Friday, October 27, 2006

Must Poetry Always Rhyme?

Whether to rhyme or not,
The poet had often thought,
What a vetti quandary,
Dum duh-da dee!

“It is a crime, nay a blasphemy,
To use sumthin’ like vetti,
That too in English poetry,
Dum duh-da dee!”

“I will take you to court”,
The pundit held a forth,
“You tender an apology,
Otherwise Dum duh-da dee”

“I earn my bread thro’ poetry,
Am a veteran licensee”
The poet replied angrily,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee.

“Mistaken you are surely,
For I, in a drunken spree
Merely misspelt witty”
Dum duh-da dee.

With such a victory,
In his moral kitty,
The poet continued to murder poetry,
Dum duh-da dee, Dum duh-da dee

“Should poetry rhyme?”, I thought. This was a result of a disastrous attempt such as above.

Actually I was inspired to think about poetry in the first place, because I stumbled upon this nice comic verse:

It was an evening in November
As I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride,
But my knees were all a-flutter,
And I landed in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Yes, I lay there in the gutter
Thinking thoughts I could not utter,
When a colleen passing by did softly say
‘You can tell a man who boozes
By the company he chooses’—
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

(I found it here)

“But isn’t writing all about letting loose, writing for yourself, a cathartic experience?”, the idle critic may ask. “And therefore, if you find rhyming poetry difficult to write, why try? Poetry which doesn’t rhyme is the hot stuff today”, the IC may continue.

That is the problem. I consider poetry that does not rhyme with suspicion. Such daring liberties are for the really good. The problem with non-rhyming poetry is that it lets the mediocre dress their mediocrity atleast for a while. It is as if the author (poet?) was lazy to write in prose, so he/she just put it in terse lines and got away citing the much abused poetic license. Faugh!

Do not mistake me, at the hands of some, these experiments produce amazing results but the chances of spurious passing of as genuine are also high.

Also, the poems that I have read that rhyme, are good fun. Who can forget Ogden Nash’s poems at school? Couldn’t find his poem on the visit to the dentist, but who can disagree with an author who says “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker!” Other notable poems from school were the famous Lochinvar or the even more famous Highway Man. These poems were memorable primarily because of their rhyme schemes.

Speaking about peoms read at school, two poems by Vikram Seth’s spring to mind. One was a poetic re-telling of the Panchatantra story – The Monkey and the Crocodile and the other was The Frog and the Nightingale. Maybe since I was very familiar with the M and the C, I found the F and the N a better poem. I really loved the story and his ability to maintain rhyme and meter throughout. From then on a loyal Vikram Seth fan was born, a loyalty which strengthened after Suitable Boy and now, just slightly wavered after the publication of The Two Lives.

Frankly, I was disappointed with his latest offering. While it was a family story like the Suitable Boy, in fact, a real life story, it didn’t have the tautness of narration that Suitable Boy had. It was nice of him to write of his own family and maybe people could identify with the events in that book, but there was a certain flair missing … how shall I put it… a spark in the language which makes you turn the pages regardless of the quality of the plot or your sympathies w.r.t the characters. But I guess we can allow him a little indulgence, he has written good stuff before.

The master of this genre i.e the book which could entice the reader purely on the strength of the language was/is the one and only PGW. Plum’s writing is the best thing that could have happened to me. How many afternoons have been spent curled up reading, re-reading PGW’s books? Invariably the plot is same – he follows the same template. You know that All’s Well that Ends Well, yet you turn the page. Why? Because he invites you into a magically whimsical world that the highly rational conditioning of today will not allow you to enter into. A world where the absurd and the whimsical take centre stage and what follows is a delightfully breezy read. Scratch the surface and one realizes that this kind of writing is extremely difficult. Of course, I am not saying anything new, just felt like re-stating it.

I recall that we had a poem by PGW about a reporter who experiences anything before writing about it. He shoots into fame for his ‘Reality Reporting’. However, his rising career is brought to an abrupt end when he tries to write about the effects of arsenic! While trying to locate that poem I stumbled upon the “Pig in the Gutter” poem earlier on.

But often breezy poetry/prose is dismissed as not literature. That leads one to compare the status of Literature with that of Economics; if Economics is the Dismal Science, then Literature must surely be the Dismal Art. The most celebrated books seem to be maddeningly sad and well what do you know, THAT’s why it is great!

One can picture two critics talking to each other.

“What do you think of this new Kid on the Block”
“Oh! He just writes for the plebs, a panderer!”
“Exactly! Among his other faults… he makes me laugh!”

The irony is that what they say IS correct. It is the ability to bring out emotion which is the power, the essence of writing. But there does seem to be a bias towards sadness, as if happiness were a quality to be suspected.

The point I am trying to make is that often authors seem to dwell on dark issues because that’s what the masters do, but they are not equipped to do so as they don’t have with the sensitivity that they masters have, and the end up sounding unauthentic. By authentic I mean, the ability to put down something as it occurs to you without any thought for anything else. After writing one must worry about the audience’s reaction but while writing it must be you and the thought!

For example, I often find writing by Indian authors in English authors lacking in authenticity. Such writing arises when the intellect unnecessarily interferes in an arena where the heart must rule. This was brought home to me recently when I had the opportunity to read two differently written pieces back to back. One essay by Jerry Pinto titled Death at Varanasi, and the other, a translation of a Dalit story called The Poisoned Bread by Bandhumadhav.

The essay by Jerry Pinto was in my opinion, clichéd and laboured, artificial. It was as if the author was forcing his intellect to write what it saw instead of just letting the heart write itself, instead of Varanasi just writing itself.

The essay itself starts with an italicized “Burrning is lurrning” and it is in a sense italicized throughout – italicized by the dictates of the mind. Let me hasten to add that I have not read his other works and in no way do I judge the author, just a judgment on this essay.

On the other hand the translation of the Dalit story had an authenticity, in the sense the emotions were accurately conveyed with simple words. For example, there is an instance in the story where the main character eats bread upon which there was cow dung. Now this incident is treated as evidence, a stepping stone, an argument to prove the unfairness. But it is not dwelt upon in any depth. The emotion with which this scene is dealt defines its authenticity. However, one may imagine the italicized writer to deal with this in some sort of voyeuristic detail and missing the correct emotions. That is when an author ends up being short on authenticity.

(The End)


Shankar said...

wow!!!! wonderful post!
i really don't know how to appreciate a poem, but i can tell that "the highwayman" is my all time fav. poem... the alliteration is terrific and here is the poem by Ogden Nash ... about writing, i find it difficult to write lighter posts than serious ones ... i guess, with a lot of serious stuff going around, ideas just flow .... but writing serious stuff which remains in memory of the reader for a long time is a challenge ... as far as authenticity goes, Anne Frank is too good in the first half, i did not like the second half because of the excessive romance in it .... but first half is moving.

themiddler said...

Hey! It is such a pleasure to read your detailed comment!

And thanks for the link... it is still such a cosy poem to read.

Total agreer on the writing serious stuff part. With a lot of serious stuff going around, it is just easy to let it down and forget about it... but then WHATEVER hppens thee is a comic angle to it. "Tut tut, the age", the old say! :)

Nyscha said...

i love all of the poems you mentioned in this post :-) i remember doing a recitation of The Monkey and The Crocodile for AIR with coupla girls at school :-) Poems which rhyme are a great pleasure indeed but sometimes one needs a break from the regularity (the poet as well as the reader).But I do find a lot of people sharing your wary outlook on poems that don't rhyme.
You write very well.Admirable command over the language :-)

themiddler said...

For AIR??? Interesting...
Thanks for stopping by :-)

themiddler said...

If someone is quite experienced with poetry writing, then maybe she/he finds the need to experiment! I am a novice though...

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Anonymous said...

I'd have an easier time agreeing with you or at least respecting your opinion if you took the time (or is it, had the brains?) to use correct spelling and grammar.

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