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Dec 27, 2012

Modernist Experiment


From Norton Anthology of Literature

The early part of the twentieth century saw massive changes in the everyday life of people in cities. The recent inventions of the automobile, airplane, and telephone shrank distances around the world and sped up the pace of life. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and infantile sexuality radically altered the popular understanding of the mind and identity, and the late-nineteenth-century thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche in different ways undermined traditional notions of truth, certainty, and morality. Theoretical science, meanwhile, was rapidly shifting from two-hundred-year-old Newtonian models to Einstein’s theory of relativity and finally to quantum mechanics.

Elasticity, 1916, Boccioni, Umberto
At least partly in response to this acceleration of life and thought, a wave of aggressively experimental movements, sometimes collectively termed “modernist” because of their emphasis on radical innovation, swept through Europe. In Paris, the Spanish expatriate painter Pablo Picasso and the Frenchman Georges Braque developed cubism, a style of painting that abandoned realism and traditional perspective to fragment space and explode form. 

In Italy, the spokesperson for futurism, F. T. Marinetti, led an artistic movement that touched on everything from painting to poetry to cooking and encouraged an escape from the past into the rapid, energetic, mechanical world of the automobile, the airplane, and Marinetti’s own “aeropoetics.” Dadaists such as the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, author of the ready-made Fountain (1917), a urinal, began a guerilla campaign against established notions of sense and the boundaries of what could be called art. In music, meanwhile, composers such as the Frenchman Claude Debussy and Russian-born Igor Stravinsky were beginning experiments with rhythm and harmony that would soon culminate in the outright atonality of composers such as the Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

Red Stone Dancer, 1913-14, Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri
In England, this outbreak of modernist experiment influenced a loosely interrelated network of groups and individuals, many of them based in London. In anglophone literature, “modernism” more nearly describes an era than a unitary movement. But what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature. Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. 

In the novel, they explored the Freudian depths of their characters’ psyches through stream of consciousness and interior monologue. In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images. Ironically, the success of modernism’s initially radical techniques eventually transformed them into the established norms that would be resisted by later generations.

Among the earliest groups to shape English-language modernism were the imagists, a circle of poets led initially by the Englishman T. E. Hulme and the American Ezra Pound, in the early 1910s. Imagist poetic doctrine included the use of plain speech, the preference for free verse over closed forms, and above all the creation of the vivid, hard-edged image. 

The first two of these tenets in particular helped to shape later modernism and have had a far-reaching impact on poetic practice in English. Shaped by Asian forms such as the haiku, the imagist poem tended to be brief and ephemeral, presenting a single striking image or metaphor (see “An Imagist Cluster” in NAEL). Pound soon dissociated himself from the movement, and the imagists—including the poets H. D., Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher—continued to publish their annual anthology under the leadership of the American poet Amy Lowell.

Boxers Poster, Gaudier-Brzeska, Henri
Pound, meanwhile, went on to become a literary proponent of vorticism, an English movement in the visual arts led by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis. The vorticists championed energy and life over what they saw as the turpitude of European society and sought to tap into or create the concentration of energies they dubbed a “vortex.”

After having published only one issue of their now notorious journal Blast, the vorticists suddenly found their often violent rhetoric and their ambivalence about English national identity at odds with the real violence of World War I and the wartime climate of patriotism. The second issue of Blast—published behind schedule and dubbed a “war number”—declared the vorticists’ loyalty to England in the fight against German fascism on aesthetic grounds. It also announced the death in the trenches of one of the movement’s leading lights, the French-born sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This loss and the general dispersal of the vorticists mark a major turning point for English modernism.

As modernism developed, the flashy, aggressive polemics of Lewis and Pound were replaced by the more reasoned, essayistic criticism of Pound’s friend and collaborator T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses were technically innovative and initially controversial (Ulysses was banned in the United States and Great Britain), but their eventual acceptance as literary landmarks helped to bring modernism into the canon of English literature. In the decades to come, the massive influence of Eliot as a critic would transform the image of modernism into what Eliot himself called classicism, a position deeply rooted in a sense of the literary past and emphasizing the impersonality of the work of art.

The Convalescent, 1933, Lewis, Percy Wyndham
In the post-World War II period, modernism became the institutionally approved norm against which later poetic movements, from the “Movement” of Philip Larkin to avant-garde Language Poetry, reacted. Nonetheless, the influence of modernism, both on those artists who have repudiated it and on those who have followed its direction, was pervasive. 

Joyce, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists provided compositional strategies still central to literature. Writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Salman Rushdie have all, in one way or another, continued to extend the discoveries of the modernist experiment—adapting modernist techniques to new political climates marked by the Cold War and its aftermath, as well as to the very different histories of formerly colonized nations. Like the early twentieth-century avant-garde in European art and music, meanwhile, literary modernism has continued to shape a sense of art as a form of cultural revolution that must break with established history, constantly pushing out the boundaries of artistic practice.

Dec 22, 2012

Ulysses

‘Ulysses’ is the latin for Odysseus and this book is Joyce’s attempt to create events and characters that mirror those found in Homer’s classic ‘The Odyssey‘

It took Joyce 7 years to write this epic novel which actually only covers 14 hours of time.

Each chapter is a part of the whole but completely different from each other, it would be extremely difficult to write a review of this book as a whole without breaking it down into its chapters a little bit, so here goes my attempt.

I am no scholar and many experienced scholars have studied this work for years and still not come to a final conclusion about some of the things in it so my review will be on the basis that it is being read by the ordinary reading public.

I found the guidelines extremely helpful, by reading each chapter guideline immediately prior to reading its corresponding chapter.

The other things I found particularly helpful in this re-worked edition were the fact that Gogan altered the type for all internal monologue (that is character’s thoughts) to italics so that you could distinguish between narration and thoughts.

Also certain parts of this book were deliberately written with little or no punctuation, which made it extremely difficult to read. Gogan has added punctuation in these areas particularly the final chapter to make it easier to understand.

Episode 1 The book starts of at 8am in the Mortello Tower where there are 3 main characters having a discussion, this episode is written in a familiar narrative style and we come across the first instance of internal monologue by Stephen Dedalus. Stephen’s thoughts are very like our own they flit around all over the place and don’t always seem to make a lot of sense.

Episode 2 starts at 10am and follows Stephen Dedalus at work as a teacher, a lot of this chapter is his own abstract thoughts and again can be very difficult to understand. It does get easier so please persevere.

Episode 3 is probably one of the hardest to persevere through as we listen to more of Stephen’s thoughts as he walks around Sandycove.

Episode 4 skips back to 8am as it introduces other important character’s at the start of their day. This is where we meet the books main character and my favourite characterisation of the book, Mr Bloom. We still have a lot of internal monologue but now it is Mr. Blooms thoughts and they are much clearer and easier to follow. This is where I started to enjoy the book.

Episode 5 is where we follow Mr. Bloom from 10am on his journey to the funeral of Paddy Dignam. We hear about his daughter Molly and find out more about his life as a newspaper columnist. This is a fairly easy chapter to read and provides a lot of detail in characterisation which Joyce does extremely well.

Episode 6 from 11 am covers the funeral and more of Mr.Bloom’s thoughts again an easy and enjoyable chapter.

Episode 7 I would class as a middle difficulty chapter, it is 12 noon and Mr.Bloom is at his newspaper offices, as he leaves Stephen enters and the chapter has monologue from both Mr. Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.

Episode 8 covers lunchtime in a pub with Mr.Bloom and some interesting conversations with other people as Mr.Bloom walks from the pub to the library.

Episode 9 – we now leave Mr. Bloom and return to Stephen Dedalus in the library with his friends discussing Hamlet. This is a long and complicated discussion made even harder to understand if you have never read Hamlet.

Episode 10 is completely different in form and content and neither of the two main character’s play much of a role in this chapter. It is separated into 19 mini-chapters and is the fastest paced episode in the book, you will meet many of the character’s of Dublin in this chapter and hopefully enjoy it as much as I did.

Episode 11 is another very difficult episode it is written in another completely different style – that of a musical fugue – and the beginning makes little sense until later. It is based in the hotel that many of the character’s from the previous chapter were heading to. It is now 4pm

Episode 12 We again meet Mr. Bloom in a pub at 5pm and we meet a new character – The Citizen- the narrative of this chapter is quite easy to follow but it does contain some long lists of names.

Episode 13 takes us from the busy pub to a scene of three girls one of whom a 20-year old notices Mr. Bloom watching from a distance, she exposes her underwear for him to watch and it is apparent through Blooms thoughts what he thinks and what his reaction is to this, we are presented with an aspect of Blooms character that may astonish you.

Episode 14 takes us to the maternity hospital at 10pm where people are waiting for Mrs.Purefoy to have her baby. There is a noisy discussion, the birth of a baby boy and the celebration in a pub. If read straight through this would be the most difficult chapter of all but if you read each individual section slowly and maybe a few times, you will appreciate it more, the style is very difficult.

Episode 15 is set in a brothel at midnight Mr Bloom follows Stephen to the red light district and tries to keep him out of trouble, the difficulty with this chapter is ascertaining what is really happening and what are hallucinations but it makes for interesting reading.

Episode 16 follows Mr. Bloom helping an extremely drunk Stephen to walk out of nighttown. Most of the chapter takes place in the Cabman’s Shelter. This is one of the easiest chapters to read.

Episode 17 follows on as they leave the Cabman’s Shelter and walk back to Mr. Blooms house, they talk for a while, then Mr. Bloom goes to bed with his wife laying at the opposite end with a bolster between them. This is because they have no sexual relations since their second child died which you hear about much earlier in the book.

The final chapter is unique in that it is all monologue from Molly Blooms perspective. This is the chapter in which Gogan has had to add much punctuation. Molly’s thoughts are quite difficult to follow because she has what I describe as ‘a butterfly mind’ her thought flit from one place to another untamed. As a female monologue, written by a man, it is amazing.

Dec 17, 2012

Prose and Reason


       You that delight in with and mirth      
                        and love to hear such news     
                        as comes from all parts of the earth    
                        Dutch, Danes, Turks and Jews:           
                        I’ll send ye to a rendezvous    
                        where it is smoking new:        
                        Go, heat it at a Coffee House,            
                        it cannot but be true.”[i]
                                                Jordan.
Matthew Arnold summed up the eighteenth century as “the age of prose and reason, our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century” was “a product of reason and intelligence playing upon the surface of life.” Actually, the ideas which developed in this age, had already taken roots in the seventeenth century, when the writers like Dryden, Waller and Denham had shown the new path. The Elizabethan age had been an age of romanticism, imaginative, and melodrama which lacked balance, but 18th century was marked by reason, good sense, refinement, wit and logicism with a fair amount of realism couched in the heroic couplet “A wit’s a feather, and a chief a rod/An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” As for the general social tone of the age “the manners were coarse, politics scandalously corrupt and the general tone of the society brutal.”

In scientists, Newton was the first who comes with a strong reason that this universe could not have arisen ‘out of a Chaos by System by the mere Laws of Nature’; such a “wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System’ had to be the handiwork of an intelligent and benevolent creator. For Locke, the mind was a tabula rasa at birth, a ‘white Paper, void of all Characters, without any ideas.’ When he rhetorically, demanded how the mind acquired ‘all the materials of Reason and Knowledge”, has answered succinctly, ‘from Experience.”

First literary writer of the prose with a strong reason was Pope. It was now a fashion with the poets to follow Nature, and Pope was the greatest protagonist in this regard. Pope's "Nature" was not the "Nature" of the romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nature to them meant, in the words of A. R. Humphreys, "the moral course of the world or as ideal truth by which art should be guided." Man's subjective feelings were thus discreditedi and sacrificed to "the laws of Nature."  Pope advised writers to follow the Nature:          
        
                “First follow Nature, and your judgement frame        
                          By her just standard, which is still the same”.           

Pope laid stress on the writers (poets’ in particular) following the rules set up by the ancient masters instead of carving out new grooves of writing for themselves.

                        “Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem,  
                         To copy Nature is to copy them”.      

The qualities such as mystery, passion, emotion, imagination, romanticism, etc., came to be discounted and replaced those related to reason and logic.

For Hudson poetry of eighteenth Century “is a literature of intelligence, of wit, and of fancy, not a literature of emotion, passion or creative energy.” All the poetry of the age seldom travels in the narrow word called “the Town,” and gives an image of its public in the coffee houses and drawing rooms. “The London” of Johnson’s time was a noisy, turbulent, high-spirited London which was in Shelley’s lines:  
                        “a populous and smoky city   
                        ………………………….         
                        Small justice shown and still less pity,”          
and as David Garrick describes it:      
                        “the city’s fine show……….  
                        Such jostling and bustling.”    

violence was indeed a key note of the social life. According to Johnson: “the Age is running after innovation; all the business of the world to be done in a new way.” On other hand, Pope’s main purpose was “to enliven morality with wit”:
“Who shall decide when Doctors disagree?
“A little learning is always dangerous thing”
“And fools rush in where angles fear to tread”
“To err is human, to forgive divine”
“The proper study of mankind is man”
“The Right Divine of kings to govern wrong”

To prove our point let us see a comparison: if Pope like Keats, had listened to a nightingale and had found himself believing that “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” he would not have put the idea into a poem. This is the reason  that he looks back on the pastorals, Windsor Forest, The Rape of the Lock as so much wandering ‘in Fancy’s maze’, and on his essays and satires as “truth”, as concerned with fact, with “Whatever is.” Pope is rooted in Man. What they copied was only the good taste and reason of the ancients. Well did Pope observe: "Those who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients' may as well say our Faces are not our own because they are like our Fathers." 

The mock heroic poem presents a brilliant picture of fashionable life—the game of Ombre, the coffee at Hampton Court, the lady’s toilet etc. all the trivialities of the fashionable life are strictly examined.  

The emergence of the periodicals, journals and newspaper helped in the growth of conversation and the middle prose style. The main reason for the popularity of the periodical essay in the 18th century was that it was suited to the genius of the period, as much of the authors, as of the people who exhibited specific spirit and tasted in the period. The eighteenth century was doubtlessly an age of great prose, but not of great poetry. When Matthew Arnold-calls it an age of prose, he suggests that even the poetry of the period was of the nature of prose, or versified prose. It:is he who observed that Dryden and Pope are the-classics not of our poetry but of prose. Among the greatest prose writers of the age are Addison, Steele, and Swift. 

One of the occasional spokesmen for British aristocracy in the 18th century, Addison (1672-1719) was perhaps the first great “common” voice to assume the authority of morals in a secular Age. Steele’s main purpose was “to expose the false arts of life…. and to recommend a general simplicity” and “to satirises the vanity of the society.” An essay by Montaigne is a medley of reflections and quotations but in Addison, the thought is thin and diluted:           

“it is said of Socrates, that he brought philosophy down from heaven to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, school and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.”

Swift had been busy manufacturing lives of people attention---of famous men who had just died, and of notorious adventures and criminals. He made up stories as true stories. It is for the reason that we may best describe then in the phrase used, as “ficitious biographies”, or, Leshlie Stephen’s words, as “history minus the facts”

In the new age, we find Dryden castigating lack of reason and swift condemning the Yahoos for their impulsiveness and eulogizing Houyhnhnms for their characteristics based on reason and balance. Now, there grew a tendency to imitate and glorify the ancient classical master as a tendency which reaches its climax in Pope’s works. Even Swift tried to demonstrate in his The Battle Of Book the overall superiority of the ancients over all the writers that came after them. In the voyage to Lilliput, which is largely concerned with the English politics of the time, have an exposure of the infinite littleness and absurd pretensions of man. In the voyage to Brobdingnag, in which Gulliver becomes pigmy, the same moral is driven well home. In voyage to Laputa, he scornfully attachks philosophers, projectorsm and inventions all those who waste their energies in the pursuit of visionary and fantastic things. Finally in Houyhnhnms and Yahho, swift tears away all the accessories and artifices of civilization and puts “that animal called man” before us as he himself saw him.

Richardson made a close study of the feminine heart and revealed it in the novels like Pamle and Clarissa Harlowe. Fielding save the nascent novel from degeneration onmto a new kind of sentimental romance. He presented a realistic picture of society in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Jonathan Wild and Amelia.

Thus, it was basically the age of prose and reason, dominated chiefly, apart from Pope, by such celebrated prose writers as Addison, Steele, swift, Gibson, Burke, etc. It is clear that new milieu wanted a different treatment which was argumentative in nature and could be expressed only through polished prose and the best and the most suitable vehicle. The main characteristic of the literature of this period may be summed up in the phrase “From the head, not the heart”.
The eighteenth century if often called Enlightenment with reference to the philosophy that prevailed in this period. The name comes from the belief held by many humanist thinkers and artists of the time that human reason could bring light into the darkness of the world that it could prevail over tyranny, ignorance and superstition. It focuses on two major concepts: the nature of human understanding and the nature of human beings.

It was an age badly needing light. Political life was corrupt; women were in law the property of their men folk; over 200 crimes were punishable by public execution; the average life expectancy was 35 years. However, the middle classes were becoming better educated; perhaps half a million of the six million population could read.



Dec 11, 2012

Moby Dick

"Call me Ishmael."
So begins Herman Melville epic seafaring novel, ostensibly about whaling, an American Odyssey recounting Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of a great oil-carrying sperm whale, Moby Dick.

The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab has one purpose on this voyage: to seek out Moby Dick, a ferocious, enigmatic white sperm whale. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg, which now drives Ahab to take revenge.

It’s a hard sell Nathaniel Philbrick has undertaken in “Why Read Moby-Dick?” The novel’s plot has been recycled for decades, inspiring films, radio dramas, cartoons, comic books, a television mini-series, a couple of heavy metal albums, a music video and a rap rendition. How many potential readers approach the masterwork of Herman Melville without already knowing the story of Captain Ahab and the white whale? Any? And why would such an overly exposed audience embrace a work of such heft, especially as almost every edition carries the added weight of ponderous academic commentary? “Moby-Dick” would appear to be one of those unfortunate books that are taught rather than enjoyed.

But who knows how many teeter in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, both drawn and repelled by the promise of edification? It’s the historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s intent to give those uncertain consumers a gentle shove toward the “one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.” He wants “you — yes, you — to read . . . ‘Moby-Dick.’”

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

It’s too bad. More capacious than ponderous, “Moby-Dick” has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself, more than enough to heave its significance out of what Melville called “the universal cannibalism of the sea” and into the light. Melville challenged the form of the novel decades before James Joyce and a century before Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Calling for tools befitting the ambition of his task — “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” — Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose. He halted the action to include a parody of the scientific classification of whales, a treatise on the whale as represented in art, a meditation on the complexity of rope, whatever snagged his attention. Reporting the exact day and time of his writing in a parenthetical aside, he “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition,” the moment Philbrick identifies as his favorite in the novel. Melville may not have called this playfulness metafiction, but he defied strictures that shaped the work of his contemporaries, including that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick,” calling it a “token of my admiration for his genius.”

Ahab doesn’t appear until the 28th of its 135 chapters. The vestigial plot is of the train-wreck variety. There is no conflict moving toward a crisis in “Moby-Dick” because the crisis is long past, the battle for the soul of the antihero won in a summary flashback made even more remote by the delirium that followed the castrating bite that took off Ahab’s leg. The one emotion returned to him is vengeance, Ahab now “shaped in an unalterable mould.” The die is cast; what’s left of the narrative is denouement, all the characters save the narrator, Ishmael, dragged inexorably toward destruction.

Philbrick reads the captain as a demagogue blinded by his profane quest. Ahab manipulates his crew into squandering both his investors’ funds and their own lives to satisfy his immoral agenda — piloting his ship toward a doomed conflict with a murderous, uncontrollable, unstoppable monster variously interpreted as nature, God, fate and, on a level particular to the history of the United States, slavery. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” Ahab admits, supporting Philbrick’s suggestion that “instead of writing history, Melville is forging an American mythology.” Purer in his pride than a mere mortal, his grandness “plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep,” the captain is more Icarus than Tom Joad or Rabbit Angstrom. Melville’s America hurtles toward civil war, hobbled by slavery, as Ahab has been deformed by his first encounter with the evil that will drag him down to his death. His vision is both intimate, examining the intricacies of the tattoos on a savage’s leg and, sometimes, exalted.

For Ishmael, “a dreamy meditative man,” the vantage from the masthead “is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea. . . . The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; every¬thing resolves you into languor.” The description is what Philbrick calls a “little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slows the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl.” But if the ship is becalmed or blown off course by one flight of fancy or another, each diversion is just a little stay of the end’s certain execution.

If light and life are composed of color, the whiteness of the whale is the “pallor of the dead” and “the shroud in which we wrap them.” The color is “the most meaning symbol of spiritual things,” Melville wrote, and “Moby-Dick” belongs as much to the 20th or 21st century as to the 19th. Fascism, the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear annihilation, terrorism — every failure of humanity can be projected onto the blank canvas of the beast’s unwitting head.

Melville sailed on whaling expeditions and understood well the crushing labor required to sustain America’s prosperity — to keep the whale oil burning in a rich man’s lamp — as well as the delicate maneuvering required to pilot a crew whose “demographic diversity,” as Philbrick calls it, predicted America’s future. Caucasians, Indians, African-Americans, varied islanders, all are, Melville wrote, “federated along one keel” of the “death-glorious” Pequod, a ship both “hearse” and “fading phantom.” A misdirected melting pot, it sails on, as Philbrick notes, under “a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him,” one who heedlessly sacrifices all those who have pledged their allegiance to him.

“The mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed,” in Philbrick’s words, “by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted,” we are a nation, and a species, ever poised on self-destruction. “Listen to every word” Philbrick says of what might be read as a cautionary tale, betraying an optimism he cannot have drawn from Melville. After all, the ending he saw was unavoidable extinction.

Dec 6, 2012

Early Poetry: Mahapatra

Jayanta Mahapatra is one of the most esteemed names in the domain of contemporary Indo-Anglican poetry. He is usually regarded as a post-modern experimental poet. An important aspect of the new poetry or modernist poetry pioneered by Ezekiel and Daruwalla has been a constant encounter with the personal and immediate perception in relation to the outer reality or the external world. In the sixties, Indian poetry in English entered a very exciting phase of creativity in the form of arrival of fresh talents; such Shiv K Kumar, R Parathasarathy, A K Ramanujan, Dilip Chitre, Arun Kolatkar, A K Mehrotra, and Jayanta Mahapatra. Of them, Jayanta Mahapatra enjoys a unique privilege and shares it with A K Mehrotra. In fact both of them view poetry as a structure of images and deal with their obsessions, memories, doubts and other personal experiences.

Mahapatra has confronted excruciating, harrowing and traumatic childhood. He was meek, shy, often an object of mockery and embarrassment in school. He was doubly detached from his ambient atmosphere—he was born into a Christian family in predominately Hindu neighborhoods, and, he wrote in a tongue, which was not his vernacular. It was conservatively thought that English was an outlandish parlance and could not be a medium of expression of edifying fortitude of our native land. Although he preferred this alien channel of utterance and articulation yet the sum and substance dominate his poetry are connected and communicated to the pragmatic and stark reality of Orissa as well as India such as hunger, myths, rites, rituals and sometimes they transcend all that is mundane and terrestrial to embrace the universal significance as, sexuality, spirituality, self and eternity. He is a kind of attentive awareness of the darker realm of being.

He has some salient features which makes him distinct from most of his contemporaries:
(i) He belongs to lower middle class family while most of his contemporary poets hail from well groomed and highly educated ancestry.
(ii) He started writing poetry at an age when people stop writing poetry. He was forty then. He himself confesses: “My poetry came at an age when most poets would have been basking in the warm glow of success.”
(iii) Right from 1971, he has published twenty volumes of poetry which is a record in the history of approximate two hundred old Indian English Poetry. Some are yet in the pipeline as he is still coining the verse even more maturely than he did ever before in the teeth of chronic asthma and recurrent migraine.
(iv) Moreover, he is the first poet in the Indian English Poetry to grab Shitya Akademi Award, the biggest in the field of literature, in 1981 for his ambitious and magnum opus, 'Relationship'.
(v) His poems have been publishing comprehensively in highly reputed journals of the world:

(i) Chicago Review(U.S.A), (ii) New York Quarterly(U.S.A), (iii) Poetry(U.S.A), (iv) Sewanee Review(U.S.A.), (v) Critical Quarterly(England), (vi) Times Literary Supplement(England), (vii) Meanjin Quarterly(Australia) and (viii) Malahat Review(Canada)

He is the poet who commands respect and recognition more overseas than at home. In an interview with Sumanyu Satpathy, he expresses his predicament thus:

“I got more encouragement from academics outside my country than inside because I was not writing the type of poetry that appeared in Bombay."

C.L.L. Jayaprada has similar opinion and in Indian Literature Today, the author writes:

"He is the case of a writer who first recognized abroad before getting deserved attention at home. Even now one could say that critical output on Mahapatra is not appropriate to his own work"

Even Arun Kolatkar also has similar observation:

"His work has been published in several important anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology (1912-1977) edited by Daryl Hine and Joseph Parisi. Despite these significant achievements, Mahapatra’s work haven’t got the attention it deserves in India."

(vi) Generally, it is observed that the faculty of science has poor control on language and literature. Though Mahapatra is an academician of Physics yet he treats the poetry with great fervour and vivacity. He converted this adversity into opportunity. In an interview to the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ he emphasizes:

“Physics taught me that time held you captive, but it also made you free. I was nothing but an infinitesimal speck floating in the vast universe. This broadened my vision, but I also feel pressurized, burdened by the weight of time."

In this regard, the observation of famous and critical critic, M K Naik is also plausible and interesting:

“In his persistent use of images drawn from the world of science, especially in his early verse, Mahapatra has few peers among his contemporaries. The presence of these images can be easily accounted for, when it is remembered that physics is Mahapatra’s 'Kitchen Wench'.”

It is further substantiated and supported by following example:

"Mahapatra establishes three plausible relations between a poem and a reader by applying 'Electrostatic Theory of Physics’. A poem is essentially an experience and this might
(a) Reach the reader almost immediately, spontaneously--in the manner of electric charge passing through a good conductor such as copper or iron;

(b) Reach the reader with difficulty, slowly, under great stress, like that of charge passing through a bad conductor like glass; or

(c) Not be able to pass or communicate at all, as though there was a break or gap between them.... The capacity or power for conducting the essential experience of the poet will primarily depend upon the poem itself---on the poem's design." add this

It is his knowledge of Physics that enables him to explain the relation between a poem and the reader in splendid way. And can we predict promulgation of such principle from a pure literary pundit?

(vii) Last but not least, the poet is peerless in profundity, prolificacy, peculiarity and poignancy of his poetic imageries, symbols and visions. Mahapatra’s poems have a cornucopia of images. He grips them by the sleeves. He draws his images from family and domestic life, from culture, myth, science, and nature where rivers, sky, sea, rocks and stone, everything become alive in images. His poetry accentuates a keen consciousness of cultural and sociological traditions of his native locale but his visions and imageries seem to surpass all regional or national boundaries to attain universal appeal and implication. His poetry is varied in theme and content but what enhances the appeal of his poetry is his individualistic stance on the role and function of imagery. This puts the uninitiated reader under severe strain and perhaps because of such difficulty Mahapatra remains ignored by the general readers and critics as well but persistent readers are certainly be rewarded if they try to extricate themselves with the valid meaning or argument from them.

Mahapatra has taught Physics as a senior professor for a long time in the famed Ravenshaw College, Cuttack. In a revealing interview, he even declared his intention of abandoning his teaching job for giving more time to poetry. His late starting of writing poetry did not deter him from the path of creativity. Two important factors have also contributed to his development as a poet of distinctive originality. His encounter with Physics made him analytical, detached and ambivalent towards phenomenal world and ancestral beliefs at the same time. Similarly, his attitude towards poetry is quite exploratory but initially his feel for words and their sound qualities made him turns towards it. As for his themes, he is a personal poet, obsessed with hunger, poverty, loneliness and a search for roots and self. His attitude to Orissa, the place to which he belongs is, however, a matter of deep concern. As M K Naik has rightly pointed out, Mahapatra’s poetry is ‘redolent of the Orissa scene’ and even the titles of his copious poems demonstrate the unmistakable hallmark of Orissa:

(i) Dawn at Puri; (ii) Bhubaneswar; (iii) Orissa; (iv) Main Temple Street, Puri; (v) The Abandoned British Cemetry at Balasore, India; (vi) The Temple Road, Puri; (vii) Konarka; (viii) Rains in Orissa; (ix) The Captive Air of Chandipur-on Sea; (x) Tourists at the Railway Hotel, Puri; (xi) In an Orissa Village; (xii) In the Autumn Valleys of the Mahanandi; (xiii) Living in Orissa; (xiv) Deaths in Orissa; (xv) The Chariot Festival at Puri; (xvi) A Brief Orissa winter and (xvii) Puri

In critical evaluations he is usually described as a significant poet of Oriyan sensibility but this is only partially true. As a matter of fact, Mahapatra’s poems deal with intricacies of human relationships, social problems of post-indepdence phase, personal themes of love, sex, sensuality, marriage and philosophical or cultural issues as well. In addition to these, Mahapatra has a special interest in the predicament of man vis-à-vis Nature, Time and rush of history. He is an academic poet but his poetry is highly personal, allusive, ironic and even confidential.

If we map contour and compass of his poetry, we find that he has made every attempt to metamorphose from Oriyanness to Indianness and the books titled ‘Temple’ and ‘Dispossesed Nests’ are the best and relevant example of this. The former book deals with the weal and woes of ordinary women of India and the latter denounces barbarous and brutal killing of the innocents by the extremist and large scale death and devastation of human beings in Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Moreover, he is the avid fan and follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and ideology. Gandhi and Gandhism is the recurring captions, theme and essence of his multitude poems: The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic: 1975; Gandhi; 30th January, 1982: A Story (M Gandhi); The Fifteenth of August; Red Roses for Gandhi and Bewildered Wheatfields. At the same time Mahapatra is shattered at the deteriorating and declining moral and conduct of the people of India, which is in defiance of the Gandhi’s preaching and contemplation. Mahapatra reveals his worries in an interview with Sudeep Ghosh thus: “I belong to a lost generation. I can’t look into the future. You see, we were brought up on Gandhi, Dostoevsky and Tagore. Today, any trivial act ends up in violence; there is no more tolerance in people, or in organization. Gandhism is a word, a metaphor for people. We appear to have lost our ideals.”

Mahapatra is adept and ambidextrous in short and long poems. Bruce King has suggested that there is ‘variety’ in his poetry. His early poetry bears resemblance to various modernist and post-modernist movements in poetic styles and theories of craft (e.g. collage, Montage, Beat movement). In the next phase, this kind of abstractionism or surrealistic word-play is assimilated within a proper structure. In the last phase, there is greater clarity by means of the poet’s wrestling with location, myth, ritual and cultural background.

Mahapatra is a reflective poet with ironic stance. It is a poetry of exploration where the need for survival with dignity in the midst disease, corruption and decay seems to be basic preoccupation. He is a master of many rhythms and harmonies. He is at times satirical but at other times he is confessional but never lapses into mysticism or solipsism. Even in his early poetry, one can notice poet’s struggle with words and phrases as an attempt to come to terms with the hard reality.

If we take a bird’s eye view of the title of his volumes of poetry, we can easily conclude what could be the theme and matter of his poetry. Most of them imply tragic vision of life to which the poet is predominately and essentially committed. They connote bleak, barren, loneliness, silence, frustration and repentance:

(i) Close the Sky, Ten by Ten (ii) Waiting (iii) The False start (iv) Dispossessed Nests (v) Burden of Waves and Fruits (vi) A Whiteness of Bone (vii) Shadow Space (viii) Bare Face (ix) Random Descent and (x) The Lie Of Dawns: poems 1974-2008

Critics, authors, analysts and readers complain of lack of humour in his poetry. For this he has got his own reason and defence. In a conversation with Sudeep Ghosh, he reveals:

“Oh well, may be I was made that way. It is difficult for me to be humourous in the poems I write. There is so much despair in the world around me – so much hate, so much injustice, so much poverty. And religious fanaticism, for no reason. I wish I could write a humourous poem. I haven’t.”

In short, Jayanta Mahapatra finally emerges as a poet of human conditions and grows into one of the finest contemporary Indo-Anglican poets. Mahapatra is a poet of quiet but ironic reflection of life’s bitter-sweet memories, happenings and revelations. Indeed in recent years, a number of reviews, articles and discussions have taken place and the poet himself has clarified his position in his own articles and speeches but even now he remains a neglected poet. Some of his best poems: Dawn at Puri, Hunger, The Whorehouse in Calcutta, A Rain of Rites, Grandfather, Total Solar Eclipse, Temple, The Lost Children of America, Indian Summer Poem, Evening Landscape by the River, The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of a Republic:1975, have found mention in curricula of various schools, colleges, universities of the country and the world as well as in the anthologies of Indian and world poetry in English.

He has been editor of some literary journals and newspapers. They are: (i) Chandrabhaga is a bi-annual literary periodical, named after the eminent but arid river of Orissa. This magazine is of great significance to the poet as it provided launching pad to the poetic career of Mahapatra as he was able to establish approach and rapprochement with numerous editors and publish his plenteous poems in, of copious and coveted monthlies of the world. The publication of this journal ceased in 1985 after fourteen issues due to financial crunch and it has been again revived in the year 2000, in the wake of the earnest request and substantial support from his friends, followers and poetry lovers especially Rabindra K. Swain. Since then the magazine has been publishing uninterruptedly till date. (ii) South and West (U.S.A. special India issue, 1973) (iii) The poetry for the Sunday edition of the Telegraph (iv) The poetry journal ‘Kavya Bharati’

Moreover, his writings in prose have also appeared in various special issues. He has published a collection of short story (The Green Gardener) in English and also composed poems in Oriya to canvass and win the love, affection and support of local people. Besides, he has also translated poems from Oriya and Bengla into English which signifies his trilingual possession. He has won several laurels and distinguished awards inside and outside the country. The list of recent honours and awards conferred to him are:

(i) Allen Tate Poet Prize for 2009 from the Sewanee Review for his poems published in it in 2009.(26 July 09) (ii) An Honourary Doctorate by Ravenshaw University, Cuttack (02 May 09) (iii) ‘Padma Shree Award’ from the President of India (26 Jan 09)

Conclusion:
Despite the mixed blessing of Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry, he was, he is and he will be remembered and mused by the poetry and literary lovers, in and out of the country, by virtue of the seeds of the verse sown by him. So let us conclude this essay by quoting an extract from the renowned British romantic poet, brimming and bubbling in confidence, P.B. Shelley:

“If I have been extinguished yet there rise A thousand beacons from the spark I bore”.
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