Poets and philosophers! When you think of them, what thoughts immediately spring to mind?
They seem to give much life and light to society.Much of our sense of culture and pure aesthetic pleasures, it m is poets and writers seem to be capable of providing.A society without some intellectual strength cant be a society and cant even survive.It is the intellectual backbone,the philosophers,the thinkers and intellectuals bring to bear.
Yet think of their individual and collective lives.How unstable and often so insecure and isolated they live their lives.
Not many genuine poets or writers or philosophers are fortunate enough to get recognition or material rewards in their life times.Most often,the fame and name ,at all,comes too late or too little to be of any use for them or for their families.The posthumous fame,if and when it comes,it is for the society and not for the families concerned.
Yet,how sad and often tragic, their lives!
I have always been interested in poetry. Reading poetry came long after I started writing poetry.This pursuit and passion remained with me all all along.
Lately, I tried my hand in writing my autobiography in Tamil language.After I finished it,after nearly some 700 odd pages,it is too big a volume in Tamil for such subject and yet it took that much long time and space.It is an irony that as I was about to publish the same,some sudden impulse took over me.Unexpectedly,the poetical muse came from nowhere and caught me in tight embrace.After almost some quarter century when I last wrote my second burst of poems,the poetical impulse gripped me and a non-stop flow of words,images and thoughts held me in tight embrace and the result was an altogether new volume of poetry.It runs to some 350 pages,covering the entire range of my mental landscape,one call it an alternative autobiography inverse.As for the poetical form,it is for the experts to pass judgment.There were too many critics willing to give credit for my poetical efforts and I am not sure about its real literary worth.But the rather drabber Tamil literary landscape and the literary establishment gave me more than adequate welcome.That pleased me enormously,to be honest.
In spite of extreme negative view of the Tamil literary scene today,as I am also a student of classical Tamil(Sangam)poetry’s unparalled universalism,the current narrow parochialism of the present somewhat makes me an outsider to the literary scene.Yet,I am glad that I also entered the establishment with my own distinct stamp.
All these thoughts come at a moment when I am giving thought how poetry and its close ally,philosophy to which I am also devoted ,make for a strange feeling of uniqueness,that is the unique power of these two branches of human thought has also led to the lives of the poets and philosophers having been always so tragic and so lonely and so troubled as for the individuals concerned.
But I no more consider myself a poet! Nor for that matter,I neither consider myself a philosopher,though I remain a student of philosophy.
Also,I have become so interested in reading philosophy since the late Fifties when I spent time at Oxford and came in close contact and also read philosophy as a subject.The time was the very high noon of the British philosophy and some of the practioners,A.J.Ayer,Gilbert Ryle,Isaiah Berlin and a great many others,famous and obscure and yet very dazzling too many to narrate who populated the Oxford-Cambridge landscape.
Also,literature,in particular poetry was practiced as a serious craft and my friend Dom Moraes started making waves.He won the Hawthordon Prize for poetry at an young age,he was just then 19,and this fired the imagination of all,Indians and the English literary world.Here again,I can cite so many personal associations,Stephen Spender and W.H.Auden and many others,John Lehman and others who used to visit the
Oxford Poetry Club which I joined as soon as I went up to Oxford.I was also greatly influenced by the English poets,T.S.Eliot was a great influence and also others,the great Romantic poets and I also came into contact with the Warden of Wadham College,Sir C.M.Bowra,the great scholar and literary critic who introduced me to European poetry.
Thus,my mind as it evolved during those years,as readers can imagine ,was highly conditioned by the influences I have briefly noted here.
Just now I have been reading through an important book on three of the leading Indian poets who wrote in English. Three Indian Poets,Nissim Ezekiel,Dom Moraes and A.K.Ramanujan(OUP),2005.It is edited by Bruce King who is an authority on Indian poets writing in English.The three poets happen to be the three major ones,pioneers in giving English poetry, as written and as it evolved in the Indian subcontinent.In fact,the latest news about Dom’s life in his last years I read just now has led me to think of poetry and the poets.Also,the latest I read about philosophers,the ever favorite volume I keep by my side,Will Durant”s”History of Philosophy”and in particular the chapter on Hegel disturbed me and haunted me for some time.Another latest volume I got hold is the one on the last years of Bertrand Russell. Ray Monk’s”Bertrand Russell:The Ghost of Madness 1921-1970″ gave me enormous pain and made me to swear almost in a moment of despair I wont read anymore of philosophy!Yes,such was the indescribable tragedy of the life of the great philosopher who delighted the world for so long with his powerful mind and his powerful pen.Yet,what a tragic family life,what tragedies his children had to end their lives!It is simply too much.It comes too much as a tragic anti-climax.
So,what value poetry?Philosophy? What use poetry?Philosophy?Do these two branches highest human endeavors have any value at all?
Others might think otherwise.As for me,I am shuddered to venture into poetry and philosophy,if the lives and the creative endeavors of poets and philosophers would only lead us to these tragic and unhelpful ends!
Anyway, Bruce King concludes his study of Dom’s poetry and its likely impact:”Moraes’ poetry offers little to those seeking literature about nationalism,cultural conflicts or social justice.Moraes became an exile wherever he lived.That requires an interest in psychology beyond easy political assumptions.The world of his poetry is mostly private,and what has influenced it is mostly private,his mother,his father,his inability or unwillingness to remain with a job, a place or a woman.Dom already an exile,before his education,he lived in all countries(Sri Lanka) and after education too became a citizen of the world,”deterritorialized”.”It was a life of impressive achievements and many disappointments”(page 204).
“His later Indian poems have a powerful maturity…more subtle use of literary conventions..such as the Renaissance love sonnet sequence and many allusions to canonical English lyrics by such writers as Shakespeare,Marvelle, and Donne,in these later,Indian,poems.Because he does not fit easily into the usual categories of criticism,it is going to take time before he is given his rightful place in India or world literary history,but he wrote many excellent poems and they will eventually find their place.His is a poetry of loss,of disappointment,of staying calm when knowing illusions will always turn to disillusionment;and these are also the themes of great literature.” The last sentence in the book concluded the essay thus:”In his later,especially final,poems he created his own monument by which he should be read and remembered”(page 205).
As I read these lines my eyes were filled with moist,I almost wanted to cry aloud,remembering my dear friend and colleague with whom I enjoyed so many years of warm friendship and also grieving at the same time his tragic partings and his final years when he died almost as an orphan,yet with such a rich heritage of sold achievements! That is the price a poetry pays for being what he is!A poet,I wondered.It took me a long time before I realized that I was grieving about a friend who when he lived ,lived like the toast of all high society ,in all continents.And in Oxford at my time,he was the toast of the young and the old,the great creative minds among whom he shone and rose like the giant of a man! May be it took me and those of us who were living in those times,that life after his Hawthornden Prize,we thought that the world was within our conquest,we almost conquered! I bought the first book of Dom ,almost with a religious fervor,”A Beginning”( 1957).Then,how life for a poet,for for poets in general,takes strange twists and turns.Dom Moraes,soon after his first flash of fame,still very young,edited a literary review,”Gemini”in which he published such literary luminaries,poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and rubbed shoulders with the great and the good.He was friend of W.H.Auden,Stephen Spender and knew T.S.Eliot well enough.
Yet,his life became rootless,he belonged neither to his own country nor to his adopted country.There is a touching poem in his collection.It is addressed to his poet-friend,’For Peter’.
It describes his world of Oxford friends who go home for holidays.
Then you went home,all of you went home.
To high teas,Gentleman’s Relish,maturity.
At the end you all knew where you came from.
All of you now have home,Peter,not me.
There cant be a more touching and pathetic line than this one.
It is not the poet was not aware of his material existence,his obligations to his family,his wife and son.There are so many moving references to these preoccupations that filled his minds at different times.His son,born to an English mother,living away from his in England haunted him often.In fact,he used to narrate his son’s visit once to his flat,it is Leela,his third wife owned flat in Bombay.His private wounds are many.In the sonnet,’Key’ the child is hidden behind a’Victorian lock,stiff’.In Bombay he lived on a British passport.He criticized the Government of India when it invaded Goa and liberated it. So,he became afraid the government might not allow him to come.So,he got himself a British passport and lived on.
One reason why he is not widely read and admired as much as other poets like Ezekiel and Ramanujan is the fact of his too much supposed ‘Englishness’.So,even for poets,you need an identity,a country and a people to lay claim for his or her poetical legacy!
Fifteen years after,he says
‘Asking me for his father who now possesses/No garden,no home,not even any key’.Moraes feels as father a failure to his son,both in lacking in property and also the key to property,key to to the emotional world of shared experiences which should bind father and son.
Likewise,his feelings for Leela(who was our good friend for years when Dom and she shared life together)find expression in several poems and they are all deeply moving.
We shall leave in ways we believed
Impossible in our youth,
A life tired,but in the end,
Not unhappy to have lived.
That is the price a poet pays,it seems,for the high praise when it starts coming.Also the later-life’s many unseen hits and bruises.
Surely a poet and a philosopher doesn’t live his or her life carefully and they dash against the wall so soon.That also how lives of many,like that of Plath ended in tragedy.
The other two Indian poets who wrote in English and achieved fame,namely,Nissim Ezekiel and A.K.Ramanujan,I knew them fairly well,I had not interacted with them personally but saw them and listened to their talks at some distance.I had great admiration for their pioneering works.Ezekiel was the senior most,he is the originator of the Indian English poetry,he mentored many poets,including Dom Moraes,Ezekiel was a Jew and this shaped his outlook,Dom was a Roman Catholic and spoke English at home and Ramanujan ,an orthodox South Indian brahmin married to a Syrian Catholic.Ezekiel became quite early in his career tuned to Indian nationalism and everything Indian about him,he lived and died in Bombay in 2004,aged 79. Ezekiel in his prime did much to promote English poetry,he got his poems published,he nurtured a generation of poets,including Dom and he collaborated with the Writers Workshop,Kolkatta with P.Lall and when he fell out he pursued various other interests.He was the founder-editor of the intellectual monthly,Quest,which also helped to bring out newer poetical talents,he took part in other cultural and literary activities and he became a college teacher and finally he was a professor of English in Bombay University.
When I used to visit Bombay often in the Eighties,when Dom was a constant presence there,I used to talk about him,though I had met him once by chance in New Delhi long ago,I used to promise myself to look him up in the English department past the university I used to walk often.But alas, the chance never came about.A great pity.
As for Ramanujan,I had again seen him once in a lecture in Chennai and I knew quite a number of his friends,all professors of English language is various colleges in Tamil Nadu,as Ramanujan also was once.But my interest in Tamil classical literature drew me towards Ramanujan’s many beautiful translations.Thus,I can claim in a modest manner I was a student of Ramanujan’s work in this area.It was a great achievement to get the Tamil Sangam classics translated in the way Ramanujan did and in fact,thanks to Ramanujan,it is now fairly easy to get access to the great beauty and unparalled universal appeal of the Sangam classics.The themes of love and war that is widely found in those classics have so much of an unbelievable modernity and deep humanism.That is the greatest contribution of the Dravidian literature,on par,even exceeding, with what you can find in Sanskrit or elsewhere. As I see him he is the true inheritor of the mantle of Ananda Kumaraswamy,the original Dravidian scholar genius.
Ramanujan later life took many quick promotions,he won the McArthur Prize and he also became interested in Buddhism and thus some of his last poems reflect his metaphysical concerns.
The place of both these poets in Indian literature in English is secure and they would be looked upon as the ones who extended the reach of English poetry from the country to international plane. Ramanujan,starting life as an English teacher,in those days the Mysore university English language graduates were in great demand in all colleges,so Ramanujan was in Madurai,Quilon and everywhere and finally migrated to Chicago where he died in 1993,age 64. Their life and poetical output make for very interesting and in fact,very absorbing reading.Owing to space constraint I desist from quoting from their output.Ezekiel is pure joy,pure poetical creations,Ramanujan excels as a translator from classical Tamil poetry and he remains to day as the authority on Tamil classical poetry. The book goes into the various stages of the life of the poets in a systematic manner and one could derive immense pleasure and become more fully attuned to the sounds and feelings of the Indian sensitivity.Pure and unalloyed by the later-day craze for more’Western’or’Westernised’ ways of writing for a ‘foreign’ audience or rather for the market demands.I read the entire book almost without even a break.Such is the poignancy and a sense of total identity with the Indian ethos and feeling in the two poets. The three poets have this common thread, their triumphs and tragedies ,while deeply moving ,their lives also make for the sort of a poetical and aesthetical mood or ambiance, their pieces of compositions bring to bear on the reader.on any sensitive reader.
Poetry is all about sensitivity,about tenderness of mind and spirit and all that lifts the mind and our experience to a new higher plane of seeing the world in a totality.
Poetry is about sensitivity and tendernesss
Poetry for me at any rate is all about attaining a new sensitivity and tenderness. Poetry is always a unique aestethic experience,it creates a new sense of elation,lights of suddenly many lights in different corners of our life and we feel we have become different when we experience through a poetical reading.Poets therefore have always been fascinating figures, they remain isolated always,isolated from the material world,from the routine world of existence that is the fate of us,the vast mass of people.Poets become either champions or revolutionaries,or they become bitter and they get removed from the society and live a life cycle that seems to me uniformly lonely,a life of solitude and much given to inner search and contemplation. Of course poets have lived more engaged lives like the poet Pablo Neruda and others who become serving the governments or other bodies.Most become exiles, this became the pattern during the domination of Communism. The happy poet is often an exception.
Poets as non-conformists
I cant think of a happy poet except one or two like Mathew Arnold or Tennyson and in our times,the poets as academic figures,teaching some even leading a humdrum life style.The more freer and independent spirits,the genuine ones are always at odds with society and politics. The more brave ones are of this type only.There is always a price for a free poet.Our memories are not long enough to forget the former Communist states where the lives of poets and writers were always at odds.
So any reflection on the lives of poets has to have a special mention of the poets and writers who suffered under Communism.
The ones who face such extreme situations are often the best poets,their very precarious or alienated existence gives their poetry some unique insights into their view of the world.The immediate names that come to my mind are the ones like Boris Pasternak(though he didn’t leave his country),there are others like Josef Brodsky and the Czech poet,Czeslaw Milosz,all the three won the Nobel Prize for literature!
I have enjoyed reading Milosz hours and hours,stopping after each line to savour the pathos and agony that emanate from those lines.
Here is one such poem that springs to my mind immediately.
My sweet European homeland.
A butterfly lighting on your flowers stain its
wings with blood,
Blood gathers in the mouth of tulips,
Shines,star-like,inside a morning glory
And washes the grains of wheat.
Your people warm their hands
At the funeral candle of a primrose
And hear on the fields the wind howling
In the cannons ready to be fired.
You are a land where it’s no shame to suffer
For one is served here a glass of bitter liquor
With lees,the poison of centuries.
His greatness was often against the spirit of the age,largely because the spirit of the age he lived was not liberal or open and it was anything but tolerant.So,he only dreamed of an age that would be different and luckily for him,it came in 1989 when communism failed and when he returned to his homeland.(He was in exile,teaching at Berkeley for many years).
I don’t know how many times I have quoted my favorite lines of his,here is once more for the readers benefit.
When will that shore appear from which at last we see
How all this came to pass and for what reason?
Yes,Communism was poison and it took so long and cost so many lives to realize it was so.How many paid by their lives?
Though not a poet,the novelist,Alexander Solzhenitsyn,who was recently honoured by Vladimir Putin,the Russian President for his”devotion to the fatherland” is another such immortal soul. In an acceptance speech,the great writer said:”I hope that until my life the experiences I have chronicled enters the consciousness and memory of my fellow countrymen.Our bitter national experience can yet help us to warn and ward us from destructive breakdowns, the possible repeat of unstable social conditions…”
It is not they,these poets and writers were all nationalists in any narrow sense,they were universal,they spoke for humanity,Solzhenitsyn criticized the West for its brutal materialism,he criticized the post-Soviet evolution and calling for a return to traditional moral values..”
The poetry of the last one hundred years also gives us a rare insight into the rise and fall of empires and the coming of new isms,the rise and the impact of Nazism,Fascism and Communism.The “bloody century”,or as Eric Hobsbawm calls its the “short twentieth century” from 1914 to 1989 is a period in human history that saw man’s many new sensibilities changed beyond comparison with the past.Poetry,painting,visual arts,commercial cinema and the media have all created a mass culture that is entirely new to modern day man.
So,poetry in the modern day mass culture,how would it impact our artistic tastes and sensibilities?
Seen in this light today’s much of poetry writing and poetry appreciation seems very pedantic.This doesn’t seem to be the time for any great poetry,it seems.
Historical periods and poetry’s response
It looks as if for any great poetry to emerge,you need great historical periods.
There have been such periods and poetry’s undying capacity to rise and and respond to such historic demands.Wordsworth and Coleridge and Southey,the Lake poets point to a historic context.So,too Shelley,Byron and Keats form a trinity,as it were and their full flowering at such a short period.Came the first World War and the inter war years of Nazism,Fascism and Communism.The second World war too gave rise to much poetical output.Rupert Brooke,T.S.Eliot and the whole lot of poets as detailed by J.M.Cohen’s”Poetry of this Age-1908-1945″.There are so many books on the poets under the Communist regimes.
Some historic events and isms trigger much uncertainties and man’s hopes dashed and there is a search for light and guidance.Poetry supplies this deep-felt need.
In India too,we can see the historic periods and events leading to bursts of creativity,in particular in poetry.Indian nationalism brought out so much in modern Indian poetry.I know this true for Bengali and Tamil literatures.May be other Indian languages poetry too responded in similar manner.
I see in the three poets writing in English language also somewhat coincide with the India in the 60s and 70s.Why and for what deeper reasons,critics only can enlighten us.
The new Indian identity,the new Indian personality can be understood only in its creative areas and I hope others ,more competent and with more specialised knowledge will come forward to take us further in this enquiry.
Today,the world seems to have run out of any stamina for great ideologies or compulsions to launch big wars.Yes,there is so much that is so much that is bloody even today,the terrorism and the wars against it have all led to new questions and new uncertainties.But it seems that at the same time there is a new upsurge in economic prosperity across the world and the regions.Men seem to be diverted in their search for seeking a new level of material comforts.Arts,popular arts thrive,there is lot of new experiments,cinema and theatre,new literature is being written outside the UK/USA and the Nobel Prize for Literature is reaching out to new languages.
As for poetry there is a lull.It is the same experience with other great intellectual pursuits.There is a new low in philosophic pursuits,and so too,in my view,in other intellectual speculations.We don’t have any clue as to what makes modern man resort to bloodshed,why this terrorist madness,why the USA is also pushing for brutal wars on assumptions that don’t carry the world along with its new type of aggression.Democracy is spreading and so too suppression of the many rights and freedoms.There is some pause,some uncertainty and so each nation and people seek to protect themselves in new walls of protection,anti-immigration laws and seek for domination of the rich over the poor nations.The recent G-8 meet proved the point.Climate change,green house gases everyone talks,no one wants to undertake any voluntary action.There is no sense of collective introspection or the will for collective endeavor.
May be a we have to wait for a new dawn to man’s new understanding of the world and the challenges to life and letters.
How life comes to pass for a philosopher?
Bertrand Russell’s life and tragedy
Bertrand Russell is universally known philosopher.In India his books are still bought and read and for those who don’t know much of his life,he is still a cult figure.
But his life has been a triumph and a great tragedy.Ray Monk,a philosopher himself and an author of books on Bertrand Russell,”Bertrand Russell:The Spirit of Solitude”and now,”Bertrand Russell:The Ghost of Madness 19211970″ has written in a very scholarly and detailed way the progress of Russell’s thought,has in the last book traced his final years.The reads well for the scholar of Russell and in a readable manner the book gives a quick assessment of how Russell came to write some of the milestone books and how the family life moved on.
Since Russell,right to his last days when he was a centenarian,a world figure of great appeal,he fought some of the most unpopular causes,from the days of the First World war to his last days when he set up the War Crimes tribunal and also took up the Vietnam war and much else he was always the centre of international and intellectual attention throughout his life.
But as we know of his public activities and life,we hardly know his private life.
It is a very difficult story and a very heart-rending story.His son,John,went mad,his grand-daughters,three of them all bright and one in particular,Lucy Russell,was the grandfather’s favourite and she showed so much talent but all that ended in great tragedy only.Russell,as we all know,was not just an academic philosophy,he extended the frontiers of modern knowledge,he enabled us to know what we can know about the world and what we call the truth,he is perhaps the first to break out of the old barriers to thought and brought a certain immediacy and certain cutting-edge to defining knowledge and truth.His power is not just the power of the intellect,he had a powerful pen,his style became a byword for simplicity and clarity.That is one reason why he reached to a large audience and the audience is still growing.
Yet,his role as a father,as an educationist,as an authority on morality,a political philosopher,as a consistent opponent of war,he sought peace,he opposed America and he went to jail to prove his convictions.How many philosophers,for that matter, how many practicing politicians have the courage to take up matters that go against the routine administration of law?
Yet,when it comes to understanding human psychology,family bonding,when it comes to growing one’s children,when it comes to treating women,wives and other women whose rights and capabilities he championed,Russell is as much a prophet as a disaster.
Ray Monk,while being a sympathetic writer,he shows his critical acumen when he says”When one becomes an extremely old man,he becomes extremely focused on one theme,to make the world a safe place for mankind.Yet he in his hurry adopts some extreme positions himself and more damaging he becomes a captive of others,the more selfish groups.”That is how he ended up getting into the clutches of one Ralph Schoenman,the founder of the Bertrand Russell Foundation that claimed the last years of Russell.
In his family so many tragedies were happening.He had too many wives,too many mistresses,he fought to get custody of his three granddaughters, in 1960,but by the time of his death,all the three,Anne,Sarah and Lucy became” bitterly” estranged from him.
Sarah showed much promise,she passed her O-level at 14 when children normally don’t take it till they were 16! Yet,so many things went wrong,she finally couldn’t pass her Oxbridge exam and she was haunted by the fate of her parents.She went off-track,so to say,finally she ,when she came back from her”adventures” that by 1975 when she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and finally one day she went into a church yard,somewhere in Wales,in a village,she poured paraffin on herself and burnt to death!Russell died in 1970 and he made it clear in his will of 1966 who among his children and family should come and should not,so other children,son Conrad and his family were there ,not Lucy.Lucy loved her parents,she loved her mother,Dora,whom Russell left long ago,and Lucy,soon after her grandpa’s death wrote to her mother:”If there are ghosts to lay, let them be laid,along with our childhoods”.That shows her pain and what came to pass as life for such a distinguished and talented family.So,one shudders to think of the lives of poets and philosophers.Let us all read and enjoy poetry and philosophy.But let us not become poets and philosophers,by any stretch of imagination! Yes,poets and philosophers,have so much value and yet they are also so much about what life can be and how difficult to make our way through the world.
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