“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”
– Percy B Shelly
LIKE millions across the world, I tuned in to watch Barack Obama being sworn in as US president on 20 Jan 2009. Throughout the two-hour long inauguration ceremony, I was captivated by the occasion’s momentousness, and the speeches that preceded and followed Obama’s own address.
And then came Dr Elizabeth Alexander’s reading of her inauguration day poem, Praise Song For The Day. As seconds, and then minutes, went by, the Yale professor’s monotonous delivery and insipid verse all but killed whatever lingering interest I had in poetry:
Oh, I understand that poetry means different things to different people, but considering the occasion, the wordy Praise Song failed to do the one thing that was expected of it: inspire.
Truly great verse not only sticks in your mind, it appeals to your soul. Some deep part of you takes refuge in the thoughts, emotions and evocations of a jumble of words fashioned anew.
Poems of my childhood
I was always partial to poems with strong, distinctive imagery. This was nurtured by listening to my father. He used to recite the poems he studied during his school days in singsong fashion. The ones I remember best are Casabianca (erroneously called Casablanca) by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Casabianca, which was inspired by a true event during the Battle of the Nile, was written in ballad meter, rhyming a-b-a-b.
Blake’s illustrations for his poem The
Tyger (Click on image for bigger view) In my teens, I discovered William Blake and his Songs of Innocence and of Experience which contained gems such as The Lamb and The Tyger. I remember the illustrations that Blake drew for his book and the vivid imagery his words conjured up. Of course, at that time, I had little idea about the poems’ religious symbolism, but the beauty of truly great poetry is its ability to be appreciated on many levels.
I was also drawn to the works of the First World War poets, such as Wilfred Owen — his Strange Meeting haunted me for weeks — Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooks and Alan Seeger. Seeger’s hauntingly beautiful I Have a Rendezvous with Death, about the fleeting nature of life for instance, was President John F Kennedy’s favourite poem, and was mine, too for a period of time.
One poem that stuck fast in my mind was Thomas Hardy’s He Never Expected Much. I first came across the opening few lines in a book by Robert Goddard called Past Caring. But other than the fact that it was by Hardy, the book was silent about the name of the poem.
The poem spoke deeply to me, and I was determined to find the title. I spent years searching through many anthologies of Hardy’s works without success. It was only in the past year, thanks to the internet’s ever-widening reach, that I finally found out its title. Check out this virtual movie of He Never Expected Much being read by Barnum Hurricote:
Outside the confines of school, poetry receded from my consciousness. Though in the course of my work, I would come across a locally published book of poems every now and again, it did not rekindle my desire to pick up an anthology.
Then in the mid-90s, I came across an anthology of poems by Cecil Rajendra (Broken Buds) and another by Salleh Ben Joned (Adam’s Dream). Both these works opened my eyes to the local English poetry scene, which, though mostly self-published, continues to thrive thanks to the commitment of the writers.
Alina Rastam is one of them. A social activist, writer and lecturer, Alina came out with her first anthology, Diver & Other Poems, published by Cricket Communications, in 2007.
This slim collection of 20 poems was as evocative as it was fresh, with Alina showing her ability to imbue even everyday sights and sounds with uncommon grace. The poems were about love and loss, and a desperate need for the soul to connect with another to be truly free.
All the Beloveds
Now, two years on, she has come up with another collection, equally slim, called All the Beloveds, published by Mosaic Street Sdn Bhd and launched recently. Love and loss also pervade the 22 poems here, but the setting is more intimate, the loss more profound, the experience life-changing.
The titular poem deals with the aching loss felt by the writer as a friend is about to take her leave. Fed up with the parade of friends, lovers, teachers — all the beloveds — going away, she writes: I am sick of goodbyes… fed up of leaving and being left.
In Mother, Alina writes:
Children come, and then they go;/footsteps die away upon the stair/Rage and laughter; voices ringing;/ and then such silence pinned into the air/I am not there with you. I am not there.
Then there’s Lament, dedicated to Woolfie, her faithful canine companion. Alluding to the Greek mythology about the journey dead souls make in the Underworld, Woolfie stands on the shore, waiting for the boat that will ferry him across a dark lake to a shining shore. In heart-breaking verse, Alina writes: … and though we’ve never been parted/now you must go my sweet darling/now you must go my sweet woofling//and I must remain …
There are several other poems that stand out, including Silences, Malaya 2007, the dreams will come back, and Lessons With a Listening Child. This last poem, a treatise about dealing with grief, and love, is simple, understated but above all hopeful, especially after wading through poem after poem dealing with pain in all its forms.
All the Beloveds, retailing for RM35 at all major bookstores, is not an easy anthology to get into due to its extremely introspective and personal nature. Yet, like peeling away the layers of an onion, the tears that fall are cathartic. Through loss, we live.
N Shashi Kala believes there is not enough light-hearted verse currently being produced. Odgen Nash, we miss you.
Tyger looks a little surprised. “What? Me?”
The Tyger looks a little surprised because he’s probably wondering what all the fuss is about. All he did was eat up the lady from Niger (remember that limerick?)
There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she sat on a tiger
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Elizabeth Alexander’s poem was fascinating in its dullness and inanity. For the first 90 seconds, at least.
Shama H.Fazli says
I wish to write a poem that’s good
but I am never in a writing mood
so happily I sit here reading yours
hoping I’d be inspired by the ‘force’.
Shama H.Fazli says
With songs and poems alike nowadays…how would you know which one is a song and which one is a poem just by looking at the words?
Sakuntala Shankar says
I am glad to find out that I am not the only one who found Elizabeth Alexander’s poem mind-numbingly dumb. I dared not give my opinion on that at that time because I figured what do I know about poetry?
It sounded poor to me but since there was an enthusiastic response I thought I was a philistine who could not appreciate such high art. What a relief to find that the writer felt the same way as well.
I have never been able to relate to poetry but I am amazed that many people I know have dabbled in poetry at one time or other. They write in blank verse but I much prefer the traditional ballad meter, the a-b-a-b. I might not understand all the content of that poem but I sure like the way it sounds.
A well-written article. Makes me want to go back and dig up the poetry that I had to learn when I was in school. Yes! There was a time in our education system when poetry and puisi were taught as subjects in our school syllabus. I am glad I had my education when I did because we had a fantastic syllabus back then compared to the stuff the kids are being taught today.
Menaka Baskaran says
Reading this article reminds me of my own dad and his fondness for poetry. Like the writer’s father, my dad too used to recite the poems in his own peculiar sing song way. What amazed me was the number of poems he had memorised. Unfortunately, none of his children inherited his love for poetry. They were more into maths and accounts and all that kind of stuff.
Although I myself have no interest in poetry, I enjoyed reading this article. I guess I am one of those who will be more interested in reading about poetry than reading the poems themselves.
KW Mak says
Here are two Haikus I wrote of my cats two years ago… I just feel like sharing. Wrote it when I first got my cats and was having a tough time dealing with them.
Cats, o so furry,
Made the bathroom all dirty,
Sigh, cleaning duty.
Claw marks here and there,
Itchy, scratchy, tear Tear TEAR!
Nail clip? Don’t you dare!