Why poetry matters in the age of instant media consumption

Ahead of her appearance at India By The Creek festival this weekend, award-winning Indian poet Arundhathi Subramaniam talks about the creatively liberating aspects of poetry


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Fri 8 Mar 2024, 7:19 AM

When you decide to speak to the world through your writing, how do you choose a form that does it eloquently? Or could it be that the form chooses you? When Arundhathi Subramaniam began to write poetry, she had already been taken in by its immense possibilities — the economy of language and the lyricality among other things. It was in 2001 that she first published her anthology of poems and more than two decades later, she is now a leading voice in Indian poetry. From existential questions to deep-diving spirituality, the poetic form has allowed her to examine the most pressing issues of modern life. While she has written her fair share of prose, it is the mercurial nature of poetry that she, as a litterateur, finds herself drawn to. Ahead of her session on poetry at India By The Creek this weekend, Arundhathi spoke at length about why poetry matters in the age of instant consumption. Edited excerpts from an interview:

When and why did you decide to write poetry as a way of expressing yourself?

I think I fell in love with poetry the moment I encountered it as a child. The fascination was immediate. Poetry is kinetic language. It is language that dances, not language that simply walks. I was excited by the dynamism, the agility, the velocity of it all. Poetry is an unpredictable and mercurial form. It can dive one moment, and soar the next. There was a longing to taste this strange and enchanted form on my tongue, to follow its rhythms, to feel its grain.

Meaning became important later. As a young adult, I discovered that poetry was the most pleasurable verbal shortcut to myself that I knew. It was a way of expressing myself, but also of discovering myself. It was probably around this time that I knew that my early love was going to remain an abiding commitment.

And there is so much more that fascinates me about the form: Its capacity for economy, for distillation, for paradox, for ambiguity. Above all, it is the only verbal art that consciously embraces silences.

You have also written extensively on spirituality. As a writer, what is it about spirituality that you find yourself drawn to?

My interest in the sacred started with all the usual childhood questions about pain, loss, perishability, death. Nothing original about that. Every child has those questions, but the world distracts us, and offers us other intellectual and material seductions to keep us occupied for a lifetime. In my case, those questions happened to endure, and deepen.

That led me to Eastern philosophy, and later, to mystic poetry. I realised that the mystic poets everywhere, quite irrespective of religious persuasion, did not offer dogmatic certainty. Instead, they reminded us of the power of uncertainty, of mystery, of wonder. In their hoarse, unvarnished utterances, in their refusal to join the dots, in their soaring articulation of longing and bewilderment, I felt a sense of homecoming.

In one of your interviews, you mentioned that you were "tortured by self-doubt". How did that shape the writer in you?

I often recommend a healthy dose of self-doubt to people. It compels one to stay grounded. It also keeps introspection alive. Far too many people wander around with an inflated sense of self-esteem. But corrosive self-doubt is toxic, and can eat up one’s innards. I certainly don’t recommend that to anyone. While I grappled with my share of it, the practice of yoga and meditation helped me disentangle some of those psychological knots. I’d strongly recommend yoga to people who tend to live too much in their heads. It compels one to acknowledge that one has a body, a heart and spirit, not just a cerebral cortex.

Between metre and free verse, how does a poet decide which form suits the essence of the subject the poem wants to convey?

Great question. It depends on the subject and how you want to treat it. I customarily use free verse, but I don’t see it as superior or inferior to metre. Working with metre is about finding your freedom within the parameters of a form. Working with free verse is about finding your form in a situation of freedom. Both have their own challenges. Mediocre free verse can read like poetic self-indulgence. Mediocre metrical verse can read like doggerel. But when approached with rigour and respect, each can be wonderfully rewarding.

From the time you first published your book of poems, how have you evolved as a poet?

My first book was published in 2001, so it's been over two decades. I’m rather fond of that first book — its freshness and exuberance, particularly. But I know I would approach the same poems differently today. I guess, the way I handle form has changed. I see my free verse as freer today, more aligned with breath and tone than before. In terms of content, I still write about cities, relationships, gender and cultural politics, the existential questions. But I think I am less reactive, more inclined now to observe. Someone asked me recently if my rage had been replaced by serenity. I said, no, the rage is very much there. But I’m also more aware of the tricks ‘to turn rage into celebration’. I’d rather write an anthem celebrating what I value, than a rant condemning what I don’t.

In the age of instant consumption, how can the young savour poetry?

The word ‘savour’ is key, isn’t it? In an age that encourages us to gobble and gulp, how do we make room for savouring? It is a great challenge.

We certainly need to re-examine the way we teach poems in schools. We need to sensitise students to poetry as sensuality, not just sociology. Students are always being asked what poems ‘mean’. It is time to talk about poetry as mantra, as music, as metaphor, as a magic compound of image, sound, tone, breath and silence, not just as a vehicle of meaning.

There is an unfortunate misconception that as long as you feel strongly, anything you write is a poem. We often forget that poetry is as much about perspiration as it is about inspiration. As much about craft as about creativity. The two go together.

You will be visiting Dubai for the inaugural edition of India By The Creek. What can one expect from your session?

I look forward to being in Dubai again. I grew up in Mumbai, which is also a cosmopolitan harbour city, like Dubai. I hope to carry some of the flavours of my crazy, chaotic, beloved city to Dubai. And I look forward to listening to poetry from this great city as well.


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