I am fresh from a poetry session with the acclaimed poet John Burnside at the British Council, Chennai. I cannot believe my luck that he stopped over on the way to Jaipur Literary Festival. The workshop had a long and serious name: Introduction to Writing Poetry – Uses of Form in Contemporary Poetry. But it turned out to be a free-wheeling discussion. What a fun evening! We (the workshop participants) even got a wing-side view of his forthcoming collection of poems.
He opened my mind to two ideas that I hadn’t even considered. I have written haikus according to the syllabic count and number of lines. But according to Burnside, it is not possible to write a haiku. I almost drew my breath as he said this. It was like a door closing on a form that I might have explored some more. He meant that it was not possible to write a haiku in the way that it was originally intended by the Japanese. The haiku was originally a few lines that accompanied a picture. The layered meanings that Japanese words had could not be replicated in English. For example: the word for “duck” would indicate the season in which the duck would appear. So just by saying “duck” in Japanese, the season and maybe even the time of the day could be indicated. But in English, it’s just “duck”. For all you know, it could be the duck on your plate! Similarly, the case of leaves that fall from a tree. Burnside then regaled us with an anecdote from his student days when he roomed with a Japanese student who used to recite Japanese haikus while taking a walk. He made a pact with him, to teach him English in return for the explanation for the haiku that he recited that day. The explanation for the haiku took longer than the English lesson! This was to illustrate how difficult it was to understand the way a haiku was meant to be written. This travelling poetic form came to English via the Americans and therefore, it was interpreted in a particular way and that is how the haiku continues to be written in English.
Which brings me to the second idea that Burnside turned my attention to. As a poet I had to consider the way a poetic form came to the language that I write in. The route it took. That would explain the way it shaped itself. His first example was the sonnet. From its Moorish beginnings via the Spanish, the Italian, and Shakespeare. (Here I was quite confident that it was the Italians!) I had never considered this particular point. I considered the sonnet a highly stylised form which I might not even venture into. He however made the sonnet quite elastic. He stressed that the poem should choose the form and this form need not stick to the syllabic/metric formula. He practiced it in his poems. To disguise the form a bit or if working with the form, to change it a bit were two salient points that I took away from this workshop.
As late afternoon turned to evening, we also explored the pantoum using a yet-to-be published Burnside poem as an example. The “hedged in” (his words) feeling that the pantoum has with its repetitions, the “claustrophobic atmosphere” (his words again) it generates and how to use this to the advantage of the poem dependent, of course, on the subject. It was a light evening of several laughs, some coffee, and a few poems. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
PS: A poet is always know by the poems he writes. If you are curious, here are two poems by Burnside: Amor Vincit Omnia and The Good Neighbour. These are already published poems not the ones we discussed at the workshop. The copyright rests with the poet.
PPS: Thank you Anupama for bringing my attention to this workshop.