Poetry Reading

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Have you ever been to a poetry reading event? If you have, you know how in most cases there remain in the hall more chairs unoccupied than otherwise. There is apathy towards poetry; maybe it’s got something to do with obscurity it usually entails.

Sample this excerpt from a poem called Poetry Reading by Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska: “To be a boxer, or not be there at all / 0 Muse, where are our teeming crowds? / Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare / it’s time to start this cultural affair. / Half came inside because it started raining, / the rest are relatives, 0 Muse.”

Of course, Szymborska is not talking here about the poor reception of her own poems, but about the dearth of poetry enthusiasts in general. But Jayanta Mahapatra is one of the few poets whose readings always attract a full house. I was once a witness of one such reading.

It was 17 June 2005. Jayantada informed me about the Kavisandhi programme to be held at Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture, Regent Park, Calcutta (now Kolkata), in association with Sahitya Akademi. At that time, I was a regular there and attended classical music conferences.

It’s my good luck that I managed to get a seat, for the auditorium was so very packed. Jayantada was 77 that year, somewhat frail, but ramrod straight, informally dressed in a pair of jeans, and free of any stage fright.

He read his poems melodiously and at an easy pace underscoring the nerve-centre of each word. He didn’t rush anything, and let the words do the work. He gave a brief pause after reading each of his compositions, so that the listener could absorb and get ready with questions, if any, in the interactive session.

He kept his books a little distance away from the lectern. Midway through the session, we found him looking for a particular poem which he could not find. He went over to where his books were kept, flipped through the pages, found what he was looking for and came back to the lectern like a passionate actor. I could not but marvel at his agility at that age. Of course many hands went up for the cordless microphone as soon as he finished.

Years ago, Jayantada sent me a copy of his book of poems, A Whiteness of Bone (Viking) In remembrance of a brief time together in Tinkonia Bagicha followed by a letter: “Thank you for your kind letters. They help us in many ways, your words. I had been away for quite some time … You do not know how selfish a writer can be … but I’m back after a visit to the Northeast, where I did a few poetry readings, and ended up by doing a reading at the Seagull Book Shop in Calcutta… I’ve also been travelling a bit here in Orissa, to some colleges and universities, to read my poetry. As you know, this is what keeps me going, for these readings give me the solace I need, to mix with young students, to feel their minds and at the same time, to imbibe their innocence…”

The famous Indian-English poet Jayanta Mahapatra turned 93 on 22 October.

First published in The Statesman

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