John P. Matthew
Why did you want to be a poet?
The decision was spontaneous, not one made as planned, or foreseen. I have a Mahakavi (Mahakavi Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan) in my family who wrote in Malayalam and naturally I ended up reading poetry. The real trigger was an English teacher in Secondary School who romanticised poetry and poets. This teacher inspired me to experiment with the poetic form. This led to more reading and contributing to a slew of magazines that featured poetry in those days: Illustrated Weekly of India, Youth Times, Mirror, Debonair, Imprint, Onlooker, Caravan, et cetera. Most of these magazines are extinct except Caravan. Today, when I think of those days, there was great interest in Indian poetry in English and there were many talented poets. I don’t know where they have disappeared.
Who is your model for your style?
My style is eclectic and I draw inspiration from a lot of poets. I write both rhyming and free-form poetry, and also classic poetic forms like Odes, Sonnets, and Villanelle. Recently I wrote a Villanelle in the style of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that night.” My poem is called, “If Death Comes Calling Tonight.” I am inspired by the romantic poets and also poetry of Whitman, Keats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and closer home Tagore, Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Jeet Thayil, etc. This is not by any means exhaustive.
What is the usual process you adopt before writing a poem?
To be honest, there is no process. I don’t plan to write a poem on this or that subject. I always carry a notebook and pen with me. Some of my best poems have come to me as whole stanzas on my morning walk and, I seize the opportunity and write it down immediately. Then the process of developing the rest of the poem comes, and it evolves into what I post on online social media and on my poetry blog.
How do you distinguish between poetry and non-poetry?
I agree that the internet has generated a lot of interest in poetry, I must also state that most of what you read online is not poetry. Many of them are expressing their internal angst and their obsession with the self by creating violent and disturbing images. I think poetry should move away from the self into neutral territory to be of true aesthetic value. Personally I think poetry – and all literature – should move out of self-obsession, subsume the self, and reflect the state of existence we live in. Our lives have become so complicated that trying to capture its intricacies has become very difficult. A novel, a short story, a poem has the potential to do that. However, interest in the novel, the poem, and short stories – three of my favourite artistic expressions – has been waning. When a writer makes a sincere attempt to reflect society, we should admire it, not denigrate it. However, we live in a standardised society which worships success and makes celebrities out of successful people. By successful people I mean actors, sportsmen, and politicians. The days when writers and poets were admired and revered are gone.
What fundamental misconceptions about poetry irritate you and how would you correct or refute them?
It is said that unlike prose – for which you have to work very hard – poetry should come naturally, like a star falling from the skies. And, I will vouch for this, when you are mature in your writing, whole lines, and stanzas will form in your mind without much effort. The problem is when a writer sits down saying; I am going to write a poem. Then the effect is laboured and full of artifice. And some of these efforts are un-editable and irredeemable. So instead of getting irritated it is best to let it pass and hope the poet realises where he/she is going wrong.
How does a poem come into being?
As I have mentioned, it can be triggered by a thought, something I pass when I am walking, or something I watch from my terrace. I know poetry, and its accomplice music, which I believe is an attempt to capture what is beautiful about this life, are eternal, and everyone has these fleeting inspirations to capture what is beautiful. So for me poetry exists all around me. In scientific terms, there is a point when the magma transforms into rocks inside the earth. That’s the point at which I make a note and, at home, I go through the note and decide if there is a poem in there.
How does the timeless appeal come to poetry?
Poetry of a time and age has a timeless appeal. No longer. At least, in India. Today, when I want to buy an epic poem written by my great uncle Puthencavu Mathan Tharakan, there’s nowhere I can get it. I have hunted it in bookshops and online, but they appear nowhere. I want to buy Nissim Ezekiel’s poems, Dom Moraes’ poems, I can’t get them anywhere, except, maybe, a few poems in some anthology. Like I said before, from the seventies to now, a whole generation of talented poets have come and gone. Today we don’t remember any of them except a few. Therefore, in the present context, in India, poetry has no timeless appeal.
What is the fundamental as well as essential nature of poetry? Does it change over time?
Wordsworth said poetry is, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." I would go to say that everybody is a poet. Yes. Everybody has poetry and a poet in them. I have seen people humming tunes, people drumming tunes, people looking and exclaiming, “how beautiful.” The trained poet gives shape and form to this spontaneous overflow of feelings through skills in language and by long exposure to poetic forms. Rhyme is an essential part of poetry everywhere. Poetry in Kerala is rhymed on the first word, a word in the middle, or, the end word. For example here’s a verse from poet Kunchen Nambiar:
Nabi arennu chodichu,
Nabi kettathu kopuchu,
Now coming to the question of has poetry changed, yes, poetry has changed over the years. What was strictly iambic pentameter has become a loosely connected tapestry of vivid images these days. Punctuation canons are flouted, as poets see no point in wasting thought over it. The result is an amorphous collation of images, somewhat, personal and shocking in nature. Fixed form poems like odes, villanelles, and sonnets aren’t written these days, because they are rather difficult to write and takes weeks to perfect. The idea these days is to be spontaneous and never mind the form.
What is most important in poetry? What makes a genuinely great Poem?
Take for example Wordsworth’s Daffodils, Frost’s The Road not Taken, and Dylan Thomas’ villanelle Do Not Go Gentle into the Good Night, Keats’ Ode upon a Grecian Urn. These are great poems that have withstood the test of time. A poet these days need to experiment with form. There are a few poets in India who are experimenting with form, and I love to read them. I must admit they are quite few in number.
What is the relationship between poetry and truth?
Well, to me poetry must be the truth, because if you write something false the insincerity would be quite obvious. Poetry is not something you fabricate as you do fiction. It has to occur naturally, through a vision of truth and beauty, delicately woven by the poet into words.
What is the relation between tradition and innovation in poetry?
There have been many traditionalists in poetry and many innovators. Among traditionalists I include the romantic poets, sonneteers, ode, and villanelle writers. Innovators are e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Allan Ginsberg, Shel Silverstein and others who showed us that poetry can be written in a different format.
In India, in my mother tongue Malayalam, poetry is still sung and is not recited. Malayalam poets almost all have great deliveries and singing voices. They don’t mumble like some Indian-English-language poets. Poetry reading is an art and poets must cultivate this art.
Can poetry counter the paralyzing effect of globalization?
I don’t know. Poetry may have been the agent of change many years ago, but its role has diminished in the use-and-throw world. People are no longer drawn towards poetry the way they were used to. We have globalised very fast, but poetry hasn’t kept up. We have these literary festivals in which hardly any poets are featured. Of course, there are poetry slams and poetry readings, but the audience has been dwindling. Maybe, poets should reinvent themselves for their art to survive to the next century.