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Poetry As Observation: From Notes to Lyrical Creations

It is tough writing about poetry. Our understanding about poetry is diverse and always evolving. From ancient theories of Bhartrihari's "Sabdatattva" to Derrida's "differance" in spoken and inscribed language, poetry has shown possibilities that we are still exploring. As our observations about the world around us gets stratified, condensed and co-opted, our poetry grows like vines over old or new structures, whether as part of our conscious landscaping or willful neglect.

What can we do in the name of poetry? Very simple things, almost un-esoteric and rather commonplace until it turns into a rhythm guiding us deeper inside our own selves and making us see the external world as a magnanimous companion to our variegated existence. Here's a list I once made about what we could or I could do in the name of poetry:

Sing a song/Recite a verse/ Chant a mantra/Do a jig/Wield a pen/Raise a slogan/Stretch a hand/Draw a line/Demolish a wall/Ask a question/Name an object ..

All this is certainly poetry, because these actions arise out of observations and commentaries on life surrounding us. Happiness, sorrow, protests, challenges and doubts work as incentives. For me they do as strongly as hills and dales and flowers and moonlight.

Not going into any erudite discussion, something elemental comes to my mind as my own experience of poetry as observation. The short poems of Rabindranath Tagore, said to be influenced by the Haiku style during his stay in Japan, are memorable in their recordings of observations and the mystical shapes they took in the poet's mind:

Stray birds of summer come to my window

to sing and fly away.

And yellow leaves of autumn,

which have no songs,

flutter and fall there with a sigh.


Tagore's stray birds and yellow leaves of autumn, the animate and the inanimate, both flutter with a melody of resignation that the season bears. When he says:

I sit at my window this morning

where the world like a passer-by stops for a moment,

nods to me and goes.

He has brought poetry into the realms of his daily occupation. The cosmic scope of these words delights us, literally, with his observation of life and its simple pace.


In the poem below:

The light that plays, like a naked child,

among the green leaves happily knows not

that man can lie.

Here words and objects the verses relate to have played with the external world and turned shapes and meanings to reinvent another life for themselves. The observation about "light" imagined as an animate shape broadens the scope of such imagination in our minds. Linguistically and otherwise, the poet's observation here has taken a leap towards the metaphysical from being compared to a physical human child. We look at the poem like an object under the focus of a stage light, an observation bright and beauteous.

Anyway, observation leading to poetic creation is perhaps well-known from eras bygone. The Vedic people had created poetry seeking safety for their livestock, strength to counter invaders, more rain and food, and in awe of nature. The essence of the verses have lived on and adapted to changing history and time.

Of late, reading Kay Ryan, the current US poet laureate, was a great insight into a very 'tongue-in-cheek' and angular quality one rarely finds in poems that are also highly lyrical. Her poems - observations about words, categories, objects and nature - open up amazing sounds in their twists and turns, indignantly flavorsome phrases and a fable-like prophetic capability, a condensed recollection of quaintly impressionistic images presented in compact little forms glittering like fine Persian jewelry! Consider:


Among English verbs
to die is oddest in its
eagerness to be dead,
immodest in its
haste to be told --
a verb alchemical
in the head:
one speck of its gold
and a whole life's lead.

For me, Ryan's etching of just one "verb" sums up her prophecy about all other verbs -- "to die is oddest in its/eagerness to be dead" is the unpredictable element and resplendent in poetic beauty. This is a spectrum within which she speaks of all other actionable acts that life may hold. And yes, that verb is alchemical. It literally and physically is in a haste to be dead, to be over with, to be told. At the same time it sums up a life and the material and moral quests that accompany it.


Their green flanks
and swells are not
flesh in any sense
matching ours,
we tell ourselves.
Nor their green
breast nor their
green shoulder nor
the languor of their
rolling over.

The reader can see here how Ryan's topography, is a continuous changing, rolling, engulfing entity quite akin to the anatomical flexing of human or rather, animate forms. Ryan nature, as well as any other topography she considers, is a thoughtful, sometimes erratic, actionable entity that competes with her own declared sense of compactness and prophetic conclusions (fable). In THE LIGHT OF INTERIORS, this relationality comes alive when she writes:

... But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled in equally
by the scatter and order
of love and failure
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which,
when mixed with silence,
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

I'll not point to the lovely and obvious alliterative craft at work in this part of the poem. What strikes me is the kinetic force of her words embodied by the description of 'light' that lights up her topography almost meandering and running through a clutter of objects, finally to rest upon the final poetic imagery of a "table with flowers/an island", so Vermeer-like, a static image throbbing with calm energy. Such is Ryan’s observation, where notes turn into lyrical creations.

BIO: NABINA DAS is a poet and fiction writer living two lives, shuttling between Ithaca, NY, and Delhi, India. Her short story "Tara Goes Home" has been selected to appear in a winning collection of fiction by writers from India as well as around the world (Mirage Books). Her poetry has appeared in the "urban" poems anthology SHEHER (Frog Books), in Kritya poetry journal, Lit Up Magazine, The Toronto Quarterly, Muse India and The Cartier Street Review. Earlier this year, she was declared one of the winners of the 2008 Book Pitch Contest at Kala Ghoda Literary Festival in Bombay. Nabina is also a 2007 Joan Jakobson Fiction Scholar from Wesleyan Writers'Conference, Wesleyan University, CT., and a 2007 Julio Lobo Fiction Scholar from Lesley Writers' Conference, Lesley College, Cambridge, Mass.

Nabina was Assistant Metro Editor with The Ithaca Journal, Ithaca, NY, and has worked as a journalist and mediaperson in India for about 10 years in places as diverse as Tehelka.com, Down To Earth environmental magazine, Confederation of Indian Industries, National Foundation for India and The Sentinel newspaper. She has published several articles, commentaries and essays during her tenures. An M.A. in Linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, her other interests are theater and music. She blogs at www.fleuve-souterrain.blogspot.com


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