The Great Performance: The awkward alliance of poetry and politics

Leaders take to poetry as it can be staged and sung, and allows them the ‘poetic licence’ they often need

Updated: April 9, 2014 11:08:13 am

You can call it a poetic uprising of Aam Aadmi, probably unparalleled in history, where the masses have catapulted its leader, a pedestrian paddler of rhymes, into the orbit of the greatest bards.
Kumar Vishwas ranks 26th among top 500 poets on a global poetry website, http://www.poemhunter.com. The website finds Kumar Vishwas greater than Kabir, Mirza Ghalib and many others, so what if he has all but seven rhymes listed here. Their status, the website editors say, is determined by the hits the pages get. Main to jhonka hun hava ka uda le jaonga/Jaagti rehna, tujhe tujhse chura le jaonga (I am a draft of air, I will take you away. Remain awake, I will steal you from yourself), goes Vishwas. His literary CV informs his birth in a “Gaur Brahmin family” (apparently the highest sub-caste of Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh), the only poet in the list to have mentioned his caste. The lone fortunate Indian above him is Tagore. Vishwas sits among Robert Frost and Pablo Neruda and towers over Rilke and Baudelaire.

His personal site, Kumarvishwas.in, proclaims him a “new age poet, credited with reviving Hindi poetry among young generation”. Who had heard this in the 1,000-year-old tradition of Hindi poetry: Amawas ki kaali raaton mein dil ka darwaza khulta hai, jab pichwade ke kamre mein hum nipat akele hote hain (On moonless nights, the door of heart opens, when in the room behind we meet alone).

A former education minister believed he composed poetry as he texted, and got these SMSes published as a collection. He celebrated his first month of joining Twitter with what he wanted-to-be-called a poem: “30 days, 84 tweets/They say I’ve reached over 2cr peeps/As much I am on this medium sold/I gather all that twitters isn’t gold/Here I gather plenty insights/From politics to basic rights.” Readers were completely sold out.

Two prime ministers also regaled the citizens. The Pokhran-II king recited with valour paralleled only by Rajput emperors; the Bofors crusader did write some reasonable verses but also scripted this jewel. “I wanted her to be like a thermos. Heat once, it would remain hot for long. But she turned out to be a kettle. Needs a repeated heating.”

They, sure, found the publishers chasing only when they were in office.

But why only poet-politicians, and not novelists or story writers. First, since poetry can be performed, staged and sung, the form comes handy for politicians, the great performers. Second, a novel may take years, at least months. A poem is accomplished by pressing just a few keys on the Blackberry.

Third, connoisseurs might disparage mushairas as chintzy binge, but the romantic response that a loud lyricist can elicit from the crowd is the precise aspiration of a politician. In its finest moments, politics carries an inescapable yearning for poetics. Not to write great poetry, but to achieve the poetic effect, and to be called a poet. Remember the archetypal image of the poet in Guru Dutt’s Pyasa. Atal Behari Vajpayee would still have been a prime minister, but without the romantic charm he acquired solely because he was established as a poet.

When Vishwas invokes a “poetic licence” to justify his “kali-peeli” remark against Kerala nurses, he establishes what a lethal weapon poetry could be with a politician.

There are some exceptions though. Not politician-turned-poets, but primarily poets who later joined politics, like Sahitya Akademi winner Shrikant Verma. Among the closest confidants of Indira Gandhi, he supported her during Emergency, wrote her slogans and speeches, and hence suffered boycott by his artist friends. But his political experiences eventually led him to compose Magadh, perhaps, among the finest poetry collections of modern Indian literature.

Chahta to bach sakta tha, magar kaise bach sakta tha, jo rachega, kaise bachega (I could have saved myself. But how could I? How could a creator ever save himself). He wrote remembering the Emergency, and died in a US hospital of cancer soon after he got the Akademi award.
Poets repelled Plato. Poetry for him was an inferior genre, an imitative art and found no place in The Republic. For centuries, poets have resented the Greek thinker. They would applaud if a few politicians were asked to focus only on the sovereign, socialist republic and leave poetry untrampled.

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