POETRY OR PROSE: What chooses the writer?

Let me be honest.

That’s the whole point of writing, isn’t it? To speak your truth?

So let me be honest.

When I wrote my first collection of poems, Radha, there were those who asked, ‘Why bother? Who reads English poetry?’ And while I reluctantly agreed with their cynically but brutally honest assessment of the chances my book stood, I wrote it nonetheless.

The reader, as always, surprised the cynic. The ability of readers to lose themselves in the short-format narrative, where every word, filled with nuance and meaning, speaks to something deeper than the passing scene, remains personal and real. 

The point of writing poetry is writing it. A poet does not have a target demographic in the way a satirist does. I can’t imagine T.S. Eliot, for instance, planning a sales trajectory, reaching a number in his mind or on paper, and then writing:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

(An excerpt from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

No amount of planning, plotting and employment of literary devices can help if you don’t have that thing I hesitantly call genius, to make a reader stop in their tracks and visualize the insidious yellow fog like a real, creepy creature rubbing its back lasciviously on window-panes that are helpless against its advances. To evoke the feeling of something approximating bile rising up one’s throat with 10 words – that’s genius. And this time I hesitate less in using the word.

Not all poetry is genius, but it is, however, as Radha says in the eponymous book, a conjuror’s trick.

Poetry is a conjuror’s trick.

It captures the

Essence of

What once was

Summons it out of nowhere

And keeps it

Suspended

Like the conjuror’s sleeping woman

On swords.

Soon the conjuror

Takes away the swords

That support the

Suspended

Supine

Woman

And we gasp

In wonder

As the sequinned

Woman

Slumbers

In thin air.

Poetry is like that

Capturing a sequinned moment

In words and pauses and rhythm and metre

And holding that moment aloft

Unsupported

Magical

In front of awestruck eyes.

It is all an illusion

Which is what makes it so real.

(An excerpt from Poem 83, Radha)

Poetry is demanding. It demands that the reader not merely participate in the experience, but co-create it. One cannot simply lean back and let the poet do her thing. We have to lean in and add our souls to the words, so the poem becomes as much our own as it is the poet’s.

They came to me

And said

I was lazy,

Krishna.

That I should write

Prose

In detail

A thousand pages

A million words

That the

Story of

Radha-Krishna

Should be

A big

Fat

Volume.

I simply smiled

And told them

It was.

And maybe

It was they

Who were lazy

Counting the words

And not uncovering the

Fat

Voluminous

World of meaning

Sublimated in each.

(An excerpt from Poem 75, Radha)

You can’t be a lazy reader of poetry. For that, we have prose. And thankfully, patient writers who will do the painstaking job of detailing out streets and villages and walls and characters, so that when you finally see them on screen (it’s every writer’s dream to see their book adapted for the screen), you either know them instantly or simply dismiss them as being outrageous in their inaccuracy.

The Potterheads amongst us will know exactly what I mean – Hagrid was perfect, but what was that horrible thing they did with the last book, right? I mean, where was the glorious ray of sunshine that illuminated the Great Hall when Harry battled Voldemort in that epic final battle? The author did such a brilliant job writing the final battle between these mortal enemies that we, as readers, feel robbed of our moment of participation in the epic battle as awed onlookers in the Great Hall. That is the power of evocative prose – the detailing, the pace, the drawing in of the reader into a world created purely of the writer’s imagination.

When my first novel The Diwali Party released, I had people writing in from all over the English-speaking world, telling me how the characters reminded them of themselves, of how someone’s interaction with her mother took them back to long chats with their own mothers, or how the Udupi restaurant from the book was a treasured memory from their own college days. There is a sense of identification we often experience with characters, places and situations that we come across in novels.

Then there is also that other thing – the creation of a world we dream of. Enid Blyton was a master when it came to that kind of writing. I remember being so enamoured of her Malory Towers and St. Clare series on life at boarding school that I dreamt of actually being in those schools. I had more interesting conversations with Darrell and Sally and Irene and Belinda and the madcap Carlotta, than I had with real people.

Do I recognize today, many years removed from the idyllic afternoons of my childhood, how deeply problematic Enid Blyton’s over-simplified, black and white stereotypes were? Do I see the racism, the sexism, the homophobia? Do I see how polarizing a figure she is and how lacking in literary finesse her writing is? Yes. But I also see how she captured the imagination of children the world over, how her books allowed us to escape into worlds where children came out winners, no matter what. No adult-world rationale can change that.

I see that my dreams and aspirations as a child were shaped by the written words of people like Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, James Herriot, P.G. Wodehouse and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because I craved to go where they pointed and see with my own eyes what their words conjured.  I remember the first time I travelled to England. My eyes drank in the names and places and rolling hills and old castles and the white cliffs of Dover that had made up the canvas of my childhood.

But it was with reverence that I wandered through the house of William Wordsworth. It was like visiting a holy place. I looked upon the land and the lakes he had looked upon, and I felt a sense of having touched divinity. That is the sublime elevation only poetry affords. I experienced it again when I stood at the doors of the house John Keats had lived in, right at the edge of Hampstead Heath. Great poets do that to you; they fill you with a sense of wonder that is incomparable. Their works live within the most precious parts of yourself. And when you feel the world is too much, you retreat there and find daffodils, or Radha, or Wild Things. Poetry is the last refuge of the things that cannot be tamed – the proud, free, fierce, powerful and even dangerous feelings that refuse to submit to boxes.

I can’t bear it

Anymore

The agony of lifting

A kohl stick

And bringing it to my eyes

To line them

With the darkest of black

So that they shine

Like beacons

The weight of the lipstick

Stills my

Fingers

I can no longer pick up

That tube of dazzling colour

And smear my lips with

Its chicanery

My lips remain bare

My eyes remain bleak

My hair remains streaked

With the very real

Streaks of grey

They tell me

I’m ignoring myself

I tell them

I am seeing myself

And showing myself

To them

Naked

It is they

Who are ignoring me

It takes strength

To live

With

Naked truths

(Naked, from Wild Things)

And that’s poetry – Naked Truths.

Compare this with prose, the glorious parades, stage settings, time travel, plot lines, drama, dress up, intrigue, characters you will never forget, places you fall in love with – the whole Vanity Fair (with due credit and respect to William Thackeray).

Is there a big difference in reading poetry and prose? Clearly. The bigger difference though, is in the writing. To pack a world of meaning in a few lines is one thing. To draw a reader into a whole imaginary world and make her want to live there is another.

Can we, as writers, choose one over the other? I’m not sure.

We are simply the channel. And when we hunch over our laptops, we simply surrender to the flow within, and write. What emerges, if we are blessed, is not only our own truth, but a truth that readers across time and space recognize, share and feel.

And who are we to decide what form the truth takes – poetry or prose?

Leena Saldanha is the author of The Diwali Party, Wild Things and Radha. She has a fulfilling day job as the owner of a brand design house, but is just that little bit more in love with her pre-dawn job as the teller of stories and player with words.

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With more than 15 years of experience in book sales and distribution, Debashis currently oversees Leadstart’s business activities in eastern India and neighbouring countries. He has previously worked with several leading book publishers and distributors.

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