Monday, June 27, 2005

Problematizing 'Contemporary' Poetry
To begin with, ‘What is Contemporary Poetry?’ As is evident, there seems to be a certain shift in the way poets start writing poems by the end of the two World Wars. This period seems to usher in hope, yet despair, a tone of defiance, non conformity, a ‘poetry of protest’ and escape. In the post colonial situation, the subject’s search for identity, ‘language, subalternity and generally questions of gender, desire, and sexuality acquire greater relevance than ever.

In his Preface to ‘An Anthology of New Indian English Poetry’ Makarand Paranjape writes, “… Modernism is dead … Modernism in Indian English poetry with its notion of a literary avant-garde, its emotional restraint and repression … its belief in the image as the supreme poetic device, its aloofness and alienation from India, its secular dogmatism, its outright rejection of the past, and above all, its arrogant narcissism and self-absorption is thankfully, now passé.” About the “new” poets he claims, “There is no anxiety to conform to any one central idea about their identity or cultural praxis. In this sense, these poets are post modern: they celebrate not conformity but ‘difference’, whether of language, region, nationality, politics, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference.”

In ‘An Introduction’ Kamala Das explores her identity:

‘I am an Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in Two, dream in one.
Don’t write English, they said,
English is not your mother tongue…’

Again, Nissim Ezekiel’s lines from the ‘Latter-Day Psalms’:

“The images are beautiful birds
and colourful fish: they fly,
they swim in my Jewish consciousness.”

I wonder if there is any singular tone, any uniform voice that can be immediately identified as the ‘contemporary’. Secondly, how long would ‘contemporary’- continue as a slogan? In other words, doesn’t the ‘contemporary’ ever lose relevance and import? What to call what succeeds temporally, or follows the ‘contemporary’? Are we under some sort of a tyranny of the contemporary?

The next concern is the interpretation of contemporary Poetry. How to read a poem? This is apparently a certainly valid question. This is because there is a way (not necessarily one, though) of reading a poem. If that question did not occur at all, we would merely be happy reading poetry to each other, rather than reading papers, criticisms and debates on poetry. Almost immediately this suggests that theorizing or the conscious formulation and articulation of interpretation was somehow more important. But whether that necessarily must be so, is a question that needs equal attention.

The usual theoretical assumption, therefore, is that poetry has purpose and it is to be understood and appreciated in its situation in specific contexts. The role of aesthetic delight, the experience of beauty and rasa in contemporary poetry seems to be fairly unclear.

Going by such argument, more than the lines, it is the subtext that is more important -- what matter are the unsaid, the blanks. When the subtexts are to be reconstructed, there is naturally a way of doing it. Inevitably we become obsessed with interpretation. For instance, when I read the poem -- the post modern way, tentatively I read into it a rejection of grand narratives, defiance against institutionalized power, even State, patriarchal hegemony, etc. The sublime, eternal, perennial concept of beauty and truth is brought under attack. A ‘system of difference’ is sought to be recreated and the inherent relativism owing to cultural and historical dimensions is made explicit.

Here are certain observations. First, the very idea of putting forth a case for a feminist reading of poetry or the Dalitization of poetry, the Black perspective, as such involves a strong sense of politics. More importantly, the defense of the marginalized acutely appeals to the emotional. To question stereotypes, interrogating territorial compulsions, institutions, historical events and processes such as colonialism is really out of an ethical urgency which automatically presupposes the freedom of choice.

However much we wish, an epistemological enquiry into ‘What the poem says’ is infact not a free standing, neutral, a moral question. The answer shall necessarily be a matter of an emotional and ethical preference.

Again, as we do post modernist readings over and over again, is it not just the reversal of the binary opposition? If it is, then there is still a deliberate, a conscious act of privileging. Privileging the marginalized but privileging all the same, and creating inverted power structures in the process. The argument of ‘difference’ has altered our perspectives, but it should not be stretched beyond the point of being counter productive.

Looking at the interpretation of interpretations, Zygmunt Bauman in ‘Hermeneutics and Social Sciences’ points out, “The hermeneutics at a point of time saw ‘understanding’ as residing in a sort of ‘spiritual unification’ of the writer and the reader. It was an interaction…” Thus, when I read a poem, I contribute to its meaning. I think that also needs to be borne in mind.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Roland Barthes resisted the absolute control of the author over ‘meaning’. He famously proclaimed, “The author is dead”. As he himself asserts in his work ‘The Death of the Author’-- “Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing…”

For Foucault, in contrast, the poem cannot be read in isolation of the person who produced it – the archaeology (i.e. the process of working through the historical archives of various societies to bring to light the discursive formations and events that have produced the fields of knowledge and discursive formations of different historical periods) is extremely important in contextualizing and interpreting the text.

For Derrida still, the text or the poem being situated in a language remains in a state of production. Its meaning is in a state of infinite play. The poem can have multiple meanings. It can, in fact, be doubted as to whether a poet can communicate a fixed thought to the reader through her text (the poem) at all. One can bring R. Sundararajan’s reminder, in ‘Studies in Phenomenology, Hermeneutics and Deconstruction’, ‘Derrida himself has repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that this endless play of the signifiers…may be looked upon as the expression of the productivity of language’. It is not a matter of despondent anxiety. It is rather the articulation of the fecundity of the word and expression of an inherent freedom that drives the creative realm of language and thought.

Let us open the doors, then! I think there is a need to be cautious of the normative call and function of ‘interpretation’ – ‘this-is-how-you-should-read-it’. This is because it has the penchant for slipping into a distorted version, more pedagogical refrain – of ‘this-is-how-you-must-read-it’. Thankfully, for now, this seems to be a remote option.

Therefore, meanwhile, let us keep reading poems anyway:

‘Say it is a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea...’

E.Y. Harburg

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