Vol. 5 Num 800 Sat. August 26, 2006  

Tribute to Shamsur Rahman
Yes to Shamsur Rahman, no to death!

Shamsur Rahman -- our foremost poet -- struggled to write against death even when he was sure that death was approaching him. He died on August 17. But the spirit of Rahman's struggle for life stubbornly refuses to die. For that very spirit comes to characterise Rahman's own poetry. Although some of his early works do not range beyond a certain kind of romanticism, Shamsur Rahman hardly romanticises death itself. Rather he tells us unequivocally and even repeatedly: "I don't like death."

That pronouncement reminds me of Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, whom I had the opportunity of discussing with Rahman himself more than a decade ago. In his piece called "In Defense of the Word," written at a time when military dictatorships in Latin America were threatening the freedom of the word itself, Galeano asserts: "One writes in order to deflect death and strangle the spectres that haunt us."

And Shamsur Rahman writes (let me keep using the present tense, yes!) in order to deflect death. In fact, he keeps telling us that life is far more significant than death itself, and that death is uninteresting, unattractive, and always unwelcome. Of course, the word and the world Rahman has offered us keep lending credence to that very message, while making the point that poetry can be a material force, a life-giving force, if it comes to grip the people.

And the people -- known by their struggles against death that ultimately prove their humanity -- are always there in the work of Shamsur Rahman. Certainly, out of a need "to communicate and to commune with" the people, to use Galeano's words again, Shamsur Rahman relentlessly wrote for more than half a century. His first poem appeared in print in 1949. But one had to wait until 1960 to see his first volume of poems published -- Pratham Gan Dityio Mrittyur Aagay (The First Song Preceding the Second Death). As a poet he had been active since then. He had produced more than fifty volumes of poems, including selected and collected works, among other works in prose, accounting for his own diferentia specifica or even carving a distinctive Rahmanism in Bangla poetry. Also, I feel tempted to say that no other living poet in the 'Third World' has been as prolific and productive as Shamsur Rahman. And his productivity, one might say, is probably at once his weakness and his strength. Perhaps it is more strength than weakness. For Rahman's productivity eventually helps the poet bring out the best in him.

Now, given the range and magnitude of his oeuvre, it is impossible here to even touch upon, let alone evaluate, all aspects of Shamsur Rahman's work. However, I intend to raise a couple of questions about certain kinds of critical works hitherto produced on Rahman, while making some observations regarding a few aspects of his work: observations that are admittedly vectored by my interest in the interplay between the aesthetic and the political, or in the dialectic of struggles that bring to the fore what I wish to call -- invoking some politically engaged poets and theorists -- "poetry in the flesh."

One pet assumption of some traditional Rahman critics, then, is that Shamsur Rahman inherits his 'modernism' from the poet of the thirties. It is true that Rahman in his early life enthusiastically contributed to the poetry journal called Kabita edited by none other than Buddhadev Bose himself -- one of the foremost Bengali modernists of the 1930s. It is also true that like those Bengali modernists Rahman was -- at some point at least -- interested in certain canonical motifs and themes: Baudelairean Ennui or Laforguean irony or Hopkinsian-Eliotesque intertemporality or even in a certain Mallarmean predilection for the asemantic, to name but a few. But I'd argue that even the early Rahman evinces productive transactions and tensions with the thirties, while his work -- by and large -- exemplifies almost equally creative tensions and transactions with the entire lyrical tradition in Bangla poetry from Charyapada to the medieval lyrics to Biharilal to Tagore to Jibanananda Das.

Indeed, Shamsur Rahman ranges beyond the aesthetic zodiac of the thirties, particularly, if not exclusively, because Rahman enacts a fiercely animating dialectic not only between the lyrical and even the utterly prosaic as such, but also -- and more significantly -- between the aesthetic and the political in such a way that the separation between the two turns out to be a false one. In fact, Rahman ably evolves a poetic language capable of negotiating a fruitful interface between the two -- evident as that interface is from his second volume of poems Roudro Korotite onwards, and certainly fully orchestrated in such works as Nij Bashbhume and Bandi Shibir Theke.

It is also customary to assume that Shamsur Rahman progresses from the lyrical and empirical 'I' to the historical and political 'we'. One usually refers to the poem "The Manuscript of an Autobiography," including his first volume of poems, and to his later, proverbially famous, poem "Freedom You Are," in order to account for a linear, sequential movement from the presence of the 'I' to its absence in Rahman's poetry. I think this is a misleading characterisation of Rahman's own dialectics of thematic and stylistic struggles. For Rahman's 'I' and 'we' remain differentially responsive to one another in such a way that one's presence cannot be seen at the expense of the other. Certainly Rahman is never a so-called 'classicist' in a way that he would 'annihilate' or eliminate the 'I'; nor is his 'I' ever romantically celebratory of the 'egotistical sublime' as such (ah, egotistical sublime!); nor is his 'I' confessionally exposed in bare or cubic detail; nor is his 'I' immensely dwarfed into even a tiny spek of dust in an existentialist fashion. And his 'I' by no means can be taken as an example of what some have come to call 'self-fashioning.'

In fact, Rahman's 'I' resists fixity and closure, although it is possible to say that his 'I' remains variously alive to and active in the world -- or variously opposed to death -- by renewing and re-energising its contact with the living beings or people themselves, as can be seen in his works ranging from at least Nij Bashbhume and Bandi Shibir Theke, through, say, Deshodrohi Hote Icche Kore and Buk Taar Bangladesher Hridoy, to his very last poem. His 'I'/eye and his works -- taken together -- then seem to be exemplifying what Galeano says: "What one writes can be historically useful only when in some way it coincides with the need of the collectivity to achieve its identity. In saying 'This is who I am,' in revealing oneself, the writer can help others to become aware of who they are."

And Shamsur Rahman makes us aware of who we are -- particularly who the middle-class folks are, insofar as Shamsur Rahman specifically, if not exclusively, gives voice to middle-class experiences on different registers. Some Rahman critics have already characterised him as a poet of middle-class Bengali nationalism. It is true that some of his works explore and mobilise not only nationalism itself, but also its anti-colonial character and content; and that almost his entire oeuvre remains rooted in the past, present, and even future of Bangladesh. But by no means does Rahman underwrite and advocate the kind of chauvinist, self-fetishising nationalism -- let alone reactionary indigenism -- that Edward Said critically interrogates and even fiercely contests in Culture and Imperialism. In a number of ways, Shamsur Rahman is also an internationalist -- responsive as he remains to different forms and forces of creative human interventions and to various social movements at both local and global levels.

In closing, let me quickly sum up a few -- only a few -- of Rahman's numerous contributions. In the first place, he decisively shapes diction in post-Tagorean and post-Jibananandian Bangla poetry. Also, Rahman offers us the kind of poetry that effectively traverses a wide range of middle-class experiences, while making some politically significant inter-class connections in the interest of animating and inspiring broad-based struggles against oppression and injustice, although his perspective remains inflected by a progressive and robust version of liberal humanism. "If events are the real dialectics of history" -- as Antonio Gramsci once put it -- then certain crucial events like our Language Movement of 1952, our Liberation Movement of 1971, our anti-Ershad movement in the late eighties and early nineties, and other movements of the people -- including many apparently small incidents constituting and characterising our history of struggles and life -- all forge a particularly significant dialectic in Shamsur Rahman's work that in the final instance asserts and celebrates life and humanity against the forces of destruction and death. In fact, what my favourite poet Audre Lorde says about poetry can be applied to our foremost poet Shamsur Rahman: "Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of life within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought."

And Shamsur Rahman's work can certainly be taken as a vital example of poetry-as-praxis and of a struggle to name the nameless in the Lordean sense. Above all, Rahman's work inspires us to see how it is life that is more abiding and more powerful than death. Yes to Shamsur Rahman and his poetry, no to (his) death!

Dr Azfar Hussain taught English and comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University and Bowling Green State University in the US before his recent move to North South University where he teaches English.