by Kunwar Narain
Translated from the Hindi by Lucy Rosenstein
Water falling on leaves means one thing
Leaves falling on water another.
Between gaining life fully
and giving it away fully
stands a full death-mark.
The rest of the poem
is written not with words –
Drawing the whole of existence,
like a full stop,
it is complete at any point ...
My poetry class in Bangladesh has taken root: water falling on leaves. I did not know what to expect, or maybe it's more accurate to say I did not know what I was expecting. My students come from five countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Vietnam.
For many, poetry was their 5th-choice writing seminar. The first day, I asked them to repeat in unison the following refrains: Poetry is for everyone! Poetry is not a secret code! Poetry can change people's lives! They complied, but I sensed some lingering hesitation. I took it as a personal challenge: I would make them believe.
That was my first mistake. You can't make someone believe. I soon found out that all the challenge and all the power to believe or disbelieve lies within them, and among them. Tangling with words in a second (or often third or fourth) language, seizing with bare hands the clay of unfamiliar forms and conceits, first in what they read, and then in what they write -- that is their work, not mine.
Students always surprise me with what texts spark something in them (and which ones don't), and why. Here, many of my students have expressed a preference for short poems with words that are simple but powerful but thought-provoking. In their first reflection papers, several cited the above poem by Kunwar Narain. The students appreciated the elegant metaphor of the first five lines, but more than that they responded to poem's invitation to the reader to collaborate, where often longer poems seem to them more sealed off.
There's a kind of trust that a short poem places in the reader to honor each of its few words. I hope to learn to trust my students similarly, that the instruction I offer is enough water to nourish the leaf, but not so much that the downpour loosens the leaf from the growing tree. The rest of the class -- the part that draws the whole of existence -- that's up to them.
(photograph by Jeremy Price)