By Meher Shah
Why write poetry?
Why disorganize words into incoherent lines and dabble in trying to find suitable rhymes?
Why choose not to confine it to simple structures easy for the comprehension of the mind?
Why write sonnets to describe your love or verses to describe a daffodil?
Where does the compulsion stem from to pen your thoughts in complex patterns of poetry while laying bare your soul for thousand strangers’ judgmental eyes to see?
This question I ask to Kamala Das who explores the inner workings of her mind in a poem called “An Introduction.”
This question I ask to Sylvia Plath who gives an all access pass into her convoluted, dark thoughts for any amateur like me to comment upon!
Scholars call this the “Confessional School of Poetry”
The poetry of the “I,”
a poem filled with personal reflections
as if their words are scratched into pages of their diaries
rather than books in the world’s libraries.
The world acknowledges both these women as being exemplary alumni of this school
Does the similarity start and end there, I ask?
Two women separated by culturally different societies,
kept apart by several oceans
each weaving their craft using different tones.
Can they be tied together using the same thread?
Highlighted when comparing “An Introduction” to “Lady Lazarus”
the contrast of Das’s descriptive nature to Plath’s suicidal themes,
the gap between Kamala Das’s long life to Sylvia’s short troubled one.
Can they be overlooked to find a commonality between the two?
At a superficial glance maybe not but an in-depth review definitely led me to uncovering a few.
Let’s start with the obvious: their gender.
By virtue of their womanhood these renowned poets were subjected to a
similar patriarchal train of thought
shackles that tried to constrain their freedom
Similar orthodox, adulterous husbands
and societal expectations of what it meant to be a woman.
When Kamala says,
“Dress in sarees, be girl Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook, Be when a quarreller with servants. Fit in. Oh, Belong”
When Slyvia narrates,
“I am your opus
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby”
The distance between these two minds starts blurring
The focus is instead shifted on what you and I like to call feminism.
A common anger between the two
An anger that refuses to let society provide labels and put them in neat little boxes
An unquenchable thirst is seen in the ferocity of their words,
As if to say I am a woman but not lesser any human!
“I too call myself I” or “I eat men like air” –
are the immortal words of Das and Plath respectively,
paving a path for all feminists to come.
Next we go to their unapologetic use of words
Vivid descriptive tools penned by never-shying hands
Painting mental scenes inappropriate from a woman’s hands.
How dare Kamala Das narrate her experience of growing up with such strong visual imagery?
How dare she mention words like ‘breasts’, ‘public hair’ so flippantly?
Under whose authority does Sylvia Plath reduce men to a ‘peanut crunching crowd’ and
through words like ‘strip tease’ about,
baffled asked the crowds then
what sort of poetry is this?
Devoid of any positive connotations
filled with not so nice recommendations
both poets way ahead of their time,
writing in a 19th century world not ready for these ideas to be brought in
a woman breeching out of society’s carefully constructed cocoon
never shy from expressing something considered so taboo
be it Das’s first sexual encounter or Sylvia’s failed suicidal attempts
their words caused several to hesitate
But did that stop Das from recounting –
“he drew a youth of sixteen into the bedroom and closed the door,
he did not beat me but my sad human body felt so beaten”
her emotionally triggering words
not easy to digest
were characteristic of her style
of candour with no from of censorship.
This was true of Plath too
“dying is an art, like everything else and I do it remarkably well,” she said
her undecorated words carrying the weight of her raw emotions
comprised of thoughts that were never cut short with warnings of discretion
and this is why these unafraid women
with their unabashed thoughts can be made to stand together
and tied with this common thread.
Though each wrote around different circumstances
it seems like they did so with a common sort of head
neither feared breaking free of what society expected them to be.
Fearless women sending shock waves through their honest poetry
while existing in different places
while living different fates.
Both poets also never wrote with some future recognition hopes
more autobiographical in nature
their poetry seemed to be an expression
of thoughts dying to escape from mind to paper
for reasons I have still to explore.
So let’s go back to my earlier question, “Why write poetry?”
or now I ask “Why did Kamala Das write poetry?”
“Why did Sylvia Plath write poetry?”
In “An Introduction” what compelled Das to write down bits of her history?
In “Lady Lazarus” what inspired Plath to not leave the story of her suicide a mystery?
Through their poems they managed to break the male hegemony
Established female poets as being equally worthy.
But in my view it goes deeper than that
Both women were struggling to breathe in their respective culture’s established patriarchy
Both felt a similar sense of helplessness from this male-dominated view.
Society told them what to be
How to be
But never why to be.
The world did not look too kindly upon Das’s wish to write poetry
They initially ridiculed her work and got her married quickly
to an unfaithful husband who broke her heart
but most importantly tried to smother her spark.
Her writing on menstruation, puberty, lesbian encounters
her conversion to Islam
Where just more things the world did not understand about her.
In Sylvia’s case the story went a little differently
born during the great depression
this artist was gifted also academically
Her spiral into madness, her first ingesting fifty tablets
several shock therapies later the world considered her “cured.”
But after a cheating Ted Hughes (her husband)
she succeeded in taking her life before reaching even the age of thirty-two.
Frustrated with their culture’s hypocrisy
poetry was the only creative outlet where these two poets were not bound by rules.
No one could dictate what they could do
and so I speculate these poets wrote
To express themselves
To explain themselves
To explore themselves.
Strong reasons to enter a world of poetry
Not bound by structure
a space for every you and me
Like me, maybe you should try your hand at it
One never knows who the next Kamala Das might be.
Meher Shah is pursuing undergraduate degree in law at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
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Very informative and interesting read
This is so beautifully expressed, with the same raw emotion that espoused these two luminaries’ works.