[Reader-list] Poetry vs Journalism

shivam zest_india at yahoo.co.in
Sat Jun 19 18:31:09 IST 2004

  Line Byline: Poetry As and Against Journalism

  By Amitava Kumar
  Courtesy http://eserver.org/clogic


Let me begin with the obscure. Not simply in the sense
of the obscurity, subtlety, or indirection of poetry
that is often posited against the professed plainness
of prose and its accessibility. Instead, let us take
up the obscure in the sense of being unknown, ignored,
not open to discovery: that, then, which is not news.

This is the twentieth April of Nineteen Seventy-Four
a professional assassin's right
hand or the leather glove
of a detective or a spot stuck on the binoculars
of an attacker?

Whatever it be--I cannot call it just another day!

The poet Alokdhanwa, writing in an old, sprawling city
on the banks of the Ganges in India, approaches a date
and makes it unreal. This could really be an important
day, maybe they shot the leader of the new democracy
movement. Maybe the neofascist government at the
center sterilized all the male members of the minority
Muslim community in one colony. A woman was raped.
Perhaps. This could be an important day: its unreality
is announced by this poet by comparing it to a grainy
detail of the detective's glove in a B-grade Hindi
movie. In a world rendered surreal by capitalism, it
is not the realism of journalism but the contrary
realism of poetry that brings us the news.

The different orders of the real.... What does it mean
to call to mind the detail of a Hindi movie while
speaking in New Jersey--even if it's true that the
poet Alokdhanwa counts among his heroes Walt Whitman
who has the honor of having one highway rest-plaza
named after him in this state? That invocation, it
seems to me, inaugurates an inquiry that involves, but
also exceeds, the poetry inscribed in the posters held
by protesters after the Brixton riots in Britain
proclaiming "Because You Were There We Are Here." It
includes the place of the East in the imagination--the
minds and the media--of the West.


The newspapers did not fail to mention the Hollywood
story, "An Affair to Remember."

I read of the February 23 shooting at the Empire State
Building in the newspapers and wondered how I could
talk about this with my students.

Suddenly, truth became a matter not to be sought from
books or the words teachers write on the blackboard.
This time we were to study the lines of chalk drawn
around dead bodies.

The newspapers made no mention of the fact that in the
US last year, 20,000 people died in homicides and
30,000 in suicides.

The book of poems written by an Egyptian Jew in exile
gave way to another image. A foreigner carrying in the
crook of his arm a tiny gun.

There is a terrible solitude that surrounds the dead;
it is only enhanced when the dead is also a killer. I
looked at the newspaper photographs of Ali Abu Kamal.
In one of them, his young son, sitting between his
grief-stricken mother and sister, holds a large,
framed picture of his father. Printed beneath that
photograph was a blow-up of Abu Kamal's face from the
same picture, the only mug-shot we will now see of the
dead man.

In the second photograph, Abu Kamal was no longer a
father or a husband. We no longer saw him against the
cheap backdrop of a Third World studio-photographer's
imagination: a canvas curtain with flower-beds painted
on them, simulating a large garden outside one's home
or, perhaps, the romance of easy, unrestrained travel
to far-away places.

The black and white pages of the newspapers we held in
our hands did not hold our vision: that had fled the
land about which the poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote:

Sometimes pus
Sometimes a poem.
Something always bursts out.
And always pain.

If we were so inclined, we might already have seen in
that close-up of his photograph the face that was
described by one of Abu Kamal's victims, "He looked
crazy, just a mad old man."

Amichai could only find this terrible, moving
consolation for his own pain:

But through the wound on my chest
God peers into the world.
I am the door
to his apartment. 

What color are God's eyes? I ask because I read about
the wife of a "recent immigrant" who was also badly
injured in the Sunday shooting. "She's got the reddest
eyes I've ever seen," a hospital worker said of the
grieving Mrs. Carmona.

In Abu Kamal's violent end and in the grief of the
Carmona's, like the shadow of the negatives that
persist in the black and white images we see, we were
confronted with immigrant histories.

"Despair is still my star," bemoaned the Syrian poet
Adonis. And I'm ready to see--quickly, urgently--how
it comes to be that a single man's sense of
unremitting loss draws upon another buried, often
denied, narrative of collective injury inflicted in an
unequal world.

It is a recognition of that which should turn this
story of Ali Abu Kamal into the history of the grief
of entire nations.

Or, if you prefer, rewrite the symbol of the Empire
State Building, from the Hollywood romance of a single
man sleepless in Seattle into the nightmare of
millions living life as a waking sleep.

And it is in writing, I would like to tell my
students, that one works against death. That one
protests against annihilation. Against the failure of
memory. A ruse that works as revenge against the
collective forgetting of other deaths.

It was perhaps this that Amiri Baraka had in mind when
he wrote in "The Flying Dutchman" that Charlie Parker
would have played not a note of music if he could have
walked up the East 67th Street and killed the first
ten white people he saw. Not a note!


I am riding in a New York subway car, reading a
literary article about the Brazilian poet, João Cabral
de Melo Neto. The review mentions that Cabral had
reached a dead end as a poet "[u]ntil he happened to
read one day that life expectancy in his native Recife
was even lower than India." As a result of this new
knowledge, the poet made a turn from speculative
poetry to a social one. He wrote The Dog Without
Feathers. "With that poem he rediscovered the city of
his birth, its river, the Rio Capibaribe, and the
people who survive however marginally along its
banks." Shortly thereafter, I search for and find
Cabral's poem about the river in his birthplace.

And I never saw it seethe
(as bread when rising
In silence
the river bears its bloating poverty,
pregnant with black earth."

I am held by the poem's presentation of this image of
the river that "never opens up in fish." Even in the
description of its stagnation, Cabral conveys the
dynamism of his inquiry. The sluggishness of the river
and its poverty evokes a response very different from
that which is incited by the closed-mindedness or the
complacency of the bourgeoisie on its banks.

It is there,
with their backs to the river,
that the city's "cultured families"
brood over the fat eggs
of their prose.
In the complete peace of their kitchens
they viciously stir
their pots of sticky indolence.

I invoke this poetry in opposition to the popular
journalism of the West. When the sun rises over the
skyscrapers of New York City, darkness has already
fallen in the land of my birth. In that area of
darkness, the head of the New Delhi bureau of The New
York Times discovers the face of otherness that offers
the comfort of absolute difference. "Shackled by Past,
Racked by Unrest, India Lurches Toward Uncertain
Future" is the title of a story filed by Edward R.
Gargan. From that remote wasteland of meaning, the
journalistic Indiana Jones files his report on his
reading of the runes of frozen time. "More than 70
percent of India's people live in villages, where
their habits, customs and traditions have changed
little over the centuries, even as economic, religious
and political forces have changed around them."

By the article's end, it has become possible to
pyschologize current struggles and fit them in a
vision of the eternal, fixed psyche. The concluding
quote reads: "The Indian temperament is not democratic
enough." Let me engage in a bit of psychologizing
myself. In this article, we are back in the nightmare
space of an American childhood-memory of the fifties
and sixties. It is dinner time in a white,
middle-class American home. The child, who is refusing
to finish the food on the plate, is remonstrated by
the mother, "Eat your food, Billy. There are children
going to bed hungry in India."

The Times of India is not too different from the The
New York Times. To quote Alokdhanwa again:

They are professional murderers
those who choke and strangle to death the naked news
in the shadow of sensational headlines
they show themselves again and again the serfs of that
one face
the map of whose bathroom is bigger than the map of my

The publishing houses of this country like the pale
found in the icy cracks:
on the banks of the river Hooghly, before taking his
own life
why has the young poet screamed--"Times of India"

Why, indeed? Because, as Neruda wrote in his memoirs,
"we can say that our readers have not yet been born."
Poetry is unable to function as journalism because
journalism will not allow any space for the poetry of
protest--the poor and the illiterate find space
neither in the pages and TV screens of the powerful
media, nor, lest we get carried away let us also
declare, between the covers of the prestigious,
prize-winning volumes of poetry.


Even news is only advertising. In a poem entitled
"What's in the News: A Type of Love Poem," I have
attempted to allow poetry to present a critique of
that condition. Let me quote the beginning stanza:

As I flip the channels on my TV
the flames in L.A. are melting the cheese on a burger
in a Perkin's commercial. I am saying this to you in a
far off space
to the right which is empty now but will have two
hours from now
the density of your body, your voice and short hair,
the thin skin of veins on your thigh supporting me as
watch the beaten-down brutalized body of Rodney King
boldly going where no one has gone before, and
even as I catch a glimpse of a crowded meeting in a
a split-second later, I'm only left witnessing the
whole of Americana
ventriloquizing through the single drop of beer
left shimmering on a bottle's lip: "Why Ask Why?"

And yet, unlike journalism which presumes a public
sphere, in other words, a public, poetry is often
unable to boast of a broad constituency. Why? To an
extent, that is because of poetry's affectation. Even
in postcolonial zones of poetic engagement, drawn
perhaps by the strain of Western romantic tradition,
poets continue to speak about the conditions of
loneliness--albeit in strict, interrogative
materialist terms. Maheshwar, a journalist and poet of
the Indian People's Front, writes from his hospital
bed just before his death:

My friends do not want to stick by my side
beyond the ritual exchanges about our well-being.
It is right at this point
that my loneliness descends
and like the dusk spreading in the sky
fills the corners and the insides of my brain.
This loneliness alone is my strength
in its womb
takes birth my desire to live....

You will be finished--
you will be killed
when did you learn in life
the politics of sharing with someone
someone's loneliness.

This is no ordinary loneliness, after all it insists
on a shared condition. Yes; and yet, as a repeated
gesture, it marks the poet, however self-critically,
as nevertheless solitary. For poetry to adopt the
publics produced by, and available to, journalism,
poetry will have to inaugurate another politics of
affiliation. While retaining its difference from
journalism-- forcing singular constructions over
allegedly objective ones, ditching an ideologically
saturated realism for irruptions of marginalized
realities, exchanging news for the newsworthy--poetry
will need poets as public intellectuals. Poets, not
uprooted souls wandering the dark fields of the
republic, but grounded in possibilities. Is the
poignant lament of the Indian poet Ved Prakash Vatuk,
an immigrant in the U.S., the most effective one
available to us?

To each community
I have become
nothing more
than a lost part
of some other "they."
My home is a prison of time
the world my exile.

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