Why Read Poetry?

This is a question I often get asked in a moment of exasperation by students and friends alike. Why read poetry? Most of it doesn’t even make sense, I cannot understand it, I have never liked it. These are thoughts I have endeavoured to deal with, myself. Although I cannot claim to have found answers to all of these, here’s my two cents.

Most of us make the mistake of approaching poetry with a sense of needing to understand it completely, contextually and how the poet “meant” for us to understand it. This view is coloured by our reading of fiction and non-fiction, which, for the most part, is detailed, adjective-heavy and exhaustive (here’s looking at you, Moby Dick). Additionally, it doesn’t help that the poetry we are exposed to at school is by decrepit old white men. They might be classics, but we didn’t become ardent readers by picking up a copy of Beowulf now, did we?

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The poems we come across in learning English as a second language only serve to make it boring and complicated. Poetry is supposed to excite your senses, how can I be expected to appreciate Daffodils if I have never seen it before?

A host of golden daffodils? No sirree, show me ponds of lotuses, fields of sunflowers, maybe. Show me paan stains on the city walls, the colours of Holi, leather-skinned grandmothers braiding their granddaughters’ hair, lounging on the red-oxide floors of the verandah. Or show me a stubborn bull in the midst of traffic. 

Induction into anything new must be though a lens of familiarity. That is when one is able to truly assess whether one likes or dislikes it. Unfortunately for us in India, our education system still seems to be caught in the throes of colonial deification. It is only through personal research that we come across Indian poets and other poets of colour, by that time, it might be too late – we will not have any more of these godforsaken daffodils or dreaded petrarchan sonnets.

Poetry demands time. One needs to reflect, to read and reread and maybe recite out loud to understand it. It is not an something you take up, underline, memorize, google and regurgitate in examinations; which is what the present system is making us do. By not letting students invest enough time in poetry, it is effectively robbing them of the joy of reading poems.

If only we were introduced to Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Eunice de Souza, Rajagopal Parthasarathy or A K Ramanujan, our perception of poetry would be drastically changed. They echo our skepticism of a foreign tongue – their poems, though written in English, sound like our mother tongues – it isn’t scary or appalling, it is home. Here’s what Parthasarathy says in Tamil:

My tongue in English chains

I return, after

a generation, to you.

I am at the end

of my Dravidic tether

hunger for you unassuaged

This feeling of homelessness is something we are all too familiar with. Granted, these poems might not match the literary merit of Shakespeare or Shelly, but does it even matter? Dead poets are just that, DEAD. It is up to the living to tread the waters of verse the way we see fit.

Poets like Nissim Ezekiel also make a conscious effort to write the way an Indian would speak English. It is merely utility, we butcher the language, true, but communication is achieved, most times. Ezekiel’s poetry is usually greeted with boisterous laughter in an English Honours class followed by uncomfortable silence when they are reminded that there was a time that they spoke like that as well. To the lay reader, someone who hasn’t chosen to pursue a study in English Literature, Ezekiel’s poetry is like a breath of fresh air. Here’s an extract from The Professor:

Remember me? I am Professor Sheth.
Once I taught you geography. Now
I am retired, though my health is good.
My wife died some years back.

…..

If you are coming again this side by chance,
Visit please my humble residence also.
I am living just on opposite house’s backside.

It is all too easy to dismiss poetry for being too complicated or too out-of-reach. However, to dismiss it owing to lack of exposure seems too hasty. I believe poetry enriches our lives, like all reading does. It also adds to our understanding of rhythm and history besides being a great source of entertainment.

Poetry has this strange magic of making one read between the lines – putting all your creative juices on overdrive. It invokes images that are familiar-accessible and yet somehow different. Sometimes, you get held up at one single word and think about it the whole day – sometimes you carry the rhythm of the poem to bed and wake up with it. Sometimes, none of this happens, and its okay. Poetry just needs to be felt. Give it a chance. Meanwhile, here’s a cheeky comic by Grant Snider:

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Fragments on Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading is good.

The statement that a good reading habit makes us better people and therefore, a collectively better society is hammered home at every given opportunity. None of our teachers miss the chance to attribute our lack of sense/logic to our lack of reading.

Being a teacher myself, I do see the reason behind such an assumption – let’s call it collective thought – a social consciousness, if you will – about the importance of reading. Yes, reading exposes us to a world outside our own, gives us insight into the problems of the world and, if we are fortunate, plausible solutions to some of these problems. Reading beyond one’s bias helps in building stronger arguments, if not broadening our perspective. It is reading that plucks us out of our comfort zones and places us in positions of extreme difficulty (if we allow it to).

The more you read, the more cautious you become of what you say (or what you write). This is a double-edged sword. With reading comes the acknowledgement of the genius of the world – the realization that history is replete with thoughts that you now think are unique products of your own mind – it humbles you. It makes you look at words and language in a manner you will never have seen before. You are now equipped with the knowledge that for every opinion you attempt to express, there are multiple counter arguments. Most conversations prove fruitful when one is able to employ redundancy and reduction – to reduce a universal argument/problem into a local one. This is how conversations “progress” (I hate using this word). Making any conversation while constantly acknowledging disclaimers is terribly exhausting – at least, I find it so.

What limits conversation is also the amount of time and patience one is willing to exercise in order to stick to a singular topic. Owing to your reading, you attempt to contextualize words and concepts while talking of them. This exercise demands time. If I were to say “The problem with feminism is that it is not rigid enough,” in a dialogue with someone who has no idea about the waves of feminism, it would sound absurd, even borderline misogynistic and oxymoronic! To agree or disagree with this particular statement, the people in the conversation need to have read a bit of the history and evolution of feminism (yes, it’s not linear, I know), a lot of Beauvoir, Cixous, and Wollstonecraft, have a fundamental idea of what the likes of Spivak, Bhabha and Chandra Talpade Mohanty have to say and maybe an overarching knowledge of Marxist criticism. The statement falls flat if either of the people in the conversation cannot engage with it – the conversation stops midway.

The onus then falls on the reader who possesses such knowledge to transmit it – crisply and accurately to the other person – which again poses problems. Reading also brings the acute pain of the recognition of one’s own biases. While such a transmission occurs, you are aware that you are selectively leaving out certain bits of information – now you can play it safe by calling it an error of omission but you know it is also of convenience; because the personal is political.

With reading comes the burden of knowing that everything you say can be anything else and still make sense.

You carry this baggage of going back to “slightly edit/reframe/rephrase” your words – what a Sisyphean endeavor! It becomes increasingly difficult to have conversations because you know you could have said it better.

For example, I carry with me the knowledge that the first sentence of this article already poses a plethora of problems as I continue to pen my thoughts. Let me attempt an illustration of the dialogue in my head right now (the OG sentence is bold and blue, everything inside the parentheses are my issues with it):

  1. It is a truth (not capital T? Truth? how does one decide what truth is, who decides that? isn’t a reference to “Pride and Prejudice” a little irrelevant?)
  2. universally (the world over? what gives me the agency to make such a sweeping statement?)
  3. acknowledged that reading (this presupposes that people who cannot read, cannot become better people, or are inherently somehow “less”? how about accessibility to reading? the politics of language? the politics of translation? colonization and its effects? what about indigenous knowledge? or oral histories? how does one deal with reading in a world replete with screens – postmodernism/hyperreality? what about other forms of knowledge acquisition?)
  4. is good. (value judgement much?)

Reading might make you a better person but it surely doesn’t make you a better conversationalist. It leaves you a stuttering, stammering, gasping while attempting to stop your brain from sprinting a million miles a second for a chance to pluck a single thought and translate it into words; and you’re still left feeling incomplete.

This is not to say that one needs to read less. Maybe a conscious practice of willful ignorance makes for fruitful conversations!


Disclaimer: These are fledgling thoughts and will undergo mutation as soon as I post this article. C’est la vie, I guess.

This piece has undergone three edits as of 22 February 2020; 00.52 hours.

The Need to Re-Read Fairy Tales

Williams, Christy. “Who’s Wicked Now? The Stepmother as Fairy-Tale Heroine.” Marvels &Amp; Tales, vol. 24, no. 2, 2010, pp. 255–271.

The author considers the stereotypical evil portrayal of stepmothers in fairy tales and states that it creates a misconception about the character in real life. She looks at Robert Coover’s novel Stepmother as a brave attempt to revert this stereotype and says:

His characters express dissatisfaction with their positions in the narrative and a frustration with the predetermined roles they enact. This creates a tension between the prescribed roles of popularized, conventional fairy-tale characters like the wicked stepmother and a postmodern rescripting of those roles. (257)

She traces the origins of the moniker of the “evil” stepmother to the Grimm Brothers, who he says modified the original stories in order to appeal to their audience. In the original versions of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, it was the mothers who subjected their children to humiliation and harassment, often siding with the fathers to dole out cruel punishments. The author points out that as the Grimms version of the tales took to a more macabre theme, they efficiently killed off the mothers to replace them with unkind and unruly stepmothers. She quotes Tatar:

Wilhelm Grimm recognized that most children (along with those who read to them) find the idea of wicked stepmothers easier to tolerate than that of cruel mothers. (259)

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Disney’s most famous villains

She is of the opinion that by “rehumanizing” these characters, postmodern novels consciously move towards a rethinking of previously celebrated stereotyping. She concludes by saying that today’s fairy tale heroines need not tread the same path as their predecessors in order to attain a “happily ever after”.

Therein lies the future of the genre; fairy tales as they have been canonized are not “true.” Patterns can be broken, and the plot can continue. Writers can rewrite the popular fairy tale and still write fairy tales, and their heroines need not walk the same paths as their foremothers in order to reach the story’s happy ending.

Subculture – Dick Hebdige

Joining a sub-culture, any sub-culture, for whatever reason, is as I see it never a legitimate self-expression. It is always a result of sheep mentality; a wish to belong somewhere.
– Varg Vikernes

The Webster’s Dictionary defines subculture as an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behaviour sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society. Hebdige, in his essay “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”, published in 1979 attempts to plot the trajectory of the establishment to the eventual naturalization of subculture in the society through the example of the Punk culture.

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He speaks of two ways of incorporation of subculture into the mainstream culture namely:

  • Conversion, Commodification and Commercialization of the signs of subculture. 
  • Labelling and Redefinition of Subculture as deviant and unnatural.

He also believes that in the present society, subcultures that strive to assert an identity different than that of the overarching all-embracing one that envelops them eventually end up as a part of the same. This process, he says is aided further by the media.

The way in which subcultures are represented in the media makes them both more and less exotic than they actually are.

If we were to consider the example of Hackers as a subculture, this statement becomes apparent. The representation of hackers in movies like Skyfall, Live Free or Die Hard, Swordfish and Hackers is not just off the centre, it is downright stupid. On the other hand, hacking (illegally) is considered an offence. Perhaps the following comic can better illustrate the misrepresentation of this subculture in popular media:

 

 

The Politics of Amnesia: Terry Eagleton

Cultural theory is, at present, behaving rather like a celibate middle-aged professor who has stumbled absent-mindedly upon sex and is frenetically making up for lost time.

This is what Eagleton states in the chapter titled “The Politics of Amnesia” of his book After Theory. Contrary to the title of the book, he opines that it is not possible to even imagine a life, rather a consciousness as separate from theory. His major argument is that the new generation has failed in producing theory/theories of its own, and is therefore stuck interpreting contemporary phenomenon with the tools of a previous decade – which, according to him, is redundant.

Eagleton acknowledges cultural awareness as the force behind the previously marginalised to finding a voice. He posits that the normative is being challenged and that social life based on ‘majority carries the vote’ is a matter of conventions and norms which inherently is oppressive.

But equally as fascinating is Eagleton’s argument for why norms are not always restrictive and consequently why going against the grain of the normative is not always politically radical. To be of this view, the author argues, is ‘politically catastrophic’ and ‘dim-witted’.

T.Eagleton says “advent of sexuality and popular culture as kosher subjects of study has put paid to one powerful myth”. It has broken off-topic limits and untouchability of subjects. It was understood that all is worth studying and talking about as it is part of cultural development and society’s ingredient. As we see it now it is probably the same as speaking about a cup with no bottom.

 

(Cult)ure – Elitism and Aggrandisment

In ‘Culture’ and ‘Masses’, Raymond Williams attempts at a clear definition of popular culture by establishing its distinction to that of mass culture. He does this by first defining culture and masses. What he then establishes is the double standards that exist in the genre of popular culture itself. It is this argument that I inquire into today.

Popular Culture came about with the presupposition that it does not construct hegemonies within its purviews, all things that fell under it would be given an equal platform. However, that is not the case today. Popular culture, for all its “equalizing” propoganda already employs an inherent understanding of “high” and “low”. For example, while watching CNBC or TLC is perfectly acceptable, desired even, channels like MTV still bear the brunt of scorn from the society.

This construct goes against everything that popular culture stands for. It cannot, however be eradicated. As people, I think we are always in search of something to distinguish ourselves from the other, one such system is through culture. In order to establish our uniqueness, our superiority, we will always construct a medium which we believe to be higher than the rest.

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High and Low Culture Within Popular Culture

There was a time where literature only included heavy novels, novellas and plays. Comics were scorned for their simplicity and their appeal to the mass. Today, comics are an integral part of popular culture, but, there are certain comics that occupy a higher place than the others. Comics like Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Dilbert always rank high on the radar as they are perceived to employ social commentary, irony and sarcasm, thus setting them apart from comics that do not address political and social issues in the same manner as the former.

Being seen reading novels like God of Small Things, The Calcutta Chronicle and Jaya is what we strive for. Reading Chetan Bhagat, however, is looked upon with disdain. Thus, when a peer group is built on such unspoken rules, it draws boundaries within the group. If one person of the group does like reading him but does not want to incur the wrath of their peers, they do it within the confines of their own room.

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All of us take part in the construction, consciously or unconsciously. If I were to smirk at someone watching the shows Coffee with Karan or Roadies, I would be engaging in the very same system that I abhor in this article. This knowledge does not stop me from passing wayward judgments on everything I see, it probably will make me consider a bit before I make them.

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Peer Pressure in Cultural Propoganda

I do not believe that culture can exist without these distinctions. It is these distinctions that help us build our identities, our characters and our life as a whole. A world without any knowledge of high or low culture is impractical and impossible, no matter how ideal it sounds.

The Pop Culture Paradox

In the essay “What is Pop Culture”, Marcel Danesi states:

“Pop culture makes little or no distinction between art and recreation, distraction and engagement”

I am left confused as I understand that in the postmodern world that we live in, we refuse to endorse binaries, therefore, the author’s distinction between art and recreation is not only confusing, it is also infuriating.

Hasn’t art always been a medium of and for recreation? In saying this I do recognize that art has other roles, that of critiquing the society, holding up a mirror to it, manipulating reality, encouraging discourse and inviting opinions but the main function, as we understand it today has been recreation. Moreover, by making this statement, the author brings up another (dare I say it) ugly and longstanding debate that philosophers and scholars alike have scratched their heads over – What is Art?

Is art only nestled between a pair of melting clocks, between the splotches of paint on a canvas, in a ballerina’s shoes and in the quivering adam’s apple of the opera singer?

Why can’t art be found in the reruns of The Voice, in the fluorescent blue light of the TV and in the absurdity of it all?

The answer is – Yes. Art can be found, and is found here – that is why it is popular.

The understanding of art today might not be what it was in the last decade. It doesn’t have to be the same – it celebrates banality – true, so what if it does? Why doesn’t that qualify it as Art? The fact that it doesn’t claim to be Art is probably its highest merit of belonging to the realm.

The next two words are as problematic as the previous ones. Distraction and Engagement. Can we not be both at the same time? Why does engagement occupy a higher place? By engaging something, do you then cordon off other thoughts that you deem unfit? Let’s take an example here:

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The following picture can be interpreted in several ways. For the purpose of this example let us assume that I have no knowledge of the artist and his ideals. Let me try and outline the process of my thinking as clearly as possible:

 “What the heck is this, soup can? hmmm.. soup.. I’d like some right now…Wasn’t there a quote about tin cans and worms? Why advertise a particular brand though? Who is this Campbell anyway? Some old brand no doubt. Is this what they call realistic painting – what’s the point of it anyway, I can just take a photograph…why a plain background though, is the artist critiquing consumerism…” and so on and so forth.

Now, as you saw this picture before I tried writing my thoughts down, you probably had your own thoughts, in quite different directions I presume. Upon comparison, can you tell me, between us, who engaged with the picture and who was distracted? No? Well, there you go!

Isn’t this beautiful? Popular Culture gives us the freedom to explore, the liberty to not belong to a particular ideology and mindset. Now I cannot tell you if that is a good thing or not because is there something good and bad in the first place? I think we are still hung up on Modernist ideals of do’s and dont’s. Maybe it is time for us to embrace Popular Culture for all its ludicrousness and revel in the ridiculous world we are now an inevitable part of.

Popular Culture in India – Reality TV

Reality Television, today has taken India and the whole world by a storm. In an environment where all of us are hungry of entertainment and thirsty for gossip, reality television is our saviour. It has been defined by Carol Mendel as a genre of television programming that documents ostensibly unscripted real-life situations and often features an otherwise unknown cast.

Reality Television was popularised by the initiative and innovative ideas of MTV. The Real World was one of the first reality programs to gain mainstream popularity and is generally considered the forefather of reality shows as we know them today. Examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Indian show Keeping Up With The Khans followed the similar if not the same plot as its counterpart in America.

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The most popular trope that is followed in Indian television can be seen in “reality game shows”, participants are filmed intensively in an enclosed environment while competing to win a prize — thus they are game shows and discussed more thoroughly in that article. The reality game show genre has become pervasive enough to be parodied by Spike TV with The Joe Schmo Show. This trope is very apparent in Indian television shows like Big Boss (both the Hindi and the Kannada version) which again is borrowed from Big Brother.

The third trope is widely used across reality shows in India, it is probably because we as a society are heavily invested with the lives of our public figures, be it politicians or movie stars. Reality television is relatively new to India when compared to the West, that is also one of the reasons why active engagement of the audience plays an important role in increasing the shows’ TRPs, not to mention keeping the audience glued to their seats.

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It is now clear that American reality shows have played an active role in the origin of Reality Television in India. Although, we must observe that the ideas have not just been blindly transferred. Appropriation of the concept has been a fundamental process in the successful translation of the shows.. Taking the example of American Idol, we see that not only has the distribution of the judges changed but also the show itself has diversified to suit the audience. Upon further examination, we find that there’s the more active participation of celebrities in the Indian show than the American one. That is probably because we as a society respond to their participation in a more positive way.

The average Indian appropriates these reality shows with varied and more often convoluted notions of glamour, fame and success. To us, it is a symbolic code in the sense that it is synonymous with the idea that winning a reality show assures you of a bright future. In 2011, a survey was conducted by The Hindu that exposed the dire consequences of such mistaken notions. It revealed that only 15% of the winners of these reality shows actually go on to become mainstream professionals. The others just go back to their life of abject poverty and neglect.

So what does reality television mean to me? I know that Indian shows are nothing but a rehash of the American ones. I know that the concept of “reality” in these shows is a total myth. There have been controversies and news articles that exposed the idea that these shows were scripted. Especially in the shows that follow the third trope as mentioned above, the acting is exaggerated, the camera work is sloppy, the music is overdramatic and the outcome is predictable, and yet, knowing all this, understanding the underlying dirt beneath all this glitz and glamour that is reality television I am still glued to the idiot box, my eyes wide and my ears open, desperately waiting for the next episode.

The Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord

Guy Louis Debord was a French Marxist theorist who criticized the advanced capitalism of mid-20th century. His ideas were influenced by Adorno’s “culture industry” and Horkheimer. He, in turn, is believed to have influenced postmodern thinkers such as Lyotard and Jameson.

“Spectacle”, according to him was the mass media. His book titled The Society of the Spectacle is a collection of 221 essays which deal with the following subjects:

  1. Degradation of human life.
  2. Mass media and commodity fetishism.
  3. Comparison between religion and marketing.
  4. Critique of American sociology.

Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.” This condition, according to Debord, is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” He says:

The Spectacle is a permanent opium war waged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities.

Speaking of the inauthenticity of life in this age of capitalism, Debord opines that knowledge is degraded and critical thought hindered. Progress or development is only represented or simulated through these images and not reality. The wage workers remain in their impoverished state but are not conscious of it.

Debord’s theses also criticizes the omnipresence of the “image” and its significance. He says that it is no longer a question of “having” it is a question of “appearing”. We can see the idea of the infinite deferment of sign here – meaning, there is no final reality. It becomes a collection of images that decide the consciousness of the mass – their dreams, aspirations, lifestyle, career and probably even their thought. The system offers what seems to be a wider array of choices to the consumer but the idea of a conscious choice itself is ridiculous, in the sense that there is no real choice.

Let us consider the following real estate advertisement:

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The image represents luxury and grandeur. It implies that the ability to own and “have” such a home guarantees you a place among the creme-de-la-creme of the society. The average worker looks upon this image in wonder. He does not question whether he needs it or if it is practical – he merely knows that he desires it but he also acknowledges that he might never have it.

The generation’s obsession with image-heavy applications such as Instagram too serves as an example to Debord’s idea of commodity fetishism (first theorised by Marx) and consumer culture. He states, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”

This might be better illustrated through the following comics (ironically):

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Dinner for Few

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Athanassios Vakalis satirizes the entire human race in a 10 minute animated short that oozes Orwellian. He reimagines the elite (creme-de-la-creme) as pigs, the commoner as cats and the system as a dilapidated house precariously balanced on the edge of a precipice.  What starts off as a man generously feeding these pigs (identified through their attires as a judge, businessman, priest) who in turn, scrape leftovers to the cats, turns into a violent struggle for sustenance.

The director attempts to portray the end of a hegemonic power structure only to result in the establishment of another. Not only does this carry the undercurrents of critique against communism, but it also succeeds in depicting the natural cycle of power in any system: the distressed weak unite, overthrow their oppressors, occupy their place at the head of the table, and so the cycle ensues.

Any system is bound to emerge from the ashes of the one it destroyed, Vakalis’s allegory just drives the point home.

 

 


pictures: http://www.shortoftheweek.com