A version of this appeared in my regular Sunday column with the Deccan Chronicle/The Asian Age. I do a books column for them, that comes out on Sundays and it's fun to write, because I mainly write about books I love and certain memories they trigger off. It's a side of myself I don't publicly talk about often, so it's nice to have the chance to do that. I began writing with poetry and even considered doing it for a living till I realised just how much I sucked at it, and switched to prose. But this was one of the columns I had the most fun writing, just for the research!
It is easy to find the adolescent writer (and by that, I mean a writer who is an adolescent, not someone who writes for them). They are moody and disappear for long periods of time into their rooms and can be seen mostly obsessively scribbling in some little ratty notebook or another. They carry books around with them—usually books that feel 'deep', like Kahlil Gibran or JD Salinger—and they look at you with scornful eyes when you suggest sports or other group activities. If you fit one or all of these stereotypes, I'd venture another bet. The scribbling? Is poetry.
I have these deep insights, because I too was once a teenage writer, having deep, meaningful teenage moments, playing songs over and over again on my tape deck and refusing to go anywhere without my book. And I wrote poetry. And such poetry it was! All the angst of the world lay in my poems, all the unrequited love—and honestly, who does unrequited love better than a teenager? For class composition assignments, when we were told to choose a genre, I chose poetry again, and was never surprised when it got good marks. “I'm going to be a poet,” I told everyone who asked, and even some people who didn't, “I might write prose to make some money—poets don't make much, sadly—but I'm going to be very famous.”
Along the way, I think, before I had reached the cringe stage upon rereads (and some of my efforts are truly cringe worthy) I discovered how much easier it was to do prose and not worry about stanzas or rhythms and just get a sentence perfect and I abandoned poetry, pretty much. A good thing too. No matter how good I thought I was, I was never going to make money off poetry, just as I realised as a teenager. Which is why now, reading poets that I love, I am filled with envy and longing. Oh, to be able to sum up an emotion in five lines! Oh, for the completeness of emotion that a haiku offers! Oh, to be that verbal acrobat, standing easily on my head instead of being the prosaic ticket collector at the entrance.
One of the few times I have felt envy at someone else's experience was when a friend told me that he got to go see Wendy Cope read. This friend—not even a Cope fan—was a bit put out at having to miss a tennis match, but admits to being completely converted by the end of it. I wanted to hyperventilate when I heard about that. I didn't even imagine she did appearances! Wendy Cope's poetry rhymes and is humorous and poignant all at the same time. I love her. She's also the reason I stopped writing poetry, because instead of evoking the 'me too' response that authors did for me, it was more the 'I'm never going to be able to do that'. Cope has three anthologies out—hard to find in India, but definitely worth ordering off Amazon. Allow me to offer you a sample:
From Being Boring
I don't go to parties. Well, what are they for,
If you don't need to find a new lover?
You drink and you listen and drink a bit more
And you take the next day to recover.
Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I've found a safe mooring,
I've just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.
Moving on then to someone so unlike Cope, that I wonder sometimes what goes towards making someone your favourite. I can tell a similarity in the prose writers I like, they all have somewhat the same themes and characters, but with poets, it's all over the place. e.e cummings with his dislike of punctuation and poems that just had to be read off the page as opposed to being read out loud or performed (something which today's poets cannot exist without in our entertainment hungry world). Cummings' poetry is all over the place but holds in its random phrasing and structure a very tight hold on the feeling he was trying to put out there. Get one of his anthologies, it's simple reading and something you will be able to keep returning to time and again.
From somewhere i have never travelled
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose
Poetry still continues to appeal to writers—amateur or otherwise—as the best possible way to get your thoughts out there. Be warned though, it's really easy to write a bad poem. And the secret to a good one, is knowing when to stop.