Let There Be Poetic Noise

Maitreyee B Chowdhury

Nov 30, 2014, 04:00 PM | Updated May 02, 2016, 11:01 PM IST

Has the poetic voice lost its everyday passion, its vibrancy, strength and courage? When was the last time you heard a poet who made you want to run out into the streets, scream in angst and without fear?

A few months ago, I was sitting in a dimly lit room in Bangalore. It is a quiet house, pale in the reflected city lights. Far off in Kolkata, a revolution of sorts is underway in the Jadavpur University campus. I watch with much intrigue the swiftly changing news on the internet about various protests that come in from different corners of the globe. Hok kolorob is the word of the month; it literally means “Let there be noise”.

I am strangely reminded of Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (el-Fagommi) sitting in the tiny backroom of a radical publishing house in Cairo with numerous other poets and writers seated between mountains of books. The living legend Negm, famous for speaking his mind, wrote poems for ordinary Egyptians in street slang. He successfully made his poetry, tinted with the harsh reality of oppression that he saw around him, a part of the jokes shared by the working class. His lines “The brave men are brave/ The cowards are cowardly/ Come with the brave/ Together to the Square” ring true in every corner of the world where such poetry is needed.

Reams have been written on the student movement in Jadavpur University already, and yet my eyes have been searching for that one line of poetry, “protest poetry”. I realise that unconsciously I have been repeating lines from Bengali poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s famous poem:

Phul phutuk na phutuk, aaj Boshonto/ Shaan-badhano footpathe/ Pathore paa dubiye/ Ek kath-khotta gaachh/ Kochi kochi paatae/ Paanjor phatiye haashchhey (Whether the flowers bloom or not, it is Spring today/ With its feet dipped in the stony footpath, a hardened tree brings forth green leaves and laughs his heart out).

Images of mounting police attack, charging the protesters around the university campus, from that month, takes one back to the numerous memories associated with protest poetry that the country has seen through the fight for independence, through the Naxalbari movement, poetic protests against the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of Section 377 ban on ‘unnatural’ sex (that applies to both heterosexuals and homosexuals), and so much more.

And yet in retrospect, it is lines from an unseen, ordinary poetic voice from the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which haunts me today. “We shall drown, but we shall not move,” the voice had said. Ordinary and crippled, the voice is not only representative of the countless dam affected; it is the voice of resistance, of the common man who speaks through the language of poetry and whose verse does not wait for the momentous in life. Whether one supports the movement or not is a different question.

History in every corner of the globe is replete with poetic voices that speak the language of protest. It reiterates time and again the role of poetry in keeping the cause alive. The poet in me is delighted as I go through the Hok kolorob page on Facebook, and read lines like:

Aaro aalo jwaalo tomar swopne/ Jaago manush jaago/ Aaro aagun jwaalo taader swaarthe/ jaago manush jaago.(Let there be more fire to your dreams/ Rise all men/ Let the fire burn their narrow minds/ Rise all men).

And yet I wonder whether poetry and its advocates have limited themselves in voicing the political in protest only when it comes to sporadic and momentous incidents. Students of literature the world over are familiar with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the reactions it evoked in an entire generation of Americans as well as those outside the country. And yet, if we were to believe that poetry is a fundamental instrument of protest, have we equipped those, who have more need of it than us? Have we, through the years, made them capable with the vocabulary needed for such protest?

Across the world, people talk of the growing lack of sensitivity. What is perhaps more worrying is the passive attitude to that very need. Why does our poetry not scream of the intolerances in our routine life instead of waiting for the momentous? Have we as a race become passive recipients of a culture that tells us not to question or correct that which is questionable?

In the course of time, plenty of us have managed to become beautiful, placid and immensely forgettable—more dead than the dead perhaps? Protest poetry, whether it is about offering measures as a corrective against excessive commercialism or political protest, has played a prominent role in spearheading the people’s voice. While the encounter of most with poetry is usually a personal one, the subject has a dimension beyond the personal; it blends into the cause of those who need it. And this is where political protest poetry becomes extremely powerful if used well and to its full potential.

Says Esmail Kho’i, Iran’s pre-eminent poet-philosopher says, “Poetry in particular has again stepped into its comfortable role as a purveyor of political dissent.” He further elaborates, “The reality is that, writers and poets do not seek politics, it is politics which obliges them.”

The way we perceive poetry today and the way it is being written has perhaps changed with times, but the question remains: Has the poetic voice lost its everyday passion, its vibrancy, strength and courage? When was the last time you heard a poet who made you want to run out into the streets, scream in angst and without fear? We live in times replete in censorship, brutality and insensitivity. If not now, then when will our poets speak?

We need poets who not only lead us in rallies and protest marches, but also those that make us think in our silences. We need more poets, challenging the set norms that we have meekly come to accept without protest. Without such poets, we are doomed to stop listening, now more than we ever did perhaps. British poet Sean O’Brien writes in the title poem of his collection Cousin Coat, “Be memory, conscience, will and rage.” Back home, Naxal poet Lal Singh Dil and his poem Dance speak the same language, “These songs do not die/ Nor either the dance.” The lines remind me of an incident closer home.

A few weeks ago, while out on my evening walk, I see before me a woman crouching behind a car, parked on the side of the road. She is unaware that she can be seen by those walking behind her. In her hand is a large stone, and even while I am walking towards her—my steps hurrying now—I see her throw the stone with as much force as she can at the glass windows of a reputed private bank.

There is instant chaos, people pounce on her and try to tie her down without understanding or asking about her need to throw the stone. No one is hurt but the glass has been damaged, a rather embarrassing dent in the face of a prestigious bank. A face saver is organised; within an hour, a large poster of the said bank is arranged, it hangs over the crack in the glass and all is supposedly well.

The dishevelled woman is taken in by the security to a fate perhaps unknown. Whether or not a sensible looking woman is at liberty to throw a stone at a large corporate house is a question that we don’t seek an answer to. The larger question here is her anger and the way she manifests it; some see madness in it, others see poetic justice. But then what is poetry if not a certain kind of madness and where is the madness of the ordinary or is such madness only a trophy for those with linguistic abilities?

I scroll down on the Hok kolorob page again and these lines stare back at me:

Protibaad e gaa korechhi gorom/ Tomra bolechho ganja charas/ Tomra bolcho moder gondho/ Mekhechi aamra brishtir rosh. Nesha ki hoini? Hoyechhe taito/ Ekshaathe haante du lakh pa/ Matlami chhilo gaane kobitai/ Gota Kolkata dekechhe ta. (We have warmed ourselves with the anger of protest/ You accused us of drugs/ And the stench of liquor/ But we smell of the rains. Are we not drunk? Yes we are/ Drunk on songs and poems, two lakh feet walk together/ Entire Kolkata watches us).

There is, of course, nothing coincidental in poetic voices from the university or those who support the movement. The country has had a rich history of some extremely talented poets voicing their political opinions in some manner or the other throughout the post-independence era. The 1960s and ’70s especially saw many poetic voices emerge in this genre. And while even the angriest outburst of such protest poems might have ended in an empty plea of better days to come, the protests did not simmer or become the complacent voice that we are today.

One remembers Shonkho Ghosh’s Jamunaboti, or those like Saroj Dutta who egged on students to voice their protest through their writings or even Salil Chowdhury who, with his hard hitting poetry and songs, sought to make society aware of the fast-creeping injustices growing by the day. Paash (Avtar Singh Sandhu) is another such extremely popular poet, who wrote not only about the state of repression of the poor but about the atrocities of the Congress government during the Emergency. Gummadi Vittal Rao, who later came to be known as Gaddar, is another constant voice of protest against the atrocities meted out to Dalits.

Today, most of us live in a world surrounded by a weather replete with death, despair and political manipulations on a day-to-day basis, and yet we seem to have made our liminal choices about living in such weather. Poets of every hue must recognise the enormous potential of protest poetry, in the political or otherwise relevant subjects, without caring what happens to them or the poem in question.

If we were to believe Percy Bysshe Shelley who said in his Defense of Poetry that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, in the years that have gone by there have been many who have done justice to that role, and yet the question remains whether, in our quotidian understanding of what poetry means to us, we have been vocal enough.

For sure, there have been the rabble-rousers, protesters and revolutionaries. But has poetry become the vocabulary of the oppressed? As the postman in Il Postino, the Italian film loosely based on the poet Pablo Neruda’s relationship with a postman, says, “Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, but those who need it.”

Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a poet and writer based in Bangalore

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