Can Poetry Save the World?

Anthropologists, environmentalists, politicians, scholars, activists, academicians, and sustainability consultants have their own version of the climate crisis. What is a poet’s version of the world in crisis? Academician and author Jhilam Chattaraj grilled acclaimed poets Ranjith Hoskote and Sudeep Sen at the recent Auroville Literature Festival (August 25- 27, 2023) on the theme ‘Perceptions of Reality.’ They spoke about their techniques and the role of imagination in writing poetry. The festival commemorated Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birth anniversary.


Edited excerpts:

Jhilam: Can poetry save the world? W.H Auden says poetry makes nothing happen.

Ranjith: What does Auden say after that? It goes, it lies in a valley of its own making or something like that.

I think the important thing is that poets are not expected to transform the world, but they hope to shift to some degree the sense of consciousness and imagination. For me it is vital to remain connected to the debates. I don’t think I can write without addressing the work that is being done in genetics, geology, climate studies and migration studies. All of this goes into the research backdrop of a book.

Also, poets can never be isolated voices; we have to be a part of a larger solidarity. Poets can’t change the world nor change what happens with the press and regimes.

Sudeep Sen:  What we can do is shift micro which then has a larger resonance in shifts of the geological. Tectonic plates move in millimetres, but the impact they have is monumental. Poets do that.

Jhilam: Ranjith, in your book, Icelight, there were 16 instances of use of the word ‘light’. I find the best way to read a poetry book is to read the first poem and the last one and to see the connection there. I saw the connection to light in your book, something that binds all the poems together. I was reminded of John Keats’ Ode to Nightingale and how he uses the technique of chiaroscuro in his poems. Would you like to comment on your relationship with light?

Ranjith: The title (Icelight) has to do with a sense of luminosity in the night and the book opens with the sense of chasm in light and it ends with light returning. I’ve always been fascinated by the cosmic contrast of light and darkness. But is seems to me that at this point, it is through this tenability that we have to make our way. For me it is not Keats at all. It is phrase from Hyena I read as a teenager which stuck with me: the lit and light in night/ the light that illuminates. So, what fascinates me is the possibility that one might look in most unlikely places for sources of light.

Jhilam: Light and colour. At times I am confused if it is colour that gives life to form or form that gives life to colour.

Sudeep: Colour is intrinsically linked to light. White light is basically an abrogation of seven colours and more. When you refract light, you get seven colours. That is what human beings can see. There is much more beyond the ultraviolet and infra-red and human vision is limited. Without light, we can’t live. Though one-third of Anthropocene is morose and dark, large parts of the book are about hope and light. There is so much beauty and light around us.

I particularly like these lines by Czeslaw Milosz, the polish poet which goes,

My generation was lost. Cities too.  And nations.

But all this a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow

This was in context of the First World War.

Jhilam: The next question is to Sudeep about your books ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Red.’ Anthropocene has your private observations of the pandemic; you speak about your neighbours reading newspapers and you have depicted the private space of an individual. In Red, it is about communities and nations. Yesterday you spoke about poets coming together as communities. I would like you to comment on the idea of community. How do you address this idea of coming together?

Sudeep: Community is crucial. Why do you think the western civilization came down? They think in I’s, not us. Where are we (s) and the us? There is a shared space that is negotiated in modern relationships. The ‘us’ and ‘we,’ the beautiful polysemic monostitches is the way to go. Without community you cannot do anything. You have to look up and out to see the geographic and cosmic models and relate that to ourselves.

In my own limited way, I try to bring the poetry community of India together. I have done many anthologies and the whole idea of an anthology is to destroy the walls and bring everybody together in one room without any hierarchy. We need to hold hands and we need to hug. Before we leave, everyone please hug your neighbour and we will hug all of you.

Ranjith: My guru Mr. Nizzim Ezekiel used to say let’s not go to extremes. My sense is that the idea of community is marvellous. It is always a work in progress that demands a constant ethical rededication. All too often it happens that the community develops an idea of what it needs to be which then becomes a dogma and then that divides people into two; the believers on one side and the blasphemous or heretics on the other side. Or the community develops some kind of bureaucracy which then takes over and the quest or ideals or the values of that community tend to recede a bit. I would prefer to work on the operational notes of solidarity which allows for criticality or dissent and for the reshaping of purpose.

Jhilam: We have spoken about the content of your books, and we have many readers who are interested in poetry in general. I would like to know about the idea of imagination. A well-known poet Octavio Paz once wrote, imagination can turn sex into ceremony and language to rhythm and metaphor. Most poets say that they write for themselves, and they don’t think about the reader when they do. When you are in the phase of crafting the poem, playing with the idea of imagination, is the reader on your mind?

Sudeep: Initially, I write for myself. If I can’t negotiate the inspiration in light or the source of love or whatever it is I strive, if I can’t process it through my blood and DNA and craft into some kind of shape, there is no way I could offer it to the world – it could be one reader or many readers. So, the process of thinking about the readership is very distant when I begin writing a poem. The crafting of the poem is hard work and very unglamorous, but it is incredibly important to me. 80% of the poems I write, I throw out.

I also like form. It is a fascination for me, and my early work is very formal and metrical. For instance, in my first book, there is a poem called ‘Durga Pujo’ which is in couplets. It basically reflects the ‘Chandipaath’ hymns in the same metrical phraseology as the original Bangla. I wrote a poem called ‘Bharatanatyam Dancer.’ Initially when you watch a performance, you are seeing it in a proscenium stage. It took me six months to write this poem because I was watching this dancer rehearse and I asked her if she could be photographed.

When I was developing the film, in the negative stage I could study the footprint mapping she was making. I stored that in my imagination and the day when I saw her dance, I realised there was an interesting similarity and overlap between the mapping and the taal she was dancing to. By the time I reached the 37th draft of the poem, I thought I could invent a rhyme scheme similar to the beats the dancer followed. So, it turned out to be a-b-a-c-c-a, a-b-a-c-c-a.

We as Indian poets have contributed to English prosody by doing these things.

Ranjith: You wouldn’t be doing poetry or any creative art without any imagination.

Jhilam: What would be your technique?

Ranjith: For me, also because I have this hybrid practice, since I am involved in visual arts and architecture and with music, this condition of being among the arts, working across the arts is very important when it comes to shaping a poem. For instance, in many of the poems in my book ‘Jonahwhale,’ I was preoccupied with how to open up the short English lyric to a diversity of voices. In some cases, I had to open up the language. I went through this period when I was importing into some of these poems the lines from Hindustani classical music. Those poems were about the oceans, about the crossing of identities. It seemed to be that by being interlingual that you could achieve this kind of expressiveness.

The entire conversation is available at:

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