For many years, I’ve been haunted by some lines by W. H. Auden in his famous and much anthologised poem, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)”:
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
It’s that phrase “For poetry makes nothing happen” that I want to dwell on in this lecture. Is it true? Is poetry, at the end of the day, completely ineffective? Is it actually no help to us at all as we confront and attempt to deal with our many problems – personal, psychological, social, political, environmental?
As a poet and translator myself, and as one who does care about the world in which I find myself and who would like to use whatever talent or energy I have not just for self-aggrandisement but for the common good, I find it hard to stomach the notion that “poetry makes nothing happen.” If it is as useless as that, then what am I here for? What is the point of all my relentless hard work over the last thirty years? If the thirty or so books I have written or edited have “made nothing happen,” and if the many more books I have in mind are likely to be equally puny, then what is the point of carrying on?
Auden’s words do not, however, make me lose heart every time I think of them. Rather, they are a challenge: they make me ever more determined to prove him wrong, to demonstrate both by argument and by my actual achievements as a writer that poetry can make things happen: that it can make good things happen – though I daresay it can also, if misused, make bad things happen too. The question is, how?
Having supplied the British Council with the title of this lecture long before writing it, I’ve been carrying around with me – during this four-week lecture tour of Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and now (at the end) in Pakistan – an assumption that I would tackle the subject, grapple with the challenge of Auden’s words, along the following lines. By using in particular the professional knowledge I have acquired of Bengali poetry, I would argue that poetry can indeed be a powerful political tool, can be a forceful element in nationalist activism, can lead to major social and political changes. This actually happened in Bangladesh, where the Bengali nationalist tendencies that ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan had their origins in the Language Movement of the 1950s. The commitment of many Bengali poets to the nationalist cause has continued to this day, channelled into various protest movements; it is assumed in Bangladesh, that a poet will take his or her social or political role seriously; that major annual festivals such as ‘Ekushey’ – commemorating the martyrs of the Language Movement who died on 21 February 1952 – or the Bengali New Year will revolve round poetry and the public reading of poetry. That is presumably why the terrorists who recently planted a bomb in Ramna Park in Dhaka – whatever their barbaric motives – chose that time and place: a poetry reading in a public park on a national day, for maximum horror and impact.
Moreover, Bangladeshi poets have as role models great figures in Bengali literature such as the ‘rebel poet’ Nazrul Islam, and above all Rabindranath Tagore, who was drawn to social commitment and moral fervour in his poetry just as much as he was to spiritual contemplation.
Tagore may not have written Jana Gana Mana or Amar Sonar Bangla with any inkling that they would eventually become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh; but the sheer fact that they have done, that the words of those songs continue to serve as an engine for patriotic sentiment and cohesion in both countries, seems to fly in the face of a contention that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’.
That might have been one way of tackling my subject today. But quite frankly, I wouldn’t have adopted that approach with very much conviction or enthusiasm – and not just because it would be tactless, to say the least, to re-awaken painful memories by delivering a lecture here in Karachi on the social and political role of poetry in Bengal.
No, I feel in my bones that this would be the wrong approach because it would, in a way, put the cart before the horse.
Let us look again at Auden’s poem. It is a very fine and eloquent one, but there is quite a lot in it that seems to me self-contradictory. If poetry is “a way of happening” how can it at the same time make nothing happen? If say a political or social leader is responsible for events that happen or turn out in a particular way, isn’t he, in effect, making them happen? And what does Auden mean when he says that “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”? Many people have been subject to Ireland’s particular kind of madness and have been hurt by it, but that is not to say that they have all become poets. What made Yeats a great poet was his own poetic genius and impulse: Ireland may have provided him with material, but not with the poetic impulse itself.
If we think of “poetry” as particular, finished and published poems, we may or may not wish to argue that it can have a social, political or psychological impact, that it can ‘make things happen’ in the way that poetry in Bengal has certainly made things happen. But if we think of poetry as the impulse, the creativity, the imaginative, emotional or intellectual energy that gives rise to poems, then there is no doubt at all that poetry makes things happen, for above all it makes poems happen: poems are themselves happenings or events, endlessly re-occurring (though never in quite the same way) each time they are read, whether silently in private or aloud in public.
This may sound like a truism: poetry makes poems, so therefore it does indeed make things happen – it makes poems happen. But I have often thought it ironic that Auden should have chosen to say that “poetry makes nothing happen” in a poem that I find so eloquent and powerful, such a memorable event each time I read it, so resonant with the incipient horrors of the Second World War:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequested in its hate…
And in the poem’s wonderful concluding verses, Auden seems to be calling on the poet to make things happen: to persuade people not to lose faith and hope and a capacity for joy. A surge of such feeling may not be an event in a political or historical sense, but it is certainly an emotional and moral event, certainly a happening. Each time I read these lines, something happens to me, and I think something will happen to you too, as you hear them:
Follow poet, fellow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of a curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
What I really want to ask today is: can whatever it is that goes into the making of a great poem like this also have other effects? Can poetry – the creative impulse that produces poetry – produce other things too, make things happen other than poems themselves? Does poetry represent a creative and imaginative force that can be harnessed for new and vital purposes in the twenty-first century?
To answer these question I propose to look as objectively as I can at some poems and translations of my own; ask where they have come from; and then ask whether the same energies that have produced them could be channelled in other valuable and helpful directions, by people who might not consider themselves to be poets at all.
Let us think of these poems and translations as exhibits, and make good use of the overhead projector to look at them in that way.
Here, first of all, are some translations rather than original poems of my own. They are all from my new book, Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems of Rabindranath Tagore. The book consists of nearly 500 very short poems, amounting to a complete translation of three books: Kanika (‘Particles’, 1899), Lekhan (‘Jottings’, 1927) and the first edition of Sphulinga (‘Sparks’, posthumously published in 1945). Let’s look at a poem from Particles, then at one from Jottings, then one from Sparks:
The treetop says, ‘I’m high, you’re low.’
The bottom of the tree says, ‘Fine, who cares?
Because you’re high, you take on airs.
My glory is, I’ve made you grow.’
Work and leisure
Waves play a game
With the ocean’s calm.
Love’s original fire fills
The sky with white-hot flame.
Descending to earth is separates out
Into colour, dress and form.
I put these before you firstly to make the basic point that with translations of poems, poetry has definitely made something happen in that it has made the translations happen. I wouldn’t be able to translate these Bengali poems and make them work – as I hope they do work – as English poems, had the originals not intrigued and moved me. They intrigue me – particularly the poems in Kanika (‘Particles’) – partly because they are not the sort of poems that people expect of Rabindranath Tagore; but they move me – particularly the poem in Sphulinga (‘Sparks’) – because while many of the poems obviously derive from deep personal feeling, the feeling has been objectified and turned into an idea of general application.
Are there sources for these translations other than the Bengali texts? Well, one source must be a sequence of brief poems that I myself wrote in 1985-6, a sort of diary in verse. I called the sequence ‘The Retreat’, and it was published in a book of that name. I wrote these poems long before I thought of translating Tagore’s brief poems or had even read them. Here are just two:
’Tis true this ancient cottage needs repair,
But there’s a deeper damage there –
A woman who was played unfair –
Her sadness lingers in the air.
’Tis something no amount of money can repair.
‘We’re marching with the program,’
Sing the women on the pill.
People and Nature should divide,
Our century’s made the chasm wide –
We’ve dug it wider still.
We’re climbing with the program,’
Sing the women on the pill.
‘Our generation is the first
To leave the Valley of the Cursed
And strike on up the hill.’
I wrote the poems in ‘The Retreat’ when I was having to give a lot of time and energy to looking after our two daughters, after my wife returned to full-time work as a teacher; and they feature quite a lot in the poems. Later, in their teens, they read the poems, and they were the first poems by me that they were able to enjoy and appreciate, for they discovered themselves in them, like finding childhood photos of themselves in a family photograph album.
Childhood photos: that gives me a lead in to my next exhibit, a poem from my book of my poems of the 1990s, Gifts: Poems 1992-1999. The insight that my years as a househusband gave me into womanhood and motherhood may also have informed this poem. In my book, there are nine characters or personae. Jessica, a married woman, with children is one of them. She is not, as some might assume, a portrait of my wife; more a projection of a side of my own personality – as are all the characters, male or female, young or middle-aged or old.
Body and soul, body and soul,
animadversions on body and soul,
as I lie in bed and survey
my wall of photos.
The dawn summer sunlight
probing the corner
to the left of the window
does not touch the photos to the right,
does not with bouncing gleams confuse
my carefully poised reticulation
of glass-framed photos and red-painted wall.
virginity of soul
in my photos of husband and daughters:
the same undeflowerable her
in the infant at her christening, clutching a bunch of carnations,
as in the nubile young woman;
the same indestructible him
in the callow bridegroom,
the fond young father,
the battle-pensive frown of middle-age.
Yet the spaces between the photos
are not so unfleshly:
placid blood-warmth of lactation,
mysterious lone carnification of my and my husband’s love
in this marriage-bed –
all even more inviolable
for being so privately, so un-immortally mine.
Live on, live on, soul of my daughters and husband,
let the dawn sun touch my photos
on another wall one day when we are gone
and this room delights other lovers:
but it shall not invade
this privacy of carnal memory,
more intimate than soul,
living with me,
dying with me.
The form of this poem – lines varying in length, ‘walking across the page’ to create an asymmetrical visual shape – is actually derived from Tagore, for poems of this sort are one of his most distinctive trademarks.
I’ve been proceeding from one poem or translation to another through a process of free association, and I could go on and on like this, finding points of contact between my poems and translations in terms of content or form, one leading from another or one leading to another, moving backwards or forwards in time.
The basic point I want to make is this: that one way in which “poetry makes something happen” is that poems can make other poems happen, whether original poems or translations: there is a complex evolutionary process going on, connecting poets, often working across different languages or between poems from different historical eras. The process is as rich and unpredictable as natural evolution itself, and some kind of natural selection is taking place, as only those poems survive to be read and used by others that are fit to survive and can themselves produce progress in the form of other poems. We may not know what this evolutionary process is for, any more than we know what the evolution of plant and animal species is for; but it definitely exists, definitely takes place, definitely happens.
I now want to move on and consider three other ways in which poetry, in my view, can make things happen. Firstly, there is the way in which it can create and express unity and balance; secondly its capacity to foster friendship; and thirdly the way in which it can deepen our understanding of history.
- Unity and balance
In the lecture I gave recently at Kharagpur, I tried to show, to an audience consisting mainly of scientists and engineers, that a well-written poem is a kind of machine: its various parts, in terms of form and content, have to fit together efficiently and harmoniously if the poem is to work well.
Poetry also seems to me the most comprehensive of all our various expressions of creativity. Consider its relationship to other arts: painting, music, fiction, drama. All those arts can be embraced and included within a poem – painting because poems can include visual images, music because a poem has sound and rhythm, fiction because it can tell stories, drama because it can contain characters and voices, and so forth.
A poem combines feelings with ideas. It can therefore embrace the intellectual sphere that scientific theory inhabits, but it can also reach beyond that to metaphysical and spiritual dimensions that science cannot touch. Poetry thus has the power to unite all our various human capacities and impulses: it should – and this has been my view for some years now – hold the moral, the aesthetic and the rational in balance.
I do believe that the peace and prosperity and the survival of our world depends on our being able, gradually, to bring our moral, creative and rational capacities increasingly into balance. Just how we might be able to do this would have to be the subject of another lecture, though of course I don’t fully know how. But so many of the problems we face seem to me to derive from an imbalance between these tendencies: religion uncontrolled by reason is dangerous, scientific rationalism uncontrolled by morality is dangerous, artistic expression controlled by both reason and morality is self-indulgent, decadent and can even be dangerous too; and so forth. Real poetry is good, beautiful and true: it can therefore serve as a model and a beacon for the balance that we need in so many spheres of life. I even venture to think that poetry could, in the twenty-first century, help to make that balance and unity happen.
As well as what I regard as my serious, mainstream work as a poet and translator, I have over the years produced a large number of lighter, occasional pieces, usually as presents for friends or relatives, or for SOAS colleagues when they retire. In a lecture I gave in Dhaka on 27 March called “Poetry and Community”, I speculated on whether a new kind of altruistic poetry, written for the local, national or international community, could be a way forward out of our present post-modernist morass.
I give you here a recent example of an occasional poem of this sort: it was written for a dinner party for more than 30 friends that my wife and I gave at SOAS to celebrate our 50th birthdays last February. I made sure that everyone present was mentioned by name in the poem. This made it quite long, so I give you just the first page.
Our venue’s oriental:
I should have thrown, dear friends,
Indian garlands round your necks;
But let me make amends
By garlanding with verse
Each person who is here —
Match names with rhymes to let you know
Why you are all so dear!
My order is quite random,
For when I seized my pen,
The placement hadn’t yet defined
Who would sit where or when.
So with a list before me,
My pen became a pin:
I stabbed, and lo! it pricked the name
With which I now begin.
Judy! first of flowers!
It isn’t just the wine:
Were I a polygamous Muslim, I’d
Implore you to be mine.
My pen now picks a couple:
Two verses will be yours.
While waiting for the Manor School
To let our lambs outdoors —
Little you knew, dear Lesley,
How, more than for learned books,
I honoured Felipe for his choice
Of a wife of such sultry looks!
Which makes it a natural leap
To the handsomest man alive:
Violin maestro and scientist too;
Loved for your zest, dear Clive!
One artist leads to another:
So now that our heads all swim,
This party painted with dizzy perspective —
Can you oblige us, Tim?
Heavens, my pen is a genius:
It’s hit on a peerless star
Of the Beefsteak and many more London clubs
As well as the other Bar:
Johnny, whose nose for the finest
Picked Cherry out of the cake —
Who’d be, were she free, on the recipe sheet
Of what I’d like to bake
Were polyandry the norm
As well as the Muslim way:
But on with my garland of names or else
We’ll never get home today.
Of course this is a personal poem, and if it is ever published there would have to be notes on all the individuals mentioned; but many of those who were there commented on how it did succeed in bonding everyone present – many of whom had not met each other before – into a magic circle of friendship. I believe poetry – more than anything else I know – can do this: can make friendship happen, friendship between strangers across communities or races or nations. There’s a kind of emotional substance in this poem that can, I think, be put to wider use.
I came here to Karachi from India via Sri Lanka. I spent a week on that beautiful island and had many discussions with people I met there about the tragic civil war that is still such a long way from a resolution. I found myself constantly comparing the conflict with the troubles in Ireland, where progress has been made in recent years, giving one hope that eventually a way out of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict might be found.
For a successful resolution of all such intractable conflicts – Ireland, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Palestine, Kosovo, East Timor and so on – it seems to me that an understanding of history is vital. Only when both sides can understand the historical roots of the conflict, and therefore see it from the other side’s point of view, can progress be made.
To achieve that understanding, history books, journalism or specialist reports do not seem to me enough. There has to be imaginative, empathetic understanding that only poetry – or the spirit of poetry – can provide.
I’m being rather visionary here. I would find it hard to point to an example of such poetry, deepening historical understanding and helping the resolution of any one conflict. But I do believe, in the century to come, poetry could play such a role.
In recent years, Germany has been a strong interest of mine. I’ve been to Germany many times, and have learnt German quite well. Germany – because of the horrors of the Nazi period – still arouses suspicion in Europe; but huge progress has been made towards reconciliation, though the powerful structures of the European Union, and through mature absorption – by Germans and non-Germans alike – of the appalling lessons of the Holocaust. Yet the scars of the Holocaust will not go away: any visitor to Germany will feel how profound and permanent they are. In the poem I’m going to read from now – Adbhuta (“Wonder”) from the second part of Gifts – I’ve tried to describe these scars, by drawing an analogy between the brain-damaged son of friends of ours, a similar case that I read about in a German book, and the damage done to Germany by the Holocaust. The gap in the line – another technique derived from Tagore – has a function in terms of meaning as well as form: it represents the break, the disruption of brain-damage, as well as the damage that was done to Germany by the Holocaust. I’m not of course claiming that this particular poem will make a contribution to Germany’s relations with the rest of the world; but the feelings it expresses are of a kind that have played a necessary part in the post-war restoration of civilised relations. Here are the last four stanzas of the poem.
I hear in Weimar now the same music
that filled my heart that visit last Christmas
a happy time the kitchen warm your new habits
with wheelchair pen and clipboard old photos
of life before it happened scenes proudly
perused and shown the silent weird music
of sweet delight combined with harsh horror
I hear it now not just because René
conflates with James each sentence read slowly
his mother’s words give just the same feeling
as James’s mother nothing more vital
than fighting for the best despite damage
not only that but hearing too the same music
throughout this damaged country so anxious
that all henceforth must be humane kindly
especially here in Weimar such tender
Gemütlichkeit in Goethe’s house garden
In James’s home I have the same feeling
yet pain close by of Buchenwald thudding
the shame the grief the camp’s obscene stillness
that love and good can never make better
and few alive to blame and soon no one
no more than for what damaged James René
yet always grim awareness harsh pounding
barbaric bass to happy tune loving
return to childhood handsome grown body
enchanting German town the sun singing
the charm of James’s laughter last Christmas
I’ve given you a lot of material this evening, perhaps too much to absorb all in one go. Where has it led me? Has it proved my contention that poetry can indeed – pace W. H. Auden – make things happen, and that it might make even more things happen in the twenty-first century that it has ever done before?
To sum up what I’ve said poetry makes things happen:
(a) because it makes poems happen
(b) because it can make translations happen
(c) it makes the whole elaborate process of poetic evolution happen, across time and across different languages
(d) it can help to foster balance and unity, a reconciliation of the moral, the creative and the rational
(e) it can promote friendship
(f) it can deepen the historical understanding required for the resolution of conflicts and the construction of peace.
I am aware that in saying all this I am expressing a faith: a faith in poetry as a force for good in the world. I cannot prove that it actually makes any of these things happen.
Two other points I wanted to make which I shall mention here now, by way of a coda. The first is about humour. This has been a rather solemn lecture, but I do want to stress that wit and humour are vital arrows in the poet’s quiver. Indeed the balance, unity and comprehensiveness I spoke of should incorporate humour. Perhaps those brief poems – by Tagore and by me – indicated how important it is.
Secondly, a word about language. I believe that poetry can inspire us to learn other languages: that has certainly been the case with me, and with many other writers and readers through the ages. Learning foreign languages seems to me an intrinsically valuable and helpful thing to do, for it is impossible to form close bonds with another country or community unless you learn its language. I think that a new era of language learning may dawn in this new century simply because so many other fields of exploration – such as travel, many branches of science, and the current craze for computers – will be exhausted. Human curiosity needs new fields, new challenges, and the miracle of natural language provides an endless number of fields that (unlike the physical world of nature) cannot really be spoilt or corrupted by industrialisation, urbanisation or tourism.
But we also have the new phenomenon of a global language, English, which through a sequence of historical accidents is fast becoming a lingua franca for the entire world.
The power of English gives writers who have English as a mother-tongue a massive opportunity and also an awesome responsibility. An effective piece of poetry in English can reach all four corners of the globe. Thus the capacity of poetry in English to make things happen has never been greater, and no language in the past has ever had such power.
I’m not sure if poets in English have yet woken up to this power and this responsibility. I believe that in the twenty-first century they will gradually do so, I hope for good rather than ill; and I pray that I may play a small part in helping them along that new and untravelled road.
Originally delivered at the British Council, Karachi, 19 April 2001.
 The atrocity happened on 14 April 2001, the first day of the Bengali New Year.
 HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2000; Angel Books, London, 2001.
 The first edition of Sphulinga has 198 poems; subsequent editions have greatly expanded the number, and the latest (Visva-Bharati, 1990) has 410 poems. I think this has damaged the character of the book and I have stuck to the first editions for reasons I explain in my Introduction, p. 21f.
 Particles, Jottings, Sparks, p. 48.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Ibid., p. 136.
 The Retreat (University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1994), pp. 32, 33. See also above, ‘Poetic Engineering’, p. 00.
 Gifts: Poems 1992-1999 (Grevatt & Grevatt, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2002) pp. 18-19.
 See ‘Poetic Engineering’, p. 0.
 Ibid, especially p. 00.
 I first expounded the theory of this balance in my book Before and After (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1994), in a prose diary entitled ‘The Weakness of God’. See also below, ‘Confessions of a Poet-translator’, p. 00.
 See above, p. 00.
 See above, ‘Poetic Engineering’, p. 00.
 Gifts: Poems 1992-1999, pp. 36-39.