Poems have no caste… and yet I will insist that they also need to be classified. Just as we humans are all the same, yet it helps to have us classified into races, creeds, cultures, regions, castes, and also by language, habits, disabilities, gender and there could be many other forms that even I may be unaware of. This urge to mix poetry with caste was born because of a discussion forum question that asked:

‘Tell me do you prefer classic or modern poetry?’ (This is as meaningless as someone asking: Do you prefer a European or an Asian employee?)

To my surprise there were people who gave naïve answers like:

‘I like modern poetry.’ ‘I prefer free verse.’ ‘I am deep into neo-classical poetry!’

This is too simplistic and probably implies that the person is either too lazy to even try and pierce the structure of a poem and reach out for the emotive kernel within or is an imbecile who’d actually be a social extremist too! Going by the first paragraph, you’ll no doubt accuse me too of preferring the doctrine of classification. Well, read on and only then you’ll understand what I really mean.

Must one like or dislike harijans?

Before we try and understand if poetry needs to be classified, we need to go deeper into our basic instincts on society. I remembered a similar discussion from 1990 during the Mandal agitation when the entire nation was obsessed with their home-grown theories of caste, race, and creed.

‘It is time that reservation was done away with. We don’t need the incompetent to come and grab any percentage of available seats for higher education… we neither want them to rise higher taking shorter flights!’ said one.

‘I agree, sir. But at the same time I must thank the almighty that I wasn’t born a dalit in today’s world,’ said another now faceless and nameless gentleman.

Time has a strange way of letting only ideas and words survive… even images shed their colour and start looking alike.  When I go back into my past I find there is hardly any place for differences and rivalries… they seem so puerile, so withered, so under-fed… and so lonely. And yet, there are these people from my past who fought for… wait, what were they really fighting for?

‘Reservation. This is evil. We must not favour it.’

I kept listening to them and then said, ‘One doesn’t opt to be born in a disadvantaged family. I agree that classifications help only in increasing the chasm, the gap, the differences… but then the privileged must also attempt to pull up the disadvantaged.’

‘You do have a point there.’

‘Yes. I know that. I was also hurt by this demon of reservations when I was in my college hunting days,’ I paused for a while and then continued, ‘Ideally I wouldn’t like to divide humans into any kind of classification… but then this is one way of making equality a reality.’

My belief was as true for caste and reservation politics as it is for poetry.

Poetry is neither fiction, nor non-fiction. It is poetry.

I will go further to say that poetry is neither modern nor ancient. It is poetry. Poetry is neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical. It is poetry. Poetry is neither a follower of the iambic platoon nor is it part of the free verse revolt. It is poetry. It is the same as saying that we are neither upper caste nor lower caste. We’re all humans. Classifications are not there to divide us… their purpose is to help us treat everything and everyone equally, more so if there is an unequal focus noticed anywhere – be it in mortals or in poetry!

The period classifications are simply to give us all an idea of how the poet then may have thought and used language. The classification of poetry by its forms helps us adopt a specific mood swing before we begin to read a poem from that genre. For instance, I may not prefer to read a bawdy limerick if corruption all around me leaves me with an agitated mind… I may want to read something more appropriate.

Classifying poetry is like putting it behind bars, making it inaccessible to a few, and tagging it unfairly. It is almost like burning a name on its skin… and it can surely be painful. Mark here, that human class and caste classification also leads to a similar outcome.

Classification also pulls down shutters in a person’s own mind. It is almost like a tourist telling himself: ‘I will visit this place because I have been told that I will like it. I like cities that are labelled ‘historical’ and, therefore, I shall like it.’ This is true as I have seen many tourists not enter a castle or a church or a temple or a palace or a garden… saying: Well, I don’t think I understand this and, therefore, I shall go only to those places that I feel I understand. Funny. Isn’t it? So you wouldn’t like to enter the world of Chaucer because you’ve been told that you will neither understand his language nor what he is writing about? Well, you’re wrong. Poetry is as easy or as difficult as any other form of writing and all it needs is a few loving attentive moments. Let me give you another example. What type of poem is “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Does it really matter if I say that it’s a ballad and that it’s even written in neoclassical ballad stanzas a/b/a/b 8/7/8/7. Even without this piece of junk information (not junk, if you need it for research) you’d be able to appreciate the music that is evident in that poem.

I’ve seen a lot of my friends not pick up a book of poetry from a shop nor from a library shelf presuming that they will never open the book. Phew! They do miss an entire chapter in their book of life, don’t they? This is because they have managed to classify their interests and ‘reserved’ them for prose or anything other than poetry. Actually poetry sells less and must, therefore, be classified as the dalit in the world of literature… ideally I wouldn’t like to divide any form of creativity into classifications except whenever and wherever this evil helps us promote equality! So instead of dividing literature into prose, poetry, and drama I’d prefer that poetry be called dalit and given 50% reservation in all shelves everywhere. So reservation does solve problems, doesn’t it? Anyway, this dalit called poetry has the power to bring your moments closer to nirvana, if I may say so.

Therefore, the question if I like classic or modern poetry is almost like asking: ‘What’s your favorite color?’

My answer would normally be, ‘For what?’

To decide on a poem (as it would be if you’re to decide on a colour) you got to know the intended audience, the subject of the poem, the theme of the poem, the attitude the poet is taking towards his or her subject, and probably the reader’s mood. Poetry is quite literally, the language of the heart, not the head. Thus poetry cannot really have a caste.

I’m sure there will a few very learned dolts who will comment that poetry does have a period-based classification that seems to be working very well. They will point out that “Modern” poetry dates back 50 -100 years, and “classic” dates back over five thousand years (King David’s psalms, Basho, Greeks and Romans included). Then there are also “modern classics” which date back 300-500 years (Shakespeare, Rumi, Milton and others) and “Contemporary” that dates 49 years to the present (and includes the Beats, Ginsberg and current poets like Maya Angelou). They would also say that classification can also be in the form of structure with the classic forms like couplets, sonnets, villanelle, haiku, ode, ghazal, and also the modern forms like Slam or Spoken Word. As I have said before, classification is an evil that helps us decide on how well we want to distribute our time and attention… which is also like lobbying for according some form of priority to areas that have been overlooked so far. This is how classifications can be productive.

It isn’t good to piggy-back on classification to close access and shut doors. Just as using caste-politicking to actually distance the dalits (underpriviledged) from the mainstream is bad, doing it within the world of literary efforts is also bad. Obviously, not all poems will appeal to everyone… the right technique is to just open a poem, read it… and if it appeals to your sensibilities, go ahead. This doesn’t mean that you cannot open the same poem after a gap and give it another try if you didn’t like it the first time… or another… or another… because like everything else, our sensibilities too change.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions… for the god
wants to know himself in you.

(from ‘As Once the Winged Energy of Delight’ by Rainer Maria Rilke)

Classifications have this strange habit of donning different dresses in different times. Initially, poetry was expressed in different forms of speech as rhetoric, drama, song and comedy. Over the time, different cultures have developed varied types of poetic forms. The Dewey Decimal System classified poetry as non-fiction in the 800s… this will come as a shocker for the classification enthusiasts. I got this fact from the internet so the rationale needs to be confirmed by some expert cataloguer.

If one goes back even earlier, the oldest surviving poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, belonging to the 3rd millennium BC in Sumer (in Mesopotamia, now Iraq). It was written in cuneiform script on clay tablets and later, papyrus. Those were times when no forms of classifications muddied the literary splashes, so to say. Even the social norms were probably more relaxed and everybody got along with everybody.

Sometimes I wish we go back to these pre-historic times and live in harmony with all things that are creative… or pro-creative, if we want to include mortals too! Let me put it this way: The entire world is a poem without caste.





Arvind Passey
13 May 2011


Featured image credit: Bark