unique initiative in organizing Endowment Lectures by world's renowned poets year after year. Personally I was so excited and thrilled by just reading the wonderful coverage/pics and just imagine what would've been my happiness if at all I had the awesome opportunity to attend the event in person! Keep up your great work my beloved friend Melvin in promoting the great art of poetry and a big 'thank you' to James/Shobha Mendonca for supporting such rare events!

    Long live Kavita Trust!

    DisAgree [4] Agree [6] Reply Report Abuse

  • Vicky D, Dubai

    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    Khelutha hodhe aah sunder kavithriya nayanagalanu..

    Seeluta hodhe aah kamari hoda jwalamukhiya aasegalnu

    'Innu saaku kavigale, malagee' yendu manasu helitu

    Kanasu kaanalu bhidoo! 'Night is still young' yendu hrudaya bheditu!


    DisAgree [3] Agree [5] Reply Report Abuse

  • Ivan Saldanha, Mangalore

    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    Kudos! Indeed this is one talk that crystallizes what a wordsmith can really contribute. The poets erudite and masterly delivery of language was a great experience that almost anyone could identify with. 'Give me a home that isn't really mine' the theme compels humans to think a lot and think deep. Indeed an exclusive matter. Thank you indeed. -ijss.

    DisAgree [4] Agree [4] Reply Report Abuse

  • paul dsouza, balakunje

    Sun, Aug 23 2015


    DisAgree [1] Agree [6] Reply Report Abuse

  • Joseph F. Gonsalves, Bannur, Puttur / Mangalore

    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    Pikalle Aambe.
    Tulu film Soombe.
    Pauvs thembe Thembe.
    Udhak waahloumk Dhambe.
    Konknechi kavita aamche Kambe.
    Bhaashechya kaatak zhuzhe Kombe.
    Konkni misak ousa konkneche Saandhe.
    Aamchya kodyalak udhkachem mool Thumbe.
    Halvon gele poilenchi chaliyanche shende ube-Ube.

    DisAgree [12] Agree [18] Reply Report Abuse


    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    Wow !! Joss Baab Thum kithyak kavita sammelanak vosonk nai?.. Thuka likchem barpoor denem asa..
    thujya sarv liknechya kaamak havn zaith magtha..

    DisAgree [8] Agree [19] Reply Report Abuse

  • Joseph F. Gonsalves, Bannur, Puttur / Mangalore

    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    God bless you and me and all so that His name be glorified.

    DisAgree [5] Agree [11] Reply Report Abuse

  • Jossie Mascarenhas, Bajpe / Dubai

    Mon, Aug 24 2015

    Great, the last line was superb sir. Truly where have those Shendes gone ??

    Thyaa sobith shendyani kithem aasthalem konna modhem modhem
    Wilfyaban sanglelya bari aavalegi, ponosgi, kuwalegi ya laan limbe
    Joss baabachem taalenth maatr khandith zaavn kalai kaadlelem thaambem

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  • Joseph F. Gonsalves, Bannur, Puttur / Mangalore

    Mon, Aug 24 2015

    Thoudyo pataaki Tuss, Tuss.
    Gosalak naaka hoglap Buss, Buss.
    Jossie Mascarenhas,Bajpe Huss, Huss.
    VV Gladys Noronha, Phulam thuka Ghos Ghos.
    Sorwank thumkam borem Magtham ullas Raas, Raas

    DisAgree [4] Agree [6] Reply Report Abuse

  • jerardin dsouza, mangalore/bangalore

    Sun, Aug 23 2015

    A Great 'Out of the World' Feeling listening and meeting Arundhathi Subramaniam, a Poet and Human par Excellence. Her way of interacting and taking me, an uninitiated, into the realms of Poetry was truly amazing. She connected like NO other. Poetry, specially, Indian writing English Poetry was a little jarring to me. But she gave such insights, that it made me look on poetry in a whole new dimension. I spent lot of personal time with her after the Lecture. She came across as a tender hearted, sensitive humorous individual.I told her at least 5o % of the people wouldn't follow all her 'High' words, for which she said''every synonym wont be exact translation of the emotion, each word has its own unique expression and cant be substituted'' which I totally agree. I had her personal EmailID & would surely be interacting with a ''Super Woman'' like her. Truly grateful to Our National Award Winning Poet Melvyn Rodrigues for inviting me & Mr.James Mendonca for supporting such a Rare & beautiful Proram. It truly was a paradigm shifting 'Eureka' moment for me. Thans to Daijiworld for such an extensive detailed coverage. BRAVO.!!! LoveJerardin D'souza-Founder-MAA-Mangalore Alzheimer's Association

    DisAgree [3] Agree [16] Reply Report Abuse

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