Of Tagore, Reznikoff and Brevity

by Aurogeeta Das

In my previous post, I used the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry in Stray Birds. Before I continue my exploration of Tagore’s exploration of birds in his writing, I feel that this term requires some clarification. After all, an aphorism is not generally understood to be poetic. In the The Jewel That is Best, William Radice discusses the pros and cons of using the word ‘aphorism’ to describe Tagore’s poetry and understandably questions what word should be used, if not aphorism. He states,

Some people have called them epigrams; but the gnomic, ironic, often malicious connotations of the epigram… are not, for the most part, appropriate for Tagore. ‘Aphorism’ is better, and may be valid for Tagore’s own English translations of his poems of this sort, but the term is not usually applied to poetry, and every poem in the present volume is most definitely a poem, not a prose maxim or pensée. Moreover, the worldly yet subversive motive behind many aphorisms, particularly in the French tradition, is again not present in Tagore.” (1)

Radice ends by concluding that the best way to refer to these pieces is as ‘brief poems’.

Tagore himself seemed to derive considerable delight in being asked to write something ‘brief’. In his correspondence, we find explanations of the origins of the pieces that ultimately constituted the slim volume Stray Birds. Chief among these seemed to be a demand among his Japanese and Chinese admirers to jot something down on a hand fan, for example. This was during his travels to these countries. The brevity here is therefore not only occasioned due to pragmatic reasons — i.e. the space available, but also by the ‘moment’, if one may call it so — a brief moment of encounter between Tagore and an admirer, during which Tagore gifts a few lines written swiftly. Tagore writes of his pleasure that Chinese and Japanese admirers, unlike Indian ones, appreciated brevity, no doubt in part due to their tradition of the haiku. To me, a good haiku, despite being brief, seems to be characterised by reflections on a broader scale, suggesting through its little moments and brief words, things of greater — even perhaps, of universal — significance. A kind of mysticism permeates many of Tagore’s ‘aphorisms’ in Stray Birds:

CCCXXIII.

There are tracts in my life that are bare and silent. They are the open spaces where my busy days had their light and air. (2)

It is this quality in Tagore’s brief poetry that is hard to emulate. I know, because I have tried in vain! It is possibly due to my own frustrations in this area that I wanted to share here some modern examples of haiku-like poetry. It is not so much as a comparison to Tagore’s sublime thoughts on nature that I offer these here, nor even as a linguistic or cultural parallel. It is more due to the beauty of the formal parallel that I quote Charles Reznikoff. Some of Reznikoffs poetry also provides an example of brevity suggesting something more. You might say that these are also poetic nuggets of sorts. These examples are from The Art of Hunger, a collection of non-fiction prose by the American writer Paul Auster:

                  April

The stiff lines of the twigs

Blurred by buds.

 

                  Moonlit Night

The trees’ shadows lie in black pools in the lawns.

 

                  The Bridge

In a cloud bones of steel.

(3)

 

While Tagore wrote so beautifully about nature, some of Reznikoff’s poetry seems to me to comment with elegant irony, on urban New York, by using images of nature:

This smoky winter morning —

do not despise the green jewel among the twigs

because it is a traffic light.

(4)

I do not know why it is that I recalled Reznikoff’s poetry when I read Tagore’s brief poems in Stray Birds. After all, Reznikoff’s poetry would seem to bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tagore’s. Indeed, beyond the fact that they both wrote poetry, it appears inappropriate to refer to both men on the same page. Reznikoff was a Jewish poet who lived in New York; his work drew upon legal testimonials and commented significantly on war and the Holocaust; he was known as an Objectivist, and therefore as a poet whose work would have been stripped of, for example, metaphor. Yet, it is Reznikoff’s work I thought of when reading Stray Birds. Perhaps it is merely my eclectic reading of poetry that is to blame. I read poetry without discipline, with no informed agenda. I derive great pleasure in browsing seemingly random volumes, so my apologies if it seems like I am indulging in what may well be a haphazard connection. But perhaps it is because I struggled to emulate Tagore’s quality of philosophical reflection and sought to remember when I had last felt like this that Reznikoff sprang to my mind.

To write this sort of brief poetry demands a range of special talents such as a facility with words and a skill for brevity, not to mention a poetic soul, a taste for philosophy and an ability to conjure images. Yet, it also requires something more ephemeral and therefore harder to grasp: an ability to be calm, to be so still that the reflections, like a gentle breeze, brush you for a brief moment. If you are agitated, if you so much as breathe a word during this moment, it passes you by and the breeze that might have left you with a few words of insight and beauty may have been nothing but a mirage. This ability to turn into an observer extraordinaire in order to write gems of poetry seems impossible to achieve without embracing absolute stillness and quietude; indeed, it seems unattainable unless one becomes quiet and still to the point of effacing oneself. Auster writes with penetrating insight, in relation to Reznikoff,

If the poet’s primary obligation is to see, there is a similar though less obvious injunction upon the poet — the duty of not being seen. The Reznikoff equation, which weds seeing to invisibility, cannot be made except by renunciation. In order to see, the poet must make himself invisible. He must disappear, efface himself in anonymity. (5)

 

Auster sees Reznikoff’s efforts to efface himself articulated in the following words by the poet:

 

I like the sound of the street —

but I, apart and alone,

beside an open window

and behind a closed door.

(6)

While I shall enjoy consolidating the research I have carried out on Tagore, I feel that I must begin to be quiet and still to be able to create work in response to Tagore’s art and writing. It appears to me impossible otherwise, to say anything of significance.

 

References

(1)Tagore, Rabindranath, The Jewel That is Best: Collected Brief Poems, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2011 (translated by William Radice, first published as Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems by Angel Books, 2001), p.3

(2) Tagore, Rabindranath, Stray Birds, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2002, p.77

(3) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 36

(4) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 40

(5) Auster, Paul, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38

(6) Reznikoff, Charles, quoted by Paul Auster, The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews & The Red Notebook, Faber and Faber, London, 1998 (first published by Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 1997), p. 38

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