I grew up in Eastern Libya, where people’s habits of mind are tied to their vernacular poetry. Like their kin across the border in the Western Desert of Egypt, the inhabitants of Eastern Libya “often punctuated their conversations with short poems” (Abu Lughod 24) called ghinawat ‘allam. The ‘allam poems bear a metonymic relation to given circumstances, and are deeply codified in conversation. Anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod, who studied ‘allam poetry, found that when she “asked what a poem meant,” people “either simply repeated the words or described the type of situation that might elicit that poem” (27).
Using vocabulary particular to the region’s dialect and condensed images, the ‘allam poems manage to convey meaning despite, and even because of, their density. In this context the ‘allam poem is held in collective ownership, where different emotions have their own poetic hieroglyphs. These hieroglyphs, which could be seen also as allegorical figures, include yass (despair), a feeling that the poet must combat constantly, and the ‘ain (the eye), which has a will of its own, weeping over the beloved and grieving over the lost. “Lucky is he who grips his will in hand, / and forgets a loved one who spurned him” There’s also the aziz (the beloved), who blames, who longs for the poet after too much time has passed, and who spurns and betrays. “I weep not because I miss her beautiful eyes; / it’s the betrayal that pangs me.”
People do not commonly ask who composed an ‘allam song. In fact, querying about the poet’s name is often met with a shrug of the shoulders. A poetic phrase or passage does not invite speculations about the poet’s intentions or origins, but about what the utterer / user of the poem means by it. There are times, however, when the lines of poetry recited belong to someone: an author. This is rare, but it makes all the difference. In Eastern Libya one wants to always know where a person comes from “tribally,” even in the cities of Beida and Benghazi. A poet’s presence might be noted if it is clear that there is a discrepancy between the author and his tribal background. Otherwise, as ‘Aqila notes, it is to be expected that the poet’s name would disappear, as would most of the poem’s context and historical circumstances (32), and the poem would belong to all its users across the region. This is the normal cycle of oral composition, in which it is also likely that other poets will pick up the poem and improvise upon it.
In Libya I also witnessed tremendous efforts to place poems in their historical contexts and to recall the often-heroic circumstances that brought about their composition. As a boy, I used to listen to a radio program called “Al-Shi’r wal Shu’ara” (“Poets and Poetry”) that was devoted to the classical Arab poetic tradition. Audience members often sent passages of poetry to the program, asking for information about a poem and the circumstances of its writing. The announcer, Muhammad El-Mahdi, would answer these requests by reading a short biography of the poet and providing the occasion of the poem. To me, the moment this clarification occurred amounted to placing the dots on the poem’s Arab letters.
El-Mahdi’s explanations asserted that a poem is an act that has a place in history. This is not to say that, once identified, the lines of poetry lost their emblematic or perhaps parabolic power. Rather, when girded by their historical and autobiographical contexts, poems are preserved from drifting into cliché. The specificity of the poet’s life and historical circumstances—or what I will call the poet’s presence—continues to exert a discursive pressure on the poem’s use or interpretation. This context is also necessary for establishing the status of the poem. Expressing disappointment when no author could be found for a poem sent his way, El-Mahdi seemed saddened that such a treasure lay unclaimed. Anonymity left a poem incomplete, less meaningful than it could otherwise be.
At stake in these two approaches I experienced in Libya is the question of who gets to claim agency: the utterer / user of the poem, or the person whom we know created it, or both? Though brought up to notice the push and pull between users of poetry who made poems their own and those who wanted to rescue the poet and the poem from anonymity, I spent most of my educational training identifying agency in neither. Even before hearing of New Criticism or Hermeneutics, I was trained in making the poem / text the center of attention. I read poems to discover complicated class tensions, psychological complexes, notions of gender, ambivalent religious feelings, and insights about a given historical epoch. In that sense, a text is like an artifact from a larger and more enduring whole. The poet’s intention is temporary and the reader’s circumstances change. The ideal act of reading, then, was a suppression of both.
Teaching William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from Songs of Innocence this summer at the University of Tripoli, I wanted to introduce my students to “irony”—specifically, to dramatic irony as one of the poem’s heroes, or what the Russian formalists called “the dominant device.” The other hero was the rampant exploitation that capitalism had fostered and religion’s contribution to the continuation of such oppression. And of course there was the five-year-old chimney sweeper likely to die soon of black lung, whose story is being told by the slightly older, naive speaker. But I found myself thinking of Blake and his presence in the poem. I needed him to understand the gesture his poem made. How did Blake go about getting himself to the point of writing the poem? What did the poet want to provoke or invoke by writing this poem? “Who is the sayer of this poem, and what was the occasion?” I found myself saying, in homage to El-Mahdi.
The relationship between the poet and his or her poem, and how that relationship facilitates the cultural resonance of a poem, is complicated, to say the least. This process is layered even when the poet and the reader are from the same culture and speak the same language. In none of the schools of Anglo-American poetry (Romanticism, Modernism, Confessionalism, postmodern post-language) does the poet forego the potential to connect with or impact the reader. Experimental poems may evoke alienation, but estranging the reader is at most a technique. Some post-language American poets argue that the difficult nature of their poems is meant to enliven the reader’s experience through defamiliarization, among other approaches. Here is how the poet Ron Silliman described the techniques of his fellow language poets and what they hoped to achieve:
By the creation of non-referring structures (Coolidge, Di Palma, Andrews), disrupting of context (Grenier, Dejasu), forcing meanings in upon themselves until they cancel out (Watten . . ., Palmer). By effacing one or more elements of referential language ( . . . the Russian Futurists), the balance within the words shifts, redistributes (118).
We note here that Silliman is careful to “redistribute” the balance after it “shifts,” and does not do away with balance completely. The disorienting effects, in which the poet’s language ranges beyond ordinary syntax and sense-making, are meant to lead to a new balance or a shared “field of action,” to use William Carlos Williams’s term (56). Thinking “with the poem and not with a preconceived master plan, and going where the poem led him” (Mariani 540) is how Paul Mariani explains W. C. Williams’s process, whereby the poet is a guide on a difficult journey with his reader as they slog through the dissonance of the modern experience, assembling meaning together.
In that way, most avant-garde poets share a similar outlook with the oral poets of my native region—they and their readers rely on a shared context. The poet assumes he is speaking to fellow citizens with whom he shares a common tongue and contingency. The ‘allam poet sometimes addresses his foes, whom he expects do understand his context and would want to put an effort into deciphering his complex images and allusions. The avant-garde artist similarly anticipates that our shared context would spur us to put a great deal of effort into deciphering her complex thoughts and filling in the blanks in her ellipses.
In other words, attempts at the elliptical and open-ended are inherently local, as they emerge from and speak to a given context. Like installation or performance art, some forms of experimental poetry that aspire toward renewal are bound in the collaborative and circumstantial convergence of their practitioners. Dada, surrealism, the New York School, the Beats, the two branches of language poetry that were also divided between the two coasts, and Negritude—all depend on a local context, and much is missed when that context is lacking. Similarly the ‘allam poem remains a phenomenon of Eastern Libya. Even after a 100 years of national unification, the ‘allam has not crossed beyond its region, and has never quite entered the city, but has remained on the outskirts, always ready to run back to its low-slung Green Mountains, its native ground. When recited in the city, it’s like a wild herb freshly plucked and fragrant with the rawness and delicacy of the outdoors. A plant that no one has planted.
Certainly, post-language poems are claimed by poets, but it’s difficult to connect that claim with a self responsible for the ideas, emotions, and experiences relayed. In fact, absenting the self, or transcending it, is part of the post-language project. Without a subject claimant, we are asked to make poetry itself the owner of these lines. For the ‘allam poet, absent and nameless as he or she may be, the adherence to a given meter in his or her poem and the treatment of familiar themes pave the way for the work’s insertion into poetry. It’s much harder, however, for the language / experimental poet, whose project may be even anti-poetic, to remember what the poetry is attempting to do. We are tempted to think here of how such self-less poems could be used.
How would one, for example, describe the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, as interesting as it is conceptually? Are there any lines to remember or substantial ideas that can be perceived as his? He is known as the poet who turned the New York Times edition of September 11, 2001 into a book (of poems, perhaps), and also known for his trilogy of Weather, Traffic, and Sports, where radio reports are transcribed and edited in a particular manner to perhaps create total immersion, circularity, and repetition to generate poetic effect or induce narrative pleasure. In Day, the absence of the tragic event allows the poet to project his grief and loss and thus make his statement. The fact that he actually transcribed the day’s edition himself into one book constitutes an act of dedication, and even exaction by him. Tension is created with the transcription, moving page by page rather than article by article. It asserts the poet’s presence in his act of reading and processing. But how do we weigh Day as a response? In essence, it’s an attempt to capture a world that existed before the bombings, with many hints of a lost innocence perhaps, and indications that the world was changed utterly—to use Yeats’ line—by the 9/11 events. The preservation of this state of not-knowing stands as an act of elegy and consolation for the poet’s fellow New Yorkers.
But in retrospect we cannot fail to see the sentimentality both in the statement made—the assertion of innocence—as an aspect of melodrama and in the poet’s act of sitting down to transcribe the whole edition, an act of suffering and labor undertaken for the whole city. It’s very difficult not to see through that element of the gesture. Goldsmith’s most recent work Seven American Deaths and Disasters revisits the assassination of JFK, RFK, John Lennon and other tragic deaths. Made up of transcripts of radio broadcasts as the incidents unfolded, the book attempts to capture people’s shock to evoke a state of unknowing that characterizes an earlier version of America. Using what may be a revolutionary textual technique, Goldsmith’s works are deeply conventional. And that conventionality may be highlighted by the poet’s absence, or what may have been seen as an avant-garde technique.
A more revolutionary work, perhaps, Sunset Debris by Ron Silliman is made up entirely of questions. Here’s a passage:
Is it like this in dream? Can you smell the rain? What was the reason for the suitcase of doughnuts? Was that government grammar? Why is that window made out of blue glass? Are those sea birds or birds of prey? Which shore is Africa, which is Spain? Is that what one would call a high sky? How can I know that what you feel is pain, orgasm, satisfaction? What are you thinking? (Silliman, 2002)
It would exhaust me to try to find a sequential or symmetrical arc to the questions or determine if the book adds up to an argument, or even a persona, in the way that Beckett’s novels do. Though full of beautiful and evocative language, Sunset Debris is not a book that I could read in one sitting, or could read for more than a few snippets at a time. A writerly text, it is a perfect prompt for writing (perhaps non-experimental texts), inviting us to fill the void left by its unanswered and unclaimed questions.
And I suspect too that Goldsmith’s works will in due time begin to have a talismanic life. People will speak of them and not necessarily read them. (A scholar of experimental writing once told me, confidentially, that she likes hearing experimental writers talking about their work more than she does reading the works themselves). As a New York City book, I can imagine Goldsmith’s Day gaining sentimental value, to preserve memory, a testament of collective suffering, but not being read. Like the ‘allam songs, experimental works are indeed useful.
If poetic experimentation and trenchantly local oral poetry do not travel well, the poets of our modern age have been on the move, crossing borders and languages and cobbling together audiences from various parts of the globe. The twentieth century has been a century of great European and Latin American poets. But when I think of poets who stepped outside their linguistic milieus and tried to speak for, and speak to, multiple constituencies, it’s Rabindranath Tagore and Mahmoud Darwish who come to mind. Not even part of Western literature, and yet arguably among the best-known poets of the twentieth century, Tagore and Darwish sought to be heard by people outside their “national” milieus. The pressure their life stories and their poetic personae exert on their poems enriches our reading of their poems and our sense of poetry as a vital art form.
Poets from colonized or occupied territories, Darwish and Tagore had to address the powerlessness and lowly status of their nations. Their poetic projects attempt to re-negotiate this perception, and place them as speakers for their people and as unique individuals at the same time. They are what could be called “Identifying Poets,” to use a term coined by the Scottish critic Robert Crawford. Identifying Poets are poets “who have made for themselves identities which let them be identified with, restate, or even renovate the identity of a particular territory” (Crawford 1). In the identifying poet’s work, we can discern the formation of an “‘I,’ which is at some remove from the ‘I’ of the authorial producer. . . . It is not a piece of individual soul-bearing so much as the creation of a textual self” (3-4). The identifying poet’s persona is attuned to the world and “depends less on a looking-in than on a looking-out” (12). As such, it allows the identifying poet to position himself as an active agent in negotiating how cultural and even psychological territories are drawn.
To be sure, Crawford’s use of the term “territory” in his definition of the identifying poet is largely geographical. The poet creates a textual self that allows him to speak from both sides of the boundaries of self and culture, a presence that girds the poems with necessary context, lest the poem be lost in the oblivion of poetry, or in the echo chamber of a shared cause. In the cases of Darwish and Tagore, the poetic “identifying” persona stands on the poet’s own shoulders, and feeds on his history and experience. And it gives forth poems that unfold into deeper layers of meaning as we dig deeper into their contexts and occasions, poems that become monumental for their being rooted in self and history.
Born in a village that was razed by the Israeli army in 1948, and living as a present absentee in his native land and then as an exile for most of his life, Darwish acknowledges that the confrontation with the Israeli occupier who threatens the lives of all Palestinians has been a constant presence in his life—a source of poetic energy as well as an impediment to poetic creation. “My early interest in poetry developed with my realization that I am a victim of some form of military and political aggression,” he states (Darwish, 1971 244). To write poetry “that focuses and fascinates the reader’s mind” (377) on the Palestinian contingency had been one of Darwish’s lifelong aims.
This irreconcilable strain between poetry of political contingency and the dream of “universal,” non-contingent poetry can be detected very early in Darwish’s career. In “To the Reader,” published in 1964, the eighteen-year old Darwish apologizes for writing about the political conditions that have driven him to anger. The assumption here is that anger would not have been part of his poetry, had he a choice in the matter:
To the Reader
Black irises in my heart
and on my lips . . . flame.
From what forest did you come to me?
O crosses of anger?
I have allied myself to sorrows,
I have shaken hands with banishment and hunger
My hands are anger,
my mouths is anger
the blood of my arteries a juice of anger.
O my reader
do not ask me to whisper,
do not expect musical delight. (2005 15)
Where did this anger come from, the poet asks, and why was he burdened with it? These questions suggest that the poet was once in a state that precluded anger, and that anger is not his ordinary nature. We as readers, however, wonder when that peaceful state could have existed for Darwish and his people between 1948, the year Israel came into being and the Palestinian dispossession began, and the time of the poem’s writing.
Until that point, no such precaution was heard of or deemed necessary in twentieth-century Palestinian poetry. We are left to wonder what place the poet wishes to carve out for himself by bemoaning his unwanted anger. He states that he would rather write love poetry—full of positive emotions, serene meditations, and lyricism—than address the causes of his plight and anger.
Couched in apology, the poem is not without coyness. The poem is short enough that it can indeed be whispered to explain the poet’s intention and dilemma. The poet is clearly being ironic when he tells us not to expect musical delight, for the poem is precisely measured and exquisitely rhymed in Arabic. Fulfilling his artistic obligations, the poet asserts his presence, expressing a dilemma that he may have known would preoccupy him throughout his career—mainly, a desire to write poems that do not arise from a fateful anger or, later, exile, siege, and betrayal.
Another poem, written in 1964, “Identity Card” has been a fan favorite throughout the Arab world, one that audiences frequently asked Darwish to read at his recitations. The poem was made into a popular song and has been an unofficial Arab nationalist anthem for decades. Yet it is one that Darwish never read in public after leaving Israel / Palestine in 1971:
Write it down!
I am an Arab
employed with fellow workers at a quarry.
I have eight children.
I earn their bread,
clothes and books
out of these rocks.
I do not beg for charity at your doors.
Nor do I kneel
on your marble floor.
So does this anger you?
Record at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
nor do I steal.
But if I become hungry
I will eat my robber’s flesh.
Beware then, beware of my hunger
and my anger! (2005, 80–84)
The poem’s speaker, whose life details bear a remarkable resemblance to those of Darwish’s own father, was expelled from his village, lost his farm, ended up working in a quarry, and fathered eight children. The angry speaker has suffered patiently and remained proud despite living under occupation. But now he draws a red line: he will not beg from the one who stole his land, and he will fight his usurper to fend off hunger; indeed, he will turn into a cannibal if need be. The speaker’s last words, “Beware of my hunger and my anger,” (2005 84) irrevocably intertwine these two conditions. This poem provides a basis for the anger expressed in “To the Reader.”
Why, then, has Darwish refused to recite the poem in public since he left Palestine / Israel? During one packed recitation in Beirut, a member of the audience kept saying “Write it down, / I am an Arab,” asking that Darwish read the poem. Fed up with the repeated request, Darwish shot back at the listener, “Write it down yourself!” and went on to read a different poem (al-Sayyid, 2008 7).
According to Darwish, the circumstances sparking the poem occurred when he was placed under partial house arrest in Haifa in the mid-1960s. “‘Write it down: I am Arab!’ I said that to a government official,” Darwish explained. “I said it in Hebrew to provoke him, but when I said it in Arabic (in the poem) the Arab audience in Nazareth was electrified” (Darwish 2007a, 180). The poem, a dramatic monologue addressed to Darwish’s detainers, continues as a translation of what Darwish would have said to the Israeli policemen in Hebrew.
“Identity Card” was written within the first two decades of the state of Israel, a time when the word “Palestine” was banned, and Palestinians were merely Arabs. The electrified audience gathered in a Nazareth cinema in 1964 asked Darwish to repeat the poem six times, thrilled with the way the poem turns “Arab” from a derogatory term into a declaration of dignified humanity before the Israelis, who confiscated their lands and designated them third-class citizens.
In Beirut in the 1970s and thereafter, the refrain—“Write it down, / I am an Arab”—took on a different resonance, devoid of the specific context in which Darwish wrote the poem. “Write it down, / I am an Arab!” became an anthem expressing Arab national pride, as opposed to the defiance of subjugation and racism that the poet had meant it to be. Darwish explains, “the Jews call the Palestinian an Arab, and so I shouted in my tormentor’s face ‘Write it down, I am an Arab!’ Does it make sense then for me to stand before a hundred million Arabs saying ‘I am an Arab’? No, I’ll not read the poem” (al-Qaissī, 2008 13).
Here, Darwish suggests that poems do target different audiences and serve as specific rhetorical gestures or even as political messages that should not be taken out of their historical contexts. In other words, poems do not necessarily have “universal” messages, because they emerge during different contingencies with different interlocutors. The poet imposes his presence on the poem, refuses to grant his poem permission to travel beyond his intended meaning. Audiences read the poem as they wished, but in the lore of “Identity Card,” the poet’s disapproval of such readings casts a shadow on the poem and becomes part of the reading experience.
Thirty-six years later, in 2000, Darwish published a book-length poem titled Jidariya (Mural) to wide acclaim in the Arab world. A few years before, Darwish had told a documentary filmmaker that he wished for the Palestinian trauma to end, just so that he would know how good a poet he is (Bitton, 1997). The poet continued to suspect that his work, attached as it was to Palestine and the Palestinians, could only be judged on the basis of that attachment. He longed for an opportunity to demonstrate his skills in the daylight of artistic judgment alone. Darwish wrote Mural in France shortly after he survived major heart surgery. He was briefly in a coma and had a near-death experience:
Nothing ails me at the gate of Judgment day,
not time or emotions.
I feel neither the lightness of things
nor the heaviness of premonitions . . .
There is no nothingness here
in the no-here, in the no-time,
of no existence.
(Darwish 2006, 442–43)
The world is white in “this sky of the absolute” (443). The speaker suspects he had died previously because he “know[s] this vision” (443) and knows he is heading somewhere he does not know. From this nexus of oblivion and erasure emerges poetic renewal and possibility:
I am still alive somewhere and I know
what I want to be . . .
One day I will be what I wish to be,
one day I will be an idea, carried by a sword
to free a wasteland with a book in hand,
as if it were rain falling on a mountain aching,
aching with the grass bursting through its soil,
somewhere where power had not won
nor where justice has become a fugitive.
One day I will be what I wish to be . . .
one day I will be a poet . . .
One day I will be what I wish to be. (446-47)
Darwish’s repetition of “One day I will be what I wish to be” vacillates between chant and plaint; the hope it seeks is singed by a long struggle with despair. Most inspiring, and also humbling, in this passage is Darwish’s declaration that he wishes to be a poet one day. What horizons, aesthetic or otherwise, could this poet be seeking if he thinks he has never been a poet to begin with? Darwish’s presence is necessary to appreciate the depth of this passage, given when it was said and by whom, as Muhammad al-Mahdi would have reported on his radio program. Context is important and enriching, as it adds a dramatic layer and a great amount of pathos to the rich lyricism, which indeed could stand alone, but is now complemented by a rich landscape of signification.
Implied in the sketch of the new poet Darwish would be is the whiteness (of death) that he wished to fill with his poetry, the whiteness of the blank page (the pages he filled with poetry erased and forgotten), and the whiteness of the identity card on which his fate had been inscribed. All the poet needed to do in this new space / place, as the nurse instructed him, was to “remember your name to keep it safe. / Do not betray it, / pay no mind to the banners of the tribes. / Be a good friend to your name.” (2006, 447). His muse at the time, she reminds him to remember his presence, to insist on the dignity of his person and his artistic project.
Rabindranath Tagore’s career is so multi-faceted it is difficult to know where to begin with him. Writing poetry, fiction, essays, and drama, Tagore helped shape Bengali modernity with a wide-ranging body of work that positioned him as an educator, cultural critic, and rebel. Tagore’s initial appearance on the literary scene in Bengal in 1875 received genuine enthusiasm, though it was in fact a prank. Fourteen at the time, Tagore invented a classical poet named Bhanisimha and wrote poems that were so well contrived they passed as genuine articles. Critics lauded the newly discovered ancient bard who ended up being the subject of a doctoral dissertation in Germany in the late 1880s (Robinson and Dutt 12; Krishna 71; Thomson 10).
The enthusiasm that met Tagore’s ploy was not entirely due to his genius. Bengal was at the center of India’s renaissance at the time, which launched the struggle against British colonialism. Long settled into a habitual veneration of their history, Indians turned toward their literary heritage—some of it discovered by Orientalists—as a basis for their claim to be among the world’s nations. It was important to try to match the English at their literary skills. Writers such as Toru Dutt, Henry Durozio, Sri Auribindo, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt attempted that. It was equally important to prove that India has produced outstanding literary works throughout the ages.
Tagore was aware of this anxiety, and perhaps it was inevitable for a young poet in a household of poets to use this anxiety to distinguish himself. Clearly, by duping those he wished to impress, Tagore signaled open disregard for their taste. The classical tradition was so steeped in convention, so unoriginal, that a precocious fourteen-year-old could easily imitate it, he seems to say. But the mastery is ultimately a deep acknowledgement of that tradition. Tagore’s youthful prank positioned him as both an inheritor of a literary tradition and a rebel intent on reshaping it.
Soon thereafter, and writing under his own name, Tagore takes up his mission. In the poem “Unending Love,” he writes, “My spell-bound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs / that you take as a gift” (1985 49). The songs are to be cherished because of their “merging” with “the songs of every poet past and forever” (49). The love the poet-speaker expresses is only as strong as his ability to weave the countless loves that preceded it.
The poet’s love is made of “old love, / but in shapes that renew and renew forever.” It is “heaped before” the beloved’s feet. “It has found its end in you, / The love of all man’s days both past and forever.” While there is no claim for uniqueness, it is the poet who takes the old poems and old love and shapes them anew. It all comes through him in a grand act of appropriation. But unlike someone reciting an ‘allam poem, Tagore is not merely using the old poetry; he is assembling it, shaping it, and carrying it forward.
In another early act of appropriation, Tagore’s poem “Meghaduta” bears the same title as a poem by the ancient poet Kalidasa, whose original is in the voice of a devotee of Kubera, the god of wealth. After being exiled for a year to central India, the poet-speaker of Kalidasa’s poem addresses a cloud and implores it to reach his beloved. The cloud crosses the geography of India, cataloging her people, her flora and fauna, her gods and myths, making the poem an idyll that ties these impressions of the land with the most noble human emotions.
In his “Meghaduta” Tagore praises his predecessor Kalidasa:
In a single day the heart-held grief of a thousand years
Of pining, long repressed tears,
Broke time’s bonds, and seems to have poured down…
and drenched your noble stanzas. (1985 50)
As in “Unending Love,” we re-encounter the idea that Kalidasa’s poem is made of layers of sounds and feelings. But what was in the poet’s verses before they were drenched by other voices? Tagore never quite clarifies. He does suggest, however, that Kalidasa simply received his poem and his poem did not come into being until the echoes of other lovers entered it and gave it form.
Tagore goes on to interrogate his predecessor, asking him several rhetorical questions, partly to state his own poetic agenda. He writes:
Did every exile in the world that day
Raise his head, clasp his hands, face his beloved’s home
And sing to the clouds one and the same
Song of yearning? Did each lover ask a fresh, unfettered cloud
To carry on its wings a tearful message of love
To the distant window where his beloved
Lay wretched on the ground with clothes disordered
And hair unplaited and weeping eyes?
Did your music, O poet, carry all their songs
As you journeyed in your poem through land after land
Over many days and nights
Toward the lonely object of your love? (1985 50)
Tagore’s questions are stacking the deck against Kalidasa. He’s inviting us to doubt that Kalidasa’s poem could achieve all these goals, and in essence asking us to move beyond the ancient bard. Reading Kalidasa’s poem again, Tagore’s poet-speaker is ready to strike on his own. His mind “leaves the room, / travels on a free-moving cloud, flies far and wide” (1985 51).
Tagore can’t help but take Kalidasa to task once more. Ending his poem with a wish for reconciliation, Kalidasa had addressed the cloud that gave him his journey, saying, “May you never be separated even for a moment / from your beloved lightning” (Kalidasa 21). In response, Tagore’s in his “Meghaduta” is “sleepless half the night, asking / Who has cursed us like this? Why the gulf?” (1985 52) between lover and beloved. “Why do we aim so high only to weep when thwarted? / Why does love not find its true path?” Tagore adds.
By the end of Tagore’s poem, we realize that he has been engaged in an almost point-by-point tessera (a completion based on antithesis) of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta. Tessera, a term resuscitated by Harold Bloom, refers to a process whereby
the poet antithetically “completes” his precursor’s work, by so reading the parent poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough. (1973 66)
The fact of separation is unshakeable, and while Kalidasa’s poem provides an imaginative leap at assuaging it, it does little to lift “the curse” within which Tagore feels trapped. Tagore’s work deconstructs his predecessor’s work and introduces a new anxiety that shows both his command and transcendence of his predecessor’s work. He positions himself as the beginning of a new literature fit for a new age.
Much time and circumstance pass between the poems above and the poem I’ll discuss now. In the forty years between, Tagore became the leading poet in Bengal and indeed all of India. He travelled to England in 1912, at the age of fifty-two, for medical treatment, and there met Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats. A sheaf his translations of his own poems, edited and introduced by Yeats, became Gitanjali, a book of powerful, seemingly devotional poems that earned Tagore the Nobel Prize in 1913. Tagore hardly stopped travelling after that, and his growing fame took him everywhere. Gitanjali and much of Tagore’s poetry that was translated into European languages fostered the notion of him as a poet-guru from the East. It was a persona that Western audiences were willing to accept and that Tagore did not refuse. Tagore believed Eastern spirituality could ameliorate the effects Western materialism and destructive nationalism had on the rest of the world. He also believed that Western rationality and science could help the “East” recover from its poverty, sectarianism, and caste and ethnic divisions. In Gitanjali and later works, Tagore expresses a yearning for connection that remains bold and affecting. Tagore’s drive to travel and network, his practice of ubiquity, and his desire to infuse people with awareness of events and happenings around the world arose from an existential need. “If I do not apprehend what is outside of me, I do not feel myself either. The stronger the sense of the world outside, the more robust is the sense of one’s own inner being” (Tagore, 2001 293). Awareness of the outside world, be it present or past, helps the poet locate the self, and indeed positions him to compose his poetry. He can only know his own feelings through the tableau of a wide range of feelings and experiences happening around him, be they near or far. Tagore traveled all over the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. He went to Japan and tried to convince the Japanese to quit their racist nationalism. He met with Mussolini and tried to do the same.
The onset of World War II felt like a personal defeat to Tagore, having seen it coming, and having warned against racist nationalism everywhere he went. His grief is best witnessed in “Bombshell,” a poem that only Tagore could have written:
The sinking sun extends its late afternoon glow.
The wind has dozed away.
An ox-cart laden with paddy-straw bound
For far-off Nadiya market crawls across the empty open land,
Calf following, tied on behind
Over towards the Rajbamsi quarter. Banamali Pandit’s
Eldest son sits
On the edge of a tank, fishing all day.
From overhead comes the cry
Of wild duck making their way
From the dried-up river’s
Sandbanks towards the Black Lake in search of snails.
Along the side of newly-cut sugar-cane
Fields, in the fresh air of trees washed by rain,
Through the wet grass,
Two friends pass
They came on a holiday,
Suddenly bumped into each other in the village.
One of them is newly married—the delight
Of their conversation seems to have no limit.
All around in the maze
Of winding paths in the wood, bhati-flowers
Have come into bloom,
Their scent dispensing the balm
Of Caitra. From the jarul-trees nearby
A koel-bird strains its voice in dull, demented melody.
A telegram arrives:
“Finland pounded by Soviet bombs.” (1985 118-119)
The form of the poem immediately implies the imbalance of its content. A heavy, laden stanza almost dripping with life precedes a spare couplet with devastating news.
By the time we read the last couplet, we are forced to read the poem again to seek clues, as if on a crime scene, to absorb the shocking conclusion. Was anything indicative of the oncoming shelling? Was the natural scene in Bengal trying to tell us something about what was happening a world away, and if so, what was it? We see only scenes of slow movement: a bullock-drawn cart “crawls,” two friends pass each other slowly, and a boy sits fishing all day. The bhati flowers seem as giddy as Wordsworth’s daffodils, as do the friends who meet unexpectedly, one of whom has just gotten married. The koel-bird’s dull and demented melody does ring with foreshadowing, but we cannot be certain.
In this closed world, the birds’ cries prove to be false alarms, a trick of our own minds that forces us to face our desire to connect our foregone displacements. To remain at rest in such a place is to admit despair and helplessness. The news from Finland informs us that another country has been drawn into World War II, a conflict that Tagore anticipated and vigorously opposed. In Tagore’s refusal to comment on the impact of this devastating news, we are pervaded by the disappointment of a man’s work gone to naught. Tagore’s presence in the poem is the shock and anguish that fills the white space between the two stanzas. Recognizing the poet’s presence, we too are trapped in the disappointment and pain of our inability to be in two places, and to transport the peace of one place to another.
In his short story “La Busca de Averroes” (“Averroes’s Search”) the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the difficulty that Averroes, the famed Islamic philosopher, faced in translating Aristotle’s Poetics because he had never seen live drama. A traveler who had gone to China tries to describes to Averroes a dramatic performance he had seen there:
One evening, the Muslim merchants of Sin-I Kalal conducted me to a house of painted wood in which many persons lived. . . . There were people sitting on the floor as well, and also on a raised terrace. The people on this terrace were playing the tambour and the lute—all, that is, save some fifteen or twenty who wore crimson masks and prayed and sang and conversed among themselves. These masked ones suffered imprisonment, but no one could see the jail; they rode upon horses, but the horse was not to be seen; they waged battle, but the swords were of bamboo; they died, and then they walked again . . .
No one understood, no one seemed to want to understand. Abu-al-Hasan, in some confusion, swerved from the tale he had been telling them into inept explanation. Aiding himself with his hands, he said: “Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it. . . . It was something like that that the persons on the terrace showed us that evening.”
“Did these persons speak?“ asked Faraj.
“Of course they did,” said abu-al-Hasan, now become the apologist for a performance that he only barely recalled. . . . They spoke and sang and gave long boring speeches!”
“In that case,” said Faraj, “there was no need for twenty persons. A single speaker could tell anything, no matter how complex it might be.”
I thought about Borges’s story as I was writing this essay and as it was becoming clear that I was siding with the poet’s presence over his erasure or absence. Was I making the same mistake as my ancestor Averroes, missing out on a great art form? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Averroes’s is a great story and it is there to remind us never to take an absolute stance on any form of art to be fully alive as poets and human beings.
The ‘allam poems remind us that poetry can move thoughts further, and can ennoble emotions by affirming them in ways we could not express. But with Muhammad El-Mahdi as an inspiration, too, it was not difficult to create a myth of Darwish and Tagore as genies who managed to burst out of their respective lamps of colonial obscurity and forge, out of the solitude of their craft, responsive and enduring works of art. Both have much to teach us about the evolution of poetic agency in the world today, where many of the poets we read come from places where poetry takes on cultural and political duties in addition to providing lyric insight and musical delight. Such duties could not have been fulfilled in the cases of Darwish and Tagore without the poets claiming a place in poetry. Granted, poems should stand alone, should be able to say what they say, like photographs, perhaps to convey their content. But do we lose anything in a poem when the poet’s presence or story fulfills other contexts? What’s wrong with a poem that conveys a life lived as well as the circumstance? There’s nothing wrong, of course. In fact, our knowledge of the poet’s presence provides enriching and sometimes necessary dimensions to fully read the poems. As to the ‘allam poetry of my region, which has lived without a poet’s presence, it has managed to finds its musical way to people’s ears, and to address their sorrow and despair for millennia. Not many poems can easily claim that. But perhaps remembering our names as Darwish’s nurse commanded him, claiming our poems, and positioning our poetic projects from a standpoint of ambition and relevance is use enough to us as readers and poets.
 Kalidasa’s biography is in dispute. It is reported that he lived somewhere between the fourth and first centuries BC.
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