Live Poet’s Society

In a recent article in the New York Times, I read something that spoke to me: That the modern educational system unfairly castigates the art and value of memorization to the bin of uselessness. By focusing on the learner’s “creativity”–her presumed innate ability to produce original thought and content–the system believes that other people’s words play absolutely no role in fashioning forth the learner’s expressivity.

Yet, as Molly Worthen points out, memorizing poetry, for instance, helps inculcate sophisticated thoughts and language in us, giving the memorizer “better words to make sense of themselves in their world,” that’s getting increasingly infested with the “phony free verse of Twitter and texting.”

Furthermore, Worthen argues that “a poem learned could be a lifeline–to grapple with overwhelming emotion or preserve sanity amid the brutalities of prison and warfare.”

Memorizing poetry by heart is something that I didn’t particularly enjoying doing as a grade-schooler, but it was part of our curriculum. In other words, I had to memorize poems, ranging from Wordsworth to Auden to Shelley, Byron, Keats, and the inimitable Shakespeare (I also learned Renaissance Petrarchan Sonnets by heart, just to impress my teachers by a display of my prodigious memorizing capacity). There were also the poems of the poetic icon of the (mine) Bengali world: Rabindranath Tagore.

After memorizing poems, I had to reproduce them verbatim to get good grades. A missed line, a forgotten word, would elicit sniggers from classmates and a downgrading from teachers. It would be a humiliating experiencing.

But there would also be a pleasurable component to the experiencing of memorizing poetry: a sense of empowerment that inexplicably grows into you when you find yourself as the vessel, as it were, of the best forms of expression by some of the greatest wordsmiths and Janes of Western and non-Western literature.

As a 3rd grader, I was asked to perform a poem, Rabindranath Tagore’s “Veer Purush,” in front of my entire school population, inclusive of students, teachers, and the principal. I was asked to memorize this longish poem which I didn’t relate to as the subject matter and the poem’s protagonist were far removed from my life experiences and emotional landscape. Yet, I girded my loins and spent hours memorizing “Veer Purush,” painstakingly, writing down the lines to imprint them on my memory.

“Veer Purush” emanated seamlessly from me, as I stood on stage and began with those memorable utterances of a young boy, Khoka, who fantasizes saving his mother from marauders as both son and mother undertake a long journey through foreign lands: “Mone Koro Jeno Bidesh Ghure, Maake Niye Jaachi Onek Dure” (“Imagine as if journying through the vast expanses of a foreign land, I am taking my mother far far away into unknown territories”). I remember, floating into a strange matrix where I lost awareness of who I was, so wrapped up I was with the delivery. Starting off as a nervous nelly, I emerged into the light of a well-performance–a pudgy little girl in pigtails expressing the thoughts of a wiry, “good son” figure who imagines battling demons just to prove his loyalty to his mother.

When I finished, the gathering broke out into a loud round of applause.

The memory of the memorization still stands like a rock in my mind.

Since coming to the U.S. I have stopped memorizing, falling prey to the myth of how debilitating to creativity and intellectual growth rote memory can be.

Now I am thinking of memorizing poems again, for the sheer fun of it.


Poison and Policy

In light of the recent events in Charlotsville, New York Times columnist and writer, Charles Blow makes a valid point: Donald Trump gives “articulation” to the American White Nationalists’ most virulent racist hatred, but it could be “too simplistic, too convenient, to castigate only Trump for elevating these vile racists.”

Blow argues that the blame for Charlotsville lies at the doorsteps of the Republican party that has for decades, perhaps since the passage of the civil rights act of 1964, danced the “devil’s dance” with the racially intolerant groups of the country by “providing quiet sufferance” to them.

He cites the instance of policies that were crafted during Richard Nixon’s regime; the poison of racism, claims Blow, was baked into the policies. One such “policy” jumped out at me: the war against drugs. In hindsight, the anti-drug “war” was a covert policy launched to disrupt the fabric of African American community.

Nixon started the “war” in 1971. Writes Blow that the war was a poisonous policy: “The policies are the poison.”

A confession by John Ehrlichman in an interview to Harper’s Bazaar, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser and a Watergate co-conspirator, reinforces the administering of such poison by the GOP:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Poisonous indeed.




A Poem Against Hate

Sherman Alexie has said what I believe in: the true test of one’s ability to love, with sincerity is the stranger. It’s easy to love one’s own “DNA;” it’s darn simple to be a decent parent, but to care for a stranger requires discipline and a re-conceptualizing of love as a force that’s more unrestrained and generous.

Here are a few memorable lines from the poem, “Hymn“:

But how much do you love the strange and stranger?
Hey, Caveman, do you see only danger

When you peer into the night? Are you afraid
Of the country that exists outside of your cave?

Hey, Caveman, when are you going to evolve?
Are you still baffled by the way the earth revolves

Around the sun and not the other way around?
Are you terrified by the ever-shifting ground?

But of course, our present Voldemort is the Caveman, to whom the poet ascribes no love but only gall:

Hey, Trump, I know you weren’t loved enough
By your sandpaper father, who roughed and roughed

And roughed the world. I have some empathy
For the boy you were. But, damn, your incivility,

Your volcanic hostility, your lists
Of enemies, your moral apocalypse—

All of it makes you dumb and dangerous.
You are the Antichrist we need to antitrust.

Or maybe you’re only a minor league
Dictator—temporary, small, and weak.

You’ve wounded our country. It might heal.
And yet, I think of what you’ve revealed

About the millions and millions of people
Who worship beneath your tarnished steeple.

Those folks admire your lack of compassion.
They think it’s honest and wonderfully old-fashioned.

They call you traditional and Christian.
LOL! You’ve given them permission

To be callous. They have been rewarded
For being heavily armed and heavily guarded.

You’ve convinced them that their deadly sins
(Envy, wrath, greed) have transformed into wins.

The American Dream is an Ideal

As the New York Times reminds us, the meaning of the phrase “American dream” has become saturated with the toxicity of ugly materialism. Yet when James Adams coined the term in 1931, he had meant the “American dream” to be actualized on a moral, rather than a monetary plane. Home ownership and possession of cars larded with technical trinkets were not part of the promise of America in Adams’ “The Epic of America”:

[The American] is the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and recognized by others for what they are.