So, you think you appreciate poetry? (1)

The subtitle of this blog is: Let alone write it.


Disclaimer first: This is no derision or discounting of the poets. Nor am I pouring cold water on the enthusiasm of aspiring poets or those who believe they are poetry connoisseurs. But as I was reading an old guide for poets, I realized that poetry needs to be savored at so many levels, and this ancient guide may come in handy. But, before you read on think of your favorite poem.

The modernists everywhere would love to to tear down the last bastions of everything, but not everything not-modern needs to be torn down. May be it appears that bastions make some spaces less inclusive, but simplification and overcrowding spaces does not necessarily bring in excellence.

Today I share these guiding principles from the first chapter by Mammata (मम्मट). He began his treatise on the science of poetry thus:

नियतिकृतनियमरहितां ह्लादेकमयीमनन्यपरतन्त्राम ।
नवरसरुचिरां निर्मितिमादधती भारतीकवेर्जयति ॥

Meaning, glorious is the poet’s language that is unrestrained even by the Nature’s laws, that is soaked in joy alone as it rejoices in nine Rasas, and depends on none as it grasps the Creation.

So, even before we go on to the why and how of the poetry, there is an eye opener. The language of a poet (or why not a writer, too?) is not supposed to be bound by the nature’s laws – let alone the social laws and norms. It may use any of the nine Rasas as the poet wishes, and need not be mindful of what is or isn’t acceptable to powers that be. This language is meant only for joy. If you can’t find your joy in it, leave it. for the writer, too – if the ultimate outcome of poetry is not joy, don’t try it at home. Poetry is never meant to be a seed of battles and blackenings.

Okay, coming back to the point.

The first chapter is short. And Mammata talks about why people write and read poetry, what is at the source of poetry and what kind of poetry is excellent, fair and poor. Here’s what he says:

काव्यं यशसेSर्थकृते व्यवहारविदे शिवेतरक्षतये ।
सध्य: परनिर्वृतये कान्तासम्म्तिलयोपदेशयुजे ॥

Meaning, people write poetry for fame, wealth. People read poetry so that they can know the ways of the world and can find relief from the evil. People read and write poetry for ridding their minds of all other things and for lessons (giving and taking) in the same gentle, loving and persuasive ways that a loving wife does.

Where is the genesis of poetry?

शक्तिर्निपुणता लोकशास्त्रकाव्याध्यवेक्षणात ।
काव्यज्ञशिक्षाभ्यास इति हेतुस्तदुद्भवे ॥

There is only one ingredient, and that is a combination. None alone works, and a few strong ones do not elbow others out. A poet should have a combination of (1) poetic ability (2) skill (3) study of the evolution of society,science, and poetry, and (4) practice under someone who knows how to write poetry (Chanakya would take no.4 a step further and say that the teacher should be an expert par excellence).

So – if one has this one ingredient, how should one know that the creation is good? HEre it goes:

तददोषौ शब्दार्थौ सगुणावनलंकृती क्वापि ।
इदमुत्तममतिशयिनि व्यङ्ग्ये वाच्याद्ध्वनिर्बुधै: कथित: ॥

Poetry should have words and sense (meaning), be free from faults, and be endowed with merits and excellence of style, which may at times be un-bejewelled by figures of speech. It is excellent, so the wise say, if the implied or suggested meaning is superior to the expressed or primary meaning.

If the suggested/secondary/implied meaning is weaker than the expressed or primary meaning, then the poetry is medium, or fair in quality.

Finally, however flawless, however ornamented, but if the described meaning is there only meaning there is on the verse, then it is the worst kind.

I can’t even recall without straining my memory when I last read something with deeper, only slightly veiled, second layer of meaning – of sense. Mammata says that when you savor that poetry, the subtle meaning bursts (Sphot in Sanskrit) upon you and covers you in delight.

I have tried to indulge myself in writing poetry in the past. But I do not remember if I wrote anything with deeper, secondary meaning that is different from the flat description that the text provides. May be it is not for all of us – to make poetry flawless, full of merits, ornamental and laden with layers of meaning.

Now recall the poem you thought of a while ago. What layers of meaning does it have? Or, as a reader, you just got your belly full by reading the apparent meaning? Is subtlety there? Would you want to look for deeper meaning?

If we do not have high benchmarks – not just for poetry, then we succumb to something similar to what is a traffic-jungle in Ahmedabad.

I was telling a friend that there should be traffic signals at every intersection in Ahmedabad. The friend said that there was no point of doing so because no one would follow that in Ahmedabad. But I believe if you don’t install signals assuming no one would look at them, no one actually would. If you have the signals, some day, someone would.

I am not saying poetry today is a lawless jungle, but it can surely be a source of more (challenge) and joy.

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4 thoughts on “So, you think you appreciate poetry? (1)

  1. Subhash Yadav says:

    Good poetry like good conversations is all about the silence that lies between and within the words. The poet uses words, but language and words are approximations in the vast, ever changing ocean of life.
    “The Indian grammarians say that the essential word or language (sabda tattva) is distinguished from and opposed to, dhvani, the articulated word realised as a structure of sound. The manifest language which is discrete and sequential is only a realisation in sound of the essential linguistic reality, the essential language which is non discrete (akhanda) and universally unchanging (nitya) in a speech community.” (Kapil Kapoor, page 22, Text and Interpretation)
    So, the poet while using dhvani, articulated sounds, is essentially conveying and communicating sabda tattva (Sabad of Kabir !) which remains the same in all languages.
    Probably thats why I, as a reader, can feel what Rilke, the German poet, writing in German is saying while reading it in English.
    This reminds me of an interview of Rilke’s translator in English, Stephen Mitchell. After reading Rilke, getting deeply imbued in his poetry in German, Stephen wanted to translate some of his poem into English. All his attempts to do so were painful, excruciating and aborted in between. May be he was able to create the requisite dhvani in Engilsh, but was unable to reach to the sabda tattva of Rilke.
    Many years later, after undergoing a full time extensive Zen training for 6 years from a living Zen master in USA, one day he just tried to translate some of Rilke’s poem again into English. And as he puts it, “The poems started sliding out of me, smoothly in English…”
    May be the Zen training cleansed his mind, and he was able to catch the Sabda tattva of Rilke’s poetry in German dhvani’s and was able to transfer it into English dhvani’s.
    A good translation transfers the sabda tattva inherent in a poem.
    A good poet transfers the sabda tattva inherent in life.
    As Kabir says, Sadho Sabad bindho.
    Thanks M’am for helping to bring this all out.


    • Exactly! As you have quoted in the beginning, Mammata says the same thing. He says that the beauty of words is at one level, but when the sense bursts in your mind, it creates an amazing impact.

      I have the Kavyaprakash exam tomorrow. Thanks for writing in!

      BTW, I also think that you should have a blog. We would have such rich nuggets to glean. The vastness of your reading and your memory in quoting from them is impressive.


      • Subhash Yadav says:

        Thanks for your appreciation, M’am.
        Shall make an effort towards writing something.
        Best of luck for your exams.
        It is good to be a student and a teacher simultaneously. May be because of this you were able to keep your oasis intact in the sands of life.


  2. Subhash Yadav says:

    Thank you very much for this post. A Professor of Management writing on poetry augurs well for the discipline !
    We urgently need the metaphorical way of looking and understanding life in these days of overdose of logical and quantitative ways of understanding reality.

    “Do aur Do ka jod hamesha char kahan hota hai
    Soch Samajh walon ko thodi nadani de Maula”
    – Nida Fazli

    Have a lot to share and comment. To begin with this is how poetry came to Pablo Neruda,

    And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
    in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
    it came from, from winter or a river.
    I don’t know how or when,
    no they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence,
    but from a street I was summoned,
    from the branches of night, abruptly from the others,
    among violent fires or returning alone,
    there I was without a face and it touched me.
    I did not know what to say, my mouth had no way with names,
    my eyes were blind, and something started in my soul,
    fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way,
    deciphering that fire, and I wrote the first faint line,
    faint, without substance, pure nonsense, pure wisdom
    of someone who knows nothing, and suddenly I saw
    the heavens unfastened and open, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled
    with arrows, fire and flowers, the winding night, the universe.

    And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry
    void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part
    of the abyss, I wheeled with the stars,
    my heart broke loose on the wind.


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