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“This Simple and Terrible Thing”

How Kedarnath Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral defy established movements in Hindi poetry

By Mantra Mukim | 1 March 2017

HOW DOES POETRY ENGAGE with the world without referring overtly to something larger than the poem itself, such as an allegory of the nation or the hope of a coming insurrection? The work of three contemporary Hindi poets—Kedarnath Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral—offers a possible answer to that question. The concerns of their poetry might seem limited, yet these poets have, through their intense engagement with language, shown how poetry’s formal and stylistic concerns can renew one’s connection with the world. The microscopic focus of their poems does not sunder the ties between the poem and the world but forges it in rather new and original ways.

Singh, Shukla and Dabral all started writing around the 1960s, when the Pragativaad, or progressive movement,which emphasised the social content of poetry, had already given way to Nayi Kavita,or New Poetry, which sought to pay attention to the poetic form. Pragativaad and Nayi Kavita represented two strains of thought about how poetry ought to be written, and they influenced the poetic choices that all succeeding Hindi poets have made since.

Kedarnath Singh, published in the last of the three pioneering anthologies of Nayi Kavita edited by Agyeya, a pre-eminent Hindi poet and novelist of the time, was, unlike Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral, involved with the movement formally before he parted ways with it.

All three poets, nevertheless, have had to recognise the divergence between progressive writing and new aesthetics in their work, and yet, their poetry steers clear of any assimilation by either of the movements. This resistance to stable forms and identities gave their poems an indefinable quality of “newness,” compared to the work of those who had preceded them. I would like to ask, through a close reading of a few of Shukla, Dabral and Singh’s poems, how this newness has entered their poetry, and how it has altered the relation between language and world.

All three poets have been recently translated afresh into English, which makes this an apt time to consider their work. Singh’s recent collection Banaras and Other Poems, published by the Sahitya Akademi—which also awarded him the Sahitya Akademi prize in 1989 for his collection Akal Mein Saras (Cranes in Drought)—contains work by a range of translators, such as the prolific poet Vinay Dharwadker, the American academic Christi Merill, and the book’s editor, the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan. The book also includes a long, probing introduction by the literary scholar Harish Trivedi, along with essays by Satchidanandan and Dharwadker. The Collected Poems of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, published by Penguin in 2014 and hailed as a major literary event in Indian English poetry, carries some of his translations of the Hindi poet and novelist Vinod Kumar Shukla. Shukla, who received the Sahitya Akademi prize for his novel Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (A Window Lived in the Wall)in 1999, is a difficult poet to translate and write about, and Mehrotra is the only one who has successfully attempted to do both. Translations of Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry appeared in a 2014 collection from the publisher Poetrywala titled This Number Does Not Exist. The beautifully designed volume represents Dabral’s diverse idioms well in translations by figures such as Asad Zaidi, Rupert Snell, Girdhar Rathi and Daniel Weissbort, among seven others. Each translator’s choices of poems and diction reveal a bit about his or her affinity for different aspects of Dabral.

In extending the parameters of both progressive and experimental writing, these three poets seem to be together upholding a space for the literary, which, although open to socio-political and historical discourses, isn’t a conduit for them. Translation, as a literary exercise, brings home the question that these poets have in their sometimes playful, sometimes grave, austereness raised in their poetry: what is literature?

IN A 1993 INTERVIEW to EV Ramakrishnan, published in the Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal, Indian Literature, Kedarnath Singh said: “In all my writing there is resistance towards ideological bias. The stress is not on locale, but on the way one apprehends reality. Seeing is being, as Tomlinson would say.” Singh associates the ideological bias in poetry with a portrayal of the world that is oblivious to the way that reality is directly apprehended through the human senses. Poetry with a clear political aim, in his view, is more attentive to the details of reality in order to pass a judgment upon them, rather than notice how a person “apprehends” or individually approaches that reality. This bias was precisely what occasioned Nayi Kavita, which marked a departure not from progressive politics per se but from the Pragativaad poets’ sidelining of the poetic process for more straightforward ideological content. Singh’s first collection Abhi, Bilkul Abhi, from 1960, is a testament to how his work is caught in the moment of discerning reality rather than producing a simple and imitative relation to reality, political or otherwise.

Although the Nayi Kavita movement consisted of a diverse bunch of poets, often with irreconcilable political positions, their ambitions with regards to literature were similar: to use language with an intimacy that resulted in an acute awareness of the poetic process and craft. However, in Singh’s interview, he says that poetry is a “communication-oriented consciousness. This aspect of poetry was neglected by Taar-Saptak poets”—like Agyeya or Raghuvir Sahay who were indifferent to their readers within the poem—“and Nayi Kavita movement.”Singh is talking about a kind of poetry that, even in its close transaction with language, does not result in formal solipsism—a style he identified with his predecessors. Instead, it addresses the reader directly and incorporates the process of reading within writing. His poem ‘Blank Page,’translated in the volume by Dharwadker, shows us how this effect might be achieved.

On a blank page
There’s no dawn no dusk
There’s a midnight sun
shining down on it
from beyond the hemisphere
Look closely
you can see a pair of pale eyes
glittering there
the fire of a tiger’s lovely coat
is leaping and spreading on your desk
Reach out and run your fingers
through this violent fur
there’s nothing to fear
a blank page
is soft and gentle like your skin
ancient like your love
free like your hatred
civilized like your fingernails
and salty like your blood
Touch it
it feels like the pulse
in your neck
This is what poetry does
This simple and terrible thing –
after all our words
it always leaves us
with a blank page

Singh’s entire poem plays on the blankness of a blank page, which in its myriad forms seems to become an analogy for everything, from the “tiger’s lovely coat” to the “pulse” in the reader’s own neck. Because one cannot read a blank page, the reader absorbs it immediately without attaching to it any significance. Singh, in talking about that empty space, creates an intermediary between the language of poetry, which is immersed in meaning-making, and the empty space that lacks it. One of the limitations of Nayi Kavita that Singh had wanted to dodge, as he stated in the interview, was precisely this: that its poems seemed to engage with language without seeming aware of the place of language in literature. By attending to the page and its economy, the poem seems to reinforce its status as literature. Instead of giving in to an exclusive formalism, Singh’s poem both immerses itself in language and marks its borders by highlighting the blank page of any reading practice.

Another crucial departure that Singh makes in the poem is that instead of defining poetry for what it is, he dwells on what “poetry does.” And what poetry essentially does, in Singh’s opinion, is not refer to anything tangible or evident but inhabit the blankness—which is, intriguingly, both “simple” and “terrible.” It is probably this peculiar combination that makes Singh turn to not just any language but that of literature, specifically poetry, which, even in its simplicity or apparent lucidity, occasions something terrible that escapes meaning. This is one of the ways literary language contributes to and challenges the world of stable meanings around it.

The line “This is what poetry does” is representative of a strain in Singh’s poetry that is markedly effusive about its place in language as literature. Instead of describing the blank page as merely an object of reality, the poem anchors to it a larger claim about poetry. This is a gesture that is evident in quite a few of Singh’s poems, which, while referring to quotidian reality, also make clear the literary investment in this reality. Ashok Vajpeyi, a poet and critic of Singh’s generation, in his 1966 essay ‘Hindi: Problem of Adequacy and Relevance,’ published in Indian Literature provides a rather straightforward context for this peculiarity. Without naming them, Vajpeyi describes some of Singh’s contemporaries as anti-poets and writes:

The language which at one time had grown into a sensitive instrument of creatively exploring complex emotions, human situations and relationships, repeating the perennial paradox, has become a pitiless convention of words, generalized, composite and incapable of enacting compulsions of individual experience. The younger poets have faced this growing inadequacy of language and in their struggle to give adequacy and relevance to it have resorted to the idiom of violence and absurdity.

While these anti-poets, who found both Pragativaad and Nayi Kavitainsufficient for their ambitions, lost interest in poetic language altogether, Vajpeyi writes that poets such as Kedarnath Singh, Kamleshwar and Shrikant Verma broke “the tyranny of the private … to write about the world in a dramatic and individual way.” This break from the private does not, like Pragativaad, lie in turning poetry towards the goal of mass mobilisations or organised collectives, but in restoring a connection with language. Singh’s ‘Winter Days,’ also translated by Dharwadker, provides another example of his belief in language.

I’d stepped out
for a walk
in the bitter cold
when I came across
small brown-and-white
turtle eggs
lying in the sand
The place
was completely deserted
nothing and no one there
except for the eggs
and the moist
sand
which had placed them
in its lap
to warm them
as if they were
its own eggs
Wonderstruck
I stood and gazed
at the sight
I’d gone out empty
to walk along the sands
when I returned
there was a fullness inside me

Singh has often been read for his peculiar use of images, which are frequently indirect and long-drawn. This poem, however, does not deliver an array of images but uses one image, “small brown-and-white/ turtle eggs/ lying in the sand” as a whetting stone for a range of feelings, such as “fullness” and being “wonderstruck.” Singh uses temporal signposts—such as the season, and the movement of walking—only to contrast them with a still, poetic image that congeals time. This tension between movement and stillness is set forth in the line “I came across,” which leads one to expect something momentous to follow an everyday walk in the cold. Instead, what we get is the quiet image of the eggs that the poem builds upon in the second stanza.

Singh, in the interview with Ramakrishnan quoted above, spoke of how, “in using image, language both gains and loses something. Its simplicity and basic structures are broken to give way to images. The peculiar struggle between language and image has to be kept in mind. Language is primary, image is held in language. If, in the interest of language, one has to sacrifice image, one must be prepared to do it. Addiction to imagistic language (‘bimb moh’in Hindi) is harmful.” In ‘Winter Days,’the very precise image of the eggs seems to be calling attention to itself. The brilliance of the poem, however, is in how it manages to rescue itself from being overtaken by this dominant image, by introducing a completely figurative idea towards the end, expressed in the line “there was a fullness inside me.” Unlike the precise imagery of the rest of the poem, the phrase thrives on ambiguity.

This particularity of literature, which allows it to express a vagueness of emotions and experiences, is even more markedly expressed in ‘Hindi,’ Singh’s poem on his mother tongue, translated by Harish Trivedi.

The people of my language
are the people of my streets.

It doesn’t say a thing
but my tongue knows anyhow
that it bears scars on its back
of forgotten injuries
that many of its verbs can’t sleep all night
its adjectives hurt.

Not official language –
but let my language be language, just language.
So full is it of its neighbourhood and surroundings
and of essence distilled drop by drop
of many sounds from near and far
that when I speak it
there lies in its depths
Arabic-Turkish Bangla Telugu
and even the stirring of a little leaf.
I speak them all a little bit
when I speak Hindi
And whenever I speak it
I feel I am
in the position in its grammar
of a restless proposition,
with the disaffectation
of a tadbhav living
next door to a tatsam.

Although Singh starts the poem on a cordial note, identifying the speakers of his language as his neighbours, he goes on to escalate the internal linguistic conflicts—between speech and silence, memory and forgetting, and history and personal experience. The narrator begins by confessing to a knowledge which is implicitly part of his language, because the “tongue knows,” but which goes unarticulated. He goes on to commit to poetic language this implicit knowledge.

Singh’s poem alternates between lines that appear to be offering a factual immediacy—“Not official language”—and those that deal with his personal experience of language—“let my language be language.” The former evoke the violent “language wars” in India, which were fought against the constitutional provision of using Hindi as an official language. This historical context explains Singh’s intentions in using words such as “assaults” and “scars” while describing the experiences of Hindi. The very next line, though, moves away from history to the perplexing syntax of poetry: “let my language be language, just language.” What exactly is “just language,” and how is it different from a state language? These are the two questions that Singh doesn’t answer, but they seem to be the driving force behind much of the poem. The last stanza, again historicising Hindi in how it assimilates the tatsam words, taken directly from Sanskrit, with tadbhav words, changed for local use,locates the poetic persona within language, in the operations of Hindi grammar. In dissolving the subject of the poem in language, thinking of the speaking voice as a “restless proposition,” the poem resounds with the linguistic experience that literature offers.

WHEN ASKED ABOUT HIS AFFILIATION to the Progressive Writers’ Association, Vinod Kumar Shukla, in a phone conversation with the critic Nand Kishore Naval, is reported to have said, “I did join, but no one accepted me as a progressive poet.” Shukla, a poet based in the central Indian town of Raipur, has been widely acclaimed for his poetry and prose alike. His poems are hard to reconcile not only with agenda-driven progressive poetry but also with the rigorously experimental verse of someone such as Agyeya, whose poetry was diligently concerned with the life of the mind. Shukla’s style has hardly any parallel in Hindi poetry, and most readers of his work have accepted this fact. If Singh creates his effects through almost a familial use of language, in Shukla’s case we find pleasurable fantasy and playfulness. His poems often alert us to how language can be chimerical. Translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, ‘That man put on a new woolen coat and went away like a thought’—the title poem of Shukla’s second poetry collection, published in 1981—confirms his singular voice:

That man put on a new woolen coat and went away like a
thought.
In rubber flip-flops I struggled behind.
The time was six in the morning, the time of hand-me-downs,
and it was freezing cold.
Six in the morning was like six in the morning.
There was a man standing under a tree.
In the mist it looked like he was standing inside his own
blurred shape.
The blurred tree looked exactly like a tree.
To its right was a blurred horse of inferior stock.
Looking like a horse of inferior stock.
The horse was hungry, the mist like a grassy field to him.
There were other houses, trees, roads, but no other horse.
There was only one horse. I wasn’t that horse,
But my breath when I panted was indistinguishable from the
mist.
If the man standing at that one spot under the tree was the
master.
Then to him I was a horse at a gallop, horseshoes nailed to my
boot soles.

The very first line, which is also the title, consists of a deliberately prolonged, somewhat amusing metaphor. It is an unusual beginning for a poem whose theme is human labour and its similarity to animal labour—but only if one reduces the poem to its theme. The circuitous first line is actually consistent with the riddling lines that follow; they go beyond the thematic or social concerns of the poem, not by undermining them but by recasting them through the various stratagems that language has to offer.

One such stratagem that Shukla uses in his poetry is repetition, and Mehrotra’s translations render these repetitions marvelously in English. Repetition allows him to not only create a sense of frolic in his poems, but also to economise on the number of words used. The scholar Jeri Johnson, in a very perceptive comment on James Joyce’s Ulysses, talks of the writer’s economy in his use of puns, and of how he often uses the multiple meanings and registers that one word can offer. Shukla seems to be doing something similar here when he writes: “In the mist it looked like he was standing inside his own blurred shape./ The blurred tree looked exactly like a tree.” Slight modulations on the same words allow the poem to combine its playfulness with a striking frugality of words and sounds.

Another strategy that gives the poem a calming clarity despite its traumatic theme is Shukla’s use of the narrative idiom in lines such as: “There was only one horse. I wasn’t that horse,/ But my breath when I panted was indistinguishable from the mist.” Muktibodh, one of Shukla’s poetic mentors, who is often considered to be amongst the most significant voices of post-Independence Hindi poetry, in his essay ‘Madhya Pradesh ki Kahan Shaili,’ written in the early 1950s about the poetry of Madhya Pradesh, had called attention to kahan shaili, or the idiom of reporting,which he thought was specific to the region’s poetry. It is through this narrative or reportorial thrust, present in both Muktibodh and Shukla’s poetry, that the social themes they are addressing are expressed. Despite the oblique language and the figurative resemblance between the working-class man in “rubber flip-flops,” and the horse that is whipped and controlled like a slave, the social hierarchy is conveyed powerfully in Shukla’s poem through its narration. However, Shukla’s poem ‘The way the sun was going down,’ which was also translated by Mehrotra and published in Collected Poems, turns this narrative clarity on its head:

The way the sun was going down
Where it was going down
In the sea, the west was
Going down with it, leaving
No west for tomorrow’s sun
To go down in.
May be tomorrow it’ll set in some other direction.
In that case, let it.
Where it rises in the sea
The sun is like a sea bird
Trying to rise,
But with the oil on the surface
Sticking to its feathers,
It cannot.
To watch the sunrise that is not a sunrise
There are no tourists
Or tourist souls.
After a whole day of this sunrise
That is not a sunrise,
The sun unable to rise sets.

Unlike Kedarnath Singh’s poetry, Shukla’s seems free of the freight of obvious meaning. It wears its topsy-turvy, fantastical language on its sleeve. Lines in the poem such as: “Going down with it, leaving/ No west for tomorrow’s sun/ To go down in” appear as nonchalant as any of the other more straightforward lines. It is as if the poem can say the most astonishing things about sunsets with a straight face. The poem is actually set up as a mock-logical exercise, where the common sense governing everyday reality is taken away, but only partially. Shukla’s language renders this reality absurd yet almost believable. The fantasy of the west going down with the sun and leaving no west for another day, although rationally naive, can be a legitimate fear, and Shukla’s poetry seizes on this naivety.

Another of Shukla’s poems plays on the central tension of communication. The poem, ‘It’s by going you’ll meet those others,’ is fiercely communicative. The poem underscores the fact that, when going out of one’s way to meet “those others,” one often leaves something behind in the process. Yet, it nudges its reader to go ahead and meet them. These “others” here stand in for the world in Shukla’s poetry—a world which is never a fixed socio-historical reality but a vague external presence:

It’s by going you’ll meet those others
It’s by going you’ll go to the other shore
Only by going will you be able to reach there
And make the long shot sure
It’s by going you’ll leave behind what’s behind you
It’s by going that what lies ahead will remain
It’s by going that when there’s nothing remaining
Everything you’ve left behind will remain
And in that remaining nothing
Everything will remain to be done.

Mehrotra’s brilliance as a translator comes through in that one line: “And make the long shot sure.” The Hindi original, “jo bahut door sambhav hai,” is not very difficult to translate literally, but to carry across its partly jestful tone is a challenge that applies to almost the entirety of Shukla’s poetry. This tone finds a keen and dexterous translator in Mehrotra. Consider the translation of the last lines where kuch in the Hindi original “Aur kuch bhi nahi mein/ Sab kuch hona bacha rahega,” is repeated to create a rhythmic tautology. The tautology, characteristic of Shukla’s poetry, is spotlit in Mehrotra’s version with the words “remaining” and “thing” being repeated with minute variations of tense and meaning.

Shrikant Verma, Shukla’s fellow writer from Chhattisgarh, in his brief essay, published in 1968, titled ‘Hindi: Return of Poetry,’talks of Vinod Kumar Shukla’s poetry as creating “a horror world” with “the help of irony and fantasy.” He also goes on to defend Shukla and his own work against the likes of the novelist Kamleshwar, who, in a series of articles published in the weekly Dharmayug,condemned “the writing of post-sixty generation as ‘obscene’ and ‘anti-social.’” This charge still hangs over many of the poems discussed above. In reading them closely, one does not rid them of it, but, as stated in Shukla’s poem, one modestly, if also ironically, is able to say: “Everything will remain to be done.”

MANGALESH DABRAL WRITES OF epic silences. His poems hint at events great and tragic, from floods to mass exodus, but they always inhabit the afterlife of these events, their posthumous silence. Dabral’s engagement with language is marked by a minimalism and sombreness that make his poetry less playful or self-reflexive than some of the poems by Shukla or Singh. His language, at least in some of the poems quoted below, seems always aware of the silence that surrounds and threatens language. He works with the paradoxes of language and its limitations, and tries to find some felicity in those very paradoxes. His poem ‘The Way Home,’ translated in This Number Does Not Exist by Vishnu Khare and Christi Merrill, is one such poem of silence:

I tried several times
to raise my hand above this flood
Several times I had hopes
At times I saw this was the end
I’d only wanted to say
one or two ordinary words
that could be depended on
for the time being…
I did not want to apologise
for my despair
I did not want my simple desires
to show on my face
I did not ever want to forget
the way back home.

Recovering from a flood, or towards the end of one, the poetic persona here can trust only a few words to convey his vision of his drowning homeland. However, those “one or two ordinary words” describing the traumatic event might be the very ones missing from Dabral’s poem. The absence of those words, and of the flood—which is never directly described—rings throughout the poem.

This is where Dabral’s poetry becomes most fascinating: the poem talks of the silence that was imposed on it by the event, alongside the silence it imposes on itself because of its distance from home, the traumatic memory attached to it and the limitations of representation in the face of the event. One knows from Manohar Shetty’s afterword to the book that “home” here is Dabral’s ancestral village in Tehri town, Uttarakhand, which was washed out in the construction of Tehri Dam in the mid 2000s. Its loss resounds in another poem, ‘Song of the Dislocated,’translated by Asad Zaidi, an acclaimed Hindi poet in his own right:

With a heavy heart we left
tore away from the ancestral home
mud slips behind us now
stones fall in a hail
look back a bit brother
how the doors shut themselves
behind each one of them
a room utterly forlorn

The poem employs very specific verbs of movement—“we left,” “tore away” and “slips behind”—to evoke the geographical displacement of migration and its pathos. Framed as a song, the poem hints at a collective enunciation or experience, unlike the previous poem, which relies largely on the individual experience of the poetic voice. Like Singh, Dabral relies on images and chisels them with care, though he seldom gives as much attention as Singh does to the interplay of language and image. In Singh’s account, a poetic image always challenges the figurative and emotive language of poetry, which depends more on fluidity of meaning rather than the exactitude of images. Dabral, however, employs precise images in the poem without sacrificing any emotive or personal quality of language. He achieves this by tying the objective sensory experience of the world to intense personal histories.

Instead of asking them to sing along, or recording their emotional response to the tragedy, the song asks the dislocated to “look back a bit” and highlights the silence of their condition. The only physical response possible seems to be looking back at those “utterly forlorn” rooms. Dabral shies away from establishing any emotional or geographical particularities, not because he wants to arrive at a universal image—one of the many aims of modernism—or speak in a plain, accessible language, as many have misread him to be doing, but because he wants in some ways to get closer to the experience of silence in poetry. Zaidi, to his credit, renders the images in English with perfect immediacy and acuity. The only poem in the anthology translated by Dabral himself, ‘Outside,’ is quite aptly self-reflexive:

I closed the door
and sat down to write a poem
outside a breeze was blowing
there was a little light
a bicycle stood in the rain
a child was coming home
I wrote a poem
which had no breeze no light
no bicycle no child
and
no door.

There is no better way to perform silence than to lay down everything that you do not want said. The poem gives no hints about what the poem being written contains, instead filtering it through the same images used to describe the setting in the first half. A symbolic reading of the poem would consider the absence of breeze, light, child and door to mean that the poem being written is without hope of renewal, but that would also abruptly shrink the openness which the poem has affected through its series of negations. This openness is very much what defines Dabral’s poetry, or rather the moment he represents in Hindi poetry, when poets no longer feel the need to fall back on larger concepts or identities or even constant reference to language itself.

Girdhar Rathi, who has also translated Dabral’s poetry in the volume, in an essay titled ‘Poetry in the North,’ published in Indian Literature in 1993, catalogues some of the things that Dabral, and other poets of his generation, do not do.

As one reads it today, one finds the contemporary Hindi poetry in a reflexive and reflective mood. Past the nationalistic passions of late 19th and early 20th centuries epitomized by Bharatendu and Maithilisharan Gupta; past the ambivalences of colonial confrontations, religious identities, delvings into the glorious past and miserable present; past the Romantic overtones of a special Indian kind in Nirala, Pant and Prasad; past the ecstasies and agonies of personal lives vividly articulated in Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Balkrishna Sharma Navin, and others: past the fiery rhetoric (now all in shambles) of the Marxist variants in the Progressive, janavadi and Navjanavadi movements, represented by Sheel, Kedarnath Agarwal, Nagarjun and at times even Shamsher Bahadur Singh and Trilochan, down to Alok Dhanva, Rajesh Joshi, Rituraj and many others.

In this brief history of don’ts, Rathi traces the entire history of Hindi poetry to specify Dabral’s position. So another way to read the bicycle, child and breeze of the above poem is to see them as the history of Hindi poetry, to which the poem being written bears no resemblance.

The common thread that Rathi uses in his essay to bring together the three poets discussed here is that they “have stretched the language to the utmost, in order to draw the best it can offer; most of them have shown the discipline and rigour required of poets producing enchanting poetry; they have all in various degrees interacted with trends, tendencies, moods and currents of the times.” Although Rathi’s reading is too capacious to say anything specifically about the poetry of Singh, Dabral or Shukla, it prompts one to start reading their poems with a close attention to language and its layered relationship with the poem and the world. This relationship is as much inherited from a long history of Hindi poetry as it is a defiance of it. Their poetry can shape this relationship because they understand well the distinctions between word and world, between material and language, and between language and poetry. The kind of reflexivity, pleasure and silence that we encounter in their verse are but echoes of these relations, which only reiterate the perennial question: what is literature?

HOW DOES POETRY ENGAGE with the world without referring overtly to something larger than the poem itself, such as an allegory of the nation or the hope of a coming insurrection? The work of three contemporary Hindi poets—Kedarnath Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral—offers a possible answer to that question. The concerns of their poetry might seem limited, yet these poets have, through their intense engagement with language, shown how poetry’s formal and stylistic concerns can renew one’s connection with the world. The microscopic focus of their poems does not sunder the ties between the poem and the world but forges it in rather new and original ways.

Singh, Shukla and Dabral all started writing around the 1960s, when the Pragativaad, or progressive movement,which emphasised the social content of poetry, had already given way to Nayi Kavita,or New Poetry, which sought to pay attention to the poetic form. Pragativaad and Nayi Kavita represented two strains of thought about how poetry ought to be written, and they influenced the poetic choices that all succeeding Hindi poets have made since.

Kedarnath Singh, published in the last of the three pioneering anthologies of Nayi Kavita edited by Agyeya, a pre-eminent Hindi poet and novelist of the time, was, unlike Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral, involved with the movement formally before he parted ways with it.

All three poets, nevertheless, have had to recognise the divergence between progressive writing and new aesthetics in their work, and yet, their poetry steers clear of any assimilation by either of the movements. This resistance to stable forms and identities gave their poems an indefinable quality of “newness,” compared to the work of those who had preceded them. I would like to ask, through a close reading of a few of Shukla, Dabral and Singh’s poems, how this newness has entered their poetry, and how it has altered the relation between language and world.

All three poets have been recently translated afresh into English, which makes this an apt time to consider their work. Singh’s recent collection Banaras and Other Poems, published by the Sahitya Akademi—which also awarded him the Sahitya Akademi prize in 1989 for his collection Akal Mein Saras (Cranes in Drought)—contains work by a range of translators, such as the prolific poet Vinay Dharwadker, the American academic Christi Merill, and the book’s editor, the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan. The book also includes a long, probing introduction by the literary scholar Harish Trivedi, along with essays by Satchidanandan and Dharwadker. The Collected Poems of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, published by Penguin in 2014 and hailed as a major literary event in Indian English poetry, carries some of his translations of the Hindi poet and novelist Vinod Kumar Shukla. Shukla, who received the Sahitya Akademi prize for his novel Deewar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi (A Window Lived in the Wall)in 1999, is a difficult poet to translate and write about, and Mehrotra is the only one who has successfully attempted to do both. Translations of Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry appeared in a 2014 collection from the publisher Poetrywala titled This Number Does Not Exist. The beautifully designed volume represents Dabral’s diverse idioms well in translations by figures such as Asad Zaidi, Rupert Snell, Girdhar Rathi and Daniel Weissbort, among seven others. Each translator’s choices of poems and diction reveal a bit about his or her affinity for different aspects of Dabral.

In extending the parameters of both progressive and experimental writing, these three poets seem to be together upholding a space for the literary, which, although open to socio-political and historical discourses, isn’t a conduit for them. Translation, as a literary exercise, brings home the question that these poets have in their sometimes playful, sometimes grave, austereness raised in their poetry: what is literature?

IN A 1993 INTERVIEW to EV Ramakrishnan, published in the Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal, Indian Literature, Kedarnath Singh said: “In all my writing there is resistance towards ideological bias. The stress is not on locale, but on the way one apprehends reality. Seeing is being, as Tomlinson would say.” Singh associates the ideological bias in poetry with a portrayal of the world that is oblivious to the way that reality is directly apprehended through the human senses. Poetry with a clear political aim, in his view, is more attentive to the details of reality in order to pass a judgment upon them, rather than notice how a person “apprehends” or individually approaches that reality. This bias was precisely what occasioned Nayi Kavita, which marked a departure not from progressive politics per se but from the Pragativaad poets’ sidelining of the poetic process for more straightforward ideological content. Singh’s first collection Abhi, Bilkul Abhi, from 1960, is a testament to how his work is caught in the moment of discerning reality rather than producing a simple and imitative relation to reality, political or otherwise.

Although the Nayi Kavita movement consisted of a diverse bunch of poets, often with irreconcilable political positions, their ambitions with regards to literature were similar: to use language with an intimacy that resulted in an acute awareness of the poetic process and craft. However, in Singh’s interview, he says that poetry is a “communication-oriented consciousness. This aspect of poetry was neglected by Taar-Saptak poets”—like Agyeya or Raghuvir Sahay who were indifferent to their readers within the poem—“and Nayi Kavita movement.”Singh is talking about a kind of poetry that, even in its close transaction with language, does not result in formal solipsism—a style he identified with his predecessors. Instead, it addresses the reader directly and incorporates the process of reading within writing. His poem ‘Blank Page,’translated in the volume by Dharwadker, shows us how this effect might be achieved.

On a blank page
There’s no dawn no dusk
There’s a midnight sun
shining down on it
from beyond the hemisphere
Look closely
you can see a pair of pale eyes
glittering there
the fire of a tiger’s lovely coat
is leaping and spreading on your desk
Reach out and run your fingers
through this violent fur
there’s nothing to fear
a blank page
is soft and gentle like your skin
ancient like your love
free like your hatred
civilized like your fingernails
and salty like your blood
Touch it
it feels like the pulse
in your neck
This is what poetry does
This simple and terrible thing –
after all our words
it always leaves us
with a blank page

Singh’s entire poem plays on the blankness of a blank page, which in its myriad forms seems to become an analogy for everything, from the “tiger’s lovely coat” to the “pulse” in the reader’s own neck. Because one cannot read a blank page, the reader absorbs it immediately without attaching to it any significance. Singh, in talking about that empty space, creates an intermediary between the language of poetry, which is immersed in meaning-making, and the empty space that lacks it. One of the limitations of Nayi Kavita that Singh had wanted to dodge, as he stated in the interview, was precisely this: that its poems seemed to engage with language without seeming aware of the place of language in literature. By attending to the page and its economy, the poem seems to reinforce its status as literature. Instead of giving in to an exclusive formalism, Singh’s poem both immerses itself in language and marks its borders by highlighting the blank page of any reading practice.

Another crucial departure that Singh makes in the poem is that instead of defining poetry for what it is, he dwells on what “poetry does.” And what poetry essentially does, in Singh’s opinion, is not refer to anything tangible or evident but inhabit the blankness—which is, intriguingly, both “simple” and “terrible.” It is probably this peculiar combination that makes Singh turn to not just any language but that of literature, specifically poetry, which, even in its simplicity or apparent lucidity, occasions something terrible that escapes meaning. This is one of the ways literary language contributes to and challenges the world of stable meanings around it.

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Mantra Mukim is a postgraduate student of English literature at Delhi University.

READER'S COMMENTS

One thought on ““This Simple and Terrible Thing””

I had planned to neither read this essay nor comment on it. Yet, I am doing both of these as my best friend (strangely) thought that this was indeed a good essay on contemporary/modern Hindi poetry. This comment is to explain to him, if not to others, that this is an essay on Hindi poetry that has been written by someone who has clearly not read much of/about it.

I hope the present comment reflects the writer’s shortcomings, rather than those in the editing skills of the staff of ‘The Caravan’. The following comment will thus address the problems in the writing that has gone into the essay and, hopefully not, in the editing. I also sincerely wish that the critic Mr. Mantra Mukim does not think in the way that he writes. He, though, indeed touches upon issues that are central to any theorisation of poetry and this fact gives me hope that his words do not do justice (which, in an ideal scenario, they should) to his thinking.

The numbers refer to the web page numbers. The comments, thus, are page-wise.

1. ‘Pragativaad’ is not “progressive movement”. It is progressivism. Feminism, for instance, is also a progressive movement.

Mr. Mukim writes “I would like to ask, through a close reading of a few of Shukla, Dabral and Singh’s poems, how this newness has entered their poetry, and how it has altered the relation between language and world”. Newness, he needs to understand, cannot be a ‘quality’ external to the poem. It must emerge through the poiesis.

If the three poets under consideration have been translated “afresh” into English, then what about the earlier translations? The writer does not say anything about them.

Mr. Mukim further writes, “The beautifully designed volume represents Dabral’s diverse idioms well in translations by figures such as Asad Zaidi, Rupert Snell, Girdhar Rathi and Daniel Weissbort, among seven others.” Yet, he does not care to explain what these “diverse idioms” might be.

‘Nayi Kavita’ has been (hopefully) mistakenly called ‘experimental writing’ by the writer. I thought ‘Prayogvaad’ was ‘experimental writing/poetry’.

I would also like to raise a conceptual issue. The writer Mr. Mukim seems to be working with a rather naive notion that ‘reality’ makes itself directly available to the apprehension of the senses without any mediation. Is this even possible? Multiple theorists have shown in their writings that reality is not available to the subject without the mediation of subject-ive conceptual categories.

Mr. Mukim argues “Although the Nayi Kavita movement consisted of a diverse bunch of poets, often with irreconcilable political positions, their ambitions with regards to literature were similar: to use language with an intimacy that resulted in an acute awareness of the poetic process and craft.” I would like to contend that this is a factually incorrect statement. Here is my translation of a section of Agyeya’s ‘Preface’ from ‘Tar Saptak’ (which, of course, is neither as ‘brilliant’ nor ‘marvelous’ as Arvind Mehrotra’s translations are – as Mr. Mukim repeatedly reminds us throughout his piece)-
“They [the collected poets] do not have the same viewpoint. They differ on all important issues- on life; on society, religion, and politics; on the subject matter of their poems and style; on rhyme and rhythm; on the responsibility of the poet- on every subject they differ from each other”. Need something more be said?

It is ironic that Mr. Mukim makes a point about the ambiguity in the language of the poets under study for his own language, at several places, is (unconsciously) vague and ambiguous. Sample: “By attending to the page and its economy, the poem seems to reinforce its status as literature.” Even as I understand where he is coming from, I wish he would tell us more clearly as to how a poem forces its status as literature in the first place, forget reinforcing it.

Here’s another example of the above problem: “It is probably this peculiar combination that makes Singh turn to not just any language but that of literature, specifically poetry, which, even in its simplicity or apparent lucidity, occasions something terrible that escapes meaning.” I wish the writer would tell us the difference that he thinks as existing between literary language and poetic language. Is it only poetic language that can occasion “something terrible that escapes meaning”?

2. I wish Mr. Mukim would tell us what an “indirect” or, for that matter, a direct image is.

I must compliment the writer for being, if nothing else, an attentive reader of poetry. Yet some of his assumptions in his readings of the poems are curious, to say the least. Why should, for instance, the subject necessarily come across something “momentous” when he takes a walk in the winter?

Here’s another example of the same. Mr. Mukim tells us that the poem thrives on ambiguity without telling us what/which is the ambiguity he is referring to. Also, I find it very strange that the “fullness” inside the subject strikes him as ambiguous and “completely figurative”. Would he not agree that the “inside”-ness of the fullness is not such an abstract image, after all?

At multiple places in the essay, the writer seems enamored, intoxicated almost, with the fetish of poetic/literary language that he himself creates. Here is an instance: “This particularity of literature, which allows it to express a vagueness of emotions and experiences, is even more markedly expressed…” Mr. Mukim does not care to tell us what/who constitutes this “vagueness of emotions and experiences”. How is this related to “particularity of literature” (whatever that might be)? I wonder if, for him, cinema, painting, and music cannot express the same “vagueness of emotions and experiences”.

Some of the writer’s expressions only have an illusion of depth. They are actually so obvious that, effectively, they are inane. Consider: “In dissolving the subject of the poem in language, thinking of the speaking voice as a “restless proposition,” the poem resounds with the linguistic experience that literature offers.” Literature works through words. Isn’t it obvious that it will, thus, always offer such a linguistic experience?

3. Is all of Agyeya’s poetry concerned with the “life of the mind”? I do not agree with such easy generalisations reached by Mr. Mukim. Is it even possible, for someone like Agyeya (I assume, with great circumspection, that Mr. Mukim will know which poems I am referring to even if I don’t name them), to ultimately not be responsive to Otherness (both abstract and concrete) in his poetry?

The writer, I think, also assumes that an easy separation exists between the theme of a poem and, for lack of better words, the (linguistic or otherwise) technique utilised in it. Sample his statement: “It is an unusual beginning for a poem whose theme is human labour and its similarity to animal labour—but only if one reduces the poem to its theme.” Does the “theme” of labour in the poem exist without (and reduced from) the technique used by Shukla to express it? Sadly, Mr. Mukim implies so even if, I sincerely hope, he knows that such an easy distinction is neither desirable nor feasible.

Mr. Mukim’s tendency of using (ostensibly self-made) critical categories is noticeable throughout the piece. This, for instance, is what he has to say about Dabral’s poetry in the very first sentence: “MANGALESH DABRAL WRITES OF epic silences.” Unsurprisingly, he does not bother to explain what, if at all anything, is meant by “epic silence”. Sadly, this is followed up with another sentence which repeats the mistake. Mr. Mukim writes: “His poems hint at events great and tragic, from floods to mass exodus, but they always inhabit the afterlife of these events, their posthumous silence.” What is the “posthumous silence” being referred to? Again, ironically, Mr. Mukim is himself silent at this.

The problem related above is noticed in the following sentence as well: “In Singh’s account, a poetic image always challenges the figurative and emotive language of poetry, which depends more on fluidity of meaning rather than the exactitude of images.” The reader is not told what the “fluidity of meaning” is. Without beating about the bush, I should say what I feel as I keep referring to one example after another. Many a times while reading the essay, I felt that Mr. Mukim had assumed that he himself is/will be his only reader. No wonder then that he imagined that his reader (situated in the same echo-chamber) will understand what he himself does not/cannot express.

5. The essay ends abruptly with the sentence: “The kind of reflexivity, pleasure and silence that we encounter in their verse are but echoes of these relations, which only reiterate the perennial question: what is literature?”. The writer does not care to explain properly even the last sentence of his essay. How does the reiteration of the “perennial question: what is literature?” follow from what has gone before it? It appears to be a conclusion that Mr. Mukim has forcefully reached in his essay for such survey/review pieces as his can be written about contemporary/modern poetry in any language, including, of course, Hindi without any substantial conclusion being reached/required.

The essay, then, at best, is an exploration of the ways in which language/silence works in some of the poems of the three particular poets. At its worst, it is an attempt by the writer to exhibit his personal skills in reading poetry. Either way, I do not understand why a reputed magazine like ‘The Caravan’ should publish anything like it. I recently read Pankaj Mishra say that ” ‘The Caravan’ has covered, more skillfully and courageously than any periodical, the making and unmaking of contemporary India”. I am sure that the staff of ‘The Caravan’ would not want Mishra to go back on his words.

As far as Mr. Mukim is concerned, I have an unwanted piece of advice for him. I would like him to do something with his essays that Horace wanted poets to do. Horace wanted the poets to keep their poems for ten years before circulating them/reading them out. Mr. Mukim would not mind, I imagine, waiting for ten months at least so that he would substantially revise and re-write his essays. Otherwise, some people are likely to say that he sacrificed his credentials of being a serious and stimulating critic of poetry for some “filthy lucre”.

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