Essay

What Poetry Means To Me

Prarthana Banikya

August 22, 2018

It wasn’t the hour-long poetry readings amidst swinging trees in Cubbon Park. It wasn’t the sixth-grade English lessons we had sitting cross-legged in open green fields lined by trees and rolling hills. Nor was it the solitude of libraries where we read Keats or Shelley for an approaching test. My love for poetry began when I had a hardbound olive-green cover book delivered one summer morning to our terrace apartment in a south Bangalore neighbourhood. As I unwrapped the brown paper package, little did I know that I’d remember this moment for many years to come. On the cover, inside a diamond-shaped white box was written in a serif font – Rimbaud. It was a collection of poems by Arthur Rimbaud. That morning, while steam from my teacup rose above me in cloud-like rings of white, Rimbaud’s words cast a shadow over my thoughts.

What struck me most about Rimbaud’s poetry was how effortless his writing seemed. Yet, when I looked closely, I realised how he flawlessly balanced technicalities of the craft with a musical lilt rooted in youthful passion and carefreeness. Most of Rimbaud’s famous works were written when he was in his teenage years. I wonder if this partially explains why his writing often reflects a conspicuous rebellion against being confined by the boxed rules of poetry writing. One of my favourite poems by the prodigy is ‘Romance’ which he had written in 1870, just before his 16th birthday.

You’re in love. Booked till August.
You’re in love. Your sonnets make Her laugh.
Friends desert you, you’re out of fashion.
Then, one night, the Beloved deigns to write…!

That night… you return to the bursting cafes,
You order beers, lemonade,
No one’s serious when they are seventeen,
And lime trees flower on the promenade.

Over the next few weeks, I found myself Googling his remaining poems and then, did myself a favour by ordering a couple of his poetry collections. His poems opened my mind to an array of possibilities and prodded me to dabble in writing poetry – not to take it up as a craft, but mostly as a creative outlet to express myself and make sense of my feelings. I spent a large part of my mid-20s scribbling verses on notebooks, loose sheets of paper, and empty spaces in newspapers, and when I couldn’t find sufficient paper space or a pencil, I clicked away on Microsoft Word.

Soon, I was eager to explore the works of other poets. This led me to discover the works of Rumi, Neruda, and Rossetti. Through the works of these poets, I started learning to notice little joys in the mundaneness of every day. And each time I lost sight of the little things and daily chores swallowed my day, I took out my scrapbook of favourite poems and read a couple of them at bedtime. For me, Neruda’s famous poem, ‘Ode to Tomatoes,’ is a classic example of how to appreciate the small wonders of everyday life.

“In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.

It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.”

In my late 20s and early 30s, poetry slowly started occupying increasing space in my life. Today, I am not surprised that poetry is an integral piece of who I am. However, I doubt that would have happened if poetry hadn’t been my solace during trying times. Poems by Rilke and Cummings came to my rescue when I was having an especially bad week or month, or sometimes, an entire season.

During such times when melancholy swept across my day, the poem Maggie and Milly and Molly and May’ by Edward Estlin Cummings was often my go-to poem.

“Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and Maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

Milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and Molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

May came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

With every reading, I interpret this poem a little differently. But mostly, I see it as how each of us are unique in our own little ways. And that, with new places and experiences, although we find new things about ourselves, we always rediscover our older, familiar selves. When I shared my interpretation of the poem with my friend, she had a completely differently perspective on it and, for all we know, we could be at completely opposite ends of what the poem really means. And that’s why I find poetry so fascinating – because it makes us think and see things from another person’s perspective that we’d never imagined earlier.

A few hours before I wrote this essay, I was crouched in a chair in the balcony with Haiku, my cat, curled on my lap and a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke in my hand. In it he said,

“Do you remember still the falling stars
that like swift horses through the heavens raced
and suddenly leaped across the hurdles
of our wishes–do you recall?”

The morning sky was slowly changing colour. Perched on a nearby tree, a songbird relentlessly cooed to which Haiku sleepily meowed in response. The trees were make a swishing sound as the summer wind swept through the neighbourhood that was bustling in preparation for the day stretched out in front of them. At a distance, I saw lines of cars, buzzing, honking, and then zipping past each other. The same roar of traffic that used to rile me up a few years ago, today, seemed like just another piece of sound that fit in well with the intervals of the swishing trees and cooing of the perched bird. And, in that moment, I understood what Plath meant when she said, “I saw the gooseflesh on my skin. I did not know what made it. I was not cold. Had a ghost passed over? No, it was the poetry.

What are your favourite poetry collections? Who are your favourite poets? Share with us in the comments below.

Prarthana Banikya

Prarthana Banikya


Prarthana Banikya is a graduate in Sociology from Miranda House with a certificate in poetry. She spent her formative years in the valleys of Northeastern India from where she draws inspiration for most of her writing. Her work has been featured in several journals including Aaduna, Asia Writes, Aerogram, Danse Macabre, Poetry Super Highway, Namnai, and Pratilipi. In 2016, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for poetry and in 2018, was the recipient of the Orange Flower Award for poetry.

She blogs at prarthanabanikya.blogspot.in