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Of Poets and Their Musings
There is dearth neither of literary festivals nor of anthologies in India and several other countries. However, authors, not their works, hog these festivals on many occasions. Consequently, several anthologies in the last decade and half are trivial, mainly because these are guided more by personal preferences of the compilers rather than the beauty and depth of versification. This reduces it to a haphazard collection of almost deadwood fit for being consigned to dustbin. However, in dire straits, A World Assembly of Poets holds out much hope that the era of great poetry still exists
‘Finally the party lets the mask fall and shows what it is……….’
In India as in other countries, courtesy social media, there is dearth neither of literary festivals nor of poetry anthologies. There is more discussion about authors than their work; more exhibition of interest in cocktail party to follow than what precedes the cocktails. Many poetry anthologies brought out last decade and half are trivial, not lasting and uninspiring mainly because these are guided more by personal preferences and aberrations of the compilers rather than a firm yardstick to be firmly applied to gauge the beauty and depth of versification. This muzzles the very objective of constructing an anthology and reduces it to a haphazard collection of almost deadwood fit for being consigned to an impenetrable coffin. Published in 1996, the Vintage Book Of Contemporary World Poetry edited by JD McClatchy continues to be an anthology that has remained by far unmatched and peerless. Modeled on that, A World Assembly of Poets as edited by Tijan M Sallah, well-known Gambian writer and one of Africa’s most significant voices working with the World Bank, and Nibir Ghosh, a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, is a bold and seminal effort to come closer to the Vintage anthology. We have poets and poetry from Africa, America, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, Latin America, Caribbean, and the West Asia which ensure geographical representativeness and reflect variations in styles and themes. It is a zealous and committed enterprise. Why? Is it because of content or form or context? Yes all of these play their own role but most important factor is that selected poems meet some reasonable standard for versification. Also because of the range of approaches taken by various poets and lyric narratives. Personal joys or sorrows or public pronouncements about the challenges of human or natural condition within the multifarious contexts of our world form the warp and woof of this collection.
Organised alphabetically by continents, and then, within continents, alphabetically by countries, it removes any presupposition of geographical bias. It represents global voice. Pearls of both pains and pleasures across the globe hail enlightened readers. I am using the word “enlightened” for I know reading of poetry ought to be a leisurely business. You are not seeing a play to be finished within two hours. A play ought to be read slowly and fascinatingly within a time with no restrictions from you. Poets included in this volume demand only two things if you are keen to read them: your time and your propensity to be with the words written; emotions involved. In present times our minds are invaded by agitation and as James C Coleman aptly writes, “The seventeenth century has been called the Age of Enlightenment; the eighteenth the Age of Reason; the nineteenth the Age of Progress; and the twentieth the Age of Anxiety.” To add further, the twenty-first century can be called the Age of Ideologies: the age of clash among ideologies or clash within ideologies. Collective or individual agitation is a natural outcome of such clashes. But while an agitated mind might be good enough for any activity, it can never be for absorbing literature, more so poetry. With this precaution in place, let me now take the readers through this mammoth effort.
African poets, drawing inspiration from local imagery and myths, giving us much reason for optimism and rueful pleasures, find prominent place in the book. Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho, who hinges his works heavily and richly on his native Ewe oral traditions, is worried about things brought from outside: things like religions and cures imported in his poem, A Harvest of Our Dreams. “There is a ghost/on guard/a Memory’s door/scaring away these pampered hopes/these spoiled children of our festive days.” His poems seem more prophetic and less individual and his is lively and inventive way to approach the theme. There is indeed ingenuity as in his poem, Among My Dreams. “Far away from Storms we left behind/among the ruins of Haunted Lives?” There is a yearning to recognise the need to alter the past.
Sarcasm is difficult to be divorced from poetry. This we learn in Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide’s irresistible verse, The Fate of Vultures. “They ran for a pocket-lift/in the corridors of power/and shared contracts at cabals/the record produce and sales/fuelled the adolescent bonfire of fathers.”
The emotions are often times muted but the outrage out there is amply evident. Gradual loss of the erosion of hard work and traditional artisanal skills, so very characteristic of self-sufficient old Africa and its replacement by the colonial “culture of the office” and supremacy of bureaucrats over artisans, of pen-wielders over craft-makers make Ojaide uncomfortable and these culminate in icon of sullied images and voices to convey his sarcasm of the modern “rural African” — metaphorically a “king” — but whose foolish regal pride leads him to personal misery and penury.
Julia Amukoshi is a new woman writer from Namibia with a sonorous honesty in her depiction of rural life in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. In her poem, Growing Up, she notes, “Dust used to be natural make-up, and the wind my professional hair stylist/…I never understood why my natural scent was so resented.” The beauty nature gives to the body of a woman makes the poet realise, “But eventually, I found myself growing up.” Erratic, exuberant vision marks the exquisiteness of Julia’s poems.
Coming to American poets included in the anthology, they portray that the imagist movement of English poetry in the US, Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world, at the turn of the 20th century, is alive and somber. Like the imagist poets, the included poets like Rita Dove, Christopher Guerin, Sonia Sanchez, David Ray, to name a few, broke from the metrical strictures of the sonnet and blank verse and employed free verse and the technique of the “image” as the principal device in their poetic repertoire.
Sonia Sanchez gives us a moving imagist poem, On Passing Thru Morgan Town, reflecting on a fabulous voice teeming with nostalgia when she remembers her father, “steady your hand old man do not trouble/yourself with language, stalk his wound/”. Similarly Ethelbert Miller in a compelling poem which is filled with the despair and sadness of human-caused anguish, We Are Not Alone, writes, “These are descending days/the dark nights of our own making/The despair comes from the fear/of not knowing what door to enter/and what door to lock.”
A short poem of similar imagist simplicity, but dense with meaning is Suzanne Mattson’s poem, Little Deaths, “I am imposter to/My name/ghost to/your memory/And you!/ Failing to appear in your face.” Rita Dove uses poetry as mnemonic device: recollections of trials and joys of relationships as in The Event, “he closes his eyes/He never knows when she’ll be coming/but when she leaves, he always/tips his hat.” Rita Dove poems can act as an expressive remedy for many. In Belinda’s Petition, with speculative imagery, she expected “nothing” in “all my childhood” but she accepts, “I have known of Men with Faces like the Moon/who would ride toward me steadily for twelve years.” One can wish Rita Dove could have written a poem where there is no memory: there is only fading and fading as Sean Nevin (not included in the anthology) has tried to show in A House That Falls.
As far Asian countries, it is all about public and spiritual concerns with India and China dominating the scenario. For India, it is the Hindu spiritual Sanskrit literatures of the Vedas, Upanishad, Bhagvad Gita, Mahabharata and Ramayana, while for China, it is the philosophies of Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) and Lao Tzu that reign supreme. China, because it does not have the entrenched British colonial history that India had, did not have the cultural convulsions and soul searching that made India a far-richer terrain for poetry, especially in the English language.
Poets in the anthology such as Shiv K Kumar, Jayanta Mahapatra, and Pritish Nandy appear more passionately and stylistically more accomplished than the rest included from India. The poetry of Pritish Nandy is outcome of Nandy as an acute and passionate observer of social reality. He writes poetry that surprises all. In his sentimentally and irresistibly powerful poem, I Met Him One Evening Beside A Secret River, he treats his readers with contradictions within: “the borders have long been sealed/the village where you worked has been razed to the ground and after/all we need you here to work among the refugees/he did not answer.”
Arun Kamal comes out with his Anxiety, “I fear the night/…I am living on counting up each of my breath/ …The earth is cracking under my feet.” Kamal captures brilliantly his angst and his imagination is rich with possibilities which makes his poetry an unexpurgated witness to human suffering, “I was so terribly alone and intact/like the hills in the night.” Most remarkable poetry comes from SK Limbale, who allows himself to be confronted with the question of identity within the prevailing orthodoxy of Indian society like in his poem, Who Am I?, “What is this life?/is pitiful struggle/of surviving in burning of the hut aflame!”
Like Limbale, Aparna Lanjewar too laments miserable conditions but she is more comfortable with modernism in her critique, of the culture and society. In the poem, Dalit Power, Aparna writes, “but…/Shouldn’t we stop blaming/Stratification of society/And blame inharmonious harmony of power?... Ambedkar tabulated in groups/subgroups-species and genus.” This is poetry of honesty directed at the raw, uncovered social wounds that directly arrests our pity and compels us to compassionate action and thus this strength of the artistry.
The poetry of Chinese poet Liu Hongbin is equipped with the sad nostalgia of the involuntary émigré who wants to return but cannot because of inhospitable politics at home. In the poem, The Unfamiliar Customs House, Hongbin despairs, “When I intrude into another country, an unfamiliar customs house appears before me…/the nightmare has been detected and confiscated by the customs officer.” The upheavals within those in exile make them lonelier and isolated because no sentiments from humanity are witnessed on the borders.
Poetry in Europe as reflected in the anthology encompasses individual voices emanating from countries like Germany and Russia involving diverse poetic themes and characteristics. Inspired and influenced by symbolist poets like Baudelaire, Lorca and Rilke, poets included in the anthology deal with new experiments in terms of form, music, lyricism and content. Russian poet Adolf P Shvedehikov’s poem, Can You Hear Me, Humanity? I Am Ancient Sequoia, is a soliloquy poem: where the poet pours out tears over the ruins of humanity. “All religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam,/Promise paradise and love…/Why, then, blood is shed/Why the Dove of peace will not come to us?”
Adolf explores the failure of religion in calming down enraged raptures. Same way Swedish poet Per Wastberg sounds as if the being is seeped entirely into the unknown. See lines from his poem, Death, “Just when the party’s over, we get to know the names of the guests.” Or lines from Dream Life, “An imageless dream filled with prime numbers/nothing to remember./First despair,/then an absentmindedness that sees the day out.” The sequencing of imageless dream, first despair and absentmindedness that sees the day out is no doubt, an individual experience but it has a bearing on functioning of society. Wastberg minces no words: life and literature are simple facets of the same coin. His candidness surpasses everything else: “The simple is the part of the difficult to interpret/of a contemporary program-/as when the wick of a candle is spilt/one strand becomes quickly charred/the other burns as before.’ Is not life we live replete with contradictions and connivances? Life is a tragedy and we await that to happen. “We are all on someone’s list.” Wastberg reminds us of discrimination and divisions leaving us with a dilemma and internal upheavals as we look at “the self-analytical shadows pass/over the spirit level’s blind life.” The poet hitchhikes his readers to a zone of some of the simplest, clearest and most direct poetry.
When it comes to the poetry of South or Latin America and the Caribbean, unquestionably colonial migrations and trans-Atlantic cross-cultural influences from Europe, Africa and even Asia coupled with the indigenous cultures of the native populations of the New World; the so-called “American Indians” exercise their deep influence over the poets in the anthology. It is a hybrid of culture mixing. The feeling of loss and the desire to regain originality agitate the mind of poets equipped with self-delusion and self-questioning. Ariel Dorfman, poet from Chile, is nonplused with the questions embedded in the term Identity which is the name of his poem: “They’re all waiting together/silent, in mourning/on the riverbank/they took him out of the water/he’s naked/as the day he was born.”
Sense of indigenous rootedness and alienation filling the poem with the soul-searching marks this poem. So he ends the poem assuring “them”, “Tell them not to worry/I can bury my own dead.” Dorfman equates birth and self-sufficiency in birth with death and self-sufficiency in death. Summer Edward, poet from Trinidad & Tobago, indulges through simple language in complex concepts. It is a sort of entanglement when he pens Seamen On Land, “Young men, who wade/through their years/dragging their life/boats, shadow vessels, their tears/you do not see until you/have loved them/then too late.” We notice here healing power of language, and an engagement with efforts to restore. That is reason good enough for him to utter in Afterbirth, “now the rains have left/like a wet nurse in the night…/” highlighting physical and psychic pains that leave residual questions to the poet: the observer.
Lastly engagement with poets from the West Asia (only two poets — Maryam Ala Amjadi from Iran, and Joanna Chen from Israel — have been included) exposes us to nomadic and desert sensibility. Their poetry has been a reflection on the life people have lived and influenced each other over centuries. The woman poet from Israel, Joanna Chen, fills us with rays of despair amidst the stasis in the West Asia. So writes she in her poem By The Time You Read This, “By the time you read this/it will be late/and I will be far away…/you will be far away/and I will be here/with my dog/my cups of coffee/my fears.”
It is easy to spot shadows cast by anguish and quiet pleasures of remembrance. Readers must not miss the point that the poet’s obsession is with the pains of dispossession and the need to have dignified living. Her resorting to “language” as a means to seek unification is justified when she says in Babel, “Language has never felt this close.” In the poetry of another woman Iranian poet, Maryam Ala Ajadi, we come across voices of feminism yelling for gender equality. What Meets the Eye May Run From The Mouth is a prose poem with cadence and musical drowsiness. “A woman can never truly be naked/she wears a skin of many restless pores/… /She is always too many things in too many ways/…/she combs for the trail of a home in the wrinkles of stone-faced houses.” The poem abhors admonition; self-pity is unwelcome.
This anthology has the importance of a discovery; it involves a continuous parallel between contemporary and antiquity. The best way to round off this anthology is to quote from the massive, erudite, illuminating and subtle introduction penned by learned guest editor Tijan M Sallah, “Much is packed here from different corners of the earth to feed us with discovery and surprise. Some poets here are accomplished bards; some are developing poets. We have assembled them, like a forester assembles a verdant global nursery, hosting fully grown trees and promising plant sprouts.”
No better way to sum up; no better way to hope for a better world. No better way to have an assurance: literature is alive; it is not dead. After all, you get the drift; you drift into a certain vein of thought. Great poetry is all about that.
(The writer is a Civil Servant, currently working as Director General in the Office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India, in New Delhi. He has received global attention with his three poetry collections — Ineluctable Stillness (2005), An Armless Hand Writes (2008 and 2012), and Shadows of the Real (2012). He is a literary reviewer and columnist for The Pioneer, The Daily Star and Kitaab Singapore. His semi-autobiographical book is slotted to be out in April 2018)
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