Saturday, December 31, 2005

The American Poet, in Burdwan

There are poems on the Op-Ed page of the NYT today.

The one that stands out to me is "The Beautiful Quickness of a Street Boy," by Yusef Komunyakaa, a well-known African-American poet. It is based on an experience he had during his recent trip to India, where he had trouble getting a persistent child beggar to leave him alone, so he gave the child a rose. The child, delighted with the flower, promptly walked across the street and sold it to someone else.

That street boy,
as if he sprung out of me,
out of another time,
is still pleading with everything
he knows

Read the whole poem here.

Goutam Dutta, who hosted Komunyakaa during his visit to Bengal, wrote about this incident in Callaloo this past summer, and even wrote his own poem about it. (Callaloo is behind Project Muse, so I can't give a link.) Here is Dutta's version:

On January 25 we went to Howrah Station (the Grand Central Station of Kolkata) to catch a train to Burdwan, a large rural town about seventy kilometers from Kolkata where we had two programs scheduled. Burdwan is almost at the midpoint between Kolkata and Shantiniketan, and the train reached the town by noon. We were greeted by Rotary club members and little girls who gave us garlands and red roses.

The whole group was split up into several cars for the trip to the venue for our first scheduled program. Yusef, Subodh, and I squeezed into a tiny Hyundai. But before the car could move, it was surrounded by child beggars who, having recognized Yusef as a "foreigner," started asking him for money. I gave him what local coins I had, and he gave them away as fast as he received them. But there was one seven or eight-year-old boy who just would not go away. With no more coins to give, Yusef gave him his red rose. The boy took the flower and was elated. He examined the rose and started to dance as he crossed the road. Before we understood what was happening, the boy sold the rose to a very young man waiting at the bus station.

We three poets speculated on this incident together. I said there must be a woman involved. Yusef laughed and said he would write a poem about this experience.

One problem with Komunyakaa's poem is of course its basic theme. How many picturesque poems about beggars does one need or want? Is there any way to write about this and find something new in it?

On the other hand, it's real: it happened, so one could argue that it's fair game for poetry. (Though it's interesting that Dutta's and Komunyakaa's accounts of the event differ significantly) Also, Komunyakaa has a history of writing about inequity and poverty -- in the American context at least -- in his poetry. For example, see the poem "Believing in Iron," at

We'd return with our wheelbarrow
Groaning under a new load,
Yet tiger lilies lived better
In their languid, August domain.
Among paper & Coke bottles
Foundry smoke erased sunsets,
& we couldn't believe iron
Left men bent so close to the earth
As if the ore under their breath
Weighed down the gray sky.

What do you think? Is it simply impossible for an American traveler in India to avoid clichés when writing about poverty in India? Does Komunyakaa circumvent the dangers of this kind of writing by virtue of his particular account in this new poem ("The Beautiful Quickness of a Street Boy")?


F.E. Wright said...

Yes, I think it is impossible, or at the very least, very unlikely. For the same reasons that Indian travelers in America would probably find it difficult. I mean, doesn't it take a certain depth of knowledge about a particular context of poverty to reveal something unique in it?

2:55 PM  
Anonymous said...

It is a refreshing thought that you are trying to encourage the poet to think contrafactually!

However, it strikes me as odd that, with the exception of movie makers like Ray, Mrunal and Benegal, most Indian artists choose to ignore the gloomy side of child poverty, as if it were an all too old cliche.

In this light, the American traveller's eyes probably bring a fresh zephyr to the literature in our context.

- archie

3:17 PM  
William S said...

I'd say he manages it only insofar as sympathy blends into identification, and that I think he has not pulled off perfectly. I had to think to myself: did he himself have a childhood like that? The incident itself could involve any child, poor or not. I'd say it is difficult to avoid cliches because many simply do not have any sort of sophsticated framework for understanding the significance or nature of poverty. You can only get so far by describing the suffering or hysterical hope or simple-minded joyfulness or quiet wisdom of individuals living in poverty. Moral imagination, or just sympathetic imagination, is not suffecient to make reflections on these situations pieces of art.

7:40 AM  
noblekinsman said...

I can't help but consider komunyakaa's dead indian son, especially in the little passage you quoted. The question as to how many more poems to write about beggars is answered by how many more people will see a beggar and express the impression.

12:35 PM  

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