PaperPlanes#9 – Poetry Has A Language, And It Doesn’t Have To Be Your Mother Tongue

It was a cloudy evening in namma Bengaluru on which Harper Perennial had hosted its tenth-anniversary event at the new Blossom Book Store on the Church Street. They had Vivek Shanbhag, Anita Nair, Volga and Jayanth Kaikini as their chief guests. They spoke about their books in regional languages that got translated into English by Harper Perennial.

Though the guests spoke about books, the focus was language. At one point, Kaikini said when he lived in Mumbai, at home he spoke Konkani, Marathi on the local bus and metro, English and Hindi at work, and came back home to write in Kannada. Kaikini, if you don’t know, is a writer, poet, and above all, one of the lyricists who brought meaningful lyrics in Kannada movies back from the brink of a shameful death. Though his mother tongue is Konkani, he writes in Kannada because it is close to his heart. He also said people can understand better if written in a language close to them. For most people, unlike himself, mother tongue is close to their heart. For which I told yes, just like people get more offended when someone abuses them in their mother tongue than in any other language. Yes, I had to make that analogy. Because you don’t choose language, but the language chooses you.

Kamala Surayya, a noted poetess, under her penname Kamala Das, wrote in An Introduction – ‘Don’t write in English, they said, English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, every one of you? Why not let me speak in any language I like? The language I speak, becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses all mine, mine alone.’ She was right. Poetry is a form of literary work that doesn’t care about language in which it is written. The poet writes in the language in which he or she is comfortable. The reader chooses poems in languages he or she enjoys. Both don’t have to be the same.

What a poet tries to convey through the poem is best known to him or her. A reader can only analyse and interpret it to his or her best knowledge. It is not the same as reading a novel or a short story. Nobody can impose a poem on anybody. Because a poem is a whole story written in fewer words. Poetry is not for everyone; so wrong. Perhaps poetry in all languages is not for everyone. That means it is not enough if you know the language to enjoy the poem. You have to feel it. You will only feel the poem if it is close to your heart. That’s why teachers in school took more time to explain poems than stories in the textbooks to students. Again, the teacher would have explained what he or she interpreted and might have differed from what the student thought. That’s why most students feel poetry is boring. No, poetry is not boring. It is just that poetry is not in the right language for that student or person. Because poetry has a language, and it doesn’t have to be your mother tongue.

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