This collection of poems written by students between the ages of twelve and eighteen is distinguished by its pervasive tone of full- grown awareness. The poems come from a workshop conducted by well-known writer Gieve Patel over a period of a decade. They deal with a wide variety of experiences, from a moving camaraderie to violent aggression, from a deep love and understanding of Nature to a concern for its fate in today’s world. There are poems here also about friends, animals, neighbours, teachers, lovers and mothers.
The book will be of interest to students, parents, teachers, educationists, psychologists and to anyone who is curious to meet with young minds. A lively and entertaining introduction by Gieve Patel details the steps by which the poems got to be written, The poems are illustrated by four of India’s most distinguished artists.
Sieve Patel is one of India’s best-known writers. He has published three books of verse, and has written three plays. All three plays have been performed in this country. A book of his collected plays is soon to be published by Seagull Books.
He is also a well-known painter His paintings are in public and private collections in India and in other countries.
The lines quoted above are not heroic. They do not express noble or pious sentiments. They do not handle elevated thoughts. And they are not about burning social issues. They address in fact a mere mundane object — a discarded old table. Even so, they stand at the Start of poetry. They do so because within three lines the writer has imbued this object with feeling, memory, and a sense of the passing of time. The lines also have an admirable rhythmic structure, the extended third line stretching upward toward tallness and then curtailing the ascent with the almost audible thump of “jump down”.
This poem is one of a large number written by students of Rishi Valley School in the course of a workshop conducted by me at school campus over a period of a decade or so. I m, I believe justifiably, pleased by the quality and range of these poems. Inevitably, :.ere are limitations to my project. These too I will discuss in due Z) course.
To go back to the start of this essay am I suggesting that poetry should not express noble sentiments, shouldn’t be heroic, shouldn’t handle social issues or elevated thoughts of course not. writer is free to attempt any of these things. But a poem isn’t necessarily good one because it attempts to convey such thoughts. That by itself cannot make it a good poem. It could even turn out to be a very bad one in spite of the laudable sentiments expressed. Young people are particularly beset by instructors who want them to express such sentiments in poetry, irrespective of the many other qualities that good poetry calls for. Or they want to be given something cute, dainty, quaint, a false adult notion of what goes on in young minds. No wonder many student readers and writers tend to find poetry uncongenial, and think of it as something at one remove from the specificities of their own lives and experiences
What then does constitute a good poem, if a writer is equally free to choose an elevated or mundane subject? It wouldn’t be possible to answer this question in ten lines. It might be better therefore to address sources and to take a look at indisputably great poetry When we can have an experience of the thing itself we might allow the question of ‘what it is’ to take second place. For this reason, very early in the evolution of the workshop I came to the decision that we would keep away from the reams of poetry written specifically ‘for young people’. The ages of my students range from twelve to eighteen. If I could choose discriminately for each age group, felt confident that I could read to them from the masters. Here’s just a small part of my list: Sangam poetry from the first and second centuries in southern India, Wang Wei, Francois Villon, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, AK. Ramanujan, Anna Akhmatova, Dante, Arun Kolatkar, Ted Hughes. Specific poems from all these poets are accessible to school students. With such wealth at one’s disposal one doesn’t need to look elsewhere.
I have yet to answer why I commend the poem Ancient Table for not tackling large issues Just because it begins where poetry should begin on familiar territory. The writer should know what he is talking about, but really know. Don’t we contemptuously say: “That man doesn’t know what he is talking about.”? It isn’t any different with poetry. My students were discouraged from writing about witches and fairies, stock subjects in the horrid writings of junior school. Also daffodils, because you don’t see them in our country And a snowy day, if you haven’t visited Simla in winter. In short, for a start, write about things you have seen, known, are familiar with, and about emotions you have personally felt or been touched by.
It is an easy corollary to this that you avoid writing at second hand. To reproduce images and feelings from literature you have read without a long and subtle process of assimilation, which incidentally is not an easy process to understand, is as pointless as talking about daffodils you have not lived through some other writer’s experiences, just as you have not seen daffodils. So, to discover your own source material leave most of the things you have read in hooks behind. Go to your own life, it is richer and fuller than you believe, it has all the potential material for good writing.
A third rule of thumb is to discard clichés. It is useless to tell the reader that the sky is blue, that grass is green. He has heard it too often before, it is tedious to hear it one more time, it has lost all meaning — it cannot awaken any new process of thinking or feeling in the reader, since it hasn’t in the writer either.
Once these three basic falsehoods are identified and avoided it is quite wonderful to see how the imagination is released. But why are we talking about the imagination? Weren’t we supposed to leave witches and fairies behind? My answer to this is that we need to distinguish between the imagination, and fancy or fantasy. Fantasy is trivial, small-time, a bit like rather pointless day-dreaming. Fantasy naps you in your own small world of wishful thinking. It is self-deluding, a baby’s comfort nipple to suck at. Good poetry rarely comes from it. use the word ‘rarely’ to cover myself from charges of inaccuracy. 3timately, good poetry could come from — anywhere! Even so, one attempts to make distinctions.
Imagination is altogether something else. It is empathy, it lets you into worlds other than your own, ultimately leads you to understand that there is nothing out there that does not belong to you as well. When I read a poem like Villon’s Epitaph with my students I am inviting them to witness the public hanging of petty thieves in fifteenth century France, and the crowd of good citizens who come to see the spectacle r their day’s entertainment. For my students it is an effort of the imagination to grasp both the historical fact and the associated emotions that Villon’s great poem arouses. But that is exactly what sets off in any reader a corresponding capacity to conceive of situations and emotions that are not necessarily a direct personal experience. I may quote from Sunanda N’s moving poem True Friendship, about an orphan who has been given shelter and then deserted. Has Sunanda N. been working at an orphanage to be able to tell us how an orphan feels? Has Bilawal Singh Sun personally suffered unemployment? Has Vigyan visited the sites of repeated annual flooding that large parts of the country suffer? I presume not. Imagination opens the door to all experience.
Each great poem opens such a door for the reader, giving him access not just to experiences outside his ken, but even to his own experiences which otherwise would remain unavailable to himself, locked and scaled in the chambers of his own mind. So it is that studying AK. Ramanujan’s translations of Sangam war poetry gave us access to our feelings about what Afghanistan was going through. Wang Wei helped us to understand that suggestiveness can often be more effective than overt statement. Anna Alchmatova opened a door to the astonishing range of feelings explored in what’s rather simply called ‘love poetry’. An anonymous Spanish poem The Gray She- Wolftranslated into English by W.S. Merwin demonstrated that cruelty used in a focused and conscious way can be a powerful tool in the hands of a writer, that poetry doesn’t have to be pious; it can be sharp, violent, acerbic, and still be wonderful poetry. Some of the hard-hitting poems in this collection come from a conscious decision to release inner violence on to paper. The only restraining condition being that, as in the work of the masters, the violence should be controlled within the structure of the poem; that it should he ‘held’ by the poem and thereby lend power to the experience described.
Rishi Valley School is a four hours’ drive from Bangalore City. It nestles in a shallow valley that suffers from being in the rain shadow of hills around it with the result that in the earlier part of its existence the school was lodged in an impressive but arid setting Planting of trees started in the 1930s, soon after the inauguration of the school itself. It was a good beginning. The next phase took off in the eighties with the easing of adjoining hillsides to the school by government, and in the last twenty years an ecological program to reforest the valley was established in earnest. The school sought the help of ecologists, students and neighbouring villagers for this purpose. The result of this visionary activity is a transformed environment. The hills and the valley are full of trees, there are water bodies with birds and tiny animals whenever the rain gods are reasonably generous, species of birds that had never been seen in the valley before have started to make it their home, and the valley has been declared a bird sanctuary.
The school also has an ongoing rural outreach program, with satellite schools for the Telegu speaking villages around. There are attempts to make connections between the main English language school and the rural schools. And there is a constant stream of visitors from various walks of life to inform the students, often on repeated visits, about the latest news and developments in their particular specialization: social activists, artists, scientists, lawyers, historians, environmentalists.
Many schools over the years have asked me to give a talk to their students, or do a day’s poetry workshop. Well intentioned, but water off a duck’s back ultimately. What can you achieve in a day? In the present case was re-invited after my first visit to continue with the work started, and this then became an annual visit. The people and the place was what ensured that I would return again and again. And the workshop evolved on its own steam as we learned from each year’s mistakes to alter strategy and direction.
If the school thought the poetry workshop \vas worth supporting, my engagement with the students was by no means an easy one right from the beginning. Understandably they felt it to be a bit of an imposition. It wouldn’t have been one had I worked with a handful of students who may have volunteered to join the workshop. But the initial trial session with fall classes and different age groups gave me the sense that there was an ocean of possibilities here, and I was unwilling to give that up. Who could guarantee that a few volunteers would necessarily be acutely receptive? Within the ocean however I had inklings of talents that were as yet hidden from the possessors themselves. To bring those out seemed something of a grand design worth undertaking.
I admit to feelings of guilt when I started out. Such clear, beautiful young faces, why was I subjecting them to this extra study? Many of them looked bewildered at the prospect, quietly resentful. There were sneering and defiant looks too. How could I blame them for it? The subject was not part of their prescribed study, I was not even a bona fide teacher in their school. But there was a turning point and it was with the sevenths, the watershed between junior and high school, minds not yet too burdened by the weight of being grown up. I was explaining a wonderfully suggestive Wang Wei poem. The poem at root was a simple one but was couched in cryptic lines. I had to uncover the lines like the unveiling of a crime in detective fiction. Four tiny lines, and a whole bitter-sweet situation between a young husband and wife opened up, and the mores of another time and place. And then I saw an assenting gleam in row’ after row of eyes.
The next hurdle came when I decided the whole school should be made aware that many fine poems had been written by the students in the course of two years with the workshop. I asked the teachers what they thought of the writers reading their poems out loud at assembly. They were enthusiastic about the idea, hut the students were not. Many of them were now writing with something close to pleasure, but to admit this before their peers! The unspoken feeling is that writing poetry is a slightly retarded business, it isn’t normal activity. Very accomplished warriors I said wrote poetry in bygone times, it’s a matter of developing skills. Lukewarm assent, then someone came out with it. 1t will be a dummy show”, he said. I thought it time for me to exercise a political argument. They appeared unwilling to admit that what they had accomplished could actually be worthwhile, or would he seen as worthwhile by their fellow students. So I said: “I love coming to Rishi Valley year after year. You can see how much I enjoy it. If I give the school a dummy show I won’t be invited to come again. Do you think would risk that This argument was met by surreptitious little smiles all round. 0 yes, they found it convincing.
It was an uphill task nevertheless. The average well-educated Indian school student does not know how to speak at a public platform. The mercurial charming chatter with implosions of words and running together of text is pleasurable to hear at games field or picnics, hut it doesn’t work as public speaking. In addition, these students at this stage of the workshop saw the reading as something painful to be quickly got over with, The idea was to rush through the poem and then run away Only repeated reassurance that their text was worth sharing with the rest of the school, that the school actually wanted to heat their poems, could help them overcome the rush syndrome. Not to run words into each other, to speak out loud and clear. Over these ten years teacher after teacher worked to bring the point home. The work is far from accomplished, but each annual or biannual poetry assembly is at least an audible and coherent experience. It is also looked forward to by most students.
Besides giving legitimacy to the idea of a poetry culture written the school, the assembly readings brought home another important point regarding poetry — that it is both a private and a public affair. It needs to be read to oneself in silence. But it needs also to he read aloud, to oneself and before others. The two actions, both of equal importance, together fulfill the destiny of a poem.
Sometime around the third year of the workshop I felt the need for assessment of the work done. Was it worth continuing with the project? Was I wasting the students’ and the school’s time on a self-gratification trip? The teachers expressed generous approval for the work done. A house-parent said that he found the students under his charge fretting under the pressure of having to write a poem, but that this seemed more like obligatory rebellion. Once they got down to the work they seemed to enjoy it, and there was a good deal of excitement in discussing completed poems. I needed to be reassured just a hit more. I showed some of the poems to friends in Bombay writers, painters, actors. The response was warmly encouraging.
It was time now to introduce the idea of editing. A number of poems that ran into ten lines and more had, I noticed, two or three lines of perception in them, embedded in material of lesser interest. For most professional writers this is a familiar occurrence. We learn to become editors of our own work, preserving the useful lines, discarding the rest. I hoped to get my students into the habit of editing their own work. But this, I found, would indeed be asking too much of writers who had just written their first few poems. A substantial number of the poems needed no editing, or just the slightest alteration of punctuation or syntax. These are the poems that come to a writer intact, whole. It can happen even to beginners. But many works needed some cleaning up for the heart of the poem to come through blazing. More and more I have wanted to emphasize and demonstrate this process to my students. The poem in draft form may be all their own, but they do need to learn editing skills, something that can be acquired only over a period of time. Even so, Jam pleased at the number of poems that do not need to be worked on at all, or to be worked on quite minimally.
There are many two or four line poems in the book. A number of these come from the writers fully realized this poem as presented was a work of fourteen lines. It is these two lines however that essentially carry the poetic load and I thought it worthwhile to isolate them Seen now in this new form the, as short intense little experiences. lines are evocative indeed, of the veins of desiccated leaves, of meandering riverbeds gone dry. To point this out to the writer and to the school audience becomes a vital lesson in editing.
The poems in this book have been selected from hundreds written over the period of a decade. This anthology would have been a longer one had I felt free to include every poem worth including. There is always however a pattern in an anthologist’s mind and it is important to adhere to it so the book may have some structure to it. Many good poems have inevitably to he dropped in the interest of this rigor.
I thought I should not group poems by subject matter. I would rather see a bird or animal poem crop up in between poems on teachers or sisters than be inundated by a zoo program. Though most readers do not read an anthology through from first page to last but take dips in and out, a sense of weaving has been attempted by alternating subjects. The subjects are wide-ranging and a surprise from one poem to the next is always welcome.
Among subjects it is curious that there are a number of poems on mothers but just two on fathers. The poems on mothers I have chosen to include are critical of the parent. The laudatory poems were commonplace, predictable. It is the critical ones that were lively and carried bite. I am not worried by this though. One writes critically when one feels involved. It is the fathers I worry about. Just two poems on dad!? What could that mean? Is the Indian father, in the twenty first century, such an unapproachable being?
The only instance of grouping together of poems I have exercised is poet-wise grouping. It was something to think about that the excellent poem has been written by most of the writers just once during the six years that they attended the workshop, from standard seventh to twelfth. Some may have written it at age twelve, others at eighteen. But there is an interesting core group of students who are represented here by more than one poem. I have grouped the poems of each of these writers together. They give a tantalizing picture, by no means a clear one hut revealing nevertheless, of a set of people as they make a transition through a unique period in their lives. As witness Nachiappan R. amanathan’s early celebratory poem Brown, and the later angst-filled It’s Only When You’re Standing On Top Of The World. Or Raeesa Vakil’s consistently serious and elegiac tone of voice.
The unpredictability of effective production then is one more limitation of this project. Because a student has written well on one occasion is no guarantee he will write well again. There could he numberless reasons for this, too many really for me to he able to make a useful surmise on the question. But if excellence of writing is unpredictable, the inculcation of a good reading habit is certainly a more modest end one could aim at. This then could bean aspiration — the hope to create intelligent readers of poetry. Here too though lam under no illusions. I am aware that of all the students who have participated in this project a mere handful will continue to read poetry. Some may give it up now, but may take it up again at some future period in their lives. Whenever they do, this initial exposure to great poetry over six formative years in their lives may make some difference in the way they look at the texts they read.
The exposure to great poetry is absolutely the very basis of my project. A poet friend who was impressed by the students’ work asked me how I had managed to convey the importance of form in poetry to them. She said she found so many of the poems formally impeccable. My reply was that I did not need to address the question, directly. The reading aloud, and to oneself, of master poems seems to have been the way to do it. The sense of form is then imbibed. Even as he close viewing of great paintings will give a painter perceptions about painterly form that no classroom lecture could replicate.
Poetry may be the most misunderstood of genres among the arts. While on the one hand there is an explosion of interest in it all over the world today as witness its wide prevalence on the net, there is no way to assess what exactly it could mean to its numerous readers and practitioners. And maybe it would be rather imperious for any one person or any one school of thought to presume knowledge of its true estate. Maybe it will always mean different things to different people, and that may be the key to its democratic appeal. But that would be to talk of people to whom it does mean something, however various. What about those to whom it means nothing? This was indeed one end of the spectrum of my experience in the course of the workshop — the unavoidable encounter with students who had reluctantly to suffer my presence and my instruction. It may have been a miniscule part of their year’s many activities, and the number of these students may have been relatively small. But it could have been no less of a nuisance to them for these reasons.
Nevertheless, after acknowledging this, I may make the claim that a substantial number of the students were touched in a positive way by the experience. The evidence for this is in the poems they wrote during the period. Each year I was mailed a few hundred poems from the school. Scrutinizing these, weeding out the ones that couldn’t be read at school assemblies, I was moved by the earnestness evident in all of them. Each poem was a real effort to come to grips with the material at hand, and to give it a poetic form and dimension. The poems that ultimately worked were elating to read indeed. Those that did not were nonetheless authentic little documents of the concerns of various individual lives.
My unending need for reassurance was put to rest finally by a statement made in conversation with me by one of the teachers. He spoke of the excessively technophillic bias that education today was subject to. This bias, he said, was alienating students from the deepest sources of their being. The corrective could come only from exposing them, at least in equal measure, to the arts and humanities as well.
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