The gentle poetry of houseplants and familiar spaces
for Mary Oliver, who showed me extraordinariness in the mundane
“A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.” -Mary Oliver
The familiar has always inspired me. Which is not to say that newness does not. The fact is that at a very human level, the known represents comfort, versus the relatively riskier unknown.
In the world of poetry, which has for long been an area of keen interest and where I tend to dwell with ease, the mundane holds an extra special place.
Having gone to a boarding school like Rishi Valley School, where we lived quietly amidst nature, there was time aplenty to absorb the correlation between mundane, everyday occurrences and literature. In the poetry section at the well-stocked library I once spent hours in, I found the right words for every feeling, simple or complex.
Whether it was William Carlos Williams’ This Is Just To Say, where the imagery is factual and evocative:
“I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold”
Or the imagery of Ron Padgett, where he declares romance through the mundane in his poem The Love Cook:
“Let me cook you some dinner.
Sit down and take off your shoes
and socks and in fact the rest
of your clothes, have a daiquiri,
turn on some music and dance
around the house, inside and out,
it’s night and the neighbours
are sleeping, those dolts, and
the stars are shining bright,
and I’ve got the burners lit
for you, you hungry thing.”
In the poems I discovered outside of the school board-approved textbooks, very often, I would feel a heightened sense of relatability, owing to the plainness of the imagery, simplicity of words, and the poet’s choice to write about everyday things like taking a walk or cooking a meal.
At a personal level, I have been confronting the reality and beauty of this mundane these past six months more than ever before after getting my own place in a peaceful part of Cooke Town in old Bangalore. And of course, it reflects in the poems I read and write in this 1BHK.
This probably stems from the fact that for the first time in my life, I am truly responsible for myself and my sanity. I’m the one who has to keep my home clean and cozy for the lone inhabitant or decide when my body needs some Vitamin D nourishment.
I’m also the one who is responsible for keeping the plants alive, which is harder than I thought. How aptly that motherly role is reflected in New Jersey-based poet Jon Lemay’s Ode to Your Plants:
“I had every intention of keeping your plants alive.
I remember how much you laughed when I said,
I can barely take care of myself, for God’s sake,
let alone another living thing—because you knew
it was true.”
The very nature of such solitude and independence also makes space for a constant flow of thoughts and feelings, for which one needs to make time. In what somewhat resembles a daily routine, there are often bursts of creativity and outpouring, which tends to take the form of poetry.
One of the first few mini-poems in the new place was quite simply:
Hot slice of toast
Life is great.”
At the core of it, it only requires a willingness to put the words floating around in one’s mind on paper for the act to give you respite.
Recently, during a teary-eyed drive to the airport, I dealt with the pain of saying goodbye to my life-changing two-year-old niece by writing down a poem for her:
“Every time I visit home,
The dreadful parting awaits.
Each time, the bond is stronger than ever before
The laughter shared between us louder,
The silliness amplified,
The flying kisses more constant.
How is a fragile being like myself
Who has just been reminded what being human is all about
Supposed to leave those badaami eyes
Brimming of old wisdom and young curiosity?”
When it comes to poetry, one needs to observe the world around us, absorb the sights, scents, sounds, and then allow the processing to happen through words. You needn’t be a wordsmith for this to happen; the simple act of being present could suffice.
The imagery in Vidya Panicker’s Aftermath of a departure, for instance, effectively communicates the feeling of loss through the poet’s palate and choice of words:
“I tried frying okras the way you did
It left a burning taste in my mouth, the taste
that reminded me of the year we went to Ooty
and had corn cob roasted on hot coal
You squeezed lemon on it to remove the bitterness of cinders,
a trick that might or might not work on my okras”
On the other hand, Sunil Bhandari’s poem Breakfast with Dad uses the exactness of a memory with his father to evoke a similar sense of impending loss:
“He asks me why the birds are knocking
on the window, and whether I
should talk to them. I say “Of course”,
and let the open skies in.
Indulge him, the doctors said.
I tell him “I will not go to office today.”
He asks nothing, but smiles. Today
we will silently see the clouds drift by.”
What is interesting is that while some mundane poems may be fictionalised, there is no willing suspension of disbelief needed, i.e. no reason to deviate from the reader’s perception of reality, as the poem borrows from hyperreality, resulting in said relatability.
As the great Mary Oliver writes in her poem Every Morning:
“I read the papers,
I unfold them and examine them in the sunlight.
The way the red mortars, in photographs,
arc down into the neighbourhoods
like stars, the way death
combs everything into a grey rubble before
the camera moves on. What
dark part of my soul
shivers: you don’t want to know more
about this. And then: you don’t know anything
unless you do.”
I also find it comforting how a haiku, by virtue of its structure and brevity, encapsulates the mundane in the most extraordinary ways.
As the haiku poet Basher writes,
"The tree frog chorus
Wakes me with the rising sun.
Those noisy bastards!"
Closer to home, Gautam Nadkarni reflects the same sentiments in his haiku:
“at home –
only the mosquitoes
A lot of Japanese thinking and poetry is also inspired by anthropomorphism, or the belief that everything has a spirit within, a fact that is revered by their poets. As Chōshū writes:
“The moon in the water;
Broken and broken again,
Still it is there”
(Trans. R. H. Blyth)
In all three instances, the poets have nature and themselves for company, which to many, is more than ample! In these cases specifically and in poetry at large, loneliness or the state of aloneness, however one chooses to look at it, becomes the poet’s strength. In a world where even frogs and mosquitoes can inspire the flow of words, one tends to pay closer attention to the things that make them human.
I particularly love how Ellen Bass captures this feeling in her poem Waiting For Rain:
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror.”
As lonely as the place that such lines come from may be, the poems serve the exact opposite purpose: they connect the reader to something universal and deeply human.
The gift of the gab is precious, even more so when one can make the ordinary seem extraordinary. The great Billy Collins has always been inclined to this, and his love for the mundane can be seen in the sheer volume of poetry he has written about the most unusual things - from what dogs think to old men eating alone in Chinese restaurants:
In my personal favourite poem by Collins named Purity, he shares with the reader the conditions needed for his writing to flow:
“My favourite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a cold pot of tea.
Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.
Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.”
Finally, it is the quality of empathy, a oneness with the world and oneself that helps a poet dive headfirst into writing about the seemingly mundane. This is something I strong believe in from my own experiences as a poet, and by reading others’ poems on a regular basis.
In the poem Air Empathy, one of my favourite poets Jeffrey McDaniel brings out this point rather eloquently:
“On the red-eye from Seattle, a two year-old
in the seat behind me screeches
his little guts out. Instead of dreaming
of stuffing a wad of duct tape
into his mouth, I envy him, how he lets
his pain hang out.”
How easily the poet empathises with the need to express, which he is reminded of on a long flight from Seattle. What I absolutely love about these lines is not the mastery over words but the simple act of having chosen to write down what he felt in that moment. To me, that is the magic of the mundane - that nothing is too underwhelming for inspiration to strike, making it the best way to live poetry.
To end this essay, I seek solace in Raymond Carver’s poem Late Fragment:
“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
Rohini Kejriwal is a writer, poet and a curator based out of Bangalore. She is always up for a good story, travel, strong coffee and the company of plants. She runs a curated newsletter+platform called The Alipore Post to promote art, poetry, photography and music.