Have you ever been asked “hmm… but what is a poem? what is poetry? ” ?  I ask because I have been asked, and have been quite tongue-tied; The experiment is repeatable; I’d likely mumble, employ a few umms and errs, stare into space and eventually give up. Nothing from my own (little) experience  seems to aid in defining this joyous creative endeavour.

I think the impulse to ask, to want to define is natural, especially if one has been affected by a word, a phrase, or an entire poem in a manner not quite comparable to even first-rate prose. There is a common force at work, I am told, becausei:

the Word has power – even the ordinary written word has a power. If it is an inspired word it has still more power. What kind of power or power for what depends on the nature of the inspiration and the theme and the part of the being it touches.

(…)  Anything that carries the Word, the Light in it, spoken or written, can light this fire within, open a sky, as it were, bring the effective vision of which the Word is the body.

But maybe the definition is not relevant? Or if it is, perhaps it’s good only for academics to conjure up and debate? One part of me asks if definitions are useful at all when the verse was perhaps never intended to be logicized by our abstracting minds or speculative imaginations? The sharply utilitarian bent of modern life asks if poetry serves up anything ‘useful’ to life, if it is fit for anything more than an occasional delight or smile amdist the otherwise ‘productive’ enterprise of life. In fact, in the essay “The Essence of Poetry“, S.A wrote (text in brown) 1

To the ordinary mind, judging poetry without really entering into it, it looks as if it were nothing more than an aesthetic pleasure of the imagination, the intellect and the ear, a sort of elevated pastime.

But there is a power in the poetic word that inspires – and therefore affects us, not only eliciting in us an  occasional moment of delight, but going so far as to ready the soil  for the ideals of a nation, a race, an age.  Along these lines, S.A wrote 2 :

Let the truly inspiring word be uttered and it will breathe life into dry bones. Let the inspiring life be lived and it will produce workers by thousands. England draws her inspiration from the names of Shakespeare and Milton, Mill and Bacon, Nelson and Wellington. They did not visit the sickroom, they did not do philanthropic work in the parishes, they did not work spinning jennies in Manchester, they did not produce cutlery in Sheffield, but theirs are the names which have made nationhood possible in England..

In fact, we may even ask:  why are the civilization-defining epics poems and not essays? or still further, why is it that the ancient Indian Scriptures are poetic utterances, and not prose? Why is that despite the umpteen incredible works of ancient Greece, it is the Iliad and Odyssey – both poems, that are the life-blood of the nation? is there a special place reserved for poetic speech as a form of expression? On this, S.A wrote:

.. the rhythmic word of the poet [is] the highest form of speech available to man for the expression whether of his self-vision or of his world-vision. It is noticeable that even the deepest experience, the pure spiritual which enters into things that can never be wholly expressed, still, when it does try to express them and not merely to explain them intellectually, tends instinctively to use, often the rhythmic forms, almost always the manner of speech characteristic of poetry.

Is ‘Kavi’ just a different word for ‘Poet’?

What is this talk about inner sight ?

I’ve heard the word ‘Kavi’ being translated simply as ‘poet’, but what the word could have meant in a bygone era, what connotations it may have carried.. I had no way to know, or have a chance to understand – until now:

The Kavi 2 was in the idea of the ancients the seer and revealer of truth, and though we have wandered far enough from that ideal to demand from him only the pleasure of the ear and the amusement of the aesthetic faculty, still all great poetry instinctively preserves something of that higher turn of its own aim and significance. Poetry, in fact, being Art, must attempt to make us see, and since it is to the inner senses that it has to address itself,—for the ear is its only physical gate of entry and even there its real appeal is to an inner hearing,—and since its object is to make us live within ourselves what the poet has embodied in his verse, it is an inner sight which he opens in us, and this inner sight must have been intense in him before he can awaken it in us.

Therefore the greatest poets have been always those who have had a large and powerful interpretative and intuitive vision of Nature and life and man and whose poetry has arisen out of that in a supreme revelatory utterance of it. Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Valmiki, Kalidasa, however much they may differ in everything else, are at one in having this as the fundamental character of their greatness. 

Life has certainly been breathed into my dry bones;
I tend to oxidize best via iambic pentameter…

Below: two revealing excerpts on Rhythm and Technique, if it interests you..


On Rhythm

“RHYTHM is the premier necessity of poetical expression because it is the sound-movement which carries on its wave the thought-movement in the word; and it is the musical sound-image which most helps to fill in, to extend, subtilise and deepen the thought impression or the emotional or vital impression and to carry the sense beyond itself into an expression of the intellectually inexpressible,—always the peculiar power of music. This truth was better understood on the whole or at least more consistently felt by the ancients than by the modern mind and ear, perhaps because they were more in the habit of singing, chanting or intoning their poetry while we are content to read ours, a habit which brings out the intellectual and emotional element, but unduly depresses the rhythmic value.”

How important is ‘technique’ in Poetry?

“Moreover, technique, however indispensable, occupies a smaller field perhaps in poetry than in any other art,—first, because its instrument, the rhythmic word, is fuller of subtle and immaterial elements; then because, the most complex, flexible, variously suggestive of all the instruments of the artistic creator, it has more—almost infinite—possibilities in many directions than any other…

Poetry rather determines its own form; the form is not imposed on it by any law mechanical or external to it. The poet least of all artists needs to create with his eye fixed anxiously on the technique of his art. He has to possess it, no doubt; but in the heat of creation the intellectual sense of it becomes a subordinate action or even a mere undertone in his mind, and in his best moments he is permitted, in a way, to forget it altogether.”

i Letters on Poetry and Art, Sri Aurobindo

1 The Future Poetry, Sri Aurobindo ISBN 978-81-7058-583-1  (written between 1917-1920)

2 Work and Ideal, Bande Mataram, Sri Aurobindo ISBN 978-81-7058-416-2 (written 20th Feb 1908)

3 The Sanskrit word for poet. In classical Sanskrit it is applied to any maker of verse or even of prose, but in the Vedic it meant the poet-seer who saw the Truth and found in a subtle truth-hearing the inspired word of his vision.