5 June 2009

If I had been born a decade later, I'd be an Emo Kid

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.

22 comments:

  1. omg...first one to comment.
    Dont have anything specific in mind about what to write as I've not even read works of any of the poets you have praised except Salinger.

    Please let us (hidden, regular readers) have some updates on what's happening at your end.

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  2. Déjà vu . Only thing that i did not have any idol as cope.

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  3. I believe that poetry is in being able to be insightful to a small piece of your personal world which everybody knows about but hardly appreciate. Some how a few lines of brilliant poetry makes you cringe as to how much you have missed by not appreciating it. Thats is good poetry

    Sometimes it not in ordinary mortals like me to be so perspective to things around us. To be inspired.
    Some times you have a lot of pent up thoughts but lack the art form to express it. Sometimes both.

    Well written tho...

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  4. nice writeup , but BAD poetry. just kidding, thanks for poetry tips, but i think more often the poet becomes so much more bigger than the poetry itself that people admire even the crapest ones comming from him. so i have felt when i read some of Narudas, eliots or even frosts. but the larger and well know works overshadows everything. i feel its imposible to churn out good poetry all the time, its a marble, some good some bad. what say? ciao

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  5. Have you read Carolyn Forche ?

    We have come far south.
    Beyond here, the oldest women
    shelling limas into black shawls.
    Portillo scratching his name
    on the walls, the slender ribbons
    of piss, children patting the mud.
    If we go on, we might stop
    in the street in the very place
    where someone disappeared
    and the words Come with us! we might
    hear them. If that happened, we would
    lead our lives with our hands
    tied together. That is why we feel
    it is enough to listen
    to the wind jostling lemons,
    to dogs ticking across the terraces,
    knowing that while birds and warmer weather
    are forever moving north,
    the cries of those who vanish
    might take years to get here.

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  6. It's so true - the bit about how adolescent writers think poetry is what makes them a writer. Have been there, but without an idol.

    And yes, it's easier to write bad poetry than to write bad prose!

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  7. hard hitting concluding lines... and a wonderfully organised prose piece indeed. I have personally always envied great prose writers and those who write crisp and clear and yet evoke all the response there is to evoke are the ones I most revere. This post I reckon stands in that mould.

    I was that quintessential teenager too; and I still write in ratty notebooks and have lost hundreds of verses to loose sheets. Indeed, the consciousness of rhythm, beauty etc can often ache in a poet and sometimes you just want to stop. And as you have said, the key to a good verse is knowing where to stop.

    I throughly relished this piece and enjoyed the quotes, the flow and everything abt it.

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  8. I havent given up on petry yet, and hope to never!
    to quote myself "I find release in the seeming disorder of my poetry, The subtle signs i see."
    *self indulgent? yes ;) *

    And EECummings is THE poet.
    I like to think that, he wrote, in his every line, the theme-rhyme to my life.

    my favorites:
    "unbeing dead is not being alive" and

    "Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go"

    you can never get enough of him and each new reading brings new understanding.

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  9. http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?title=The%20first%20sound%20in%20the%20cosmos&artid=Xi|5COhu9dU=&type=

    for what poetry really is. :)

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  10. "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."

    We also think The Bell Jar is deep, and we do try to adopt Sylvia Plath's poetry style in our little scribbles.
    Or used to, any way.
    Now, we do Pablo Neruda ;-D

    Strangely, most adolescent writers (being one, and knowing many), grow out of poetry the minute they read that first line of ee cummings.
    None of us could do 'The Boys We Know Are Not Refined'.

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. For one I have always abhored poetry....don know why

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  13. So there's a lovely poem i hawk to everyone who's even remotely into poetry: check out pablo neruda's "sonnet xvii - love".
    the english translation is beautiful, which always makes me wonder how much more amazing it must be in its original language.

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  14. I think that I shall never see -
    My cataracts are blinding me.

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  15. Ah, I see a dilemma. It's easily fixed. Write prose for a living and poetry for yourself. Buy yourself a beautiful bound book and quill.

    When you're 80, looking back at your poetry, you won't cringe. Instead, you'll smile fondly..

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  16. and then it'll be time to have your diapers changed and the drool wiped off yer face by nursie. old age is awesome.

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  17. I've been most remiss in replying to comments, and for that I apologise. Can't promise I'll do it every single time, but as frequently as I can, yes. :)

    Prat: Updates? Lessee.. we're good, we're mostly happy, I bought awesome new clothes on Hill Road today which makes me even more happy and it was a fun, if mostly uneventful weekend. :)

    Numerounity: Cope IS awesome though, if that's your thing.

    operative: I like that explaination of good poetry a lot-- "cringe inside"--just what I think!

    Zillion: Ah, but you don't HAVE to write. Better to write no poem at all than a bad one, no?

    homer: i have not, in fact, read her, but that was an excellent poem. thanks for sharing!

    D.: but, oh, you must have done! what did you read to inspire you?

    srini: awww.. *blush* thank you!

    meghana: quoting yourself is one of the perks of the job. they're few and far between (the perks, i mean) so hang on to what you can get.

    snicker: it didn't open. :(

    trillian: oooh, ooh and william carlos williams. magic.

    rahul: thanks!

    pesto: welllll.. there's poetry in many things. music primarily. i wouldn't dismiss it all.

    namrata: i do love me some neruda!

    lkaj: true, true, but you'll have happy happy joy joy type memories, even if your nurse does smack you around.

    bloggywog: yes, but i kinda don't want to look back on my terrible poetry. much better to have some healthy decent prose, no?

    sabu: i had a look and he DOES look like fun. thanks for the tip!

    fishbowl: thanks! :)

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  18. Em... you put up these gems on you blog for the world to read... and an wannabe (inept) poet like me gets encouraged to attempt (very-likely-to-be-pathetic) poetry...

    Please take responsibility...

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  19. Great post. Am here for the first time and lovely to find you writing on poetry, for though am in late 20s I still indulge in Poetry.
    I write whatever comes to mind, sometime it rhymes n sometimes it doesnt..
    and its abstract most of the times. Have never got a one-on-one opinion on it.
    Would love to get your views on it, any sorts are welcome..
    if you do have in mind to visit its: http://mepretentious.blogspot.com/

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