“Poetic Selves”: Musings from Susmita Paul

In an interview with Julia Kristeva in Positions, Jacques Derrida observes, “Differences are the effects of transformations, ….” (The University of Chicago Press, 1981). A difference is registered when the available elements of life suffer a shift. This shift, in creative writing in general and poetry writing in particular, occurs as a result of the esemplastic imagination, to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s term. What happens in the process is a transmogrification. The expressions of the past, the present and the possible futures unify in language and emotion in order to create a unique piece of craft that the world has not yet experienced. The effect of the transmogrification is a difference that affects and is a lingering effect on every word that follows thereon.

A great poet is a prism through which the light of human experience passes. The white light of objective experience contains the rainbow of human existence. The refraction of human experience is registered in the form of a poem that the poet as a prism enables. There is an objectivity in rendering that without being subsumed by it.

This clairvoyant objectivity can become the crux of learned discussions.

Milton was a great poet. However, this objective distancing of the poet from his creations was limited. As Coleridge observes, “All things and modes of action shape themselves anew in the being of Milton.” Propping William Shakespeare as a comparison, he says, “Shakespeare becomes all things, yet forever remaining himself”.

What engages me in this comparison is the possibility that there are variations of greatness, each being unique and relevant. What we can do as individuals in the craft of poetry, is to learn that the limitless emotion which may arouse the poetic self, needs to be honed and trained. It is not only a craft of language. It is a magical craft involving skill and technique, as much as imagination.

The magic of the craft of poetry is a performance by itself. However, it is the process of learning, polishing, and mastering the craft that excites the soul. When a poem is submitted to be considered for publication and is eventually published, like any other craft when put to an audience, belongs no more to the poet. The souls of the readers define the world of the poem.

Being fearful of this gaze is not uncommon. But why are we scared when our poem is beyond our protective hands and hearts? Is it not common sense to let go of something that is already gone? Is it not appropriate that ‘the author is dead’ (as Roland Barthes said) ?

Truth is that, even when we submit a poem for publication, we engage with the poem as one of our own. When it is appreciated, it brings us joy. When it is critically dissected, we feel pain. When it is criticised negatively, we suffer dejection. Our personal self gets attached to our creation. This is different from including autobiographical strains in a poem. While the latter is a logistical aspect – what weaves well with the theme and the form of  a poem, the former is a matter of choice.

We quantify our poetic creations and equalise our social selves to our poetic selves. While our social self may be a middle class Indian, imagination gives us the bounty of checking into anyone’s shoe in the universe. While our social consciousness harbours us at one shipping dock of life, our imagination takes flight towards the horizon and beyond. There is an essential element of resistance involved in the process. While the ship of our body suffers from an inertia, our poetic mind belongs in mid-flight. This fact of resistance we ignore as poetic beings.

There was a time when I used to write three to four poems a day. Observing this syndrome, a poet-friend of mine had observed that I was a poet of habit. I had enquired what other types of poets he envisioned. He had replied wryly, “Then there are poets of need.” I barely understood what he implied in those words. I had the feeling that I was writing because I feel the need to express myself. A decade later, as I sat down to write this piece, I realised the difference between a poet of habit and a poet of need.

A poet of habit is by nature a poetic self. She/he/their harnesses all the inputs that the world provides and processes it subjectively, creating a poem that is but an extension of her/his/their being. A poet of need suffers the scarcity of words that she/he/their believes can appropriately convey the meaning towards which the poetic soul grapples. The poet of habit is usually the poet’s younger self. It is like a child experiencing everything for the first time. Hence, with each experience is a tangible emotion. A poet of need is the autumnal self of a poet. Now, the poetic self is “[c]onspiring … how to load and bless” the words in the poem (‘Ode to Autumn’, John Keats).

It is this shift that makes all the difference. At this point in the poetic life, the poet learns that one that is born out of her/him/their is born to fly. From being the individual that quantifies her/his/their creation, the shift to the poetic self of need, one starts to value the process of creating. The need is no longer an external need of gratification. It is the need of creation.

The question that then arises is what constitutes the process of creation.

While imagination is a crucial element, it is not the complete package. In a poetry workshop that I attended in Kolkata a decade ago, poet Joy Goswami shared how a poem often takes shape. The first few lines or words bleed out. At the middle of the poem, the poet re-reads the first few lines and then gains momentum again. It is the ending of the poem that is crucial because the poet is drained. The appropriate words are sparse. At this point comes the critical component of re-working and editing the first draft. Though sometimes, the first draft can be a sharp, precise, finished piece, it is rare. Writing is important, but editing is also important. The version of T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ that we read is largely because of the extensive revisions and suggestions by Ezra Pound.

If one looks at facsimile manuscripts of Rabindranth Tagore, we see how he transformed his editing process into an artistic one. Lines that he scratched off in a poem, formed the structure for his pen drawings. Editing or re-working is like forming of sediments after a flood that go on to make the rich new cultivable soil. From edited out sections, new poems may be born.

The act of creating a poem is tapping into the universe of possibilities and transformations. Our poetic selves need to trust it simply.

Susmita is a creative writer and independent scholar with bipolar mood disorder with schizophrenic potential. She writes in English and Bengali and is published in “Headline Poetry and Press”, “Montauk” and “Learning and Creativity”. Her published books are Poetry in Pieces (2018) and Himabaho Kotha Bole (When Glaciers Speak) (2019). She is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Pine Cone Review. Her personal website is www.susmitapaul.org 

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