lack of an audience for poetry?

was reading this interesting discussion (thanks, space bar).

the clip i'd posted a couple of days ago- i'd been searching for it for about a year, i think. on etv urdu, especially on sunday evenings, you'd be shown mushairas held in places as remote as jagtial and jagdalpur. all the poets at the events would be covered, all the work they recite, sing, from their first sher to the last nazm, would be covered. who'd watch a program consisting entirely of poetry? people like me, in lakhs, through television. and people who actually are/were at the places were the mushairas are/were held. never less than a hundred, and often running to a few thousands. people, men and women, rich and poor, sitting, in the open most times, for hours, late into the night.

when i was younger, i'd often walk long distances on not-so-walkable city streets to a library or an auditorium where a kavi sammelanam was being held or a book of poetry was being released. at these sammelans, as at those mushairas telecast on etv, one might get to hear only a line or two of impressive verse. most of the poetry could be on well-trodden themes, not very smartly expressed, cliche-ridden. which means you go there expecting nothing more those one or two good lines. and nursing the hope that there'd be more than one or two.

indian poets writing in english are writing for a potential community that consists of english speaking peoples across the world, including india. even if you excluded the rest of the world, the number of people in india who have at least a basic understanding of the language would number more than the entire population of, say, australia (21 million) or new zealand (4 million). or australia and new zealand. so, why isn't there an audience, as some of the poets at the discussion feel, for indian english poetry- in india, especially? i do agree that the audience isn't there, but i don't see anyone exploring the question: why? because there is a tradition or culture, as i pointed out earlier, of appreciating poetry in india. the problem isn't, as someone at the discussion says: less the lack of an audience for Indian poetry but the lack of an audience for poetry in India.


SS said...

"the number of people in india who have at least a basic understanding of the language would number ..."
Actually the number is far greater than that of Britain. Second- language speakers of English now outnumber first-language speakers. (vide Crystal D. The English Language Today, Penguin: 2002)But these statements are misleading because they are impressionistic, not based on empirical data. In India when you say "speaks English" that could mean anything from "uses a few words to communicate with someone from another language community" to "writes poetry/Booker-Prize winning books." That is still not even a third of the population acc. to an India Today survey in 2000. And I'd wager most of that population uses English because they have to - for business, science and technology, education. I should think poetry isn't in that class of compulsions. Appreciating poetry requires more than a "basic understanding" of the language. And then there is its elitist baggage. I'm not surprised at all that there isn't an audience for IPE.

kuffir said...


yes i agree with you that those who understand 'basic english', probably exceeds the population of the u.k. and that the term 'basic english' means many things to many people. so, i was looking at a very conservative figure (but still a fairly large number because there are slightly more malayalees in the world than australians and new zealanders together, which means indian english poets could be speaking to a community as large as kerala)- a figure that'd give us an idea of the number of people who could have, to take one yardstick, an ability to understand a few hundred words. because that's what it takes for people who know telugu to understand poets like gorati venkanna. and appreciate his work. so, why don't indians who understand english, appreciate indian english poetry in the same way?

SS said...

Actually, I don't think you can compare Telugu speakers' ability to understand Venkanna and Indian speakers' ability to understand IPE (and I refer here to those who consider English their second language). We're not comparing difficulty levels of poetry here, but native and non-native abilities.

Furthermore, I think that for poetry to strike a chord, it has to be in a language which has a social life. English in India largely doesn't, except perhaps for that minority who call English a second first language. Take my own case: I am a student of Eng. Litt. and yet no IE poet moves me in the way, say, Sri Sri does.

In any case, this debate about IPE is totally done to death!

SS said...

I meant 'Indian English speakers' in the third line.

kuffir said...


'We're not comparing difficulty levels of poetry here, but native and non-native abilities.'

then why do we respond so positively to writing in english- fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and even music and cinema- created by non-indians? and even translated writing- russian, german, french to spanish and japanese- why does all that creative work receive so much acclaim here?

even the worst kind of pulp fiction from america and elsewhere finds more buyers than writing by indians in english- why?

p.s. everything you've said until now has been interesting and educative- i don't actually disagree with any part of it.

anu said...

>>but native and non-native abilities.

SS, please dwell on this on a little more, i slept through my english classes and now you are making it interesting. :)

by non-native ability might you be referring to what image i may have conjured up, say for a daffodil, or a brook, highland and all those other terms that had no seen image at all (no TV/ no wiki times)? yet visualized very clearly -daffodil looked exactly like the samandhi :), i imagined the brook to be slightly cleaner rain water gushing through a not so concrete drain :) I loved these poems, really.

even Enid Blyton, many years after enjoying the snack breaks with the famous five, i tasted scones and it really spoilt my memory of those reads, those had a decidedly desi flavor in my imagination. What i am saying is that I had just substituted the native experience and enjoyed the whole thing immensely.

I have not read a lot of IPE (the acro. sounds awful), but some english translated ones bring out the Indian experience quite well and are really terrific, same way i feel about some Spanish poets who have been translated into english.

The language is just a tool as long as the experience comes through and grips the reader, i don't see why English has to be seen as a limitation for the poet or the audience.... the choice of topics maybe, inability to capture the essence of the moment, perhaps? love this discussion thread, happy to kill a dead topic all over again :)

SS said...


Very true. I am rarely plagued by misgivings about authenticity when reading Borges, Marquez, Neruda, Hesse, Dostoevsky, etc. in English. Is it because the sensibility represented is available to me only in English whereas the sensibility represented in IWE /a translated Indian language piece is already familiar to me, and therefore I compare?

But your question reminds me of an argument I once had with CD Narasimhaiah. In one of his famous controversial essays, (Indian Aesthetics and Art Activity: A Literary Critic’s View) he’d compared Kolatkar’s Jejuri unfavourably with the Australian poet A.D. Hope’s Salabhanjika. These are his words:

“[Hope] has written a moving poem on an Indian sculptured piece, Salabhanjika, to suggest what wonderful possibilities our poets have thrown away in this country as much by their failure to profit by the abundant wealth lying within everybody’s reach as by their preference for using our temples and places of pilgrimage to scandalize us as Kolatkar has done in his prize-winning poem Jejuri.”

In my view Hope’s poem is (hopelessly) sexist, a white male perspective that I simply do not share. Kolatkar’s on the other hand is a detached, irreverent, observer’s perspective of the temple-town that I identify very much with. To this CDN retorted that I don’t understand Indian aesthetics, which perhaps I don’t. (This was in 2000, when he was already old and infirm, so….)

I agree with the implication in your question: that there seems to be a bias against Indian poetry in English among Indians themselves.
But don’t you think poetry uses far more stylized conventions and figurative language than prose, free verse and “poetic prose” notwithstanding, which makes it difficult for the laity? Notice how that even more stylized genre — drama — has even fewer takers!

Also, I think there are two strands to this bias:
- one among the small class that engages with (produces and consumes) it. To give you an example from academia – in most university syllabi, IWE is usually one hold-all paper while British literature is studied genre-wise, period-wise, etc.)
- the other among the vast majority who read literature in other Indian languages and see IWE as limited and inaccessible.

I agree that the debate has many facets. But who did you mean when you said “we respond…”? Let’s not confuse the preferences, tastes of the English-literate elite with the vast majority of Indians who are second-language speakers of English, for whom passing a board exam in English is ordeal enough, without having to worry about poetry in English!

PS: Thanks for blogrolling! Honoured!

SS said...

I use the terms “native” and “non-native” in the Chomskyan sense. So: I am a native speaker of Telugu, and a non-native speaker of English, Hindi, and Tamil (all of which I use with varying degrees of competence.) Chomsky’s definition of native speakerism has of course come under severe criticism (What makes a speaker native – location? exposure? upbringing? nationality? etc.) but this criticism is social and political rather than purely linguistic, stemming from the disciplines of second-language acquisition and sociolinguistics for which Chomsky’s mathematically precise and limited definitions were never intended anyway.

Of course you may have enjoyed Wordsworth and Blyton despite being non-native. But is your understanding the same as a native speaker’s? (Notice that I’m not making any judgements about either understanding.)
But to illustrate what I’d said in response to Kuffir’s statement that a few words of Telugu is all you need to understand Venkanna:

Some years ago a Mass Comm. student asked me for help in translating a folk song from Telangana into English. To my distress, I found that I had to ask him to translate most of it into my variety of Telugu before I could render it into English. Even after seven years in Hyderabad I find the Telangana dialect difficult and often need a gloss. (And I say this without any prejudice whatsoever, because I firmly believe that a standard is but a dialect albeit with an army and a navy.) But this level of difficulty cannot be compared with the difficulty a vast majority of Indians have in learning English. This was what I had meant.

It is a preposterous, Macaulay-ean lie foisted upon us by our colonial education system that English is easier to learn than a cognate language (any other Indian language). That said, given the power of English, it would be dishonest to let it remain the privilege of a few, so I’m not advocating that we abandon it.

And no, I don’t believe that language is merely a tool. In poetry, prose, any literature, it is everything, the medium that determines the message. As Wittgenstein said, “The limits of our language are the limits of our mind.”

I’m a great believer in the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic relativity: that we understand the world in terms of our native tongues. That different languages use different cultural metaphors that reflect the way people think. Now whether or not these differences are accessible to speakers of other languages remains a contentious issue in cognitive linguistics.

anu said...

>>But is your understanding the same as a native speaker’s?

Not at all. If my intent was to understand exactly what was on the poet/writers mind then it is an agonizingly sad state. But if it builds into my understanding of the world and enriches it in partial truths (all of life is partial truths) isn’t that wonderful? In the sciences I have to know the exact meaning of each and every word and the context it is used in, because reproducibility is an inbuilt exercise where the truth is verified. Literature gives me the freedom to take truths as I perceive, feed it into my psyche, elaborate, correct or just dwell on my changing worldview (I am of course a consumer and not producer of nice and wise words) so if I can get the complete experience of a non native expression wonderful, or if I am able to glimpse just a little bit into the clarity of thoughts of another culture, why would I discard it? It is fascinating in bits and as a whole. That includes dialects of kannada or the rappers in the Bronx.
(this seems like an extension of CF’s unwillingness to translate unless it is done to perfection and me wanting at least some part it, because there was a version of truth-reality in those verse/song that I need to absorb with an urgency that escapes him totally)

For the tones of poetry about motherhood by male and female poets, I think I dislike each and every one that I have read and don’t relate to any of them, and motherhood is an important milestone in my life, just last week a Brazilian friend recited a verse in Portugal and translated it for me…. And it went…. Motherhood is paradise in hell…. Across cultures the same drivel about this stage that takes up such a major part of majority of women lives…. Everywhere, even in the few words that I can grasp, dishonesty about it jumps at me. That could be because my understanding of motherhood differs from women all over the world, cannot be, right? If poetry is about honesty, then it will reach out in any language. Metaphors are poor substitutes for honesty in native or non-native language.

Now, I have to go back and read your comments again to understand the other truths there…. thank you for indulging me :)

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