Cerebral Fodder

January 2004



The Writer and the Reader

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

—William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
Poetry should help, not only to refine the language of the time, but to prevent it from changing too rapidly.

—T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Poetry anyone? Here's what I think is likely close to the truth about our relationship to poesy.

Most of humanity—including lovers of poetry—reads prose most of the time, and likely prefers to do so. Imagine a poetry-lover who somehow ended up in prison, and one form of punishment was that he'd be given no reading material except poetry—my guess is that he'd probably go mad and scream out his demands for frequent doses of plain prose, however mundane it might be!

My friend, Dilip Chitre, among the dozen most accomplished poets in India, and a prolific bilingual (Marathi & English) poet, even finds himself reading and writing prose most of the time. Poetry is hardly effective when it comes to discourse. The odd few may of course eschew the discursive altogether and take the risk with poetry alone. Some may write poetry but read mostly prose, whereas others may write prose but read poetry most of the time. Instances of someone completely giving up prose for poetry must be rare, but the reverse is common. Then there's poetic prose, with any number of great practitioners, including the likes of Henry Miller, Vladimir Nabokov, or the lesser known John Hawkes, George Konrád (Hungarian) and Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portuguese).

Yet to sound 'prosaic' takes on a pejorative meaning.

Music has often been thought of as the highest form of expression, the condition to which all art aspires. Close on its heels is poetry, combining as it does the passion, drama and emotion in the sheer 'sound' and rhythm of words, the evocative nature of the 'image' in graphic words, and the hint of transcendence that its brevity implies. A good poem uplifts me as prose never can—unless it is by someone like Nabokov. But I wouldn't forsake one for the other.

In Shakespeare's time drama was in verse form, and the audience tuned right in. Imagine today's plays in verse: the audience would dry up in no time.

Anyway, here's a 'prosaic' poem about the writer and the reader, both engaged in their own way with literature, be it creative or discursive, fiction or non-fiction. It looks at the business of writing and how it creates a bond of mutual necessity with the act of reading.

Writer and Reader

It’s when the writer and reader meet
That the contract is complete
As a man needs a woman
A writer needs his reader
Or else he remains a virgin
One cannot consummate without the other

A reader strips down a writer
A reader neuters a writer:
He takes the macho out of him
He is the key to his lock

So I prefer to write
Not about writing and writers
But about reading and readers
For even when a writer reads out loud, both he and the listener become readers
Haven’t we heard of the serious reader as writer?

Writers often become writers because they read
But don't like what they read
They wish to write something they would themselves like to read
And thus to honor the ‘reader’ within them
The aim of all writing, good or bad, may be to become a good reader
All in the humble service of the reader
And so things will continue to be written so long as that reader is out there, alive and hungry

When someone worthy writes
I’m proud to be a reader
Nay, honored to be one
As he draws me into his world
He moves me but not so I reach for my pen
A bad writer makes me reach for my pen
Because I can’t reach for a gun
And there you have it: the itch to write
When it’s not an inner drive

So, again, when I read a good writer
I’m proud to be a reader
My first instinct is not to grab a pen
But to nurse the unpopular ambition of becoming a great reader
To be as good a reader as the writer is a writer
For I know how painful it must feel to be unread
Books sleep most of the time
A good reader wakes them up

We often say: he’s a great writer; do we ever say: he’s a great reader?
The great reader must remain unsung
Or else he ceases to be one
When the contract is complete, I feel blissful and blessed
And perish the thought of writing
I worry not, I care not
That I didn’t write a word
For in my mind I have already written many

Jayant Deshpande


I cannot resist a concluding note:

Become a good reader first; all else matters little. To be a reader is as, or more, important. Could a writer ask for a better compliment? After all, what does a writer need? At least one loyal reader to make it worthwhile—any more are a bonus that keep the wheels of commerce humming. Not everyone is, or can be, a writer. But almost everyone can become a reader. And a good one at that. So long live 'that' reader.