Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel for Literature has brought back focus to poetry and the fluid nature of this form. It drips and falls and fills nooks in uncertain corners of human consciousness. When sung, it makes Nobel laureates out of pop stars, when performed it becomes Anne Waldman, one of the stalwarts of the later Beat poets.
Waldman, who is turning 72 in the next fortnight, encompasses everything from orality to performance to spirituality to feminism in her poet persona while remaining a case study in humility. She, along with Alan Ginsberg, was featured in Dylan’s film "Renaldo and Clara". Waldman toured and collaborated with many other poets during the making of this film and this experience left a lasting imprint on her. In her own words, “I romanticised the possibility of a similar, scaled-down poetry caravan for years.”
Her commitment to poetry has gone way beyond this caravan.
“I’ve been a listener and observer of poetry all my life. It is what opened my sensibilities, even if I could not speculate what the message was,” she casually flung my way while I sat next to her.
ORALITY AND PERFORMANCE
We begin the conversation from the point of origin of poetic form, the oral tradition.
“Most poetic forms, familiar and exotic, the sonnet, sistina from Italy, pantoum from Malay, troubadour poetry, etc, are all based in oral form. All my studies and investigations tell me that they were connected to some form of ritual. Take the villanelle, for example. It comes from villages celebrating the harvest created by farmers. It’s not an upper class aristocratic form. Then you have Dante and his circle developing the sistina which is a more complicated form but again a sung form,” she says.
“Sometimes oral poetry is a mnemonic device. Like the epic form which, of course, is long and complicated. It tells the story of a time and tribe and their wars, accomplishments, and cultures. I love that form because you can play with it. You can have story, you can have poetry, you can have performance, and you can have embedded forms, characters, and histories. The possibilities with poetry by bringing back the oral form and creating some new ones are immense,” says the tireless experimenter.
She adds, “I also write for the page. Some very dense texts which may not be performative but they are part of the web that allows for these moments of arising that turn into a performance. The job of poetry is to have some kind of transportive quality. Whether it’s the mantra or the repetition or intonation, it can create a vault of energy.”
Is this what the Beat generation was trying to do? Creating a vault of energy to be able to deal with the less than ideal world they inhabited? She responds by referring to her closest Beat associate.
THE BEAT GENERATION
“Alan Ginsberg’s works, which come out from Walt Whitman’s works, have a kind of longer breathline of poetry, trying to bring in the whole world and see humanity in all its facets and details. To also scribe one’s own experiences and emotions. I’m a generation younger but the point is that we grew up in the shadow of an atomic bomb and were raised with a sense of cognitive dissonance.”
She stops to catch her breath and continues, “You see your culture, your country involved in the world wars followed by the Vietnam: just always in a state of war. Ginsberg and others had to react to the time. They were coming into their power at a kind of conservative time in America. After WWII, you had this hope and promise of a new time after the war: Everybody could have a job, healthcare, education. A kind of false view because we had not analysed the bigger picture. The Beat generation understood that.”
As my thoughts wander off to "Make America Great Again", she perhaps reads my mind and takes a leap in time. “Look at the idea of European Union. Everyone is expected to get along as one continent but there are so many factions and divisions. Everyone hopes there’s never a war. But the WWII is not so long ago, the situation in the Middle East is so difficult. There was almost a prophetic quality of some of the Beat poets’ works.”
I bring her attention to what personally intrigued me about the Beat poets: The bridges they built between the outer and inner worlds.
'The 50s were strange times in terms of male dominance. In the post-War scenario, men were the heroes. It took a long time for the women writers in terms of publishing, being heard, and being in the discourse' (WION)
Waldman begins a delightful lecture on the Beat poetics.
“It’s very individual, both for the Beat generation and their poetic descendants. Gary Snyder, for example, writes more of nature poetry and has flagged issues like the climate change. He has also been a translator of old Japanese and Chinese texts. There’s a kind of interiority with the choice of his world. He lives in the country, not really a city person. And then you have Jack Kerouac, a novelist writing about his times but also his inner story, his inner emotions, sensitivity, his sense of epiphany, and his encounters. William Burroughs, magician, cutting up language, playing with dark material, playing with dream and nightmare! So prophetic about the control of the State on individual imagination!”
Easy to spot the twinkle in her eyes as she spoke about her poetic comrades.
She continues, “Look at the women! Diane di Prima writes love poems, lullabies, poems on motherhood, her survival poems, and her poems during the Vietnam War. Everyone has been inclusive of the reality, and not just American.” She informs me not knowing that I’m an ardent Ginsberg fan, “Ginsberg travelled all across the world. He wrote many poems with references to India. His famous poem Jessore Road was a very powerful message coming back to America. That poem made the Indo-Pak war very vivid. One might have seen the photographs and the newspapers but Ginsberg was a witness.”
She adds, “There’s something called the documentary poetics. You work with the actual tangible things and transform them into interesting exalted language. There was a kind of urgency in the Beat poets about communicating one’s experience and not being in the ivory tower or away from the world. The latter is fine too. You retreat to work with your meditative self.”
No conversation on the Beat generation can evade the question of women. Where were the women?
Waldman laughs and says, “I’m one of the people who critiqued that there were not enough women on the scene. They were peripheral. There were some women poets like di Prima and Joanne Kyger who achieved some prominence. But now there’s research on many women who wrote and kept journals, memoirs. There’s a bit of adjustment now and they are getting their due.
"The 50s were strange times in terms of male dominance. In the post-War scenario, men were the heroes. It took a long time for the women writers in terms of publishing, being heard, and being in the discourse. I feel grateful for my own position vis a vis my male counterparts. When I first attended the Berkeley Poetry Conference, there was only one woman there. And that was the first thing I thought: ‘WHAT! I will work to change this.’ That’s been part of my job, to help more women to be part of the conversation. I’m glad that facile assumptions like women cannot hold their own intellectually are going away now."
LITERARY AND CULTURAL INFLUENCES
Waldman’s mentoring, collaborations, publishing initiatives have shaped at least two generations of women poets. Who shaped her as a poet, though?
“Doris Lessing and others have shaped the feminist worldview. There’s been a trickle-down effect. So many women have read and studied these texts. Are they also read in translation by Indians?” I respond by telling her that I’ve taught The Golden Notebook and she beams!
She continues, “There are so many women I see as my literary influences. Particularly from the 60s. Look at Adrienne Rich and her gender situation, her being a mother and wife on the cusp of this very critical time. Sixties become even stronger when the women come to their power. They were not exactly building on what went before but it’s a kind of new way of seeing, a new gaze, a new way of experiencing the body. And then there’s Virginia Woolf, of course.”
With the mention of Woolf, a thought suddenly flashes across my mind.
IS POETRY AS A GENRE PAST ITS PRIME?
Waldman doesn't think so.
“So many young and vibrant poets are working beyond the usual trope of solitary poem: A poem that is just there to be read, with a relevant subject matter. There are so many smaller presses, women’s presses that are constantly experimenting. Documentary poetics is very important. When I went to Borobudur in Java, my project The Structure of the World as a Bubble involved researching the Mahayana tradition. I went and understood the architecture. It wasn’t as if I just went there to have a mystical experience and to say how I felt. It had to be more than that. Likewise the Humanity project, investigating the life form that I had an encounter with. Turning that into a sort of symbol of other endgangered species and using humanity as an icon within a kind of mandala in meditation. It’s more than a 100 pages and so is the Borobudur one!"
She elaborates, “I’m not writing single poems that I grew up with: Left hand margin, the page, the title, closure. I’m working with these new forms and exploring there performative aspect. I think the jury is out in the favour of the hybrid forms. Poetry has been around since the beginning of life and human communication, I think it will continue in some form. I don’t know what that form is going to be!"
But what would she want that form to be?
FORM OF FUTURE
“I want it to be this hybrid form. I love to go and be lost in a book that has a form which is interrupted, fragmented. Like finding an ancient text which is partially lost. The way we found Sappho’s poetry. The strips and fragments. The fragment became one of the most important poetic forms in the 20th century. Being in a time when things are getting destroyed, archives will be endangered. The way ISIS is destroying historical, spiritual sites that should be cultural treasures, it’s important that some of these traces remain, even a little fragment. A fragment of a line could maybe open up a whole world.”
Waldman continues with her wishlist.
“I’m also very interested in rediscoveries, re-examination of the old knowledge and gnosis. How things travel and what has driven the poetry, the form, the cosmology, and the rituals. I think there is something that existed back then which can go around even now. I think of the likes of Akhmatova, poets who were oppressed and still found ways to communicate. I’m not sure of the means but as long as we are humans, we shall find them.”
SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL
Waldman’s oeuvre lays a lot of currency on the spiritual aspect of poetry. It felt like a befitting end to this conversation to know her thoughts on the same.
“True spirituality is selfless and a kind of struggle: To let go of your ego. Even the poetry community has this humility. You don’t make much money with poetry. Nobody is asking you to do poetry, it’s not a career move. It takes a certain self-empowerment. It doesn’t make my poetry better if I can throw in some yoga or all these ideas. There’s so much great religious poetry from the past in Chinese, Japanese and Sanskrit that is amazing. I love Mirabai and I love the Sufis. The frequency of their mind changes and yet the thought is steady. I don’t feel devoted that way but there’s another kind of enchantment through sense perception.
"It is only the beginning of Kaliyuga. In these difficult times obviously we need poetry, we need ways to find what’s going around. It can’t just be secular or business talk, or other reductive narrative of communication. It also has to be sight, sound, and play. To be enchanted by them, not pressed by them. It’s important to pay attention to small things and big things. Look at Neruda’s Odes Elementares! There can be no hierarchy of poetic subjects. High or low. It’s okay to write poetry about your shoes,” she points towards my orange shoes.