I’ve never really got what the big deal about poetry is. I have friends on facebook and google+ who share bits and pieces of poetry that they like, and shag about it. And most of the time I never get why it’s so hifunda. Yes, I do like some poetry. Like I think Vikram Seth’s The Frog and The Nightingale (which appeared in our 10th standard textbook) is an absolute classic. I can still recite the few stanzas of The Highwayman which I had mugged up for an elocution competition in school. I don’t however, get “modern poetry”, the kind without any rhyme or rhythm. And so, faced with a deluge of such literature, I have been trying to figure out what the big deal about poetry is.
Think about the ancient classics and texts. Think about the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey. All of them written in verse. Think about the hundreds of thousands of Vedic schools spread all across India, some of them functional even today, where students did nothing but just mug up to recite the Vedas. Think about the ancient Indian oral tradition, which has managed to preserve the Vedas and our epics in something close to their original forms even today. Can you imagine mugging up all the words of a modern classic, and remembering it well enough to deliver verbatim to your students? I guess you can’t, and you don’t need to, for we have the luxury of writing, and written records. But what in those days in ancient India, where there was no paper? How have such long and magnificent texts survived our oral tradition across centuries? The answer is poetry.
Poetry is a concept that dates back to the times when there was no writing. It was a means to make it easy for someone to memorize a piece of text. By introducing concepts such as rhyme and rhythm, of allegories and metaphors, the poets would make it easy for the transmitters to remember the poems. I’m told (for I haven’t read them firsthand) that the Vedas also have several built-in checksums, to enable easy rememberance, in case a part of a verse gets lost in memory. By this insight, poetry is basically a means to render text in a format that makes it easy for you to remember stuff. That, truly, is the sheer beauty of poetry. An ancient concept designed to transmit, across generations. A concept that was essentially rendered redundant with the coming of writing, because of which it had to reinvent itself. And I’m not sure how successful that reinvention of the form has been (though given the number of people who claim to love poetry, I must say the reinvention has been rather successful).
Now, think of your school textbooks, any subject. And think about how many lines from the prose you can remember verbatim. Exactly as it was in the text. I would guess the answer would be something close to zero, which is the answer in my case. And now think about the poetry you read back in school, and how much of that you can remember. I would assume the number is rather higher. I may not remember complete poems, but I remember at least stanzas from several of the poems I studied back then. For example, I can recite verbatim several of the dohas written by Kabir and Abdurrahim Khankhana, which were part of our school syllabus as far back as when I was in 7th standard. Now think about it – how is it that I can remember entire lines, written in a language I was hardly comfortable with back then, in a dialect I hardly understood, almost twenty years later? It is down to sheer poetry! The rhymes and rhythms and allegories and puns which all make it so easy to remember!
So what is poetry? It is essentially a form of writing which is easy for the reader to memorize, and remember ages later in order to transmit. So what is good poetry? It is a piece of writing, written in a form that sticks in the reader’s head, which possesses him, to the extent that he remembers the words in their entirety, and not just the essence. The thing with great prose is that it enables the reader to easily grasp the idea it is trying to convey. With poetry, it is not just the idea that is to be conveyed, it’s also the expression. And how good a poem is depends on how successful it is in making the expression stick in the reader’s head.
In general, I must admit, I still don’t get ‘free verse’. I think it’s just prose written with lines broken in random places that the “poet” fancies. While they might have some nice puns or allegories, in most cases it is impossible to remember the exact words, for there is little that ties sentences, that creates checksums, that enables readers to remember the expressions. I still like simple good old poetry, though, but few people write that any more. I’ll leave you with a stanza from one of my favourite poems which I still remember:
Once upon a time a frog
croaked away in bingle bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn