Writer Arundhathi Subramaniam on the Role of Poetry in Our Lives

“Meaning is just a very small part of language,” began poet Arundhathi Subramaniam in Hall on September 23. “Many of us realize this early on but are encouraged to forget. We are encouraged, instead, to use language as a strictly transactional medium. But there’s rhythm and sound and texture—words have flavor. We forget the sensuous possibilities of language.”

One of India’s most acclaimed poets, Ms. Subramaniam spoke with students and faculty about the possibilities of language; about her own entry into the world of poetry; about her work since; and about the freedom we should all feel to enjoy a poem without the pressure to exact meaning from it.

“You don’t really need to understand a poem,” she said. “Even before you understand it, you’re capable of recognizing it. I remember being asked in school the terribly boring question, ‘What is the poem trying to say?’ This question always filled me with great gloom, because I had this instinctive ability to respond to a poem, but I had no ability to verbalize that response.  

“A poem is not trying to say anything. A poem is just saying it, and that’s all you need to remember. You just need to receive it. You don’t have to try and decode it. You don’t have to try and paraphrase it. You might be inspired one day to go and uncover a poem—peel back layers and dimensions—but it’s not a prerequisite to loving a poem. You just have to allow a poem to happen to you.”                              

Ms. Subramaniam walked the audience through several defining moments in her life, one being, as she said, her “first emergence into a verbal universe.” “I remember hearing poems in multiple languages—if you grew up in Bombay, you grew up polyglottal, with Hindi and Marathi and Gujarati and Tamar and English. I grew up not really knowing where one language ended and another began.” In her earliest encounters with poetry—nursery rhymes, Doggerel—she gathered only fragmentary glimpses of meaning, but she knew, even then, that this is where she wanted to be.

“It seemed to me there existed this somewhat boring world of grownup speech, which I thought of as prose, which was plodding, pedestrian, predictable. I realized there also seemed to be a place where language was startling, unpredictable, dangerous, where language did all kinds of surprising things. It was capable of diving and swooping and soaring. That was poetry.” 

Ms. Subramaniam read aloud and contextualized three of her poems:

Where I Live: About Bombay, “the city that I live in, the city that I love, and the city that I love to hate—a challenging, exasperating, crazy city. Don’t try to understand the poem. Just let the poem happen. This is the way Bombay happens to me.”

To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t Find Me Identifiably Indian: “Too often we have voices around us telling us how to belong. One of my pet peeves is a voice that legislates on belonging—telling you how to be yourself, how to be a man or a woman, how to belong to a particular faith, how to belong to a particular culture. This poem was my response to that voice.”

And, finally, Winter, Delhi, 1997, about the last time she saw her grandparents together.

She encouraged boys to read poems out loud: “Taste them on your tongue. If you read a poem on a page and don’t feel the impulse to say it out loud, I think you’ve actually lost something”; and to make poems their own: “Consider why you like it, rather than feeling pressure to articulate what it means. Start with simply reading and allowing yourself to enjoy a poem, and build on that.”

“Poems have an ability to creep up on you and to change your life in very profound ways when you least expect them to,” concluded Ms. Subramaniam. “Hang onto poems. They are frequently a lifeline in ways that you don’t and can’t yet imagine.”

After Hall, Ms. Subramaniam spent a class period with Mr. Lawler’s Class V English students who had read her poetry and came prepared to discuss it with her. Mr. Lawler encouraged the Listen, Look, Read approach as the students made their way through these poems together and with the author, identifying out loud that which resonated with them and why.

Arundhathi Subramaniam is the award-winning author of eleven books of poetry and prose. Widely translated and anthologised, her volume of poetry When God is a Traveller was the Season Choice of the Poetry Book Society, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.