I first heard Arundhathi Subramaniam talk about the role of meditative waiting at a writing workshop in Adishakti. That her words wove their way into my felt understanding of literature won’t surprise anyone who has been to any of her talks. She tends to give unforgettable talks. But this talk had something more. It was one of those moments I wish I owned a printing press so that I could put the author through the mashers, collect them at the other end, return them to the mashers, and so on for several rounds, until the pure sugarcane essence of all that they knew had been collected. She had outlined an approach to writing, a certain technique, as it were, but a technique that didn’t have the algorithmic tedium of technique. It was practical, the way Zen meditation is practical. And it wasn’t phoney, because she clearly lived what she recommended. It was obvious the things she talked about needed to be in print.
Fortunately, time and circumstances have allowed to make that possible, if only in a modest way. It is with great pleasure that we present Arundhathi’s essay on the art of waiting. We hope it’ll be the start of a long conversation.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Waiting for Words
In his poem, ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’, the poet Nissim Ezekiel writes, ‘The best poets wait for words.’
I knew the truth of that insight the moment I read the line at age seventeen. But which poet, which lover, and which birdwatcher has not known impatience as well? After all, time is hideously finite. As a young poet, I knew I had all this stuff I wanted to express, that middle age would be upon me soon, and what could be worse than a middle-aged poet? As a young lover and as a friend to birdwatchers, I knew that careers in love and ornithology were similarly plagued by despair around time. What if the days slipped by, the years, and the decades, without any answer from the beloved, without an experience of reciprocal love, without a glimpse of the golden pheasant or a fleeting darshan of a Bird of Paradise? And as an existential seeker, the impassivity and indifference of time often spelt pure terror. Albert Camus’ phrase ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’ was a haunting companion through my growing years.
There was a reason why reading poems helped, however. And it took me time to realise why.
Poetry changed the way I mapped my world. But even more fundamentally, poetry changed the way I experienced time. I saw how Andrew Marvell’s celebrated phrase, ‘a green thought in a green shade’ could transport me not just to an elsewhereness, but to an ‘elswewheness’. It could make time suddenly feel languorous, delectably vilambit; freeze a moment into an eternally pulsating present.
The Zen poets, whom I devoured hungrily in my teens, did that for me too. ‘Old pond, leap-splash, a frog’ stopped time in its tracks. It shattered not just the surface of a tranquil pond, but my own ideas of causality. In a flash, I could perceive the pond, the leap, the splash, the frog, in all their simultaneity. The poet Basho’s moment of satori was not a purely mystical event; it also made for unforgettable poetry. The beauty of the poem, I realised, lay in the image—its directness, its immediacy, its swiftness. This was what the Zen Buddhists call ‘direct pointing’, and I knew that this was as close as language could ever come to firsthand experience. Basho was a poet who knew how to make time stop, a lurch of the heart live forever.
Dylan Thomas’ description of balloons on the beach—‘a silent hullabaloo of balloons’—stopped me in my tracks at the age of fifteen for a similar reason. I saw how the adroit patterning of sound, the wonderfully unexpected conjunction of the abstract and concrete nouns made the scene happen now. This, then, I realised, was the power of metaphor. It was capable of cutting right through the linearity of discursive thought and plunging me into a direct experience of the moment. It catapulted me, in short, to the scene of the crime. I was not merely a passive listener of a description of a beachside scene; I became an active participant, actually capable of seeing, even hearing, those balloons in all their riotous beauty.
Why, I have often wondered, do I think of the bus in Arun Kolatkar’s book, Jejuri, as a character in its own right? The answer, I realise, is to be found in the image of the bus as a menacing, softly-purring feline, with ‘a live, ready-to-eat pilgrim/ held between its teeth’. The predatory cat image is far more effective than any moral commentary about the hypocrisy of organised religion. This is not a generic bus any longer. This is a very singular vehicle. It is this pilgrim bus. Always on the move, as buses must be. But frozen in time. Intensely particular. And therefore, timeless
And yet, learning to make a moment timeless takes work. Which brings us to the paradox (which also, incidentally, happens to be the title of one of Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi’s poems): eternity takes time. Or as Nissim Ezekiel tells us, ‘To watch the rarer birds, you have to go/ Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow/ In silence near the source…’ In short, you have to be prepared to wait.
What does waiting really mean, anyway?
When I was in my early teens, it was Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ that was inspirational. Later, with a greater understanding of the rigour of the poetic art, I became a staunch votary of poetic craft. I still am. I often think of a poem as a ‘dum-pukht’ utterance. It needs to cook for long hours on a slow fire.
Inspiration and perspiration go hand in hand. And what’s more, both are equally pleasurable. There is joy in hard work, and there is much hard work behind the flash of inspiration.
However, I also began to realise that ‘craft’ doesn’t have to mean endless activity. Craft does not mean gnawing and worrying and constantly whittling away at a poem. There are times when one can prune and tweak to the point when one annihilates the poem entirely. All one is left with is a pale facsimile, a shadow of what could have been. Learning about craft has personally meant, on occasion, learning to keep my twitchy fingers to myself. Learning about craft has meant learning how (and when) to be still.
Much Indian classical and sacred poetry had pointed me in this direction, but I hadn’t quite realised it. As an awestruck young viewer of Indian classical dance, I relished the sensuousness and grandeur of this kinetic idiom, its fluid geometry. But in terms of content, the dance was replete with the figures of women—the age-old nayikas, the heroines—who waited endlessly for their beloveds. That waiting bothered me. And the fact that the beloveds were notoriously faithless bothered me further. What were these sacred love poems all about? Why did they always feature women who pined? Why were these women’s lives so limited and tiresome? Why did they spend such an absurd amount of time moping, looking hopefully out of windows, adorning themselves with flowers and sandal paste? Why were they so incapable of dynamism? Why on earth didn’t they get a life? Those questions were insistent when I was a young viewer.
It took me many years—and a bit of an existential rollercoaster ride of my own—to realise that the condition of ‘waiting’ is integral to all journeys of self-discovery. I also realised that waiting does not have to mean passivity. Human waiting can be a time of dynamic inner preparation, a time of unobtrusive ripening. Crafting a poem, I began to discover, is also about allowing an utterance to gestate, knowing when to turn away. Craft is not merely about strenuous attention, but also the right dose of inattention. The pining female archetype in the poems I abhorred was actually telling me something about the condition of receptivity. The nayika was a reminder that when we go through phases of fallowness, much subterranean activity is actually underway.
There are challenges, of course. Mass consciousness, for one. Mass consciousness tells us that we must keep producing in order to be relevant. It encourages us to mistake ‘activity for achievement’. It also tells us that we are alive only if we have an opinion, and only if we proclaim it louder than anyone else. Bombarded with views and counter-views, fake news and breaking news, voices raised in constant indignation and self-congratulation, the decibel levels are at an all-time high. More disturbingly, the noise is fractious. Battle lines have never been clearer: if you’re not ‘us’, you’re ‘them’. Every argument adopts the ‘either-or’ model: insider or infidel, believer or unbeliever. Whether the domain is political or cultural, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide seems near-religious. In a planet lurching and pitching in tumult, perhaps the need to clutch at opinion as conclusion is not surprising.
In terms of poetry, this din can translate into the temptation to prioritise the quick reaction over the thoughtful response. It can translate into the temptation to put a poem out there even before it’s hatched, even before it’s had time to marinate in its own juices. It can translate into the belief that talking is more important than listening. It can overlook the fact that waiting can be active. That listening can be dynamic.
Personally, my present understanding of creativity stems from a visceral encounter with a silence or a ‘pause’—a period in my life when all language was on hold. But I do believe it is possible to invite the pause into one’s life in other ways, without necessarily being ambushed by it. There are ways, for instance, to make the pause a vital part of one’s poetic practice.
What does this mean, exactly?
As I see it, it is about not being in a hurry to decide where the poem wants to go. Not being in a hurry to round off the poem with a clever line. Not being in a hurry to varnish or gloss the surface. Not being in a hurry to decide what the image is trying to say. (It is never trying to say anything, I remind myself. It is saying it.) Not being in a hurry to give the mike to the chattering surface of the mind, but being willing to hear the more inarticulate language of the darker recesses of the self.
In an informal adda, a poet recently read a poem about an underwater expedition. The poem led listeners into the enchanted depths of the ocean floor. It was a deep-dive into strangeness—into the realm of shadow where nothing is as it seems, a place of dark shapes and live iridescent colour. And then, almost as if he didn’t trust the landscape he had created, he brought in the name of a contemporary politician whom it is fashionable to dislike, and easy to lampoon. The reading elicited instant laughter. Of course, there is nothing wrong with ridiculing a politician (god knows, the tribe seems to invite little else). But for me, this was a conclusion that felt ‘tagged on’, rather than an organic close to the poem. It felt as if the poet hadn’t trusted the journey of the poem, and had settled for easy fluency over real magic. And yet, who hasn’t known this temptation to manipulate an utterance for easy applause? And who hasn’t acted on it? I know I have, and I need to keep reminding myself of its perils.
Poems are aquatic creatures. Only a fraction of their life is above water, lived out in the glare of daylight. Today, I find myself more interested in the darker mainsprings of a poem—its real imperative, its place of origin, greenly mysterious and damp. Why does it want to come up into daylight? Why really does it seek an overwater existence? Where does it really want to go? Craft, I begin to see, lies in shaping and moulding, but also in patiently waiting for the poem to take you to its deepest lair.
When I look back at my own creative journey, I often divide it into three phases. There was first the earliest phase of unconscious articulation—when I wrote with much passion, and a large dollop of self-indulgence. Then came the phase of self-conscious articulation—when I wrote, as a student of literature with much sweaty, laborious craft, often editing myself even before a sentence was out of my pen. And then came what I like to think of as a more conscious phase when I began to write with greater ease in my own skin, more secure in my understanding of form, a little more trustful of my own voice. The first two phases took a long while. And yet, they were vital. I see them now as the long ‘pause’ of apprenticeship without which I would never grown more deeply into myself or been able to make free creative choices.
Yes, poetry is about the artful use of language. But it is not merely about a strategic placement of words. The decluttering of language, I realise, has to be preceded by something more vital: the decluttering of the gaze. The best poets wait for words, Nissim Ezekiel’s poem tells us. To that I would probably add that it is just as important to wait for silences. Personally, it was when I grew more comfortable with pauses, with hiatuses, that words emerged more consciously and, hopefully, sometimes, more compellingly, on my page.
The reason Basho’s old pond, Dylan Thomas’ balloons and Kolatkar’s pilgrim bus are alive is because of their verbal succinctness, their throbbing spareness. But there is a vital difference between distillation and mere economy. Economy is about crafty editing. Distillation is about zeroing in on the heart of the poem. Writing poems doesn’t have to be about savage verbal manipulation. When the gaze is uncluttered, when the silences deepen, one can arrive more effortlessly at the crux of things. While I am an advocate of editing, of weeding away superfluity, I try to remember that a poem is not merely a series of clever effects; it is language at its most alive, its most mercurial, its most scorching. There are times when a poem will simply shrug off the elegant turn of phrase and demand another approach. I know then that I have to back off and return another day with a gaze that is open and uncluttered enough to do it justice. Language in poetry is inflammable stuff; you know you had better treat it with caution.
And so, waiting.
Poems are about waiting because while a shift in perception can happen in a flash, it is often preceded by a slow, unseen process of unlearning. It takes unlearning to defamiliarise the world, to reinvigorate one’s gaze. Poems are about waiting because it takes time to distill language into an utterance where beauty converges with truth. Poems are about waiting because it takes time to move from unconscious articulation to self-conscious articulation, and finally, towards conscious articulation. Poems are about waiting because it takes time to align effort with grace, to align the startling with the inevitable. Poems are also about waiting because when you dive deep into the self, there is a longer pause than you ever imagined between one breath and the next.
Personally, I like to believe I’m learning to fidget less. At least, waiting feels a little less like waiting. It feels more like a dynamic idleness. And that, I’m beginning to realise, is when life happens. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, poems too.
Arundhathi Subramaniam is a leading Indian poet and prose writer on the sacred. She is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including the volume of poems, When God is a Traveller; a recent book of essays on female sacred travellers, Women Who Wear Only Themselves; and the sacred poetry anthology, Eating God. Shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, she is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award 2020, the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Il Ceppo Award in Italy, among others. She has worked over the years as performing arts curator, poetry editor and critic.
Photo credits: Meetesh Taneja