The mysterious ways of poetic inspiration

Why do we like poetry? And how do they get into our lives?

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

“Why do you like poetry so much?” I asked my father again this morning.

He sighed. “Because we had to memorize poems like “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,’”he replied.

It is a tangential answer; one that attempts to pry loose and give word to something tenuous, precious.

My father begins reciting the poem to deflect my tiresome questions. His voice is soft, and thanks to newly acquired dentures, a bit slurred. I strain to hear him. “….like a lily in bloom….an angel writing in leaves of gold….”

My mouth opens with another question. My father starts reciting again. “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase.”

The first time I heard the phrase, “May your tribe increase,” was about five years ago from my friend, K. Srikrishna. He included it in a thank-you note that he sent after a party. I liked the phrase and started including it in my thank-you notes. It seemed like a quintessentially Indian expression.

“In India, we don’t thank a person,” I told my husband grandly. “We offer blessings, and that too, not to the individual—to the group. We don’t take ownership of an action, or even our spouse. Objects and actions belong to the community. We say hum, not main; not my husband but the husband. We don’t say, I wish you well. We say, ‘May your tribe increase.’”

“And it has,” the husband replied drily. “To become the second most populous nation on earth.”

After my father recited the poem, I realized that the phrase I was making much of wasn’t Indian at all. It came from a poem written by Leigh Hunt, a 19th century English poet, who, it turns out, has written about grasshoppers and crickets, death
and fish.

My father walks down every day to visit my brother and I. We live in the same apartment complex. He may start at my brother’s house and end up at mine, or vice versa. He is a worry-wart. When my brother was commanding Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), ships that plied the oceans, my dad worried that some drunk sailor would throw the captain—my brother—off the ship. Not about payment or promotions. My dad’s worries come from his magnificent imagination. Poetry gives him solace; turns his worries into structured chunks of very lovely words or verses. He is a quiet man, my dad. Doesn’t talk much, except on topics he cares about. And these days, what he likes to talk about is poetry. No matter what the topic, he can link it to poetry.

Appa, what shall I say about silence?” I asked before speaking at a panel discussion.

“You can use Shakespeare’s sonnets,” he replied and began reciting. “‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrances of things past.”

Poetry has become a hook; a way to converse with my dad. He loves English poetry and knows a hell of a lot about it. Shakespeare is his favourite but he also loves the Romantic poets who lived in the Yorkshire Moors in close proximity to each other. He talks about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and T.S. Eliot when I ask about poets who had an India connection. In his poem, The Waste Land, Eliot talked about “What the thunder said” and used the phrase, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (Give, Sympathize, Control).”

The Waste Land is a brilliant poem. There are strands of nonsensical phrases, lines in German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It is a nightmare to memorize. But once it seeps in, I can imagine that it will change a person—which really is the purpose of all art: to change how you view the world.

As my father’s daughter, I wrestle with poetry. Prose seems more straightforward; less forced. Regional poetry in my native tongue, Tamil; or even translated Sanskrit, Spanish or Russian poetry sounds better to my novice ears. But perhaps I am approaching it all wrong. Poetry, like yoga, music, meditation or sport, is a practice; one that you get better at. Reading and memorizing poetry makes you see the world through a lens that is singular and distinctive. It shapes the way you see things and you may well be 80 years old—like my dad—before you relish its rewards.

Is poetry relevant in today’s world? The way to answer that question is to pick a poet, memorize her poems and see if they influence you. Do it often enough and these poems may give you endurance, courage and joy. Ancient India has a long tradition of poetry in every language. The ones I follow are Sanskrit poets. Bharatiya Kaavya Shastra, they called it, and the list of luminaries is long: Bharata, Dandin, Udbatha, Vamana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Rajashekara, Kunthaka, Dhananjaya, Bhoja, Kshemendra, Mamatta, Vishwanatha, Jagannatha and Kalidasa. No women. Thankfully, my native tongue—Tamil—has fine women poets—Andal and Avvaiyar being the ones I am most familiar with.

Poetry is a child of leisure. It takes a while to appreciate phrases like the “wild braid of creation trembles”, in Stanley Kunitz’s masterpiece, The Snakes Of September. How then to access poetry beyond simply memorizing as much as you can? Thankfully, we have options. Mint Lounge publishes poetry, as do Muse India, Poetry India, ReadLeafPoetry,, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and the Enchanting Verses Literary Review, among others.

Delhi is the place to be. They have the Poets Corner group, Delhi Poetry Slam, and the Delhi Poetry Festival—from 18-20 December at Siri Fort Auditorium; mark your calendars. Performance poetry à la Sarah Kay may be the future; or tweeting poems à la Kaafiya—The Poetry Festival. I don’t know. I am not a poet, although I would like to be one.

Shoba Narayan is trying to memorize Abou Ben Adhem. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at [email protected]

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