Clichés are comfortable. Was this alliteration? I’m not sure. It is raining here in Bombay (‘Bombay’ is state of mind. Mumbai is the place, apparently). And these days, reading poetry is what I feel comfortable with. Where am I going with this? Rain and poetry, clichéd plotline for my post.
My first brush with poetry was Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely As a cloud (Daffodils). This was in school. Notice how I didn’t say poem, but poetry. Until then, I had been adhering to our education system’s strict requirement of memorizing every word of a poem and taking note of rhyme meters, figures of speech and whatnots. Just plain ol’ technicalities and mechanics. The next step was to spew out everything I learned on to paper in the written exams. My idea of “poetry” was staccato sentences with rhyming words.
Until I read the following two lines out loud:
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills…
It was a regular English class in school. My English teacher had a regular routine of asking a random student to stand and read a few stanzas of a poem before moving on to the next sleeping pupil. I wasn’t sleeping, mind you, just zoning out. It was an early morning Monday class. You can’t blame me. So, I was the chosen one that day. I picked up my copy of the textbook and started:
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Breezy. That’s how I felt. As I read Wordsworth’s lyrical verses, bright yellow colors burst into my head. I read and read. I didn’t hear my teacher calling out to me to stop reading. I must have read more than the stipulated number of stanzas that day. I got carried away by the words forming in my mouth and the images spurting in my head. At the age of thirteen, I encountered what Jeanette Winterson calls in her book Art Objects, my ecstasy of the privileged moment. My privileged moment of discovering the joys of reading poetry.
The privileged moment was lost and the ecstasy died down, though. I was too young to nurture it. Or too lost. It was sometime later, a long time later in fact, I rediscovered the pleasures of poetry. A decade had passed when I decided to take up a course on Modern Contemporary American Poetry. I found Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos William, Gertrude Stine, Ezra Pound, the Dadaists and the imagists.
I didn’t finish, or rather couldn’t finish the course. However, this time around I didn’t drop poetry all together. Since the course was limited to American poets, I went in search of poetry from around the world. I stumbled upon Rilke, Neruda, Elizabeth Browning, Rumi and of course, Blake, Yeats, Wordsworth and the whole gang from my English textbooks. I was exposed to poems that were expressions of my own unspoken and sometimes deep-buried emotions. So often I had moments close to epiphany. And that is quite a feeling you don’t get over easily.
My favourite time for reading poetry is at night, rainy nights to be precise. The writer Ruskin Bond says, “Yes, this is the hour for poetry, a time to remind oneself there is still beauty in the world, and that sleep comes best to those who look for the beautiful in thought and words before turning in for the night.”
The very act of reading the words loudly and feeling their forms and sounds as I speak them slows down the cogs and wheels in my head that are constantly whirring. There is no thinking, processing or analyzing involved. I am just aware of the sound of the words and verses. I don’t know the science behind why I feel a sense of catharsis when I read poetry. I don’t even remember the technicalities of a poem I learned in school. I have no grasp of iambic pentameters, quatrains, or Petrarchan sonnets.
I only know that when I read the words of Rilke or Dickinson, the dust of the day’s chaos settle down. Recently I read an article citing a research on the love affair between science and poetry. Apparently, reading poetry lights up the area of the brain that is associated with autobiographic memory. The research said, “… (reading poetry enables) the reader to reflect on and review their own experiences in light of what they had read.” To understand and deal with everyday’s tumbles and highs—this is why I read poetry.
I have only read bits and parts of all the poetry collection books I own. I can’t read a whole lot. If I do, it makes me restless and shrivels up all the words. The words start to lose their shine. I find it overwhelming. I just need a little bit to make me come back to the poems again and again. I read one poem at a time. I will read it over and over again until my mind absorbs it through osmosis of the images and emotions the words have evoked.
I think it is a natural human tendency to take everyday mundane things for granted. Reading poetry has taught me that how we react to these ordinary events defines us at our most elemental level. There are days I feel exasperated with a job that doesn’t seem to going anywhere. I feel lost when I see everyone I know zooming past the milestones of life. Some days, I am simply tired. I pick up one of the poetry books, open a page at random and listen to myself read out the words.
Tonight, I find solace in Rochelle Potkar’s Raw Forms:
Our story is not over.
So stay with me until we are
heated by ennui,
melted by its reasons,
hardened by the seasons,
softened by its perceptions.
One day our lattices shall carry
our faith, our patience,
our knowing of each other
stronger than our arms ever could.
We will weld and meld,
to form the perfect-imperfect