Poetry, lest it should sublimate into a rarefied expression beyond the possibilities of participation, needs to be recovered from the excesses of soulful profundities. If the ‘novel’ de-escalates the epic imagination, poetry in its march in the domain of the secular, too peels off the sedimentations of sublimity. Akshaya Kumar’s book, Poetry, Politics and Culture: Essays on Indian Texts and Context, is a significant critical intervention in the domain of poetry in this sense. In re-theorizing poetry in a potentially controversial manner, it endeavours to rescue it from those solemnities of the sacred and the serious, which once lent it authenticity, authority and appeal. The book covers the trajectory of Indian poetic imagination from its ‘quasi-originary’ nationalist longings to its hazardous engagements with the politicized subaltern. Such a ‘fall’ from the pedestal, the author argues, is actually a position of ‘gain’ from the embattled postcolonial perch. Instead of reclaiming poetry as ‘the’ discourse of culture, the emphasis is on re-defining it as one among many other compatible discourses of culture.
Divided into three sections ‘Mapping Nation/ Post-nation’, ‘Re-writing Culture’ and ‘Disseminating Dissent’, the book attempts several things in one go beyond the scope of routine literary criticism. As the author argues for an interventionist role of poetry in the making/mapping of the nation, he holds that poetry provides enabling coordinates of the nation, its spillage and splintering in the volatile 90s. Instead of being a discourse of temporal depth marked with the anxieties of prefiguring and fulfillment, the poetry of the 90s is poetry of spatial heterogeneity that transgresses and trespasses into zones beyond the nationalist gaze. Pavements, red-light areas, riot-hit lanes, border check-posts, concentration camps, terrorist hide-outs, prison-cells constitute the preferred new address of the poetry of 90s. As a corollary to this argument, the second section of the book underlines that poetry is not an incantatory iteration of the mantric past; as it divests itself from its burdensome epic ancestry, it re-writes culture in ways that are non-conformist, and even rebellious. Poetry, as it percolates down, becomes accessible to people from below, both in terms of authorship and readership; it becomes a medium of dissentual culture. The book, in a way, heralds the possibility of an activist poetry that turns towards its people, lending agency to their aspirations. Poetry of the 90s, as the author points out, is no longer a check list of wishful prayers, soothing lullabies, saturnine dirges, reflective sermons, maudlin lyrics; it strikes new forms which could be as eclectic as the ‘pugmarks of tiger’ or ‘postcards from god’.
The complex trajectory of the argument is sustained through a comparative study of Indian poetry in its potentially ‘three’ national languages—Indian English, Hindi and Punjabi. One stream of poetry provides a critical context for the other, and the author working within the ethics of comparative criticism shies away from privileging any one stream. Most of the essays combine the three streams of poetry in a carefully differentiated homological frame. Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma and Amrita Pritam, for instance, provide a homological axis of nationalist woman poetry, Lal Singh Dil, Omprakash Valmiki and Namdeo Dhasal provide another homological frame to understand the emergence of pan-Indian dalit poetry in the 90s. Kabir as a poet travels in various languages and genres; Mira as a saint-poet too is a common legacy which poets from all the three languages re-write in their own distinct ways.
The sheer sweep of the book is semi-encyclopedic as it includes a textual analysis of more than 150 poetry collections/texts, most of which have been written in the late-90s. Mainstream poets like Bhartendu, Maithilisharan Gupt, Nirala, Dharamvir Bharati, Muktibodh, Dhoomil, Pash, Shiv Kumar Batalavi, Pooran Singh, Nissim Ezekiel, Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Dom Moraes, Shahid Ali, Keki Daruwalla, Namdeo Dhasal, Mahadevi Verma, Amrita Pritam and a host of other equally prominent poets of the pre-and post-Independent India provide the profound poetic baseline. The book’s strength lies in bringing into the foreground many young voices. Among Indian English poets a new generation of poets—Sudeep Sen, Vikram Seth, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Jeet Thayil, Ranjit Hoskote, Imtiaz Dharker, Meena Alexander, Sujata Bhatt and others—receive extended critical treatment. The scene of Hindi poetry in the 90s is mapped through a brief and at times rather racy analysis of the poetry of poets like Rajesh Joshi, Manglesh Dabral, Leeladhar Jagudi, Arun Kamal, Viren Dangwal, Alokdhanva, Anamika, Gagan Gill, Katyayani, Hemant Kukrati, Pankaj Chaturvedi, Malay and many others. Punjabi poets of the post-Amrita, post-Batalavi phase that get critical attention in the book are: Manjit Tiwana, Sukhvinder Amrit, Pal Kaur, Shashi Samundra, Pash, Udasi, Iqbal Ramoowalia and others. An exclusive chapter on dalit poetry is the special highlight of the book. A section of the last chapter deals with responses of Indian woman poets to the masculine assertion of fundamentalism in the wake of the Babri demolition, Gujarat-riots and 9/11.
After E.V. Ramakrishnan’s Making It New (1995), the book under review is probably the only book that covers two or more language-literatures in a comparative context. But in its design and intent, it is very different. Instead of dealing with different language-streams in separate chapters, it takes them together in the specific context of each essay. While the book pitches in favour of poetry in terms of its stakes in the political processes of the nation, it explores many sub-themes such as poetry’s after-life in its translation across languages, its capability to inhere history, its inter-textual alignments with other genres, its activist extroversions etc.
Akshaya Kumar’s book lacks the structure of a regular book; it is more like a collection of essays on Indian poetry written for different occasions. Perhaps it is for this reason that he has not written an extended introduction to the book. The nuanced nature of his arguments, spread over three mini-Introductions, prefacing each section, should have been collated into one.
There are some other structural weaknesses too. At times the analysis borders on survey, though it adds horizontal richness to the work. Keeping in view the large corpus of collections that the author chooses to dwell on, such a constraint is built in the exercise. Latest literary theories of culture criticism and new historicism do provide uncanny perspectives to analyse poetry, but at times they tend to overtake the texts. The book is conceived in the binary frame of ‘fiction versus poetry’. Is it necessary to run down fiction in order to lionize poetry? Translation is a welcome by-product of comparative literary criticism. Why should the author sound so tentative about the quality of his translation? Also the middle period of Indian poetry the 70s and 80s, is almost given a total go-by.
Anup Beniwal, a regular contributor to The Book Review, is Professor in English and teaches at GGS, IP University, Delhi.