By Vijay Phanshikar :
What is a poet meant to be? Is he a mirror or a lens? Should he picture life or change it? Should he help others escape from reality into fairyland or take them and rub their noses in the grim, gritty mud of the human landscape? Is a poet a radiator, a thermometer or a refrigerator? Or is he none of these things? Is he one who can
crystalise a vision?
I cannot pretend to know. There are many kinds of poet. The poetry that seems greatest has done two things to me, and it has brought to life parts of me which had been buried and it has
created new things in my heart...
-Poet Peter Howard,
in the introduction of his
anthology of poems
‘Above the Smoke And Stir’,
1975, Himmat Publications Trust.
Of poet and poetry OF COURSE, poets have often tried to decipher what they do when they write poetry, in the process giving rise to countless definitions and explanations -- and even apologies. They have also tried to understand the poetic process and have seen themselves in its depths and tentacles and shrinking or expanding labyrinth. But what Peter Howard has done in these few lines is to offer a wide range of questions that the poets and readers of poetry have to explore. In fact, this can be considered to be one of the best efforts to understand the metaphor of poetry.
The abstractism in Howard’s introduction cannot be missed. He has quoted John Milton on the frontispiece of the anthology of what he describes as ‘battle poems’: ‘Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot, Which men call earth ...”. The title of the anthology, thus, stems from Milton’s exclamation. Let alone all that, Peter Howard, a professional football and rugby player who later worked in London’s Fleet Street as a column writer and wrote plays that came up on Broadway and London’s West End, appeared to get drawn into the discussion on what poetry meant and what poets were supposed to be and do. His questions are most legitimate, most harassing and even most embarrassing, to say the least. Yes, poets are so many things at once -- radiators, thermometers, refrigerators, counsellors, instigators, interpreters of life, perpetrators of dark ideas, generators of sublime thoughts ...!
In subsequent parts of the Introduction, Peter Howard also raises the issue of whether one must be a bad person -- immoral genius -- to be a good poet, an idea most would reject instantly. But all these reverberations in Howard’s mind give out the unease he has sensed as he wrote those sensible poems in absolutely simple words that communicated so much of complexity as an outcome. Many celebrated poets have dwelt on this issue time and again. Many of them were great human beings, too, but some of them also had silent but morbid dimensions to their personalities -- that actually did not disturb their poetic expression in the least.
No matter this, poetry in general has often had a great and positive effect on human mind in any language, in all languages. Poetry has been credited with having uplifted languishing human spirit more often than not and shown mankind right way to live -- and even die! Poetry, thus, will always form an integral part of human thought, and poets will always keep thinking deeply about what they are supposed to stand for and live for. That is a smokey zone, so to say, causing a lot of stir in sensitive and sensible minds. Peter Howard’s so-called ‘battle poems’ also display the trait -- of stirring the placid minds into worthy agitations. Smoke and stir!