What is it with Tagore?
July 13, 2018
What is it with Tagore? Asked Philip Nikolayev, one of the most innovative poets I have had the fortune to be acquainted with. A Russian American poet and translator, Philip Nikolayev is credited with the invention of the exquisite technique of the ‘immured sonnet’ which I am particularly fond of.
Before I try to respond to the question, I must shed my innate languor of addressing the Bard as ‘Robi Thakur’, both verbally and as far as possible, viscerally.
So far as the West is concerned, Tagore, thanks to the Nobel, is, I suppose, hardly any one besides the acclaimed writer of a book of poems called Gitanjali: Song Offerings. Although there have been translations of his other works by eminent writers, for starters, this book is possibly the most appropriate portal. However, notwithstanding the exaggeration that follows such a prestigious prize as the Nobel, it should help recognise that, to access Tagore solely through a book of poems is to walk across just one room of a monumental mansion and eventually denounce the house as being too boxy.
Here, a question may arise: if his poetry (that is, the English translations) is not sufficient to establish Tagore now, how was it sufficient then?
Before the question is answered, it would be helpful to peek into the quintessential aspect of Tagore’s oeuvre. Tagore is one of the few writers who demand a thorough involvement of the heart rather than of the mind. Both his poetry and prose claim the participation of the soul where the essential human is intricately mixed with the essential animal, the conglomerate thereby producing whatever is: sorrow, success, separation, doom, death, the interminable rasa of life which may not always be felt by means of literary mechanics alone. I quote an excerpt from a letter by Paul Nash (cited in Dutta and Robinson, 167) to further my point:
One feels about them [that] they are the thoughts that come to our mind in moments of deep feeling, to some of us quite often, to others rarely, written down for us in the simplest way… As to style, beauty of language, craft of any kind I am not bothered by it. I would read Gitanjali as I would the Bible for comfort and for strength.
Apart from that, another factor that surely heaved Tagore to greater prominence, is the War.
When Tagore entered the scene, the general European psyche was in a shambles. War was imminent. For possibly the first time, mankind was on the edge of witnessing a heavily mechanised warfare. Against such a tumultuous backdrop, there emerged someone who successfully blended the Circle with the Square as effortlessly as plain habit. Tagore’s poetry ushered this metaphysical intimacy into the European scene. The immediacy of Tagore’s poems, their quasi-flirtatious engagement with the divine, and most importantly, the idea of divine recompense across each and every moment of thwarted living resonated with the Europeans. So much was the urgency, that artists as utter as Yeats, could not help but gladly overlook the so-called technical loopholes that pervaded Tagore’s English, to be poked into later.
Given the highly institutionalised stature of religion in the West, the idea of a personal rapport with the other, struck the right chord. Could Eliot’s poetry have done that? Notwithstanding his near-perfect syntactical and lexical feats, his poetry demands a more patient submission. Also, separately, his version of spirituality is largely a lamentation on the want of it across the society at large. He does not revel in his own God, but mourns upon the Godlessness of the people he’s surrounded by. Given the intangible psychological exigency of the pre-War years (notwithstanding the fervent nationalism rampant at the same time), Tagore’s poetry brought immediate relief.
So far as Tagore’s poor English is concerned, evidently it is mediocre (but not downright egregious); he himself was comfortably reticent about it and had sincerely wished Gitanjali off the wagon of serious literature. Philip Larkin, in a letter to Robert Conquest, had this to say:“An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum [sic] Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: Fuck all. Larkin”. Had Yeats, for instance, not seen the so-called lexical chinks when he first came upon his poems? Sure he did; but, as I have hinted somewhere earlier, Tagore is more readily available to the singer, than to the musicologist. The latter, unfortunately, is on the flap nowadays. Not surprisingly, therefore, there are poems being written today, that look either like algebraic equations on the page or a string of programming notations!
As far as translations are concerned, they often lack the subtlety of the original. The former may spawn warts at precisely the points where the latter shines like gold. If one expects Larkin- or Eliot-like technical feat from a poet who specialises in Bengali, the claim is too gross to be gathered. Could Eliot, for instance, have philandered with French like he did with English? Moreover, he did not arguably concur with the idea of correspondent bilingual prowess.
Some (like Jeet Thayil, in one of our Facebook interactions) have denounced Tagore’s poetry as ‘20th century mush’. The inference possibly arises from a much orchestrated reading of his work. The titillating need to read Tagore against the backdrop of a distinct epoch cannot accompany a successful reading of his poetry. Plain reading should not be addled with the act of incessant validation. The urge to coop Tagore up within preferred coordinates will inevitably blur the ‘pneuma’ of his poetry. Tagore should be approached without any preconceived bombast of evaluative indulgence. I would like to quote what Ezra Pound had written about Tagore in The Fortnightly Review:“I must, from his [Tagore’s] point of view, have wasted a certain amount of time in my answers, for I began to discuss his art and his manner of presentation, rather than his spirit and context.”
Lastly, Tagore’s greatness may be sealed by the fact that he had rightly foreboded Philip Nikolayev’s question, over a century ago.
Susmit Panda is a student at Netaji Subhas Engineering College, Kolkata.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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