Prose and Poetry

A good life demands both prose and poetry....

I am reminded of an erstwhile Governor of New York, at one time a Presidential hopeful, Mario Cuomo. He famously advised politicians to “Campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”

For our newly minted current President, Donald Trump, it’s always campaign season. He makes policy, manages our myriad concerns, treaties and worldwide commitments by tweets and extreme eruptions – voluble, volatile, often self-contradictory but mercifully and tersely compact.

My mind longs for saner times, when policy gurus and canny politicians set us up for whatever the world dumped on our plates. Many of their utterances wrapped some truisms succinctly, briefly, even wisely. But President Trump’s soundbites are tons more colorful, even incendiary.

Certainly, hearts are easier nabbed by poetry than prose. Some prose captures the mind and dances rhythmically like the best poetry, while some poetry turns to ashes as you read it – like clumsy maladroit prose. Keep in mind that poetry is more than awkward versification.

Sometimes I have advised young couples at their nuptials that a wedding is done in 15 or 20 minutes, no matter the religion or the mandated ceremony, but making a marriage out of a wedding takes a lifetime and more. 

To me therein lies the difference between poetry and prose.

Falling in love, like a wedding, is poetry; prose would be making a life or even making a living, even if it reads like blank verse or doggerel. Prose demands a critical eye and constant tweaking. Poetry offers a plateful of hidden connections and meanings that enchants while it titillates our inner core.

 A good life demands both prose and poetry. Poetry is the dream that makes you want to fly, prose is the effort to make the dream come true.

“We the people...” (the preamble to the American constitution) is poetry, as is all the writing in Guru Granth. In Meeri-Peeri, a defining doctrine of Sikhi, Peeri is poetry Meeri is the prose. Translating and interpreting the Guru into life-defining reality, like a societal contract, is prose. The ingredients would be social equality, racial, cultural, religious, gender and ethnic sensitivity, thus creating a greater, more inclusive society.

History attests that such a mix may deliver both good and evil, carrying as it does both the potential of a TNT explosive device, and also the wherewithal to unshackle the untold progressive human potential.

Ergo, the path is often messy. It echoes the time-worn advice to enjoy the sausage but never explore how it is made; that will repel all curiosity. For poetry or prose the devil is in the details and rests somewhere between the two.

The awesome beauty of flying machines that can deliver us from one end of the Earth to the other is sheer poetry. (Hmmm… does the shape of the earth allow for any ends or corners?) Prose is most of humanity’s achievements that stem from centuries of blood, sweat, tears – even failures. Now when we celebrate them, only the poetry of the phenomenon remains; its prose has become more effort than enjoyment, and is perhaps long-forgotten.

That brings me to the poetry and prose at the structural framework of Sikhi and an associated dilemma. The Guru Granth is all poetry; translating it and internalizing its message is the prose. 

So, then, what exactly is our relationship to a gurdwara service? 

Music is seductive and keertan is all music, hence the heavy attendance at keertan, even if only a few seem to be in dedicated listening mode. Music has a self-hypnotic quality; it grabs the listeners even while they nod in joy or sleep (relaxing?) a bit. The heaviest attendance occurs at langar – the meal served gratis (without charge) at the end of every service in every gurdwara worldwide. This sates the physical hunger. Socializing, invoking the community’s interactive need, is poetry; that deserves and catches the crowd as well.

However, during katha — the exposition of history or a reading from Sikh sacred literature — the focus precipitously falls and often disintegrates. Why? Celebrating the message is poetry, living it is prose. Working and living the message demands examining its connection to life, even though the language is not always user-friendly, and many sermons seem unconnected to life. Interest plummets to rock bottom. 

Normally, this is where moral lessons of poetry come to us in the dubious gray of prose, hence they elude us. Prose doesn’t quite hold us as poetry does. So, we hear the message without really listening and being clued in to it.

We need to discover habits where Gurbani is both celebrated as life’s poetry and equally treasured as its essential prose. Only then will the human heart dance to the moral imperatives of a life steeped in Gurbani.

Copyright: mizar21984 / 123RF Stock Photo

IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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