Art & Culture

If we want poetry to give, we must surrender to the poem

Sridala Swami
Sridala SwamiSep 17, 2014 | 05:55

If we want poetry to give, we must surrender to the poem

Recently, a student asked me, 'Of what use is poetry?'

Actually, what he said was, 'What's the use of poetry, ma'am? I hate it!' He said this with an adolescent whine and, later that day when I wandered into the staff room of a school where I do workshops, a teacher preparing for a class on Robert Browning, echoed the sentiment if not the words or the whine.


Elsewhere, in another school that, for the last twenty years, has had Gieve Patel conduct poetry workshops with students between the age of 12 and 18, the questions after a reading were thoughtful and probing. These were students who were readers; readers who didn't hate poetry and might even love it; readers who were themselves writers of poetry.

'And that made all the difference', as Frost (nearly) said.

The way poetry is studied in school, or indeed in any place where there is an examination at the end, it is more usual to do to the poem what Billy Collins describes in his poem, "Introduction to Poetry":


I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.


But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with a rope

and torture a confession out of it.


They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.


As generations of students who have subjected poetry to the water-boarding treatment can testify, there is no joy involved and whatever is obtained is likely to be given up under duress and might very well be unreliable as a result.


If we want poetry to give instead of give up or give in, we - the readers - are the ones who must surrender to the poem. Or listen to it. Or leave our shoes at the door before we enter it.

All of which is to say that there are ways and ways of being a reader of poetry and most of them include temporarily changing the angle at which we stand in relation to the world.

That brings me to The Sideways Door and what happens when you walk through it.

I imagine this door as opening on to, maybe, that wood where Frost's two roads are still diverging. The path that we will take, or even make as we go along, will be one where poetry is appreciated better in the making of it. Once you're through this door, you write poetry not so that you can be awarded the title of Poet but in order to become better at reading - and writing - it.

As for the door itself: you will have to align yourself to it in order to walk through it. At what angle it deviates from the absolutely vertical is up to you to imagine. Up to you, also, to imagine how you are reshaped in order to fit through the door.


Metaphors aside, what will happen every month is this: at the beginning of every month, The Sideways Door will pick some poems to share and discuss. I will talk about themes or forms or strategies that poets use in their poems. I will then offer a prompt to you, the reader.

You will have ten days in which to respond to the prompt with poems that you have written. In the second column of the month, I will pick some of your submissions and offer comments and feedback and discuss what worked and what could do with more work.

So much depends on you, the reader. All poets know this. (I suspect all poems know this.)

Since at least half my work here depends on the poems you write and send in, I feel a panic attack coming on. What if no one reads this column? What if many people read it but no one responds to it? What if many people respond to it but they're mostly requests to publish their manuscript(s)? Worse, what if most of the responses are for illegal medication?

I realise I cannot sustain a panic attack for a fortnight; so to calm myself, I have a word. It is not a talismanic word, or a word I take out every time I have a panic attack, but it's a great word to set in above the door as one would set in the date above the entrance to a building: to say, 'This space begins now.'

The word is symphily. How I came across it is another story and shall be told another time. But for now, I leave you with the thought of mutual friendship and of people inhabiting the same space to each others' benefit.

The Sideways Door welcomes you.

Last updated: September 17, 2014 | 05:55
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