The connection between poetry and social science is poorly understood. Social scientists aim to capture people’s experience of the world around them in its fullness. But the particular manner in which poetry articulates with people’s shifting ideas, and how this articulation in turn relates to wider social and environmental change is a topic that has not been researched in the depth that it warrants.
I have found poetry repeatedly illuminating in my attempts to understand transformation in India. During fieldwork in rural western Uttar Pradesh in the early 2000s I came to recognise the significance of a set of young people – mainly men –spending long periods back in their villages after finishing education, often without gainful employment. These young people spoke of the feelings of loss and disenchantment that accompanied unemployment.
I became aware of this pervasive atmosphere of demoralisation not during an interview or while conducting a survey, but when a young man gave me a poem. The man was named Rakesh Singh and he’d spent twenty years in formal education in the hope of acquiring a post in the police. Alarmed by the mismatch between his status as an educated person and his situation – hanging out in the village – Rakesh had become despondent and cynical. He said that he was just ‘passing time.’ He had written:
Where are they now: the beautiful village and the shade of the banyan, peepal and neem trees?
Where are they now: the peaceful neighbourhood, fun among friends, cheep daal and roti?Where are they now: children’s games, harmony among friends, oil from the oil-cake?Where are they now: the village grandmother and king and queen of fairytales?Where are they now: a mother like Parwati, the cream of the milk and all good in the world?
The theme of longing for a lost rural landscape emerged in many interviews I carried out with educated unemployed youth.
Rakesh’s poem became the inspiration for a new project I conducted five years later on the politics of youth joblessness, this time in urban India.
During that project I collected new poems. Indeed, I found that one of the key ‘heroes’ of a class of educated unemployed youth in Meerut City, north India, was a lecturer and poet at the local university.
I was also struck by the importance of poetry in low caste politics. Radical Dalit (formerly ‘untouchable’) poets were lead figures in processes of resistance in the city.
Poetry was also woven into university life in interesting ways, often recited at end of year celebrations for example or during spontaneous talent shows on campus.
I have found poetry to be a rich source of insight in my wider work as a geographer. The connections between poetry and landscape have been discussed at length in the excellent work of colleagues at the University of Nottingham, for example. While not strictly speaking a geographer, Kristin Ross’s paper on Rimbaud’s poetry and the 1870 Paris Commune is remarkable.
On a more personal note, I have occasionally found poetry a helpful complement to academic work. This is one I wrote a few years ago (originally published in The Oxford Magazine), inspired by the poems about mood and landscape I’d encountered in India:
A thin reed of water
Weeps from an underground rockPress your ear against the forest floorTo hear its pearlAs feeble as the sound of a long-trapped animal.
But if you part the tendrils of the bracken lower down
Carefully, as if you’re combing someone’s hair,You will find a copper poolWhere insects fine as puppeteers’ threadsDent the wobbling meniscus
And you will stand dumbstruck
As the water finds its mark far below,Gouts over the precipice, and – it’s true! – throws up rainbowsThat rise in the most unlikely parabolasRight back over your head.