Rajendra Kishore Panda

The Poet : A Priest in a Town of Agnostics ?

"The intelligent layman no longer looks to poetry for insight into our times. The only surprise is how poets got away with it for so long... The game's up now." These are the words of Tim Love, in his article titled 'The Great Poetry Hoax'. He has placed an illustrative list of "ploys", some of which poets use to create an illusion, much as stereograms give the effect of depth though they have none, and make the reader believe that a poem is significant :
--putting bold, unsupported declarations at key points 
--adding some emotive words in key places 
--name-dropping : an initial quotation or dedication or allusions 
--dealing with a serious subject ( death, god, poetry, etc ) 
--using extensive white space
--adding gnomic semantic gaps, removing punctuation or fracturing syntax 

--using obscurity or ambiguity to overload the processing of language ( if readers find a text hard to read, they may think it profound ) 
--repetition and chanting 
--ostentatious display of credentials... authenticating the text so that readers question their own abilities rather than the poet's. 

One may dismiss Tim Love as Tim Hate. It is not possible, however, to ignore Dana Gioia, the well-known American poet-cum-critic. A few years back he created a furore by publishing a provocative essay in Atlantic Monthly : 'Can Poetry Matter?'. "We live in a society where not only do ordinary people not read poetry, but even most novelists, dramatists and literary critics no longer read it", he says. "An art that speaks only to its practitioners is a diminished enterprise," and, in such a situation, poets are at best like "priests in a town of agnostics."

We live in a world where the gross tenets of consumerism and cost-benefit-ratio demand the utility-rating, if any, of poetry. Information technology asks for specifics of the 'problem' and an exactitude of the 'solution' in its programming technology. Everyone is keen for "client-satisfaction'. Arts, culture, languages and poetry are being placed as sub-categories under the 'directory' of 'Entertainment'. In such an environment, poetry is not only affected, it gets more and more marginalized. High-end poetry never had a mass-base, but it had a clientele group of connoisseurs or rasikas. The number of poetry rasikas is dwindling. The problem is not illiteracy; "The real issue is aliteracy --- being able to read, but not doing it", as Rebecca P Heath puts it.

Poetry is the art of articulating the unsayable. True. Its medium, however, is language. A language embodies a community of people and their way of being. It is a unique mental framework that gives special form to universal human experiences. Languages are the most complex products of the human mind, each differing enormously in its sounds, structure and pattern of thought [ Jared Diamond ]. Ethnologue 2000 Edition has listed 6809 living languages, out of which sixtytwo percent are of Asian ( 32 % ) and African ( 30 % ) origin. Unfortunately, however, the world has become a hospice for dying languages. As per one estimate, more than half of the world's languages may be extinct by the end of twentyfirst century. The death of languages is being caused by the interplay of multiple forces, such as urbanization, industrialization, modernization, globalization, migration, tourism development and expansion of telecommunication and internet technology, enforced bilingualism, dominance of predatory languages, State policy on languages and education, and, above all, the attitude of speakers. As mentioned in a report published in Times (International edition) :

"Languages, like all living things, depend on their environment to survive. When they die out, it is for reasons analogous to those that cause the extinction of plant and animal species: they are consumed by predator tongues, deprived of their natural habitats or displaced by more successful competitors. In this type of linguistic natural selection, though, the survival of the fittest is not determined by intrinsic merits and adaptability alone; the economic might, military muscle and cultural prestige of the country in which a language is spoken play a decisive role. A language's star rises and falls with the fortunes of its speakers. As the only remaining superpower, the United States is now at the zenith of its economic and cultural hegemony. English therefore thrives as the world's lingua franca while minority languages----like Tlingit----succumb to pressure from mightier competitors."

In the Indian context, Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit are extinct since long. The Tribal languages are either dead or moribund. Most of the major Indian languages are imperilled. English being the "language of empowerment", the children of even the middle class and lower class are being put into English-medium schools where the scope for learning the State language is virtually non-existent. Only Karnataka has enacted a legislation making the teaching of Kannada mandatory in English-medium schools following the CBSE or ICSE pattern of education. Thus the speakers of the societal class which produces most of the poets, writers and connoisseurs of literature prefer English-medium education for their children. The repercussions are obvious. It is necessary to replicate the Karnataka pattern countrywide. Let me put on record that I am an admirer of English language and literature. I consider Indian-English as an Indian language. At the same time, I am concerned about the creative growth of other Indian languages.

In Greek, eon signifies the state of what is. Heidegger argues that it is our knowledge of eon and our propensity to describe eon in language which have increasingly obscured eon from us, as existence becomes inauthentic when narrators get enmeshed in descriptions. Thinking is only thinking when it recalls in thought the eon, that which this word indicates properly and truly, that is unspoken, tacitly. Using this argument, Jeremy Hayward observes, in his study on perception entitled 'Perceiving Ordinary Magic : Science and Intuitive Wisdom', "When language and thought are in this way freed from their bondage to description, they point beyond themselves to what is. This is poetry. And poetry is, therefore, the highest, most human use of language." The state of 'what is'  has its static-cum-dynamic dimensions. In fact it may be perceived to emanate from the totality of 'realization', the spectrum of which, as per Indian seers, ranges from 'pratyaksha pramana or direct-experience and includes even 'anupalabdhi' or absence-of-experience. In an interesting study exploring light and vision, Arthur Zajonc (1993) establishes, from medical histories, that a healthy eye is not sufficient for vision. There is a special contribution from the brain or what he calls "light of the mind" which shapes what is seen, including patterns and colours. Zajonc's study offers many clues as to how poetry may affect that light-of-the-mind and thus transform what is effectively seen. Imagination thus gets ingrained into reality and the perception of reality.

Isn't poetry subversive too ? Perhaps it is in a poem's power for, and its performance of, excess of what is systematically denied by denotive, categorical performances of meaning, that poetry's subversive potential pulses. "For it is precisely the excess of a poem that allows the poet ( and the reader or hearer ) to contest, leap beyond, spill over, exceed the conventional and constrained ways in which language and experience are performed." As Winterson (1995) writes, "It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist." It is "Being-in-the-World", as Heidegger put it, and, at the same time, viewing-beyond-the-world.

When Rexroth exclaims "Poetry is vision !", we may adopt the normative ( not descriptive ) connotation of the assertion. By vision he means the essence of poetry, the quality that makes true poetry, which is much more than form, structure, construction, technique or any other artifice. Poetic vision implies a dynamic transformation of experience, imagination and revelation, uniting the observer with the observed. In fact, in rare creative moments of visionary poetry, one may assert, with Rexroth, "the craft is the vision and the vision is the craft !" And what will a poet do if he suffers from double vision ? Double vision is a poetic vision of seeing art both as a representation of reality and as reality itself. One poet who admits to have been haunted by such a cannon is James Merril. Someone has called it double self, a dramatic duplicity--- the moment when the poet "turns on himself, or turns, perhaps in a double sense, into himself". As Merrill himself stated, "I've tried, Lord knows, / To keep from seeing doubles." He could not, as he suggests.

One of the books which attracted attention in recent times is 'A Magical Clockwork : The Art of Writing the Poem' by Susan Ioannou. She focuses on the mechanics of poetry listing four areas of concentration : The Parallel World ( Assumptions, Immediacy, and Movement), The Persona, The Image, and Sound. In the penultimate chapter, titled 'Vision', she examines the ways in which poets have explored the world--- personal, natural, and political --- and is not hesitant to condemn those poets who stay "locked inward" in their private solitude.

For a long period, poetry and polis were interlinked. Activism and creativity were symbiotic. The 'split' that came is artificial. As Terrence Des Pres once wrote, what we lack is not a "political handling of poetry," but rather "a poetics of political experience", a poetics which does not falter before the complicated nature of a literary-political conscience." If politics implies being in "the thickness of life", there is no reason why poets should shun political themes.

One significant concept of the poetic persona is the concept of 'witnessing'. There are mythic connections sustaining this concept. The Muses, being the daughters of Mnemosyne ( the deity for memory, record and recall ), have the duty to bear witness to, record, and commemorate the political and moral order which under Zeus has been established. Saraswati, the goddess of creativity, is visualized as inhering the vocal chord of a poet-narrator and words of creative truth are said to emerge in the process. The concept of sakshi is also very significant in Indian thought. The role of the artist, the poet, is that of a witness ---- an active witness, not a passive bystander. Muriel Rukeyser goes a step further. She advocates to substitute the words 'audience', 'reader' or 'listener' by the word 'witness', for she feels that both the artist and audience are inextricably bound together, while witnessing, within a relationship of what she calls artistic "exchange". Has poetry a relevance in the public arena? Yes, she answers, YES in capital letters.

Some poets view poetic creativity as an act of communion. One may recall in this context an adage of ancient Chinese culture, which ordains that there has to be a certain moment in the poem where you 'raise the head' ----Yanng mei tu chi. That meant : to raise the consciousness to see the huge universe in the context of the poem. And they saw the poem as an object through which you come to commune with Tao or God.

In a poem titled 'A Letter to William Carlos Williams', Rexroth reveals his vision of poetic commitment as interpersonal and sacramental communion. He prophesies that a young woman, walking one day in a utopian landscape by "the lucid Williams River," will tell her children that it used to be the polluted Passaic in the Dark Ages. Just as the river flows through nature, William's veins, Rexroth's speech, history, the imagined woman and her children, as well as those of us who read the poem ---- flowing like the way of Lao Tzu ---- so all participate in the universal community of all beings, revealed in poetry : "And that is what a poet / Is, children, one who creates / Sacramental relationships / That last always."

Dana Gioia, whom I cited earlier, laments that, "over the last half century, literary bohemia has been replaced by an academic bureaucracy" and poetry "has too often been paralyzed by its own sophistication." Academic art has the tendency to become too knowing and self-conscious. Poetry is a primal, holistic kind of human communication. A poet needs innocence as much as knowledge, emotion as much as intelligence, vulnerability as much as rigour. "I want a poetry that risks speaking to the fullness of our humanity, to our emotions as well as to our imagination and intuition," says Gioia. "It is time to experiment... time to restore a vulgar vitality to poetry and unleash the energy now trapped in the subculture." 

Let there be vigour and variety in poetry. *

* This is the text of the Presidential Address by Rajendra Kishore Panda in the inaugural session of the All India Poets' Conference organised by Sahitya Akademi ( National Academy of Letters ) and Orissa Sahitya Akademi in 2001.

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