Originally published in The Hindu.
“Poetry may be the most misunderstood of genres among the arts.” So says poet and plawright Gieve Patel in his introduction to Poetry with Young People (Sahitya Academi, Rs 100), an anthology introduced and edited by him. Featuring over a hundred poems written during Patel’s workshops at Rishi Valley School over the last decade, the anthology is emblematic of his success in demystifying this misunderstood art.
At a recent poetry reading hosted by Toto Funds the Arts, four students read from the book and they were in august company. Noted actor Tom Alter lent his dramatic reading skills to the occasion as well.
“Adults underestimate what young people can absorb,” Patel said during the discussion that followed the reading. “I am very careful about my selection of poems for each age group. For example, I started with the Chinese poets for the seventh grade and they are very suggestive. I think this is one of the ways in which poetry differs from other forms of literature. Each line of poetry continues to resonate with meaning long after you have read it. I thought this was an important lesson to start with.”
Undoubtedly, honing poetic skills at a young age is useful and important but there can be concerns because poetry often deals with difficult and dark subjects. “My parents were shocked that we were reading Arun Kolatkar in the seventh grade. I don’t think this happens in any other school in the country. But the exposure that this gave us is not only remarkable but necessary. Many of us would not have tried to write poetry if we had not gone through the workshop process,” Raeesa Vakil, one of the poets featured in the book, explained.
The young poets’ themes range from the social and environmental to the deeply personal territory of family and friendship. In Mysore Zoo, Ishan Agarwal is conscious of “2 massive giraffes,/separated from their African Savana with its Boabab / trees and grass”. In Weaver, Raeesa Vakil talks about Afghanistan and the loss of a country’s daily life.
Some of the poems are surprisingly adult in tone and content. In And Time Passes, Advait Sarkar tackles the loss of innocence: “A child utters its first lie. / And time passes, unknowing, uncaring.” Raeesa Vakil’s Between captures the tension of a particular kind of moment beautifully:
“Between the happening of a great calamity
and the quiet everyday things that preceed it in
Is a small space, a breath of air, in which the world
tenses itself for that moment.”
The poems are accompanied by evocative illustrations by artists Nilima Sheikh, Anju Dodiya, Sudhir Patwardhan and Atul Dodiya. Gieve Patel’s extensive introduction in which he talks about poetry and the workshop process in detail gives an understanding of how the nebulous space of the poetic imagination can be taught or imparted in a structured manner. As Tom Alter said, “I’ve always resisted a structured introduction to art. If you read Gieve’s introduction, you realise he really structured his workshop but he also kept it flexible.” It is perhaps this flexibility that allowed these young people to move from an attitude of suspicion to engagement and explore their own poetic instincts rather effectively.