Main story: We may never be the same again after reading a poem that speaks to our soul. Poetry has the power to start a fire in a person’s heart – it can change the way we see others, the world and ourselves.

Given any day, even if one hasn’t read any poem, if one went through a poem by Pablo Neruda or Rumi, one can surely feel a gush of awe, wonder, marvel, deep sorrow or joy.

Probably because of the same sentiments felt through poetry, Bhutanese young and old, from different professions, have started to read, write and love poetry.

President of Royal Thimphu College, Thakur S Powdyel, is a poet in his own right.

Like music that achieves special effects of unity and harmony by organising sounds in creative ways, poetry works on a similar principle by enlisting and celebrating the unifying power of words to achieve a sense of balance and coherence, Thakur S Powdyel said.

“Poetry, like music, is the expression of humanity’s everlasting urge to seek the benefit of order and unity in an uncertain world that seems to enjoy playing hide and seek with life,” he said. “I cannot and do not claim to be a poet, but I certainly love poetry. My romance with poetry began from the time I was introduced to the poems in school-texts.”

Thakur S Powdyel recalled a time when there used to be regular weekly literary events and little writings were celebrated on notice boards and later in school-magazines. “Finding a few compositions in college and university publications was always a great source of joy for any pretender, including myself,” Thakur S Powdyel recalled.

“I love poetry for many reasons – for the facility it provides to have fun with words and tease their limitless power, for its endless capacity to say more with less, for the choice it presents to express by statement or by suggestion and symbolism, and above all, for the unifying vision of the universe it provides,” he said.

And then he added: “When we consider the general lay of our land, the turn of our seasons and the variety of ways in which they express their life, the creative genius of our people and their outlook, poetry looks like the natural order of our culture.

“However, as we get sucked into the material manifestations of the so-called development machine, that poetic, all-embracing, unifying vision of our people starts blunting away to be potentially replaced by the crass and the commercial,” he said.

The developers of The Silken Knot: Standards for English for Schools in Bhutan, he said, had great hopes that the book would be able to make the teaching and learning of the major elements of English Studies from pre-primary through to pre-university levels a truly powerful experience. “The full flowering of the intended programme could not be achieved primarily because of capacity issues. But the power and promise of The Silken Knot can and ought still to be tapped.”

Thakur S Powdyel further said that one of the cardinal elements of “My Green School”, available now in Spanish and Catalan, is aesthetic greenery. “This element affirms the critical place of fine arts, including poetry, in the process of education. Cultivation of the power of aesthetics is believed to secure the integrity and individuality of learners at a time when the seductive influence of mass media and the negative effects of the Internet can suck the soul out of our children before they realise it.”

The predicament of Bhutanese poets, and writers in general, leaves much to be desired, Thakur S Powdyel said. “While some established writers may have found encouraging affirmations, the general shift in priorities in life seems to favour the pragmatic, however mundane. The number of bookstalls as against the number of bars in our capital city is a fairly good index of its general health.”

Another poet, Utsav Khatiwara, said Bhutan has not had a tradition of secular poetry and it is quite understandable that it’s taken time to catch on here.

“We do not have a Keats or a Basho that lives in the national consciousness. Poems are usually force-fed to schoolchildren to fulfil a curriculum, so it’s hardly any wonder so many of them develop such strong gag reflexes to poetry,” Utsav Khatiwara said. “Still, there is a rather active, if slightly underground, scene of poets and poetry lovers in the country, and there are people writing wonderful poems that I deeply admire. With the Internet now making it so easy to share and access local poetry, it is really taking off.”

There have been many very well attended poetry open-mic events and a few poetry publications, said Utsav Khatiwara. “And there’s even an annual poetry-photography crossover exhibition that’s very popular. It’s taken its time, and it’s small, but it’s there.”

Utsav Khatiwara has been writing poems since he was very young. His first few attempts at writing were lyrics but they were too awkward to work as songs. They were poem nonetheless.

“But I was getting such a kick out of writing them that soon enough I was deliberately writing poetry. I think of poetry as an attempt by the conscious mind to delve into one’s abstract emotional core. It’s a quest with no end, because thoughts don’t feel and feelings don’t think, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s that tension that often creates great art,” he said.

Utsav Khatiwara admits to never having considered an audience while writing, never had the notion that someone might actually want to read the images that his words shaped. “I write mostly as a way to deal with my own negativity, which is why most of my writing tends to be rather morose, although I am not really like that in real life. The nature of poetry is that no two people will ever read a poem the same way, because the poem inevitably comes to the reader’s mind filtered through their own experiences and their own biases. But it’s a great feeling to have somebody actually find any sort of connection to something I’ve written, whatever their personal interpretation.”

Utsav Khatiwara will be reading his poems or presenting a short paper during the upcoming Sufi Festival organised by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature.

Tashi Pem is another lover of poem who shares her poem in Folded In Paper Boat, a Collection of Poetry From Bhutan published by Riyang Books.

“I am not a poet by any measure, and I do not say this to be modest. I enjoy reading but once in a while I also try writing poems,” said Tashi Pem, who started writing since 2005. “I did not have the confidence or the time to continue except on one or two occasions when an invitation to write and put forward a poem was tempting.”

Tashi Pem said that it is good to see is that there are online spaces for Bhutanese poets and writers in general to share their work. “There are also initiatives and events where writers and poets come together. Such initiatives are important for the small but passionate number of people interested in this art form.”

And she added: “We also must not forget the rich tradition of poetry we have in the form of ballads, lozays, tsangmos, and songs. These are standards that I hope we appreciate and aspire towards.”

Dolma Choden Roder, one of the editors of Folded in Paper Boat – a Collection of Poetry from Bhutan – published by Riyang Books, wrote in the preface of the book that Riyang felt that an anthology of Bhutanese poems in English was long overdue.

“This book provides an opportunity to nurture aspiring poets, to show them how to improve and hone their skills and talents. We were amazed to learn about the diversity of the poet’s day jobs. Some were first year college students, others were doctors, engineers, filmmakers, teachers and one was recently retired,” Dolma Choden Roder said. “We hope this is just the beginning, we hope that this collection only adds to the real power of poetry to express, connect and move.”

Thinley Zangmo