The finest poets are rarely mentioned or quoted in our society where every Joe loves to quote verses at the drop of a hat. The finest ones are not popular, comes the reply though there is no pat answer to the question. But why aren’t they popular? Because they are the finest, could be one explanation.

Popularity especially in our age hardly depends on quality. Quality in the wider sense denotes the capturing of contemporary experience, both of individual and collective nature, in hitherto unknown linguistic constructions that expand the boundaries of expression.

Contemporary experience means that which in addition to what has been transmitted by previous generations in some form epitomises what is fresh and new as a consequence of changes in society but hasn’t been fully realised and grasped at mass level. The moment a poet accomplishes such a feat he is most likely to diminish his chances of becoming popular. Popularity means appealing to what is popular i.e. pre-existent, grasped and relished that evokes a known response to a known phenomenon. In other words appeal to the lowest common denominator forms the bedrock of mass acceptance of a poet. In order to arouse a laudatory mass response a poet has to not only lower his intellectual level in terms of decoding new phenomena but also couch his expression of it in a language that is loaded with literary bric-a-brac. Hence poetry is no longer creative expression but rather a reiteration, a rehash of what has already been stated.

Popular poetry is a conditioned expression that evokes a conditioned response. Traditional Mushaira [public poetry recital] illustrates the point well. A popular poet at Mushaira usually tends to pause after reciting the first half of his line in anticipation that second half would be completed by a shout from the audience. It happens so because the verses are a product of a formula well known to the audience. Clichés, platitudes, self-evident truths and shibboleths robed in gaudy literary guises are dished out as poetry. A poet who becomes highly popular in his/her lifetime may rightly be suspected to be a peddler selling counterfeit literary wares. The large number of versifiers desperately driven by uncontrollable egoistic desire to be popular love to be shouting peddlers making an already scant place for the finest poets scantier.

Let’s very briefly look at some of the factors responsible for creating such a situation in our times that stifle genuine creative expression and retard its dissemination.

1, Totality of life, gargantuan and forbidding, is such that it’s not possible for an individual to fully comprehend it. It has been made more complex with the increased knowledge the humankind has acquired and accumulated. But still artists and poets in particular try to reflect the totality of life in their creative expressions having experienced the knowable dimension of the unknown that we live surrounded by. But paradoxically the greater a poet’s grasp of totality the poorer are his chances of being understood and appreciated by the masses. Bigger the fragment of totality greater its complexity. Thus a poet’s effort at capturing totality, with a modicum of success, makes him/her more difficult if not inaccessible for the people whose intellectual, cultural and aesthetic level has been kept low in a stratified society.

2, in the historical evolution we have reached a stage of development where things are no longer simple because the nature we are a part of has been discovered as a huge web of interconnections which is neither easy to understand nor to express. The same kind of dimension has come up with advance of science and technology in social life where multiple as well as contradictory experiences impact our life in subtle and not so subtle manners all the time. Making sense of such phenomena forces the creative minds to create unity of experience which means creating meanings by discovering interlinks between what is diverse and contradictory. A poet who is able to reflect the unity of experience in our world becomes doubly difficult to be taken as an entertainer. Poetry being multi-layered and complex becomes demanding.

3, one of the distinctly defining features of contemporary life is its enhanced ability for abstract thinking without which science and other branches of knowledge would not have progressed the way they have. Abstraction is related with the qualitative dimension of human mind. It presupposes and affirms mind’s quantitative dimension but goes beyond it in the sense that it formulates phenomena at theoretical and philosophical levels. Abstraction expresses reality comprehended at a higher level. The higher level intrinsic to abstraction makes it inaccessible to most of our people trapped in the anachronistic modes of thinking. And for good or bad genuine contemporary poetry has a lot of abstraction in it which scares away those who are habituated to responding to poetic expression in a certain way born of oral traditions. It is designed to touch the heart, not to move the mind. So it evokes emotions but fails to provoke reflection. Genuine contemporary poetry laced with abstraction makes huge demands on its listeners and readers. Gulf that exists between poets of contemporary age and audiences gives the traditional poets centrestage by making them popular. To enjoy latter’s poetry one doesn’t need much in terms of cerebral tools and imagination. The popular stuff is jetsam and flotsam of oral traditions in the form of couplet, quatrains [Dohra], descriptive poem and Ghazal [an aggregate of certain numbers of two liners].

Any piece of poetry that demands concentration and focus is considered to be a demand out of bounds. Good poetry in popular imagination should be like ice cream; it must delight your palate the moment it touches it. So kitsch is the rage. The real poetry anyway can hardly be popular stuff. It’s not difficult to look around and differentiate the finest from the popular. Shiv Kumar is popular, Najam Husain Syed is not. Faiz and Fraz are popular, Noon Meem Rashid and Majeed Amjad are not. Fresh poetic experience is hardly self-evident when it is first expressed in a society that prizes the accepted coming from the past. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2020

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