since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

by e. e. cummings (part of  ‘is 5‘ , published in 1926)

Meet the first love poem that made sense to me.  Because most of what people call love I call syntax.  And syntactic freedom makes me joyful.   And just for the record, there is no such thing as the absence of syntax.  But poetry, like life, should be revolutionary: an exercise in building your own.  And paragraphs of kisses can follow.  You see how?

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Advaitic

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I told my Dada (grandfather) that I didn’t believe in god.  It was an interesting conversation.  And my introduction to advaitic thought and the beginning of many years of reading and learning vedantic and upanishadic texts.  But what I want to talk about is what brought me to that decision of atheism.  As my grandfather pointed out, not believing in god is not a bar to being hindu.  In many ways it is the antecedent to brahman.  I think at least part of my reason for not believing in god was a deep-seated desire to have nothing to do with the hinduism that I saw around me.  So I’m talking here not of just religious thought but of codified religious hegemony.  That which legitamises the creation of a caste-based hierarchy that I passionately disagree with and am fundamentally opposed to.  So being an atheist was a possible escape.

Now let’s talk about why I like my Dada. I could always depend on him to point out what would then be entirely obvious.  People in power like to stay in power.  People in power don’t like it when people whom they oppress don’t do what they’re told.  And if you don’t want to be the person who has ‘power over’ then you have a pretty simple and incredibly frustrating time ahead.  Witness the smartness: he didn’t try to convince me of reasons why I should want to be hindu.  He just told me that it wasn’t something I could opt out of.  That it was part of where I come from and as such part of who I would become.  This was a valuable lesson in the nature of privilege.  Whether or not I align myself with the system of oppression my name and my genealogy gives me privilege as a brahmin.  It is, from that point on, up to me to determine whether being brahmin gives me automatic brahman.  Or, as I believe, gives me sufficient tools to know atman and strive for brahman through the life I live.

So here is my favourite poem that conveys the problem of religious hegemony most clearly and without apology.

Advaita: the utlimate question (By Meena Kandasamy)

Non                                      Dualism
Atman                                  Self
Brahman                               God
Are                                       Equal
And                                      Same.
So                                         I
Untouchable                        Outcast
Am                                       God.
Will                                       You
Ever                                      Agree?
No                                        Matter
What                                     You
Preach                                  Answer
Me.                                       Through
Your                                     Saints.
One                                      More
Final                                     Question
Can                                      My
Untouchable                        Atman
And                                      Your
Brahmin                               Atman
Ever                                     Be
`                      One
`                       ?

The formatting of the last two lines has gone a bit funky so I’d suggest you click the link in the title to get it the way is should be.  I also highly recommend that you go read more of her poetry.  You can find it here.  She’s a very talented poet-woman-dalit-feminist-activist who writes about the world as she experiences it.  Oh and if you discover you like her poetry and her politics you should also read her personal blog.  It is a joy to read the work of someone who writes as well as she does and has at least as much of a love and appreciation of baba saheb Ambedkar as I!

For the benign indifference of the universe

I have a twisted love for the absence of grand design.  It comes from being an atheistic hindu.  You know, I don’t believe in the intentions of things (even though occasionally the way they behave makes me question this generosity) and I have not the arrogance to think the universe is conspiring against me.  I find it comforting to think of the world as benignly indifferent rather than actively evil.  I suppose this denies me the luxury of believing the world to be deliberately helpful, but I’m okay with that.  So this poem makes me happy.

The More Loving One

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

W. H. Auden (Orginally published in Homage to Clio, 1960)

Thought fox

My friends and loved ones call me a crazy silly person.  One of the reasons they cite in support of this diagnosis is my ability to meta-analyse.  Actually I do them an injustice.  It’s more my inability to not meta-analyse everything that amuses (and worries) them.  I like analysis.  And I love the analysis of the analysis.  And the analysis of the conversation about analysing the analysis.  I especially love the following poem and its meta-analytic Hughes.  (The people, they be I right.  I be very crazily silly.)

Thought-fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Ted Hughes (Published as part of his first collection ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, 1957)

As you can see, it is a poem about writing a poem.  And it is, in my opinion, the best poem about writing ever written.  It is certainly one of the most successful poems Ted Hughes ever wrote.  And that is saying quite something.    One of my favourite things about this poem is how un-tortured it is.  It is entirely devoid of any writerly angst about the creative process.  I do so love this fox.  Sinister and mysterious perhaps, warm and focussed certainly; but above all: effortless.

Villanelle done well

Poems come in many forms and intents.  And there are people wiser than I who have studied the subject longer and can argue about what makes a poem work.  What follows is merely one that works for me and has had my abiding love for a tidy dozen years.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)”

By Sylvia Plath

(First published in the August 1953 edition of Mademoiselle.  Typically included in the biographical note appended to The Bell Jar.)

The internet will tell you that there are excellent reasons why this is a successful poem.  For me it comes down to this: it is a mad girl’s love song.  The voice is clear and weightless and nicely highlights the weight of the words.  The echoes of the rhythm accent the sanity of what is being said – between intellectual meta-analysis and streaming ribbons of consciousness.

There is a lot to be said for self-aware and irreverent madness.  Especially when most of the world is so keen on othering itself from it.  That is what makes this a love song.  A poem would be too fettered; it’s a song that is stuck in your head even when you haven’t heard it for years and never ever knew the words.  But you know what it means even when you can’t remember what it said.

What appeals to me most about this one is the ease with which the verses weave through sophist solipsisms and undeniable realities until the end where I am the mad girl.  And she has written my song.