December 10, 2019
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A Poet And The Past

What compels us to re-read a poet or a writer much after his time? Why do we go back to a particular poet or a writer? Revisiting the Kannada poet who contested a Lok Sabha election on a Jan Sangh ticket in 1971 and lost...

A Poet And The Past
Photo courtesy: K G Somashekar
A Poet And The Past
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What compels us to re-read a poet or a writer much after his time? As individuals we may have very many compelling reasons to do so, but as a community why do we go back to a particular poet or a writer?

I ask these questions because I have before me a 360-page Kannada volume (titled Pratimaloka, published by Ankita, 2008) that 'revisits' the poetry of M. Gopalakrishna Adiga, arguably among the great poets of India in the 20th century. It has been edited by S R Vijayashankar, who is not only a corporate communication professional with Intel, but also a sensitive literary critic in Kannada.

In his foreword, Vijayashankar does offer a number of literary and a couple of non-literary reasons as to why we need to revisit Adiga. He speaks in a slightly obsolete literary jargon, but among all the reasons that he offers the one I found most interesting, which needed foregrounding and elaboration, is when he says that one of Adiga's most admirable qualities was the manner in which he put our tradition through an acid test before accepting it. This is true because the manner in which Adiga bent and chiseled our puranic metaphors to communicate an intensely modern predicament and also the manner in which he made the new democratic apparatus, with a deep hue of self-esteem and self-respect, sink into the consciousness of the people was incredible and unique.

This thing about tradition and Adiga is important for the simple reason that the legendary poet was politically identified with the Right. He even contested a Lok Sabha election on a Jan Sangh ticket in 1971 and lost; yet he never ever succumbed to the revivalist mantra of the RSS. There is a little anecdote in this book, which actually reveals Adiga's complex mind: He was once asked to go to the railway station to receive Babasaheb Deoras, the RSS ideologue. Adiga's reply was that he respected Deoras and would welcome him home, but wouldn't like to go to the station to receive him. "If Jayaprakash Narayan was arriving, it would be another matter," he had apparently said. Adiga's poem on Nehru (titled 'Nehru Nivruttaraguvudilla' meaning 'Nehru will not retire'), which spoke of the first prime minister's self-love and unending monologues, made him an icon of anti-Congressism.

How to invoke the past without sounding nostalgic or revivalist? How to draw a line between history and mythology? How to have a critical engagement with the past? These are some of the most important dilemmas before our generation and in Adiga's poetry these are handled with elan. I wish I could present some samples here to substantiate these seemingly bald assertions, but I feel unprepared to touch his magical lines. I am reminded of this line in his poem on the Ganges ('Ganges will never go dry') where he ridicules the beaten path of the river: 'Although fresh water flows in, there is still the inebriation of the past'.

If Adiga were to be alive today, he would have been 90 and I wish to believe that he would have turned his back to the Sangh. His anti-Congressism would have matured to see through the shallow game of the Sangh, which has come to believe in an opportunistic engagement with the past. Adiga's poems sometimes appear to me as a paradoxical mix of rationality and restless emotion. His creativity never allowed him to be caught in the dogma of his ideology, but only allowed it to thinly map a righteous world for him.

Besides all these big reasons, I remember Adiga fondly for the small things that he tried to inculcate in aspiring young writers. He was the one who first emphasised that inspiration apart, one has to carefully chisel one's creative output meticulously and unhurriedly wait until it matures with time. He once suddenly pulled out a sheet from a heap of files stacked on his table and said, "Look here, this poem has been waiting to see print for ten years because I am not happy with the last two lines. Who knows when I rework the last two lines, the meaning of the entire poem may change." This for the first time conveyed to me that writing was a very sacred act.

Adiga as a person and writer had that uncompromising integrity. He was too proud to bow before the unworthy. Nor did he have self-pity about his loneliness in the end, when many of his famous friends abandoned him. He only became more self-critical. He put his life's actions through a severe final test and quietly waited for his exit. His last two anthologies (Ba itta itta and Suvarana Puttali) offer some clues to his emotions.

Adiga never spoke bombastically about his craft or work. In fact he believed that a writer should never talk about his work. As a student I had once pestered Adiga to tell me how and when he wrote his most famous poem 'Mohana Murali.' He had written down that poem for me in his own hand that had a halting flow since his paralytic stroke. He told me that the temporal origins of a poem was not important, but not to disappoint a young man he relented after a while. The poem's first lines had occurred, he said, when he was climbing down the stairs of Tumkur library after browsing through some philosophical journals and feeling very inadequate and humbled before the sea of knowledge that surrounded him.

Since I am not equipped to present lines from his poetry, let me at least present excerpts from a rare essay that he wrote about his engagement with his own poetry. It is called 'Me and My Poetry' and what you read below is only an initial draft of my translation:

"I have never spoken much about my poetry nor have written about it. In my view, no poet should attempt to analyse his own work. Not only a poet, a cultured and sensitive person also cannot afford to speak much about himself and his work. What is one's own is very intimate, has a lot of depth and is highly mysterious.

For that matter, how much do we really know about ourselves? Generally, when a person starts speaking about himself, he speaks about the ideal picture that he has portrayed of himself for himself. This is not a question of insincerity, but a question of the lack of awareness.

It is my feeling that poetry is a process of understanding oneself. I cannot be precise about the extent of awareness that it brings about nor can I be sure of how clearly it portrays reality. It is such an intimate and mysterious activity. Only others should be able to speak about it, be they our contemporaries or posterity.

I am confident about myself and also about my works. If I get down to explaining them, the esteem in which I hold myself will be affected. Because no person with integrity can extol himself. Not to extol oneself may not be the only quality that makes a person righteous, but I realise it to be one of the important qualities of a cultured mind. Besides that, the mark of good poetry is to find final shape outside the consciousness of the poet. I mean, however consciously we may enter the act of writing poetry, true poetry is created only when an element beyond one's consciousness penetrates it.

It is for this reason that no poet can take into account the nobleness of his motives or the sum total of his efforts to measure the success of his writing. He can only make known what he intended to speak in his poem. But it is an altogether different question if what he has written has become poetry.


The special moment when poetry is born was termed earlier as inspiration, a divine gift or the benefit of the deeds of one's past life. In today's jargon, we say it is the releasing of what is present at the bottom of one's consciousness. It is hard to explain what really lies at the bottom of one's consciousness. A poet also has experiences like anybody else. The blending of emotions takes place. The dreams try to siphon out the emotional material charged in the mind. Emotion is also put out through speech, through writings, through interjections, through abuses, grumbling etc.

A person who tries to understand all this through language becomes a poet. If, by chance, what he writes turns out to be a success, then it becomes a special human incident bearing the stamp of his personality. This should not mean that the poem and the unique experience that has bloomed in it is subjective. Because, there are enough elements in it which are common to humanity. All the elements are natural to man and they are humanly possible. Therefore, a poetic work operates both at the personal and the universal realm.

A true probing into the literary works of the human world reveals that they are formed out of synthesis, adjustment and out of the conflict that exists between dualities. The dualities could be the inner self and the outer world, the past and the future, the world of reality and that of illusion, the concrete and the abstract, the emotions, language etc.

To delve into the subject, to fuse the materials are some of the things that the poet can do consciously. But it is important to know that this alone does not make poetry. It is possible that the work may turn out to be a bad piece even after one has brooded over it for quite some time. It is natural in the literary world to think and to continue to live in the illusion that what one has meditated and toiled to write is extraordinary. So, it is important for a poet to be detached from what he has created. Because a poem attains an independent existence after it has been written and published.

Only if a poet accepts such independence can he continue with the independence of his works. Or else, he will unnecessarily be spending his energy squabbling with critics and exposing his innumerable flaws and anger. Also, what a poet speaks outside the realm of his poem is irrelevant from the point of view of the poem. What a poet intends to say should be said in the poem. A sensitive reader will certainly respond to it. When a poem is written in a slightly different fashion, the number of readers who may respond to it may be less, and a poet may also be disturbed by this fact. But at such a juncture, a poet should not engage himself in writing an exegesis of his poems. That job should be left to the reader and, if there is no such reader in his contemporary surroundings, he should patiently address himself to the future and learn to live with such patience, difficult though it may be.

When a poem is effectively communicated through language, it ceases to be subjective. It becomes a part of society, because language is social and contains elements of the past, the present and the future. A person who can best exploit this is a poet. When language is used in such a fashion, it not only communicates in the present, but also in the future. Critics who deliver judgment and write off a particular poem as very complex should note this aspect of language and poetry. The complexity that successfully blooms in language is the complexity of art and does not remain to be the complexity of the person or the poet.

I have not taken poetry lightly. I have considered it to be one of the paths which leads us to the multiple truths about life. I have endeavoured to attain fulfillment in life by writing good poetry. As a poet I should not speak of their worth and meaning. I have written them for the flowering of my own self, as much as for creating delight in the readers and bringing about a true understanding in them; more than anything else to make their minds more generous and cultured by letting them know the complexity of life and its multiple possibilities.

I have not written my poems as easily as a bird sings a song. I have worked hard to produce them."

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