Flogged, imprisoned, murdered: today, being a poet is a dangerous job | Poetry | The Guardian

The Gujarati poet Parul Khakhar recently received a similar dressing down about her now viral poem “Shav-vahini Ganga” (Ganges, the Carrier of Corpses), in an editorial published in a government-funded journal. It describes her work as “pointless angst expressed in a state of agitation”, going on to say: “Such people want to quickly spread chaos in India … they have jumped into literature with dirty intentions.” Khakhar’s poem is a 14-line lament for the deaths during India’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. She writes how there are no more spots in the crematoria, how India is out of pallbearers, mourners, tears. Narendra Modi, the prime minister, is not addressed directly, but the accusation is implicit: “O King, this entire city has at last seen your real face /… O King, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies flow in the Ganges?”

Khakhar reportedly wrote the poem because she was distressed by the sight of dead bodies floating in India’s holiest river. In April the government decided to bring forward the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela that takes place every 12 years because the astrological configuration for 2021 was deemed more auspicious. Over nine million pilgrims thronged to the Ganges, mostly unmasked, creating the biggest superspreader event in the history of the pandemic. Since early May heavy rains have caused hundreds of corpses wrapped in saffron cloths to wash up on the river banks, some dug from shallow graves by dogs.

Khakhar’s poem and the subsequent editorial, titled “No, This Is Not a Poem, it is Misuse of a ‘Poem’ for Anarchy”, have divided India’s artistic community. Some have questioned Khakhar’s sudden foray into the political, others have said the poem is hardly a masterpiece. More than 150 people have signed a statement asking the magazine to withdraw its editorial, stressing the right to debate contemporary issues through poetry as an important part of a healthy democracy. Khakhar, who has been relentlessly trolled for being “anti-national” and a “demoness”, has locked her Facebook profile and refused interview requests, choosing instead to answer with a new poem: “You Will Not Speak”.

The question of what makes a poem a poem is something that the entire history of literary criticism still hasn’t been able to answer. Because a poet’s entire career can be judged on a single poem floating around social media, it’s easy to knock it down. The late Adam Zagajewski, in his essay “Against Poetry”writes about the uselessness of poets like Shelley writing defences of poetry (which his own essay, of course, also comes to be). “Poets live like the defenders of a besieged citadel, checking to see whether the enemy is approaching and where he’s coming from,” he writes. “This isn’t a healthy way of life.”

Source: Flogged, imprisoned, murdered: today, being a poet is a dangerous job | Poetry | The Guardian