Thursday, 5 June 2014

Paxman's Ghosts: The Irrelevance of Poetry in India and How it Cost me a Job

Some say that it was the usual PR campaign by The Guardian. Some think it was all 'staged' - by the Forward Prize organizers. No matter what, Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman in his role as the Forward Prize chair got all the attention this week when he called for an inquisition of sorts for the poets - to explain their subject matter and craft, and to be answerable to their failure to be simpler/intelligible to the 'ordinary people'. They had to stop writing just for other poets and think of a more democratic variety of poetry.

Those who are interested in the whole debate may catch up with it in the links I provide. Here is the Guardian version of what Paxman has apparently said. Soon after, the renowned British poet George Szirtes was asked to respond to it, and he gave a very deserving reply here, adding some pertinent issues to a debate that was the natural outcome. Szirtes made clear that his response was to the Paxman piece which was published first by the Guardian, though it was toned down with a more diplomatic use of language later.  My approach would be the same, considering the fact that someone like Paxman would have said something more nuanced and sensible and what appears on newspapers are selectively edited for a provocative effect. It is clear that Szirtes focuses more on explaining the creative origins and the role of poetry than a reverse attack. However, he compares the Paxman approach to that of Stalinist views, and doesn't mince his words when he demands that those who argue about the difficulty factor should make clear what exactly they mean by that.

Patrick Cotter, an Irish poet I admire, responded here in his inimitable style, stressing the fact that poetry evolves the same way television drama does, and those who don't read contemporary poetry on a daily basis are naturally expected to lose track of the changes that take place, making it impossible for them to appreciate it. He concludes with the strong statement - "If the way to poetry is blocked to you by an elite that elite and you are one and the same." There were quite a few responses like the ones by Szirtes and Cotter, which were diverse in their lines of argument and focus. Most of them were by the famous and not-so-famous poets from the UK.

For some strange reason, this debate made me reflect on how this issue could be perceived in India. They say that the entire world knows that level-headed Indians at this point of time have better things to do than reflecting on poetry and its problems. Many of my friends and colleagues are either looking forward to the possibility of the nation finally emerging as nothing less than the number one world power or themselves falling down the pit of despondency their future could be. There are very active debates that stem from either an incurable optimism or the fear of nonstop systemic violence. It is a sin to reduce the sense of ebullience to celebratory verse - it would be too shallow. It is blasphemy to escape from the horrible aspects of suffering through other-worldly poetic lines. That's what the 'ordinary/normal people' of India think, they say. And these are the people for whom an explanation for poetry is needed, though they may refuse to be convinced that poetry is needed for the same reasons they think it is not needed. For them the dividing line is not between what Paxman would consider ordinary and extraordinary or simple and difficult, but between normal and abnormal or convenient lies and cruel facts - and that makes it all the more difficult for them to cross it and see what's on the other side. To spell it out - many in India,  much like The Sixth Sense kid, would say when they see poets - "I see mad people".

Well, I am not really joking. And, the general attitude to poetry is not much different even if you just forget what I mentioned about the present situation in India. While political parties, sectarian organizations and religious institutions seem to believe in the use of poetry in the form of anthems, slogans and hymns, they resist any new/original thought that questions their foundations. While a 'Daffodils' may always remain in the school syllabi here, they would find a poem like 'Still I Rise' offensive. While a Sarojini Naidu would always inspire good Indian children, a Meena Kandasamy would give them the shock of their life.

In fact, the syllabus of post-colonial literatures for a BA English course in the Indian university I've taught for a while had the poem "Still I Rise" initially, and I took the first opportunity to teach that in class. The students enjoyed it, and some were even glad to read it out LOUD in class, and then see the video of Maya Angelou reading it and make comparisons. They wrote good quality assignments on it, contributing a lot to the 'argument' of the poem in the Indian context. But at the time of the university exams we were informed that this poem was 'removed' from the syllabus. Perhaps the modesty of some teachers and students in a few colleges didn't allow them to deal with the difficulty the poem was. Perhaps they needed an inquisition - the poet, may her soul rest in peace, could have been called upon to explain why she chose the subject, and why she used specific words and poetic devices to make it so difficult to be discussed.

You may not believe that I lost a prospective job because I happened to write poetry. In an interview for the post of an English teacher in a college, I had to face a couple of religious figures who managed the college. They kept asking me why I chose a 'bad' novelist along with two other 'acceptable' ones for my research (one whose ideology they thought was similar to theirs and the other simply unknown to them). Didn't I know that the first one's books were burned all over the world? Didn't I know that all his books were banned in India? I said "no, they aren't banned in India and a few of them are taught in the courses offered in colleges like yours." And then I was asked to pick the 'best' among the novelists, and to 'rate' them one by one. I had to say that the nature of my research didn't allow me at any stage to consider that as a possibility. There were more questions then about how religious I was. While the communication with these people became impossible, the subject expert came to my rescue, asking a few questions related to literature and my research area. I was able to answer them in a satisfactory way.

I found out later that I was placed the last in their 'rank list', though the 14 people ahead of me were far less qualified (which I found out through the Right To Information Act). At this stage I was 'summoned' to their religious head office to negotiate some things. I was informed that they didn't find me good enough for the job because I was a poet! Poets don't live in the real world, they said, and they are never good teachers. Moreover, I caused some displeasure to the religious heads by the way I contradicted some of their lies with plain facts. Don't you know that religious heads never lie? Your response was typical of poets, which amounts to saying to their faces,"I see dumb people".

But there was a solution. And I didn't consider that in the first place because I was, allegedly, a poet. We would give you the much coveted job after we appoint a few of our chosen people, if you do two things: 1. apologize to the religious heads whom you annoyed, and 2. pay the equivalent of $20000 as a bribe, like all the other normal, level-headed people ahead of you in the list did. All my sins can thus be forgiven if I purged them, lived in constant repentance and got rid of my poetry for good. I left the place immediately after making clear that I didn't want to deviate to their sense, ever. I didn't have the nerve to tell them that it was they who owed me an apology - not because I was afraid; the concept of an apology and forgiveness doesn't simply exist in poetryland. 

I would have lost my faith in humanity with this experience but for the simple fact that it was not the first time I faced a job rejection. In fact I have received far less rejection slips for my poetry - and trust me, that's not so small a number either. It was curious though that this was the first time I was denied a job because I was a poet - the other regular reasons related to bribes, nepotism, political/religious influence and so on are well known to all the ordinary people in India. 

Anyway, the next college where I went for an interview gave me a positive experience. They too were headed by a similar religious management, but for some reason the so-called common sense of bribes and bigotry didn't exist there. I was asked sensible questions and it was even suggested that I read out one of my poems and explain a bit of that to an imaginary class (not the Paxman way I guess). I complied. A small discussion ensued which showed they understood some poetry. I was pleased that they cared for my lack of common sense. I was given the job. I wasn't asked to wash away my sins with $20000 or anything similar to that. And for the entire period I worked for them, they gave me their goodwill and I gave them some poetry.

Are the ordinary people who ask for simple poetry all that ordinary? Why are some people okay with the kind of poetry that talks of the trees, the birds and the breeze in an 'innocent' way but not okay when the very same things stand for something else, something that disturbs their comfort zones and forces them out of convenient truths? Are they incapable of dealing with difficult concepts? Or do they just pretend that? I feel they aren't asking for simpler poetry. They need to see poetry dead. 

If you are a poet, you have a great secret to keep from the ordinary people. Stay silent for the rest of your lives. Or, talk only to your fellow poets. They are dead people anyway, just like you.