A Poetry of Multitudes
Por: Shivani Sivagurunathan
There are around 40 ongoing wars in the world right now, and many more forms of conflict that are dividing communities, families, sections of society. Present and escalating is the war humanity has inflicted and continues to inflict on the environment. Divisiveness and fragmentation pervade our collective consciousness despite the clear impact of environmental destruction and colossal events like two world wars, and looming threats of a third.
But since the earliest of times, poets have been reminding us of spaces where divisions collapse, where time itself dissolves and birth is ongoing. These are spaces of pluralities, newness, generosity, love—in short, the routes to reconciliation, peace, productivity, evolution, true civilisation.
What is it about poetry that has this ability to generate rich, complex, hybrid openings?
Perhaps Carl Sandburg was on to something when he referred to the complexities and nuances poetry is capable of capturing: “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.” His words expose not simply the impossibilities (or perceived impossibilities) that poetry stalks, but the fact of its persistence in the realm of mystery, of darkness—it is a humbling space; a space of buried wisdom and secrets that can reveal truths avoided, long neglected and never apprehended, where possibly Margaret Walker’s “poetry of a people” comes from, those “deep recesses of the unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.” Perhaps we can say it’s a space of truth and enigma we forget when we’re busy surviving in and through the social systems we’ve invented. Prolonged time in that mode leaves us bereft of creativity, imagination, joy, the capacity to renew, build, expand, which are all of poetry’s qualities. At the centre of poetry, ordinary language with its clichés, assumptions and limiting conditioning wavers and crumbles, opening gaps—sometimes huge apertures—where newness can enter. A potentially turbulent invigoration, if you will, that allows for the old, the stale, the decaying to fade out. We only need to look at the great protest poets from anti-colonial times such as Aime Cesaire to see how poetry can, has been and continues to be used to shatter false concepts, rip away divisions created from hostility, and begin a process of renewal and regeneration. The poetry of African American poets such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brookes and Sonia Sanchez are fierce and disruptive because they have to be.
It is a disturbance that holds within it the egg of peace, one that will only hatch once there is movement, heat, and unapologetic expressions of suppressed truths. In its capacity to bring fresh dimensions to old notions and stories, poetry is able to hold this type of truth-telling. In Malaysia, where I’m from, the early anti-colonial poets such as Usman Awang and Muhammad Haji Salleh wrote about the violence of colonialism and its aftermath in poetry using language that reflected their hybrid, fragmented condition as a means to push back against power structures, including the neo-colonial ones after the official end of colonization.
One way to facilitate justice and peace through poetry, then, is through the act of voicing itself. Poetry offers rich and nuanced landscapes of language to bring forth words, ideas, perspectives and stories that aren’t able to be captured and aired in more direct, conventional language. If something has been said before, let poetry get a hold of it and shine a new light on it—this is one of the reasons we value the power of poetry. It is a power of turning something on its head and giving it fresh life. Poetry is a genre that offers itself up to dreams, hopes, new beginnings—all things much needed in a world polarized by ethnic wars, religious conflict, and complex discriminations.
If poetry naturally lends itself to the voicing of buried truths, then we must also acknowledge the presence of the past in that statement. Owen Barfield in his book Poetic Diction talks about revising P.B. Shelley’s definition of poetry from its capacity to give rise to “unapprehended relations” to bringing forth “forgotten relations” instead. The poet, Barfield prefers to say, is someone who remembers the ancient and renews by restoring. So, poets jog our memories and can facilitate change by reminding us of what once was and what we could become (again). In how we lived in deeper communion with the earth, for example, before the rise of capitalism and rapid industrialization that has upset the relationship between human beings and the natural context in which we exist. The poetry of today must be able to address this conflict between human and non-human and divulge the path of reconciliation and reconnection.
We have collectively spent too much time divorced from our environment, even after decades of hearing the proclamations and warnings of environmentalists. Writer and speaker on ecological issues, Charles Eisenstein, has repeatedly said in his writings and interviews that ecological degradation stems from the mythology we perpetuate about our separation from the earth, from other creatures, from each other, from ourselves, and that the pandemic is yet another symptom of this mythology.
We lose ourselves to this illusion of separation because we have lost our connection to the earth, to the world, to magic.
In the Hindu Vedas, the world is described as time, space and causation. The word for time-space-causation is Maya and Maya, although often referred to as illusion, originally carried the connotation of magic.
Soil, plants, weeds, respiration, muscle, blood, fat, ferns, defecation, haemoglobin, flowers, are pieces of the magical array. Speech, sight, durians, microbial activities, and everything that can be imagined—all experiences—magic.
“I contain multitudes,” writes the American poet Walt Whitman, and he is right. We contain multitudes. The world contains multitudes and isn’t it time to acknowledge not just that but also the fact that our existence itself is poetry?
97% of the human body is made up of stardust. This is poetry itself—and perhaps it takes a poet to recognise the poetry in that fact. We don’t celebrate the miracle of the ordinary enough which is most likely why we have ended up in this mess of pillaging the land for the building of cemented monstrosities and the harvesting of monoculture crops (between 2002 and 2020, 2.7 million hectares of rainforest were destroyed in Malaysia, and it is ongoing. Look left and once verdant land has been shamefully stripped bare; look right and raw red earth blinks in the glare of the sun like a wound that cuts deeper than skin and goes all the way into the soul). We’re not looking hard enough for the magic and, honestly, it doesn’t take long to land on something tremendous: baby dragonflies are great carnivores, absorb water into their abdomen and breathe from the inside. It is a fact and contains within it wonderment which is the stuff of poetry.
Before Whitman affirms his stance with mystery, he stresses celebration and song: “I celebrate myself and sing myself. And what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Recognising the daily festivals beyond the ones we manufacture and commemorate on purpose is crucial and what I assume, you shall assume, because we share existence, and we all know atoms dance. They roil and leap and maybe we should look down microscopes more often to remember not only that atoms zip around but that they are what our bodies are composed of. Atoms dancing. Even more astonishing is the fact that the atoms in our bodies are billions of years old. They arose out of the debris of exploding stars. Hydrogen and helium, the earliest, lightest elements, formed at the very origin of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago; some billion years later, denser elements like carbon and magnesium emerged from supernovas. Our bodies are billions of years old, not at all new, and very much a part of the continuum of life. Is this not poetry itself?
It is this kind of astonishing reality that poets can unearth and must unearth to open up the vistas and dimensions of our existence. Life is manifold, varied, vast and diverse. The poetry of today is especially tasked to hold multitudes—to push the limits of the imagination and to carve a comfortable space for pluralities to coexist, even when they are paradoxical, especially when they are paradoxical because we must finally leave the land of binaries, which is the land of separation, and enter the land of the mingled. This, then, is the new pedagogy for life, where poetry dwells not simply on the page but in life itself, in the air we breathe that has always and will always be shared, where separation is mere myth, and the truth of this lives in our words and in the flesh.