The Poetry of Feeling

by Dr. A.S. Guha

In India poetry in English was generally speaking looked down upon and, considered a second rate creative activity. However, there arose in the ’60s and ’70s a cluster of powerful poets who reflected through their poetry a growing and foreboding sense of what popularly came to be known as ‘Indianness’. They were also consicious of their own poetic idioms, styles and techniques. They were vigorous in experimenting and enhanced their poetry bespeaking of a brutal candour, marked by the kind of creative tension that generates good poetry. In the ’80s and ’90s emerged a group of well educated younger poets, conscious of their craft, displaying a resilience of poetic themes. They had a down to earth flexible approach varying their themes from love to social exposure and inquisition. Consequently the number of poetry journals grew among the literati of the country. There was also an interaction and interplay of ideas between the older generation of the Indian poets writing in English and the younger generation.

North East India too witnessed the emergence of such a younger group of poets in the 80s and early 90s, whose poetry written in feverish moments of societal crisis attracted the attention of critics and literary journals of India and abroad. Coincidentally these poets all live in Shillong and it was the poetry page of the Telegraph Colour Magazine edited by the celebrated Indo English poet Jayanta Mahapatra which gave them the opportunity to be published and break new grounds which gave them the opportunity to be published and break new grounds in the Indo-English poetry scene. In the mid and late-90s the North East Forum for English studies was established in Guwahati, and formed mainly by some college teachers; and the North East Writers Forum consisting of creative writers in this part of the country devoted much of their energy in encouraging the art of poetry in English, in the region. This article will focus on these poets from Shillong as certain binding themes of personal, social and historical concern unified their poetry and gave it a distinct flavour, marked by an astonishing sense of lyricism.

The poets who readily come to the mind are: Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang, Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih - votaries of the poetry of feeling. Their verse immediately attracted critical attention for their universal concerns, kneading these with localized themes. Their poetry was lyrical, imbued with a striking poise, clarity and spontaneity. They emphathized with one another in their themes, their ‘influences’ were many: Neruda, Arghezi, Gullen, Pessoa, Jayanta Mahapatra to name a few. Yet these ‘influences’ on their poetry did not stulfity their verse, rather they emphathetically related experiences of these poets to their own poetic credos cleverly. They believed in encouraging younger poets and helped them to publish their poetry in their mouthpiece Lyric. Lyric the poetry journal of the Shillong Poetry Society subsequently gained reputation as a standard poetry jounal acclaimed by critics in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, “The Times of India”. “The Indian Express”, “Business Standard” etc. Lyric published the works of poets on a national and international scale, and was scrupulous in its editing and selection. The chief architects of Lyric were the poets mentioned above though much of the pioneering work in publishing it was achieved by Robin Nagangom and Desmond Kharmawphlang.

If we speak of a general ‘Indianness’ a poetry written in English in India, these poets nonchalantly subverted such a notion, by writing poignantly and memorably of their home-town, a shared nostalgia for the past, and the prevalent social issues with their attendant pitfalls. They evinced a remarkable racial, sociological and historical memory to capture iridescent moments of their society in transition. Makarand Parajpe the critic has described them as “ethnic” poets. They believe that the best of poetry and its finer instincts has the indelible stamp of the native genius, in William Wordsworth’s decree ‘it is man speaking to man’. They glimpsed such a primal functioning in the best of poetry and attempted to encapsulate this in their verse. They used effectively the oral tradition and mythology of their cultures and related these to their poetic vision, philosophy and craft. Above all they viewed the strenuous craft of writing poetry as essentially meditative and philosophical devoid of any ‘ism’. Surely an original and invigorating body of work had come to permanently stay in the India poetic scene. This then in my opinion has given rise to what I would describe as a second classification of ‘indianness’ in Indian poetry in English, for aren’t the so called Indian sub-cultures subsumed by a standardized Indian ‘culture’? The word culture has wide connotations and an exposition on it strictly speaking does not fall under the purview of this article. But the focal point of discussion here is that all these poets were in love, with the traditional and cultural moorings of their societies. They hearkened to the past, to its nostalgic calls. They were romantics and idealists in sharp contrast to the modernism and neo-modernism of current literary trends. They shunned clich├ęs, preferring to use candidly the prisetiness of the English language; and were truly neophytes in the art of writing poetry.

This kind of ‘Indianness’ fraught with local sentiments did not fail to touch the literary sensibilities of the rest of the country and these poets were immediately recognized for staking poetic claims and voices of their very own. They were propelled by their own poetic conscience and genius, intuitively feeling the urge to write what has already been termed as ‘ethnic’ poetry. Yet what were the actual social themes in their poetry? A careful analysis reveals that there is in their poetry a deep seated conflict between ‘what is’ and ‘what could have been’ the hiatus as it were between past and present. This is turn generated a poetic tension and tinged their poems with a metaphorical sadness. A strong historical sense pervades the best of their poetry capturing moments of reality and the debate between reality and realism. A lot of their verse is rich for its song like utterance of tired revellers and sunburnt time-weary myths. How do we recreate the past? Is their tired question. The elements of hurt, tiredness, sadness recur as motifs in their poetry: impelling, wraithlike and haunting.

The dialogue between the urban and the rural thematically weaves into their poems and much of them is dialogic in this best sense, between the inner contemplated realities and the outside world. At the same time the modern angst of being and becoming besets their poetry layered as it is with deep humanistic perspectives, with the ‘rural’ or ‘small town’ syndrome. A very positive element in their poems is a finely tuned introspection and the ability to achieve moments of self criticism.

In Robin. S Ngangom’s “The September Song” and in his “The Stange Affair of Robin S Ngangom” there are vibrant portrayals of the current society and of social trends experiencing painful, horrific processes of change and transition. The poets here voice an anguish yet there is objective distancing from the subjective reality when the poet finds solace in the self.

“…My love, how can I explain that I abominate laws which punish a man for his past,
Only the night seems to understand that we must bear it again
When I am gone I would leave you these : a life without mirrors,
The blue ode between pines and the winter sky, the secret understanding of roots and the earth,
But where can one run from the homeland, where can I flee from your love?
They have become pursuing prisons which holds the man with criminal worlds”.

Kynpham Singh Nongkynrih writes about the Earth Summit, a cosmic event in an ironical, trenchant vien.

His “Winter Song” vivifies the charming winter season in Shillong and is once again an intrusion into the social fabric of the times; of what is ‘happening’ around us.

It is pertinent to observe here that Desmond Kharmawphlang and Kynpham Nongkynrih are also effectively bilingual poets writing felicitously both in English and Khasi. Poetry, after all knows no language, is god inspired, resonating with the music of words.

The dexterous intermingling of social, political, historical, satirical and personal themes makes these Shillong poets a class apart by themselves. These are the cannons of poetry by which we are to study them critically. The article has only been able to give to the reader a taste and sampling of their poetry. I hope I may be forgiven for this.