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Mangaluru: Poets should speak out against wrongs: Keki Daruwalla


Pics: Dayanand Kukkaje
Daijiworld Media Network - Mangaluru

Mangaluru, Aug 7: It was an evening of intellectual enrichment as the internationally renowned poet and writer Keki N Daruwalla engaged an audience, consisting largely of city's professors, students, literatteurs and litererature enthusiasts, in an interesting 'quest' of poetic enlightenment.

The occasion was the 5th edition of James and Shobha Mendonca Endowment Lecture on Poetry organized by Kavita Trust, at Gallerie Orchid here on Saturday August 6.

Padma Shri and winner of Sahitya Akademi Award, the former IPS officer, who also served as special assistant to the PM and retired in 1995 as the chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee, Keki Nasserwanji Daruwalla in his almost an hour-long talk on 'Poetry: The Rights and Wrongs of a Quest' on how poetry in English had evolved over the decades, particularly during the 20th century, how poetry has a close connection to life, how poets need to speak out against atrocities, and much more.

He began his talk by thanking the organizers and appreciating the large gathering that sat in rapt attention as he delivered brilliance with wit. "You do not find that many poets, at least in Delhi. There is never a gathering of this kind where people can read poetry and talk poetry. My talk is about poetry as a quest. Poetry has always been a quest. If we talk about English poetry, during the Renaissance, poetry meant telling a good story in rhyme. Later on things changed and it became self-expression of the times that they (poets) were in. I suppose in Bhakti poetry, the quest was the divine. It can't be the same with us, obviously, as times have changed."


"Poetry closer to life than music"

"Like history, politics, philosophy, theology and other disciplines, poetry is also an ocean in itself. I am making no apologies that I am comparing poetry with these major disciplines of thought, because we know poetry is actually incomparable, as distinct from 'beyond compare'. Arguably in some respects the only branch you can liken poetry with would be music. Both poetry and music have rhythm and melody, and both appeal to the finer sensibilities. But there the comparison really ends, because poetry is much closer to the weighty issues of life than music can be, and poetry is close to thought. It is more involved with the issues of life and death. And the nexus of poetry with thought is much closer than it can be with music. If you have music of war, there will be loud instrumental music, but poetry has words and words give us meaning. The impact is much greater.


20th century changed everything, including poetry

"Now in the last century, time got sort of accelerated and things changed dramatically. They changed in all disciplines. The century was terrible, it was horrendous. We had the first World War, and that was the worst thing that happened to mankind. There were people who died in the trenches. About 60,000 Indian soldiers had died. They went at a salary of Rs 11 a month, and they gave their blood for the British. A year before the war started, Tagore was lucky enough to have got the Nobel Prize. If his case had come up in 1914, he would have been nowhere, because that was the year of killing, people died in rat-infested trenches, and you couldn't be talking about god as in 'Gitanjali'. You even had the atomic bomb, the gas chambers and the Chinese killings in millions. So things changed all of a sudden. It changed in philosphy and in poetry. You had existential philosophy suddenly coming up. Of course, it was also a great century that brought us penicillin and cardiac surgery. So you have the good and the bad in every way.

"But even if we forget the close nexus poetry has with life and the times we live in, poetry has its own existential issues. French poet Yves Bonnefoy, who died a month ago, talked about the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and the French ways of looking at poetry. He is incidentally the greatest poet from France after 1950. He said 'poetry's value is non-rational and subjective', and that 'Anglo-Saxon heritage was cramped by its bourgeois demand for a literature in which everything can be explained'. His contention was that the way French write poetry does not have to be explained. You don't have to say 'this is what the poet is saying'. He said in Anglo-Saxon poetry, 'the idea that some undiscovered meaning may still subsist in a poem seems to be regarded as scandalous, a blow to collective moral security'. For the French, 'the goal was to harness a language that would annihilate meaning, moving poetry toward the purer plane of solitude and silence'.

Daruwalla then narrated an anecdote about him and the late poet Mahasweta Devi where, while visiting France, they could not find a single translation of a French work in English. A French novelist said they wrote in such bizarre manner that 'first our readers left us, then our publishers left us, and finally translators left us'. "But the very next day, French writer Claude Simon won the Nobel Prize. The novelist who we met earlier said it was Simon he was hinting at, and that it was scandalous that he had won the Nobel Prize," Daruwalla recalled, adding, "T S Eliot too said the English poets could not give him what he wanted. The French poets could."


"Poets have to find balance between fancy and outer reality"

"Our poets in India, as far as I know, have not taken to Avant Garde in such a big way. Nor is our poetry symbolic or ineffable. But the fact remains that the poets have to find a balance between runaway subjectivity and the outer world, between unbridled fancy, whim or imagination and outer reality. Each poet has to find her or his own self. The issues that a poet struggles with will always be there. They can be reduced to matters of choice - colloquial or textual, folk or classical, is form more important or the content, dream or reality - and here we come to the point, does poetry have to be committed?


"Pakistani poet cannot write on blasphemy, Indian poet cannot write on intolerance"

"In classical western mythology poetry is representated as Pegasus, a white horse with wings, born from the blood of Medusa, a gorgon with snakes for hair. So Pegasus means flying high, as well as matters of blood and bone, flesh and tissue. Zues is supposed to have asked him to carry lightning and thunder to the earth, and later on it turned him into a constellation of stars.

"So if poetry is a gift of the gods, can we harness it to our humdrum causes? Can we shackle it to a social agenda, however praiseworthy, without making it a hybrid, interfering with its imaginative trajectory? Won't poetry itself be diluted? For instance, can a Pakistani poet really write a poem on their blasphemy laws? Can an Indian poet today, if he thinks of intolerance, can he write a decent poem on it? You can't. Pakistani poets are supposed to be very jolly, but no one can write a poem on blasphemy. There are social issues which at times cannot be touched by poetry. Should poetry be known by its social content? Should poetry be valued for its aesthetic content? Or for the value that it brings? These are issues which poets, especially Indian poets who belong to a society of 2,000 years of inequity behind it, have to face. There cannot be a prescription. Each one has to steer through all this in one's own individual manner.


"Poetry by women is always political"

"In the light of what I have said, you can ask what about Dalit poetry, or what about women's poetry? Those are as much poetry as anything else. Feminist poetry has taken a very big leap. As we all know, wherever there is a lady writing poetry, it is always political. She may be talking about herself, about her cooking or her relations with her husband or in-laws, with people in life in general, but the poem is political. Political poetry does not mean BJP and Congress. Alice Walker said, 'Be nobody's darling / be an outcast... be pleased to walk alone'. I think poets also walk alone.


Purpose of poetry

"Milosz, the great Polish writer said 'what is poetry which does not save nations or people?' I do not agree. Are we writing poetry to save nations and people? Obviously not. Are you writing poetry to save India and the Konkani people? You are not. You are writing for your own self-expression. T S Eliot in his famous essay on the functions of poetry said the duty of a poet 'is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve'. Each one does service to his language.

"Eliot also says the foremost purpose of poetry is that it should it give pleasure - pleasures of entertainment, and pleasures of value. There is always the communication of some new experience, or some fresh understanding of something familiar. Each one writes about love, social injustice, anger, but in his or her own way. The thing about poetry is that the line should become life. It should become electrified.

"I have always said committed poetry came into play in the 20th century, mainy because of the atrocities, etc. People rose up against tyranny. I am not talking about revolutions or Inquilab. Committed poetry is all very fine, but how will we distinguish it from impassioned prose? I would says Martin Luther's famous speech 'I have a dream' was poetry. Yet, great prose is prose, we love it and admire it, but let us keep it apart from poetry.


"Poets should speak out"

"Committed poetry has now been supplanted by 'poetry of witness' - it is a phrase that Milosz came up with. The modern thought is that we are all witnessing what is happening, and we are speaking to the times. Posterity is the judge and we have to speak our minds out before posterity. Yes, poetry needs solitude and silence for its true voice to emerge, but at times we have to move into the clamorous reality of our times. How long can we go back to myth and pluck out something from Mahabharat or Ekalavya? Look at South Asia politics today - politics is our soul. We are the most intense political animals in the world. If a poet feels strongly about things going wrong, he or she should write about it. If satire is your strong suit, write doggerels. The way free thinkers have been killed systematically by some rightist sanstha calls for some riposte by the writers. I do not hesitate writing doggerels on some of the ridiculous things that have been going on and I have written on online journals, blogs and sites.

He also narrated how Columbia came up with its annual international festival of poetry as a way to combat the widespread devastation and violence caused by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.

"There are can't be any single quest for poetry apart from purity of language, and originality of thought and feeling behind it. Religion may have one quest - God, the divine, moksha, nirvana, etc, but poetry is the cry of the soul. Each generation will come out with its own cry," he concluded.

In a lively interaction that followed the talk, the audience who sat in rapt attention all evening asked the poet questions and his opinions on a variety of subjects related to poetry and writing. To a question whether he agreed with William Wordsworth's definition of poetry that it was 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility', he said, "You cannot define creative writing with any particular dictum. All the poets in the world cannot get together and write a manifesto on what is and what is not poetry."

On whether there is any specific purpose for a poet to write poem, he said, "The poet writes to express himself or an idea or a situation, in his own way, as his subjective response to outer reality. He writes simply because he has to. It is moment-bound."

On request, Daruwalla also narrated two of his poems.

The poet was honoured by the trustees of Kavita Trust on the occasion and presented with a copy of 'A Land Called South India', a book authored by William Pais and Vincent Mendonca.

Prior to the talk, benefactors of Kavita Trust, namely James and Shobha Mendonca, Basti Vaman Shenoy, Michael D'Souza, Walter Nandalike, Oswald D'Souza, Rohan Monteiro and Dr K Devaraj were presented with mementoes by the guest speaker.

William Pais, trustee of Kavita Trust and proprietor of Gallerie Orchid welcomed the gathering and introduced Keki Daruwalla. Anita Cordeiro compered the programme.

President of Kavita Trust Melvyn Rodrigues, secretary Kishoo Barkur, treasurer Averyl Rodrigues, Trustees Andrew DCunha, Vitori Karkal and many others were present.


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