W.B. Yeats once wrote in an introduction to a Rabindranath Tagore book written in English, “These prose translations from Rabindranath Tagore have stirred my blood as nothing has for years.” Tagore is Bengali, one of India’s most famous poet, if not the most famous poet; he wrote the Indian National Anthem. He wrote mostly in Bengali, but not always.
However, Yeats comment was mere public relations; he would admit later in a letter, “Damn Tagore…because he thought it was more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation.” His attack was not personal, however. It was prejudice, as he continued, “Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English. Nobody can write music and style in a language not learned in childhood and ever since the language of his thought.”
Yeats wrote in English, but his childhood language was Gaelic.
In The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets, edited by Donald Hall and Stephen Spender, there is an entry for Indian poet Buddhadeva Bose, who once wrote, “As for present-day Indo-Anglicans…it is difficult to see how they can develop as poets in a language which they have learnt from books and seldom heard spoken in the streets or even in their own homes.”
And so the stage is set for Jeet Thayil, editor of 60 Indian Poets. This book, sold only in the Indian subcontinent, is a nice collection of sixty Indian poets writing exclusively in English. I am only a third of the way through the book, each poet three to ten pages each; as with all anthologies, I have found poets whose style suit my tastes and others I don’t care for.
Vijay Nambisan’s “Dirge” is one nice poem. I read a lot at night before the lights go out; I was too tired to understand the subject matter behind the poem, but when I am that tired, I know a good poem when I read one because it is the music that speaks to me when the brain can’t focus on topic and theme. I turned the lights out after reading it, and when I was alert and awake, read it again.
Nambisan writes about the struggles, if you will, of his own profession, and where he stands in it. He uses a beautiful combination of end and internal rhymes, and the long lines mirror the emotion felt. He ends the first stanza, which reads like a symbol for the entire book, by saying there’s more to life than fame.
The poets die like flies but I am lying slightly to one side,
Contented in my Spain or Siam, content too to keep my hide.
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglican tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young.
I’ll live and hold my word in, for I am wearied of hypothesis;
And, in place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis.
The first line is chock full of I’s: die, flies, I, lying, slightly, side. In line two, we have Siam rhyming with any one of those words, but the true rhyme of I am/Siam can’t escape the ear. We also have the internal rhyme of fettered/lettered as well as the internal/end rhyme in the final line of kisses/missis. And don’t forget all the L’s in the entire stanza: like, flies, lying, slightly,well, (Anglican), allowed, lovely-lettered, lives lived, world, I’ll, hold, glory. I think I got them all.
At first I thought the poem was written with iambic feet: the POets DIE like FLIES but I am LYing SLIGHTly to one SIDE, but when I scanned it I decided the poet merely seems to put seven accents on each line: alLOWED them to be LOVEly-LETTered, their LIVES LIVED when the WORLD was YOUNG.
|My own Indo-Anglican offspring|
And yet, fame can come, as seen in stanza two:
Then the world shone, by their showing; then publishers seem to care;
Then calls for cheques of last year’s owing did not fall on empty air.
Then newspapers asked them for pieces; and printed them unchanged; and paid;
But now there are so many wheezes which make the craft a thrifty trade.
In a wilder whirl of weeklies, tabloids titting on page threes,
I will shirk my duty meekly and kisses take from my missis.
Here again are the internal rhymes of showing/owing, pieces/wheezes, weeklies/meekly; and also the end rhymes, including the near rhyme threes/missis. Of course, now we also see a pattern forming in the last line of each stanza: “kisses take from my missis,” and in both stanzas “missis” is only a near-rhyme. There is also the alliteration, such as: “pieces/printed/paid” and the more obvious “wilder/whirl/weeklies.” Using punctuation instead of enjambment at the end of a line is a technique for slowing down a poem, add to that long lines and lots punctuation marks within the line, where all those cadences are, really provide a nice slow read. Sure, you could speed it up anyway, but it doesn’t sound right.
They did not care much what the world said: they taught it instead how to speak.
They did not, when a poem pleaded, to meetings go in Mozambique.
But I will stay my poems, spending strength now with a shriller pen.
My theme and language both defending, to live fourscore years and ten.
And if it prove my time is over, if I’ve no chance at worldly bliss,
Why I will spurn so false a lover and kisses take from my missis.
Quite the odd stanza in some ways. Of course, we have the internal rhyming, the cadence, the last phrase and near rhyme “kisses take from my missis,” etc. However, there are also things like the not-very-often-used time measurement “fourscore years and ten”, and the inverted “to meetings go in Mozambique” — why not say “go to meetings in Mozambique?” A signifier of bad poetry is inverted lines to capture the rhyme, but this inverted line makes no difference to the rhyme. A signifier of good poetry is inverted lines to mirror the theme or topic of a poem, such as warped time or something. But then it comes as a poem’s constant, not a one-time deal.
The poem ends:
This hand once penned those poems; never shall I find so true a friend.
I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end.
So Arun and Dom and Nissim — I will shun their hard-earned grief
And much though I will always miss ’em, in softer shadows find relief.
And when I’m ninety and young writers ask why I wrote no more than this
I will answer, ‘But you blighters! I kisses took from my missis.’
I do not know who Arun and Dom and Nissim are, but I am guessing Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel, elder popular Indo-Anglican poets, also featured in this anthology. I find the lines are not the only thing that comes to an end; he speaks of something higher, something more than that. As much as he loves to write, he is throwing in the towel.
Throughout the poem I would have made different choices had I written it — I would have said “miss them” instead of “miss ’em,” for example, and spared the forced true rhyme; however, all in all this poem speaks to me in many different ways, and truthfully, if I were the author I would not have written it to begin with.
I find it interesting that the title is “Dirge,” because a dirge is traditionally a mournful song; this is not mournful, though it starts out that way, and sort of finishes that way too, I personally would say mournful is too strong of a word. However, the fact that a dirge is a song, or a poetic lament, speaks to the poem: there is music in it everywhere, and why I read it a second time to begin with.