Vol. 4 Num 223 Sat. January 10, 2004  

Of the Lowly Potato: Indian English Poetry Today

Sometimes, poets are instructive to read on poetry and poets--not only does one get the critical analysis, but also a privileged peek at how artists view their own art. A two-in-one, as it were. Which is the reason behind this reprint of Jayanta Mahapatra's essay published in 2001 in Rama Nair's (ed.) Trends and Techniques in Contemporary Indian English Poetry. It is interesting for its overview of the field by a major Indian poet writing in English. Jayanta Mahapatra was born in Cuttack in 1928, was educated there and in Patna. A teacher of physics, he started writing poetry in his late thirties and has published a dozen books,winning, among others, the Sahitya Akedemi prize and the Jacob Glatstein (Chicago) prize for poetry. He has regularly written essays on poetry and has extensively translated contemporary writing from Oriya into English. The essay here is definitely not the last word on the subject--the debate will rage on--but it is the product of much meditation and is at heart an old-fashioned argument about a return to roots: Roots of poetic inspiration, of the primacy of the creative act, of an older view of the artist and spirituality. It is a view of poetry that perhaps poets today in the West would regard with distaste, since, as James Fenton writes, the modern "poetic practice is to proceed by a series of negative definitions: no rhyme, no metre, etc." But on no account is it a light, dispensable one. There is gravity in Mahapatra’s slow, careful tread, in his freedom from jargon. Fashions in the literary world, like fashions everywhere, are notoriously cyclical, and who knows, the wheel may once again some day turn Mahapatra's way. And then for Bangladeshi readers there are other points worth pondering about: About what it can mean to write creatively in English in South Asia generally, and by extension about the kind of serious poetry being written in English here in Bangladesh, about the diminished readership for poetry, about the lack of objective reviews of books and authors, about the personalized nature of critical judgements. And for all his diffident tone, Mahapatra argues with passion and force..

---Editor, Literature Page

IF you can get to its essence, even a lowly potato would be poetic. What is remarkable is that poetry can prove it. In India, in the post-independence era, innumerable collections of poetry written in English have appeared from various publishing houses. Certainly more than the volumes of prose that have been published so far. The point is: It is an odd situation, because more bad poetry is being published now than ever before in Indian history. And whereas our fiction has made a decisive impact on literary writing around the world, nothing very significant has been seen in the output of Indian poetry written in English.

The reasons for this would appear to lie in the writing of poetry itself. One sees the evidence for poetry's diminished stature even within the practice of poetry. There are very few magazines in our country that publish poetry today. And even in the ones that do, one's heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like sardines packed in a small can. It would be easy to miss a radiant poem among the many mediocre ones. It takes much effort to read these little magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, not even the magazine's contributors. The sheer indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a sort of Frankenstein--magazines that publish poetry unwisely, with total indiscretion.

The other characteristic that catches the eye is the overwhelmingly positive prose that is being written about published collections of poetry. These reviews or comments and essays do not (I stress, do not) provide an objective perspective on new poetry volumes, which is what is required, but simply publicize them. Quite often there are manifest personal connections between the reviewers (or editors) and the authors they discuss. The unspoken editorial rule seems to be: Do not give negative views; they are, after all, our friends and colleagues, and we cannot afford to hurt them.

The consequence of all this seriously affects the thinking and make-up of the beginner-poet in our country. These emerging poets (and we are full of such writer and readers) are seemingly confused by seeing mediocre poetry praised, or never criticized--and in the long run end up doubting their own critical perceptions. Younger poets, therefore, start emulating the work of these poets, writing in the same manner. This is a dangerous process that has only resulted in betraying the integrity of the art of writing poetry. Very recently I came across an editorial comment in one of our larger circulated weeklies, which stated that a particular collection of poems "was easily the best volume of poems published by an Indian in recent years." This is a strong statement indeed. But made in a casual vein. Statements such as these should be substantiated. Books are read, and ultimately, judged by individuals in the privacy of their own sensibilities, and not by committees who talk about cricket and Kargil and poetry in the same vein. Evaluation is always hard, serious work. And by going about it frivolously, we only demean our own art.

But why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of Indian poetry? What relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society? If ours would have been a more tolerant, better world than what it is today, then poetry would have not need to justify itself beyond the sheer splendour of its existence. Does our work vindicate the American poet Wallace Stevens's words that "the purpose of poetry is to contribute to man's happiness?" But perhaps aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is one not worth living.

Poets are expected to make sense of life. If they find life today in fragments, they must not leave it that way. Perhaps they should have that desire to produce poetry that transcends the ills of modern life rather than poetry that helplessly mirrors them. It is easy for me to say this when I know I am guilty myself of such writing. But I am afraid this is a difficult task to achieve.

Indian poetry in English lacks ideas. Again, I realize this is a foolish statement which leaves much room for error. Let us all agree that our poems are characterized by thinness. Somehow all our poems sound alike. And barring the poems of a few, these poems exhibit a one-dimensionality that reveals their meaning, straightaway. Missing are the many levels of meaning that give strength and intensity to a poem. Do our poets ever attempt, in Hardy's phrase, "to touch our hearts by revealing their own?" May be they don't do that.

Sadly, Indian poetry in English does not touch us in our deepest, most enduring self.

I believe our poetry--by this I imply Indian poetry in English--will not be held in high esteem until we explore our writing within the context of a unifying outlook on life. It is easy to make poems that are urged by sporadic, individual responses to things--to write a poem on the potato I mentioned earlier; but perhaps to seek an insight into the potato's mind that is haunted by the sinister density of the earth. Perhaps we never try to seek that experience and perception that make up for what we call the poet's "vision." I do not know how to define these things. But this way of going into the meaning of the insight is more likely to be achieved slowly and naturally as a result of simply living and responding to things in the world, of reading and thinking, and in the daily work of writing poems.

Every poet seeks to accomplish something like this in the poems he or she writes, or else he or she would not be able to write at all. But he or she should not build his or her life by finding himself or herself in another country, in another history, or elsewhere. Simply speaking, one's own roots are of the utmost importance although one's work is in English. One of the strengths of poetry in Spanish in our time is that it has not lost contact with the past. Quevedo and Gongora are still living presences for poets in Spain and South America, as they were for Lorca and others of his generation.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that there is a distinct absence of vitality in our poetry. All our competence with words and with craft, with images and metaphors, asks for substance; and purpose beyond mere versification is what is called for. Our poetry must be involved with us, with the many lives we live. Perhaps our prose just possesses that; it makes us participate in the myth-processes of our people--and this aspect accounts for its success in the present day.

If we accept the fact that English poetry in India has taken a definite direction today, we could trace its influence to a few poets who were teachers of English literature themselves. Nissim Ezekiel could be considered to lead this poetry movement; he was followed by A.K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathy and Shiv K. Kumar, if I would name some. Today, we have a number of younger poets who seem to be influenced by the terse craftwork exhibited by their elders. If we examine these poems, we find an excessive use of wit and irony in them. It is difficult not to notice the distance this poetry reveals, as compared to the poems of poets in the many regional languages of India. Also is evident a lack of musicality in the poems. Somehow I believe that music is the most important virtue in poetry, and this appears to be absent. I will not go into the reasons behind this. But it seems right I should speak about my own experiences in this regard.

In the 50th year of our independence, the British magazine titled London Magazine appeared with a special issue with the words 'INDIA 1997: with affection" on its cover. This magazine is now in its 39th year and is edited by Alan Ross (now deceased). A look into this issue gives us an insight into the type of poetry the editor likes to publish. I am afraid I have to admit that the poetry here conforms to the qualities I mentioned earlier. I should like to confess that my poetry didn't find a place in this issue. The fact is: I didn't send my poems for this issue. And if I had sent my work, I am certain the editor would have rejected my poems, as he had done twice before, twenty years back. The ironic mode has never suited me, and I have chosen to write what I wrote, straight from my heart. Maybe this isn't good, well-crafted poetry--the poetry I write. I could never respond to the sight of Nandi in the manner a poem "Pahupatinath" goes on to depict the scene (pp. 178-79):

A bull of beaten gold
balanced on balls
so large they dwarfed

the nesting crowds.
With hands full of money,
flowers and prayers,

our unruly lines
mobbed the priest.

Or, as in the poem "One or Two Places" on page 63 of the issue:

If you love your country, he said,
why are you here?
Say, I am tired of hearing about
all that wonder that was India
kind of crap.

And incidentally, I remember Alan Ross, the editor, having written me on a 5 cm-by-10 cm rejection slip, when he had returned my poems, that my work was unsuitable for publication because it tended to be philosophic. My own writing has always reflected an Oriya sensibility and I have felt myself to be an Oriya poet who happened to write in English. I suppose our sensibility, the Indian sensibility, is different from the Western one, and this fact stands in the way of the Western reader. This is an area where space and time, sound and silence, motion linear and cyclic, word and symbol, become one--and one is unable to distinguish between them. Or perhaps the Indian mind turns its antennae toward the unknown, the beyond; making the resulting poetry lose its concreteness, and the verse becomes dependent on suggestions of meaning. This is one reason why some of my work comes back from editors of foreign journals.

However, it was in the eighties or early nineties, that a change was seen in much of the English poetry written in India. The discerning reader no longer wanted to read merely a well-crafted poem of an Indian poet in English, a poem which could have come as well from the pen of a poet living in Britain or Australia. Neither was the poet interested only in the dry wit and irony most Indian English poems exhibited. The prevailing poetry scene was witnessing a subtle change. Poets, younger poets, from various parts of the country were coming out with their poems; suddenly, English poems were being written differently in Kerala, in the Northeast, and in my own state of Orissa. It was the native culture showing in the poem of the Indian English poet. It was a poetry which eased itself from the earth the poet inhabited, nurtured and nourished by the soil and the air of the place. There was a distinct sense of belonging; it couldn't be mistaken:

On a warm day at the start of spring
men in the fields feel winter
melting in their blood too,

they smell the seed of ripeness in the air
and nod to each other happily,
or take up the children, kiss their

dusty heads and let them go again.
Evening comes. Everything happens naturally

as leaves closing, or the breaking of stars,

hesitant and white, as if long ago somebody
was hurt by their pleasure.

Or, as in this poem:

We heard whatever is not lost.
We speak of a mythic time.
Let us speak of what we found:
In the place of gold-dust we found still
golden ears of rice beneath that copper haze
of dying years, dancing to the valley's
wind-borne music;
beacons of wild fires we saw on dry autumn nights,
mountains signaling the fates of trees and grass.
Instead of pages of heroic deeds or undying love,
we read parchments written in blood, our history
stained by illicit love and betrayal;
we found our alphabet buried with the shrunken heads
of enemies, ghosts who died long ago laughing
at the attempts at civilization.

Here, at last, the poet is speaking to me. This is poetry one likes to read, to hear. A poetry that should last.

Illustrations by Sabyasachi Hazra