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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

What happened to the good ol’ poet’s beard?

Edward Lear’s illustration of The Old Man with a Beard

ost Bengalis who opted to study philosophy have, at one time or the other, been accosted with this question: 'The goat has a beard. Rabindranath Tagore has a beard. Hence by logic, Tagore is a goat, isn't he?' In the Bengal I grew up in, the taunt kobi kobi bhaab, kaabyer awbhaab ('Looks like a poet, lacks poetry') was fairly common. It was inevitably used for a man, someone usually thin, a smoker, a jhola hanging from his shoulder – in other words, the kind who'd come to typify the 'Charminar intellectual'. Apart from all these props in his appearance, there was something that was indispensible: not the glasses, not the crow's nest hair, but the poet's beard.

'Arvind's begun/to look like Gurudev Tagore,' says one of my favourite poets about another – Arun Kolatkar about Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in Amit Chaudhuri's poem Chasing a Poet: Epilogue. It is therefore all the more fun to read Pankaj Mishra, in his author photos always with a beard, quoting from the Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. This is about Rabindranath Tagore: "[...] the features and appearance of this sage-like poet, with his long bushy hair, long moustache and beard, standing tall in loose-flowing Indian garments, and with deep, piercing eyes. His white hair flowed softly down both sides of his forehead; the tufts of hair under the temples also were like two beards and linking up with the hair on his cheeks, continued into his beard, so that he gave an impression, to the boy that I was then, of some ancient Oriental wizard."

It is perhaps this wizardry of poetry that makes the poet's relation with his beard a synecdoche. Robert Graves in his poem, The God Called Poetry, imagines the poet with a beard: 'his beard spreads/ From chin to chin', and since the poetry god is 'Janus faced', there's the 'black beard' and the 'pale beard'. Billy Collins, in a poem ironically titled Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles, writes about a Chinese 'poet with a thin beard/... sitting on a mat with a jug of wine'.

The beard on the poet's chin is a fun trope, but it begins to resemble a lover and his broken heart in W. D. Snodgras's amusing The Poet Ridiculed by Hysterical Academics:

Where are the beard, the bongo drums,
Tattered T-shirt and grubby sandals,
As who, released from Iowa, comes
To tell of wondrous scandals?

Examples abound. There is the Ancient Mariner's "long grey beard and glittering eye" and Thomas Gray's 'bard' is described thus – "Loose his beard, and hoary hair/Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air".

Not content with words alone, I began to grow curious to see poets grow beards. On YouTube, I found Giles Conrad Watson's satire on the poet's beard, his paraphrase of a fourteenth century Welsh poem by Iolo Goch. Watson's descriptions of the poet's beard are perfect for a freedom-from-the-razor laughter: Irish', 'fiendish', 'fierce whiskers', 'my lip a bristling crop of shag', 'how the thing is trimmed, who cares', 'no rasping razor ever cures this roughness', 'hedgehogs cannot even match', 'shattered shards of ice'. William Shakespeare – whose "He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man" from Much Ado About Nothing was a quote much in circulation among my university classmates who prided themselves on this great marker of masculinity – I found, appropriately, in a list on the 'Best Beards in History'.

"I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?" wrote Lord Byron in a letter to Thomas Moore on the 5th of July 1821. Nearly two centuries later, the electronic company Philips has a webpage titled 'How to Grow a Poet's Beard'. Companies who make electronic beard trimmers need to do things like that: "For those of you who want try out a new style but don't want to go from nought to flamboyant too quickly then why not try growing a Poet's beard? The great thing about this style is that it's an easy look to pull off and it's a perfect look for those who favour berets and black turtlenecks whilst sipping on a coffee and reading Albert Camus. It's also a popular look with college students looking to express their new found independence and intellectualism in beard form. On a more practical down to earth note, the Poet's beard is also a good choice for younger gents who might not yet be able to foster the growth of a full, bushy beard to take their first foray into facial hair experimentation". Calling the shaving process, 'Poetry in Motion', stylists give instructions on how to achieve this look. The last piece of advice, after 'trim the beard to a short, blunt point' is 'Look thoughtful and forlorn'.

And there is this poem by Amit Chaudhuri, a poet without a beard. It has a precise title: Old Spice. 'A safety razor and some after-shave;/this morning, wash the foam from your cheeks./A chuckling splash, a flash, Old Spice,/with its wintry citrus smell – your cheeks,/clean-shaven, heavenly, deep unearthly.'

What happened to the Poet's beard?

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