Thursday, January 10, 2008

Pedestrian Poetry
...and Weathered Verse

Poetry has always been seen by most, as the use of language to allow outpourings rather than achieve outcomes; to yield to inward yearnings rather than attend to everyday dealings. To the thoroughly practical among us, who believe in talking less and saving time, poetry has more to do with a play on words when what we ought to be doing is saying it like it is. To those of us with a casual interest, it is still something to be heard and humoured rather than talked about and thought over; literary curiosities to be recalled on occasion for effect rather than for ongoing contemplation of the verses' cause. Even to the connoisseurs, poetry is something to be savoured in solitude, something that lingers in loneliness; and not exactly something that belongs to commonplace conversation even in the most refined of circles.

Poetry is associated with leaps of imagination and flights of fancy, and not the tiring treading and trodden paths of everyday routines. Polite conversation in most walks of life is always made in pedestrian prose, and mostly about things as prosaic as the weather and the happenings of the day. The weather and the happenings of a tiring day did not obviously seem a story of prosaic inevitability to Robert Frost when he wrote 'Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening'. The poem is a brooding reverie and yet not a downcast resignation. It admits fatigue and foreboding of the course of events, and yet whispers the message of purposefulness and promise. It reads like a wanderer's nightly musing, but has lines which are recalled every day by real-life achievers, to whom this poem continues to be a 'thought for the day' and a reminder of promises and journeys that beckon.

While recalling and reciting lines of poetry was once the preserve of pretentious literati, churning out poetry has in recent years become a pastime for self-styled web and blog 'chatterati'. In a way, amateur poetry now is about as commonplace as talk of the weather, and in many cases, just about as edifying. A melange of mixed metaphors, borrowed imagination and incongruous juxtapositions often passes off as poetry simply by merit of the fact that some lines rhyme. The lines of such so-called poetry do not unite like the lines of a painting, do not contain woven narratives and the words they end in are akin only acoustically and seldom united in thought. While one must always acknowledge the yearning for self-expression that lies behind these works; it may be said at the risk of sounding uncharitable, that if the intention of such poetry is to be avant-garde or bohemian, all that it achieves is a sort of literary irreverence; and sometimes the intention itself , by the admission of the very creators of these works , is simply to produce something 'catchy' and 'whacky'. So the thickening verbiage of amateur poetry does not represent a heightening of aesthetic contemplation and expression among the crowds, but simply a 'me-too' plebeian fad, a singing-along of sorts though almost always out of tune.

While rhyme is a poetic device that one is familiar with since the days of nursery rhymes, the indispensability of meter is recognized only with some care. Rhyme is the staple of much amateur poetry so much so that online databases and generating algorithms are now found aplenty to get rhyming words. Once in a while though, one does find in the Internet and outside, people who are willing to explore poetic forms beyond the conventional and hackneyed external rhyme, and are at home with metric intricacies. To be fair, there are to be found among the ranks of amateur poets, people whose work can claim to be poetry in spirit and not just in letter. One popular poetic form in such circles is the Japanese haiku. The English variant of Japanese haiku is a poem of simply three lines; of which the first and third contain five syllables and the second contains seven. While this form is most plain-looking and often shorn of the familiar rhyme, its virtue lies in its undramatic yet ringing revelation, that a seemingly plain truth is not so plain after all, and sometimes may not be truth at all. Here's an apt example for this virtue of haiku, that I found in the description of an orkut community devoted to this form:

The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
...Was a butterfly

An undiscerning reader might sneer at the apparent lack of any poetry here, but the essence of haiku is in the imagery and evocation conveyed without a flourish but in a flash, in numbered syllables. The defining characteristics and the triple raison-d'etre of the traditional Japanese haiku were a 'season word' , 'nature word' and a 'pause'. They embody, between them, an unforced awareness of the present movement, an ease of belonging with the time and place, and unhurried appreciation of unnoticed wonders. These aspects of haiku are still kept in mind by present-day enthusiasts. Here is an example I found at the UCLA Asia Institute's haiku example page:

Falling to the ground,
I watched a leaf settle down
In a bed of brown

Without the references to nature and the seasons, haiku would sound vague and vacuous. The season and nature words are in fact as vital as the 'frozen lake', 'downy flake' and the dark, deep woods in Frost's immortal poem. Just those words were enough to convey, without any abstract nouns; an almost tangible feeling of uncertainty, eeriness, acceptance and expectation. Haiku too, uses these words to gently nudge the reader's imagination without hand-holding him through prolonged panoramic vistas. Haiku is laconic yet lively, seemingly combining brevity and vividness.

The limerick is another perennially popular short poetic form, of more Western origin and certainly more light-hearted than haiku. It is best defined by this specimen which I found, again in the description of an orkut community:

What is a limerick, Mother?
It's a form of verse, said brother
In which lines one and two
Rhyme with five when it's through
And three and four rhyme with each other.

Limericks have from the beginning been the staple of 'nonsense verse' and wikipedia chooses this very apt example to begin:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical!

Unlike the picturesque and penetrating haiku, limericks range from the ridiculous to the ribald, though they can also be made satirical or sardonic. Both forms, though so different in cultural context, have in common their status as everyman's poetry over the ages; and most works in these forms are anonymous. Mostly composed on a whim as if in play; any profoundness in these works, even if intended, is always understated. One thing both these forms are free of, is ponderosity. In haiku, sensations are more important than the sentences. In a limerick, levity is as important as brevity. If it were simply about words and numbers, one could always compose an abstract haiku or a sombre limerick, but such an exercise for its own sake would result in verse that appears incongruous and unmoving to audiences who are familiar with the traditional associations of these forms. Staying within the cultural context means that one can exploit more fully the possibilities of a form, and produce work that lends itself to wider sharing, with readier enjoyment and appreciation.

Haiku impressed me as a far Eastern form that is now well-practiced in the West, and as an Easterner now in a western milieu and clime, that is the form I choose to pen my impressions of an ordinary winter evening in southern California.

Taking both my hands,
The cold both greets and bids farewell;
When palms press in warmth.

Claiming sleeves fully,
Sunken by palms in pockets;
Arms can't swing and wave.

Feet outrun the cold,
Borrowing from wind its speed;
To catch breath indoors.

Seen from the window,
Blackberries are pale acorns;
Painted by dusk's brush.

Sunshine is hidden.
What falls now is darkness but...
It isn't night yet.

Sight yields to eyelids.
The hands feeling unseen cold...
Yield to the blanket.

If haiku seems apt for such a quick sketch of the surroundings and nature, limericks are apt for sketching the quirks of human nature. A professor from Pennsylvania visiting my university recently, remarked that you know you're in California if it's 50 degrees at night and you still see someone in gloves! Here is my take on winters that seem colder than they are!

Shivering folks in woollens wrapped
Why, when the wind's just mildly flapped?
It's fear's chill blast...
The weather forecast!
By wind in print these folks are trapped!

By the weather report winter's defined
Though mercury's not dipped you'll find
Heaters' fuel burnt,
Here's the lesson learnt
Winter too is a state of mind!

So there, we have explored and experimented with two simple poetic forms, while still talking about the weather. Lest we think that we have begun to understand poetic meters, let us look back to what the timeless scriptural poem of India, the Bhagavad Gita has to say, incidentally also about the weather. Originally written in chaste Sanskrit in impeccable metric composition mostly in the Anushtup meter, it was rendered in metric form in English by the poet Edwin Arnold in 1885. This masterpiece is one of the most genuine presentations of Eastern thought to the Western world, in poetry that preserves the grandeur of the original. Here is a verse from the translation:

Thy sense-life, thrilling to the elements_ _
Bringing thee heat and cold, sorrows and joys
'Tis brief and mutable! Bear with it, Prince!

The thoughts of another age and civilization seem to be so effortlessly captured by the poet in lines of precisely ten syllables each, in a meter which, innocent of prosody as I am, daresay appears to be the iambic pentameter. Living as we do in a busy world where one can lose count even of the syllables of a haiku, caring not which syllable is short and long, and cutting every long story short... iambs such as these, in their austere majesty, are monuments in themselves, to timeless epics and forgotten sciences, set in poetry that is towering and transcendental in comparison to which, in the words of Emerson, ' our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial'.


Seeker of Truth said...

Here are links to the poems I mention in the post:
(Stopping by woods on a snowy evening)
(Edwin Arnold's 'Song Celestial')
(UCLA Asia haiku examples)

Whispering Shadow said...

I stopped writing poetry because I thought I was doing injustice to what a poem was. As you said, I believe a poem should always leave one with a thought. Conclusions look good in enginnering journals, but not on poetry. I was unable to do so.

Besides, I was completely unware about the nuances of haiku and lymerics. Thanks for clearing the misconceptions I had. It was an educating piece and I enjoyed your two attempts at the aforementioned.

Aditi said...

nice post.. very informative

Kunal said...

You know, all that theory sounds fine, the haiku's are nice too. Even at the cost of seeming moronic, can someone please explain to me how one goes about counting syllables?

Seeker of Truth said...

Here's one way to count syllables.

Say out the word. Identify the vowel sounds. Each vowel is flanked by consonant sounds. Simply silence the consonants mentally and count the vowel sounds.

1. Consider the monosyllabic word 'hit'
The single vowel sound 'i' is flanked by the consonants h and t.

2. Vowels may be short or long. It's not just the "a,e,i,o,u" letters; but all diphthongs that we are interested in.

eg. 'fraught' is a monosyllabic word with simply the 'au' sound and flankers. That English is non-phonetic adds to our troubles.

3. There may not always be consonant flankers on either side.
Consider the disyllabic word 'inky'.
The first vowel sound has no starting consonant; and the second vowel sound has no ending consonant.

4. The process can be readily extended.
'sesquipedalian' has 6 syllables (not 16!). Note the difference between the fifth and sixth syllables though there is no explicit consonant separating them. sEs-quI-pEd-Al-I-'y'An

5. The non-phonetic nature of English produces several traps.
'Flailed' is just a monosyllabic word. 'Aria' is trisyllabic.

6. Technically speaking, the vowel sound is called the 'syllable nucleus' and the flankers are called 'initial and final margins'. The devil of course is in the details; but with this intro, one can look up on diphthongs and move on to identify long and short vowels (In Devanagari, this is child's play though) Hard and soft consonants are a different story and it will be great if someone can give us an intro.