For Better Or Verse: Poetry is Back

You would think in this digital age, poetry would quietly shut shop. Instead, the art form is seeing a curious urban resurgence, be it online or in good old Cubbon Park, says Sourav Roy

A poetry session at Cubbon Park.

Lord Byron (wasn’t he the poet’s poet) once said that to be a poet, you must either be in love or poor. He was right of course. Precisely why, since the time poems began to be written, it is the youth who have first turned to poetry. However, with the rise of television, poetry witnessed a low like none other. Many predicted its quick demise. In fact, the late Rajendra Yadav, a famous Hindi fiction writer and editor of Hans (a literary magazine started by Munshi Premchand), went on to declare poetry to be a dead art form.

Fast forward a decade. Indian-born Canadian poet Rupi Kaur is sitting pretty with her poetry collection ‘milk and honey’ having sold 2.5 million copies (and counting) while Thailand-based poet Lang Leav, who has four best-selling poetry collections to her credit and over two million followers on social media, is busy touring to promote her next book.

What gives? 

Far from being extinct, poetry is today diverse, popular and powerful. It does not fear politics, it allows youngsters to express their angst (without having to stick to pentameters), it is helping them find a semblance of calm in a sea of anxiety — in short, it is giving them a new sort of voice and agency while teaching them about empathy and power. A heady mix if there was one.

“Youth’s interest in poetry is a welcome phenomenon,” says Lynessa Coutto, a Bengaluru-based poet. There are many factors responsible. “Rising interest in spoken word poetry, social media platforms like Instagram and YourQuote, and the multitude of venues hosting poetry events have all contributed in making poetry more accessible and relatable to the youth,” she says.

Poetry in the park

Lynessa curates ‘Poetry in the Park’ a gathering of poets at Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park every month, where a different poet’s work is read and discussed each time, from Agha Shahid Ali to Shel Silverstein. The discussion is followed by interested participants sharing their own poems.

Take any weekend in a metropolitan city and you will find at least half a dozen poetry events being organised, each attracting its own audience. In Bengaluru alone, notable gatherings include Anjuman (a goshti  of Hindi-Urdu poets), ‘Let Poetry Be’, ‘Tuesdays with the Bard’ (organised every Tuesday at Urban Solace, Ulsoor), ‘Open Sky Slam’ and Kavya Sanje. While most of these events have fixed venues, Kavya Sanje, curated by senior Kannada poet Mamta Sagar, is not organised at any fixed venue. She explains, “We use poetry as a means to reclaim public spaces for people. We organise poetry performances at metro stations, public parks and government schools. If people do not come for poetry, poetry needs to reach the people.”

Political poetry: A thriving sub-genre

Political undertones can be felt in various gatherings. For many youngsters, poetry has become a tool of defiance and protest. The protest can be against any form of authority or the political climate at large. For instance, on the evening of MM Kalburgi’s murder, many poets from the city gathered outside the Bengaluru Press Club and read protest poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, UR Ananthamurthy, Paash, Dhoomil and Nagarjun, among others.

This sense of camaraderie is even more prominently seen among women poets, many of whom use poetry to question misogyny and patriarchy. Poetic gatherings also give them the opportunity to break confinements that the society imposes on them and band together with like-minded artistes.

A new world of online poetry

There are two prominent factors behind the resurgence of poetry being witnessed today. The first is social media’s outreach that help brings poets together. Take the example of YourQuote, a social media platform for writers, which boasts of 2.5 million users, comprising mostly of youngsters from Indian cities and towns. Nearly 70 per cent of these writers are engaged with regional languages, claims Harsh Snehanshu, Co-Founder and CEO of YourQuote. “Writing is a way of healing and knowing oneself. We are offering a way to make time spent on social media more productive, which has, in turn, helped unlock the writers hidden in so many households,” says Harsh.

Instagram is another prominent platform where many young poets have emerged, especially at the global stage. A notable case is that of Ashish Bagrecha, a Surat-based poet, who suffered mental health issues and found solace in writing poems and sharing them from his Instagram handle. With over 1,80,000 followers today, he has recently published his first book, ‘Dear Stranger I Know How You Feel’. Ashish says, “the young generation has read literature in school which they probably didn’t relate much with. But now with the advent of social media, the poems they access are much more relatable and simple.”

Loneliness the trigger?

The second factor behind poetry’s resurgence are cities themselves, which have always been a breeding ground for poetry. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, offer a deeply alienating environment.

Working in a clockwork manner and struggling with the multitude of languages and cultures that are boxed together, city dwellers often don’t know who their neighbours are. Art helps fight this alienation.

Very often, cities have evolved into hubs for poetry by their virtue of bringing many people together and thus synergising interests, be it Varanasi during the Mughal era (Tulsidas, Kabir), Allahabad during the Independence movement (Nirala, Sumitranandan Pant, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Agyey) or New York during the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg). 

“Cities have a unique way of lending themselves to poetry. In cities, we are surrounded by the written language in the form of signboards, billboards, neon hoardings and advertisements. And advertisements themselves, in turn, borrow a lot from the craft of poetry, in the sense that they too try to say more in fewer words. For an observant and reflective soul, the city is full of raw material for poetry,” says Tuhin Bhowal, a young poet who edits fiction and poetry for the city-based Bengaluru Review magazine.

Poet matters or his poetry?

There is also a rising interest in poetry in schools and colleges across India. Spoken word and slam poetry competitions are now organised in many urban schools, and YouTube has made the form even more popular. Most colleges today have active poetry clubs, where aspiring poets recite their writings and seek feedback from each other.

However, everything is not as hunky-dory as it seems. Take for example the sale of poetry books. Even as countries like the UK witnessed a twelve percent rise in poetry book sales last year (as reported by Nielsen BookScan), the same in India remains stagnant.

“Today, slam poetry is a respectable genre. But has slam poetry managed to add more readership for poetry books? I doubt it. Slam poetry is an auditory experience and its connoisseurs are never going to be poetry readers. The same is the case with genres like Instagram poetry,” says Dibyajyoti Sarma, a Delhi-based poet who runs Red River, a venture dedicated to publishing poetry.

Except for some such small and independent ventures, most established publishers are reluctant to publish poetry. Not just new and young poets, but also known names. No matter who the poet is, some of the best poetry collections of the last century remain out of print even today. Dibyajyoti adds, “As a friend told me recently, the translation of filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj’s verses sold more copies than all the English poetry books published in India combined. I don’t know if this is true, but in the current market scenario, the hard truth is that poets matter more than poetry.”

Poets who don’t read...

Even the scope of technology is limited. While social media platforms are helping break open the gates of publishers and allowing aspiring poets to engage directly with their audiences, reading and training oneself is totally a personal choice. “We do not come across aspiring musicians who don’t listen to good music or aspiring filmmakers who don’t watch great cinema. Somehow we meet too many aspiring poets who don’t read,” Tuhin laments.

 

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