Poetry and Beauty

Aldeburgh sunrisePoetry and Beauty was the theme of talks at The 25th International Aldeburgh Poetry Festival earlier this month: there were variations on the theme through discussions and short talks with Terrence Hayes, Ian McMillan, Vera Pavlova, Katha Pollitt, Karen Solie, Salena Godden, D Nurkse and me.

Is poetry still concerned with beauty?
I begin (as always when I don’t know where to start) with a definition of beauty, and find what I’m looking for in Wikipedia where beauty is defined as a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.

When I think of the poems I love, they give me pleasure and satisfaction, so I’d say beauty is involved.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats, which I carry in my head, is blatantly beautiful – it’s about beauty of place, and beauty is also in the sound of the words, the music of the poem, the images and feelings it invokes.

Another favourite poem is this one by Chris Beckett:

A Daughter and Two Diseases

The woman in the next bed
has a daughter and two diseases:
malaria, like me, and elephantiasis.
Her huge distorted legs lie
beached and bloated on the sheets,
as if they’d been fished out of a lake.
When a fever comes, she shakes
the bed, rattles it on the pipes
until the whole room is ringing.
The skin around her ankles is thick
and pebbled – sometimes it opens
as if cut with a knife from the inside,
and puss bubbles out of the cracks.
Nurses rush to dab and dress her.
She looks at me apologetically,
says something in Amharic, moans.
Her hands are long and delicate,
soft as ostrich feathers – sometimes
she spreads her fingers in a veil
and covers her face as she cries.
In the afternoon her daughter comes,
when the light is starting to fade.
She speaks gently and holds
one of her mother’s beautiful hands.

Perhaps it doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of beauty, but it does mine: a perceptual experience of pleasure and satisfaction. Pleasure in the language and the arrangements of the words on the page. Also sadness is a pleasure for me in a strange way – not because I like to be sad (I’d rather be happy), but perhaps because it’s in the fabric of life, so it’s truthful. And I find satisfaction in the logic and arrangement of the words, but most of all, in the kindness and humaneness of the poet’s gaze.

Anne Carson’s book, The Beauty of the Husband, is described as a fictional essay in 29 tangoes.
Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Anne Carson, I’d have bought the book for the title alone, for the idea of it.
In tango 25 the speaker – the wife – invites us to

…sharpen our eyes and circle closer to the beauty of the husband-
creafully, for he was on fire.
Under him the floor was on fire,
the world was on fire,
truth was on fire.

Earlier, she describes him as

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

Sex brings me to my book, The Courtesans Reply, and the role of beauty in it. Like The Caturbhani which inspired it, TCR is set in the courtesans’ quarter. But instead of the male gaze turned on the beauty of the beloved, as is the case in the Caturbhani, my poems are written from the beloved, the beautiful.
One of the things that drew me to Ghosh’s translation of the Caturbhani, was the women’s delight in their sensuality and sexuality, and also the idea of beauty 2,000 years ago.
Here the narrator, Vita, describes the attending maids of courtesans

…who are like so many standards of victory of the god of love. Their side-long glances are like missiles ready to be released; their broad smiles are revealing their well-set rows of teeth; they speak with an undisguised movement of their eye-brows; their short front-covers are sometimes slipping off due to the plumpness of their breasts…

He then describes the special beauty of the courtesans’ daughters

….who are the store-house of coquetry, whose faces are always adorned with smiles, whose astonished looks are without any pride, whose glossy dark hairs are fine, long and wavy; whose (graceful) gait is slow due to (heavy) round buttocks, and excels that of a maddened elephant in rut…

The brackets are Ghosh’s, not mine, and the image of a rutting elephant recurs often in the text, seeming to be the highest form of praise for beauty.

In my poem, Ramadasi attempts to entice back a lover who has been absent, reminding him of her beauty:

…Undo my braid,
stiff as buffalo horn

and draw your
fingers through my hair.

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
swallows
the bee.

Another courtesan, Sukumarika, is also trying to win back the man she loves, who has gone to another. But as a hijra or mtf transgender courtesan, she doesn’t have beauty to fall back on. So she reminds him of what she, and only she, can offer him:

My dearest, my life,
moon to my night,
remember our happiness?

Recall, if you can,
the equal kiss, Sama,
and the pressed kiss, Pidito.
Aschita, the devouring kiss
and Mridu, the delicate kiss…
Also the inflamer,
the kiss of encouragement,
the awakening kiss,
the vagabond, the joyful
kiss, the vibrant one,
the bowed kiss, the twisted kiss and
the satisfied kiss.

She then moves lower down his body (and if you want to know what exactly she does, you’ll have to read the book).
As well as her art, she offers him herself, her love, which he will not find anywhere else.

Those we love are beautiful to us.
Isn’t it perfect, how that works?

p.s. If there is anyone reading this, what are your favourite poems about beauty, or which encompass beauty for you?

5 Responses to Poetry and Beauty

  1. Philip says:

    Such an interesting article, Shazea! Thank you for it. I wonder if I would notice something, by way of a very small footnote, which is to say that beauty is something that we’re drawn to. We typically say something is beautiful if it is attractive. We go towards beauty, we’re attracted to it like moths to light. It’s not to say beauty is not in us, by no means: we may well be very beautiful. But it’s to make the point that beauty is something outside of us. Something that draws us near. (It might yet be ourselves, something beautiful in us, it draws us nearer towards.) Anyone who’s ever been to an art gallery knows that feeling of seeing something, the Ah! moment (see your earlier post), then the walk towards it. This reminds me of Marianne Moore’s line: “Victory won’t come to me unless I go to it.” Victory, like beauty, requires us to go somewhere.

    • Shazea Quraishi says:

      You’re right, Philip, absolutely. Perhaps we feel beauty has something to do with goodness and purity, though that’s not always true, only sometimes perhaps? I like that line from Marianne Moore – interesting to talk of victory and beauty in the same breath.
      I’d like to feel we humans are not so shallow as to chase beauty that’s empty or without substance – like a cheap goldy veneer on a dull grey ring. I think some beauty changes when you see what’s beneath it, just as some unbeautiful people grow more beautiful the more they reveal themselves.
      Do I know you? i recognise the thought processes. do you like carrots as well as peas?

    • Shazea Quraishi says:

      dear philip,
      i just looked at this again and realised i hadn’t replied to your comment – which is so true! i’ve often wondered at the connection between beauty and goodness… probably it’s coincidental, but i wonder if we equate beauty with goodness. though we have all met beautiful people who have been spoilt by it.. often the stop appearing beautiful.
      Thank you philip for reading and responding with thought.

  2. Manohar says:

    Very interesting poetry, Shazea.
    Have you, by any chance, come across two volumes of literature titled “Women Writing India” Eds. Susie Tharu & K. Lalitha?

    In the introduction the editors talk about a 16th century South Indian courtesan/court poetess called Muddupalani who wrote beautiful sensual poetry in her “Radhika Santwanam” (written in Telugu) in which Radha tries to entice Krishna. Radha and Krishna play humans rather than god/godess. Of course, today this poetry is considered immoral. I think you may get a better understanding of the aesthetic/political significance of such poetry if you look up the introduction of the books I mentioned.

    • Shazea Quraishi says:

      Hi Manohar,
      Thanks for your comment – it’s great to know someone’s reading. The books you mentioned sound very interesting and relevant – I’m going to see if i can track them down.

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