Monday, December 10, 2007

Eating Poetry

I don't read as much poetry as I would like to. To my excuse-making mind, it is the unfortunate fallout of not being in an academic space any more. I completed my Masters in English nearly five years ago and it's been at least that long since I've had proper access to poetry. You see, most good libraries — actually, make that all — are well across the city and too far for regular use. And should I, by some fortuitous circumstance, come across a good collection of poetry at Landmark, I know without looking at the tag that the book is beyond my meagre means. Thus, I am abysmally ill-informed about recent poets and their poetry.

So while on this break of mine, I set about attempting to rectify my ignorance. I imposed on a fellow blogger's kindness and asked for the addresses of the best houses of poetry. The said blogger was very patient and promptly sent back an e-mail full of directions. Ever since, I have diligently jumped from rooftops, discovering entirely new halls of beauty. But yesterday, randomly picking a new route across unknown alleys, as I am wont to do, I came across a poem I knew. A poem that has never lost a constant meaning in my life — not for the last seven years at least.

It was a crackling winter afternoon in Hyderabad, when the sun had bleached everything ashen: a day when I felt ready to break, overwhelmed in the still agony of a beautiful melancholy. I remember that time: that was a rickety year. I was away from home in an almost alien environment and culture, a first, real relationship was crumbling, and friendships were shaky. And how did one begin to negotiate, or even interact with, the unbearable lightness, the intellectual turbulence, that came with devouring the sort and the amount of writing that I was exposed to then?

That afternoon, as I walked past the mail tray on my way up to my hostel room, there lay in it a letter for me. Even in a time of e-mail, there were still a few people with whom I exchanged that special pleasure of handwritten letters. This particular one was from a professor that I was quite close to through my Bachelors. She'd received my letter a few weeks ago, she wrote, but being preoccupied with exams, she hadn't had a chance to reply. In fact, her letter was written on an examination answer booklet: she had written to me while invigilating an exam.

She wrote me the loveliest letter: full of a faith that I did not have in myself. She told me what I knew but could not believe, that this, too, would pass. She also reminded me of the reasons I'd come to Hyderabad for, of the things I wanted from my Masters, and where I'd hoped they would take me... In the very last paragraph, she wrote that she was enclosing a poem for me. She hoped that I'd be able to identify with it and know that there was equilibrium in my trembling.

Copied out by hand, this poem is amongst the most precious, steadying gifts I've ever received.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-- Theodore Roethke


One last thing, yes? One of the things that was so special about poetry, and indeed literature in a classroom, was the very different sense of discovery at being introduced to the writing — as opposed to discovering it myself. I've spent many days in a white/yellow classroom listening to, and often watching, the rhythms and layers of a poem surprise me from over the shoulder of an oddly-placed word on a grey, photocopied page or in a small office at the back of the Department of English at the University of Hyderabad. Seeing my pleasure in a poem mirrored in a favourite professor's eyes and their pride in me — certainly one of the more profound rewards of my Masters.


pbsweeney said...

Love this post, and the poem. Nice to find you here in blogistan. The ranging mind having writ, moves on. Ha!

Nocturne said...

"Any work of art makes one simple demand on anyone who genuinely wants to get in touch with it. And that is to stop. You’ve got to stop what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re expecting and just be there for the poem no matter how long it takes."
W S Mervin said that.

with this poem, The Waking, I had to surrender. you know, from how one really reads a poem - skimming the surface of the words, juggling many thoughts about all the things i have to do - and then it happened. the cackling winter afternoon, sun bleached ashen landscape, beautiful melancholy, intellectual turbulence...

Much like Roethke, who snagged me with "you learn by going where you have to go", you made me slow down and fall into the moment. into your moment.

Extempore, here, on these many posts over the last two years, you have given me many such moments. slowed me down, stopped me bodily long enough to pause and feel the connection to my own consciousness.

That is one reason why i cannot take seriously your notions of having an academic begging bowl, or even unemployment. they should be grateful to have you instead.