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The power of poetry

  |   Books

BENGALURU: When Amanda Gorman spoke at the inauguration of Joe Biden, people instantly fell in love with the power of poetry. Amanda’s words resonated across the world and she became an instant phenomenon. Her unpublished book The Hill We Climb and Other Poems reached the number one spot, eight months before it was released!

While Amanda had a worldwide audience at the inauguration, Catherine O’Meara aka Kitty O’Meara’s poem about the pandemic And The People Stayed Home went viral, creating confusion at first, with people crediting the poet Kathleen Omara, before realising it was posted online by a little-known poet.

The power of poetry is that it often cuts through the noise and clutter, and touches people’s heart in ways that is hard to explain. We have all learnt poems in school but there are a few that we remember. My personal favourites are Rabindranath Tagore’s Where the Mind is without Fear (from Gitanjali), written before India gained its independence; Rudyard Kipling’s If, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pity the Nation. All three poems have a permanent place in my study room.

Though I have never understood the technicalities of poetry and have not tried writing poetry myself, there are some styles that I have been attracted to, primarily that of Pablo Neruda. Neruda was so popular that many parents lovingly named their boys Pablo (his original name was Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto). His poems are simple, universally comprehensible, and speak of the everyday. Their subjects range from rain to feet to artichokes! By minutely examining what is commonplace — a plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, or an aspect of modern life — Neruda allowed us to examine them at leisure with love, care and attention.

An anthology of 600 of Neruda’s poems arranged chronologically was published as The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. The collection draws from 36 different translators, and some of his major works are also presented in their original Spanish. Gabriel Garcia Marquez called this the most comprehensive English-language collection of work ever by “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language”. One of my personal highlights was visiting Neruda’s home “La Chascona” in Santiago, Chile.

India has had a rich history of poetry. From Vedic Sanskrit poems crafted over 3,000 years ago to Urdu poetry that flourished particularly under the Mughal Empire, the sheer variety of poetry traditions in India can be quite overwhelming. Indian poetry has been written in many languages and some translations do not do justice to the original. Kabir wrote in Hindi, Kalidasa in Sanskrit, Mirza Ghalib in Urdu, Amir Khusrau in Persian and Tagore in Bengali. Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Surayya and Vikram Seth are among the most influential Indian poets writing in English.

One of the best-selling poets of all time is 13th century Persian poet Rumi. His poems about love, spirituality and unity speak to people everywhere. His popularity owes much to the modern English translation The Essential Rumi by American poet Coleman Barks. Finally, if you want to know the history of poetry – from ancient times to the present, John Carey’s A Little History of Poetry is a hugely enjoyable guide.

Poetry reveals truth in places you never cared to look. It invites you to take courageous action in difficult times. It creates connections to the past, present and future; with us and others; across all barriers of language. In her essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury, Audre Lorde makes the bold claim that poetry, when wielded well, can create the conditions for revolution. Poetry is both path and destination, able to tell us what is real, what is true and also how we might get free. As Paul Engle said, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power.”

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