An off-white paper
Editorial note: This “off-white paper,” coauthored by the contributors to Aryanil Mukherjee’s Bengali poetry feature for Jacket2, addresses "circumcontentive poetry," which draws upon the languages of thermodynamics and systems theory to explain a poetics using the language of science. — Sarah Dowling
The earliest examples of Bengali or Bangla poems are found on palm leaves, written with a black dye probably made from kAjal-latA or other regional plants. These poems, about 47 padas (verses) known as CharyApada, were probably written during the ninth to the twelfth century CE by a generation of Buddhist mystic poets. These original palm leaf manuscripts were discovered by Bengali scholar Haraprasad Shastri a full century ago, in 1907. In his commentary, Haraprasad called the language of these verses sAndhyabhAshhA, or the language of twilight.  The general mood of these ancient mystic verses is one of introspection and concealment, which prompted Haraprasad to compare their quality to the enigma of dusk.
For better or worse, modern Bengali has perhaps been the most open and assimilating of all Indian languages, leaving it a much-motleyed containment. Historically it spawned from Indo-Aryanic languages like Pali, Prakrit (pertaining to the ancient state of Magadh) and Sanskrit. The earliest years of its development date back to the ninth century CE. Modern Bengali, a term that usually refers to the dialects spoken from the early nineteenth century on, was largely shaped by Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, a versatile scholar, social reformer, polymath and a pillar of the Bengal Renaissance. Vidyasagar also helped modify the Bangla letter types, which were first cut in 1780. Although this history of the Bengali dialect is incomplete, the language can be vaguely classified into five major dialects — RArhE (Central West Bengal), JhArhkhandE (South-west), BAngAlE (South-east), BArendrE (North) and KAmrupE (North-east).
The Rabindranath (Tagore) epos
This year (2010–2011) India and Bangladesh celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore). Not only did Rabindranath write the national anthems of two countries (India and Bangladesh), he also remains an unparalleled artistic icon. Few Western literary scholars are aware that apart from being a poet, Tagore was also a prolific playwright, a dance dramatist and choreographer and wrote and composed a gigantic opus of music (rendering his own poetry) called Rabindrasangeet. To a Bengali, Tagore would equal Mozart. Rabindranath also devised a Bengali notation system for his own music. He was a genuinely innovative painter who excited the younger German Expressionists, especially Marc Chagall, who called Rabindranath his favorite poet and painter.
For half a century Rabindranath generated an overwhelming, unrivaled and unavoidable poetic aura. During his time, generations of Bengali poets wrote in the wake of a great literary upsurge. The few who chose to follow their own directions tragically eddied out into oblivion.
However, the 1930s generation saw a gifted lot of poets demonstrate great courage in deviating from the ageing myth of Rabindranath. These poets laid the cornerstones of what could be called the first modern innovative Bengali poetry. Led by the inimitable Buddhadeva Bose this group included Samar Sen, Bishnu Dey, Sudhindranath Dutta, Amiya Chakravarty, Premendra Mitra, Arun Mitra, Sanjoy Bhattacharya and the time-told greatest of all, the “poet apart” Jibanananda Das. The folksy poetry of Jasimuddin also merits particular mention as it captures many core values and traditions of Bengal, namely the “twilight” mysticism of charyapada, rural lyric forms, Baul and Sufi traditions, and so on. It accentuates an organic individualism that is not in defiance of Tagorism.
Poetry movements in post-independence Bengal
It is a conventional notion in the US that genre development and experiments in literature directly react and respond to the role of the literary establishment. The academic establishment comes to represent mainstream literary tropes, and sometimes becomes a barrier to non-mainstream or parallel literatures. Alternative literatures therefore aspire to a more liberated content, trying to connect to a wider and more contemporary social context. The degree of political freedom these literatures endeavor to attain is also proportional to the mainstream’s opposition to them. Within the context of the very young American liberal arts, it can be difficult to understand the relationship between the literary establishment and emergent, oppositional literatures in societies whose literary history stretches across many centuries.
Bengali literature in the twentieth century, especially poetry, presents a funny contrast to these stereotypical situations. Contrary to the marginal status poetry holds in the West, in Bengal, as in Russia, literature enjoys a high public profile. The literary establishment, consisting of big presses mostly affiliated with the news media, seeks to make the most out of literary consumerism. The Bengali middle class considers literature, like music, to be a source of social entertainment. On the one hand, it is arguable that as literature becomes a mass-cultural commodity and enjoys a position of social importance, it serves as a social benefactor, creating rich moral conscience and character. However, literature may become commercialized too readily, which poses a threat to the innovative and experimental genres. The growth of new poetics suffers a serious hindrance as the need to investigate and research alternative modes of writing is either completely eliminated or radically compromised. This is similar to the popularity of Hollywood films relegating innovative film making to “art-house cinema,” as if cinema was not meant to be art in the first place.
In post-independence India, Bengali poetry experienced great surges of dissent and experimentation, especially in the late fifties and sixties when movements such as the Hungry Generation, Shruti, Anti-Poetry, and Dhangshakaleen (Destructive Era) emerged to freshen the breath of poetic language. While many of the modes of poetic practice that rose from these movements could have been called “postmodern,” the theory in its thoroughgoing form reached India only in the late 1980s. Since then, the term “postmodern” has been stretched in all directions across multiple genres and “discursive boundaries, by different interest-groups, vested or otherwise, around the world, including the postcolonial, post-Marxist, and the subaltern studies,” and has been used to designate a plethora of ideas, tendencies, ethos and programs, this rubric was flexible enough to include the discourse articulated in the Bangla appellation Adhunantik (End of Now).”
Poetry in Bangladesh
In pre-independence Bangladesh (i.e., East Pakistan, 1947–1971), poetry experienced chaotic changes. Plagued and assailed by linguistic oppression from the politically advantaged West Pakistan, brute-force methods were used to converge East Bengali language and poetic practice with Arabic, Pakistani (Urdu) and Persian (Farsi) traditions. A parallel stream of poetry, however, remained open to Western and other literatures — a value tradition that contributed significantly to the student uprisings leading to the famous bhAshhA Andolan, the Bangla Language Movement of 1952.
During the period of systematic political oppression in the 1960s by West Pakistanis, several poetry movements arose in the East, namely the socially pessimistic Despondent Generation; they turned away from politics and indulged in morbid self-destructionist styles. The same period saw Bangla poetry emerge from the dust of ideological chaos and acute despondency to a new, altered state. It also fuelled the birth of some influential little magazines like kanThaswar (Voice), samakaal (These Times), jugapat (Momentary), Despondent Generation, shAkkhar (Signature), and so on. In the late 1960s, mass uprisings and unprecedented political revolts by the Bengalis of East Pakistan became more and more frequent and spontaneous, inspiring poets to come out of isolation and join the revolution. Poetry, for a change, became charged with optimism and patriotism.
The Liberation War of 1971 and the birth of independent Bangladesh renewed the hopes of many. Unfortunately, this was short-lived. Values eroded, a tendency to return to conventional poetic paradigms came about, lyric and confessional poetry dominated the scene for the most part.
A turning point came during the 1980s, when some rejected the overuse of nationalism, patriotism and political poetry, and instead addressed the social-existential. They felt a strong need for alternative poetry, effecting experiments with structure, style and content. A fresh set of little magazines prospered, such as gAnDEeb (Arrowcase), prAnta (Edge), kabi (Poet), chhAt kAgajer malAt (Dust Jacket), Free Street School, and others. Bengali experimental or avant-garde poetry continues to evolve in Bangladesh, constituting an important part of its parallel literature. Notably, since the mid-1990s, there have been attempts to redefine poetry in the light of contemporary Western theories of postmodernism and post-structuralism.
In a recent interview with Aryanil Mukherjee, Charles Bernstein explains, “the fact that different poetries clash is a value for poetry. And around here the idea that one should not rule out any style of writing is almost always applied in the wrong direction, that is, not against those who accept only traditional and conventional forms, but against those who are trying something different.” In a lot of ways, although unintended, Bernstein’s statement sums up the literary politics in the language-state of Bengal. Much like the Cold War USSR, where one or two modes of enormously populist poetry prevailed and little distinction was made between serious and popular poetry, making parallel or avant-garde literature a virtual non-entity, it was a platitude that poets writing with a difference would be marginalized. However, at the end of the Cold War and in the wake of Glasnost, Perestroika and the free market economy, and in the lead-up to the birth of contemporary globalization, that state began to change.
The manner in which the poetry scene changed in Bengal remarkably paralleled simultaneous developments in Russia’s poetic environ. A marked decline in the popularity of the poetic arts reduced the gradient of public importance separating official verse culture from its parallel movements. A quick rise in India’s economy, however tumorous, led to a slightly more exhaustive growth in public education and arts funding. A new intelligentsia, better trained in or more exposed to information technology, took to reading poetry seriously. Gradually poetry came to be perceived less as an entertainment art. Of the new schools of poetry that sprung up in the 1990s, UttarAdhunik and AdhunAntik kabitA (Postmodern Poetry, spearheaded by the ex-Hungry Generation writers Sameer and Malay Roychoudhuri and Prabhat Choudhury) assumed the stature of a conscious movement. Scores of poets, teachers and literary theorists took an active part in it. AtichetanAr KabitA (Poetry of Expansive Consciousness, postulated by Barin Ghosal of Kaurab) and Natun KabitA (New Poetry, proposed by Barin Ghosal and led by Swapan Roy and Ranjan Maitra) also attracted a generation of bright young writers who were beginning to catapult the New Bengali lyric to unprecedented proportions. Most importantly, the “subject” had been more or less divorced from the poem.
Nature avoids a vacuum; and she did well to fill in the empty space vacated by the subject. Historically, the Bengali poetic tradition, like other Oriental writing traditions including Chinese and Japanese poetry, has had flair for music and nature. The Bengal plains are also one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Getaways from the madding crowd, from the hot, sultry, noisy, barren, concrete metropolis are a public dream — one the writer shares. Thus, Tagore and his predecessors wrote poetry that marrowed on the splendor of the landscape, and Jibanananda Das’ much acclaimed book Bengal, the Beautiful reads the roots of Bengali music and history amongst the crafty embellishing of her flora and fauna.
Travels enhanced the New Lyric, adhunAntik genres guaranteed topical desertion, and a good amount of acoustic experimentation with phonemes reinvigorated contemporary verse. The content thus depleted. No real effort was made to register the noesis of a world that, all of a sudden, is both shrinking and growing rapidly. This preposterous void is what has led us to the sprawling idea of circumcontent.
What is circumcontent to us?
Postmodernism claimed to have saved poetic arts from the sealed museum showcase. And the next thing we knew, poetry was shattered by postmodernist forces of uncertainty and dissent. The retrieved vase fell from the edge of the table. Into smithereens of multifaceted truth and realities, into the granules it wanted to reveal to us. Circumcontentive Poetry is conceived as the next logical step — one of reclamation. Standing amidst the milieu of a shredded time, being and reality, Circumcontentive Poetry first attempts to reclaim the granules on the floor. This process of reclamation needs thorough circumspection. It piles them on the table from which the vase fell. We don’t want to make a vase again, neither is there a need to return it to the museum showcase. The purpose is not retromodernist but reconstructionist: an arrangement of the granules into newer forms. As a result, Circumcontentive Poetry is granular. It is an assembly of many kinds of grains, iota, shreds, and smidgeons. Collage techniques are its automatic choice, an assembly language is its perfect embodiment.
What does “assembly language” mean? It is a language of absorption or assemblage that implements a symbolic or metaphoric or āphoric representation of multifarious cultural codes and other memes needed to develop a particular poetic architecture. In some ways, this representation is also based on mnemonics or cultural memory. At the same time, it is a language that entails the essential interaction of culture and reality in a polymorphic way. An assembly language is thus specific to a certain poetic architecture. Assembly language eventually paves way to GeoPoetics.
Circumcontentive Poetry does not focus on form at all; rather, it defines form as a function of the content. In the words of Osip Mandelstam, “form must soak up the content like sponge.” The new content, or circumcontent, needs to be differentiated from the subject of the poem. Anything makes a poem. Messages can be contained in it or divorced from it. But we don’t believe in constructing the poem as a receptacle for messages. The poem needs some metaphysical space that should have the strength of Sheherazade’s flying carpet such that it can have real holdings. Thoughts arise from information, ideas from such thoughts. In umpteens. These thoughts work as muscles and tendons that bind the skeleton of a trimurti (trinity) — hypocontent, content and hypercontent.
In order to understand the content-trinity of Circumcontentive Poetry, one needs to look into the reality-trinity. In Circumcontentive Poetry, reality and content become synonymous. Flushed with the content-trinity, the reality-trinity becomes thus: hyporeal, real, and hyperreal. The multitudinous state of reality, with its many dimensions and axes, resonates with our notion of circumcontent. In the language of tensor calculus, the circumcontent can thus be expressed as a tensor product of the three realities integrated or summed up over the poem’s thematic volume “V.” One could express the relation mathematically:
circumcontent = ∫ r ⊗ R ⊗ Ω . dV
where r = hyporeal
R = real
Ω = hyperreal
Now let’s take a closer look at the reality-trinities.
The “real” or R, is the version of reality as understood by the social collective, whom the media pretends to represent, dished out to its audience via some coded language — the official language of the public media.
The “hyporeal” or variable r, becomes a scaled down, trimmed, personalized metaphysical version of social reality R and is thus, in a way, a subset of the latter.
The Greek letter Ω represents “hyperreal” or “suprareal” which perhaps best describes the state in which the poem is composed — a state of mind wherein the poet is able to discard his restrained natural thinking habits to favor free thought. This, we believe, is a state that cannot be expressed by theory or by the poem. It is devoid of a formulation, program or syllabus. It is perhaps a state that represents the poet’s personalized material world, constructed by the cross-product of personal experience and an evolving creative consciousness. Although this consciousness is evolutionary and eternally incomplete, some control can be exercised and this knowledge and awareness tends to produce a poem of “no-subject” but of circumcontent. A certain purpose of originality and innovation in the work produced is guaranteed.
The hyperreal or suprareal derives from the earlier Theory of Expansive Consciousness, a poetic theory postulated by Barin Ghosal in the early 1990s. Ghosal described two states of mind — the poet’s and the reader’s — as essentially the same. This state must be attained for an innovative poem to be produced or received. Ghosal described this state through the acronym SPARK (Spontaneous Power Activated Resonance Kinetics). Although spontaneous, this state can be loosely controlled by both reader and poet. Its power is the source of the individual’s own centrifuge and is activated by the need to resonate with the poem and the world it represents. Both writing and reading the poem are essentially dynamic acts and an awareness and scrutiny of the force behind them leads to a kinetic search.
Let’s try to elucidate these concepts with some samples from our work. Sabyasachi Sanyal writes:
Misery brings aesthetics to man – I like to think … that I fill the palms of rural women drinking from the fountain, the red jogging suit and the engaged rabbit — reaching here I can locate my coordinates — barely a dot from each time & space. But expansive. (“740”)
The dots of many granular times and spaces join to expand the poetic self. Just as the “I” can fractalize into water droplets, the objective-collective formed from any given set of experience operates in unison like the weak bonds of water molecules.
Similarly, Aryanil Mukherjee writes:
how far must the roots run so its not rooted enough
forget the conjoints in favor of its syllables
earth stone and water
that upsets balance to make work isolated
in tremors i see i saw
in tremors on the see and saw
The thermodynamic concept of an isolated system — a scientific utopia, where energy and entropy remain constant — is compared to poetic psyche at a creative instant. The allegory in the poem fades out as the realities, metaphors, and their meanings overlap into an unsolved singularity which at the same time is as holistic, pure, and utopian as an isolated system. The poet’s vision of truth and time (implied by the oscillating tense of “see” and “saw”) swing with the harmonic uncertainty of a see-saw.
In a recent book-length poem, Joaquim Mondal’s Poetry, Subhro Bandopadhyay addresses the identity politics of writing in a post-Ashberian world, allowing his circumcontent to flow through the crevices of a pre-ruptured logic of strange tessellations
what do we write with
in these naked neuron receptors acid
camera and x-rays!
1 or 2 letters from apparently engrossed cities,
the narrative or uninformation
muted with eyes closed
in the crevices between rusty iron piles and the imaginary line
divorcing suicide from a rose
the man who tore away from the teeming Saturday crossstreets
hand in hand with a hooker
I call him writing
(Joaquim Mondaler kabitA/ Joaquim Mondal’s Poetry)
Much as the tri-product of length, width and height is volume, Circumcontentive Poetry is formed by a tensor product of the three realities mentioned above. That none of these realities is described as a vector but rather as a tensor leads us to explore the subtle difference between these mathematical concepts. A vector is directionally specific and is quantifiable. A tensor is multidimensional (having two or more degrees of freedom and often defined as an array of vectors) and is independent of a frame of reference. The three-dimensionality of the contents or realities we refer to as circumcontent tempts us to re-examine the various historic religious and cultural trinities of Bengal. Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have, for more than two centuries, been the religious triad in the area. If the Hindu trimurti, namely, Brahma-Vishnu-Maheswar, forms the three faces of new representation, the Christian trinity forms its Western equivalent. A plenitude of Sufi trinities have also served as the cultural plexus of many parts of Bengal for more than five hundred years: love/man/woman, and saqi (waitress)/wine/drinker, baker/bread/eater are common examples. Another philosophical treatise Circumcontentive Poetry draws from, the Advaitabad Vedanta, refers to three quintessential ancient metaphysical texts, the Upanishads, the Shrimadbhagwat Gita and the Brahma Sutras. Thus, it is apparent that there are at least three levels of awareness throughout this poetic sphere, but the circumcontentive tensor multiplier makes its dimensions indistinguishable. The signifier, signified, and sign blend into a compound identity.
No one is holier than another. The animal called homo sapiens sapiens is uniquely identified by its philosophies, its ability to ask questions about, let’s say, a dog’s strong sense of smell, or rockdust. Without these signatures, poetry cannot move a step forward. A poetry of empty forms and shapes, of raucous jingles, a poetry that merely informs or performs for the moment works like a defunct violin. As witnesses to the advent of a new millennium, we feel a fundamental need to restate these basics. We realize our presence in the face of poetic eternity will last barely a day, and so we want to record that day’s the events.
We see harmony: the harmony in the collective brushstrokes of the anonymous cave artists of Ajanta and Ellora who never signed their art, harmony in the colored points of Seurat or the drips of Jackson Pollock. We see harmony in all the wordly and the unwordly that there can be. However, this is not to be confused with Spinoza’s neutral monism nor the romantic harmony of mid-eighteenth-century Western Europe. It is, for us, in the relationship between the environment and its material basis. We love to invade the cracks and crevices of fractalized knowledge in a bid to pour filler into them. It’s a harmony that helps heal but also honors the embrittled weakness of our artistic continuity, and proclaims it as a virtue.
Proof of this sense of harmony lies in our chondritic but widely divergent sources of inspiration:
1. Present continuous
It is difficult for a poetry movement to stay apolitical and we make no conscious effort to avoid the cloud cover of politics. That there can be an art cinically severed from society and politics sounds preposterous to us. It’s true, however, that the existence of what is to be negated needs to be acknowledged first. What we attempt to steer clear of is stagnation. Most literary movements end up in some sort of a power position. Their eventual goal of creating another literary establishment — one of a new kind, maybe a different kind, but nonetheless, a literary establishment — often creates a “better,” and finally a more powerful and often more elitist bourgeoisie. To ensure its survival, investing conventional daily labor, timely repair and maintenance becomes necessary. That kind of labor could only come from the bourgeoisie, who have a flair for creating ritual for themselves — rituals that are needed to protect and glorify the mundanity and vacuousness of their conventional practise. Gradually a false sense of security grows out of them.
As a rule, any new movement targets the existing bourgeoisie. It tries to attack and dismantle the established sense of security and meaning, and then creates a new establishment. By constrast, we might have political ambitions but we disown the idea of establishing them. Like the show, the movement must go on. And if it is to continue, it must renew itself. Thus it becomes necessary to internalize a mechanism of self-rejection or self-deprecation. The wheel must keep rolling. In continuing to foster the new, what constitutes the new must never be too well defined, must never be too well known or understood. If a time comes when the notion of the circumcontent looses its radial reach or dynamism, that’ll indicate to us that our sentence needs a period. At the moment we view Circumcontentive Poetry as constantly updateable and wish to publish a revised version of this off-white paper once every five years.
Top row, left to right: Raad Ahmad, Mesbah Alam Arghya, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, Subhro Bandopadhyay; bottom row, left to right: Sukanta Ghosh, Aryanil Mukherjee, Sabyasachi Sanyal, the logo of the Circumcontentive Poets.
2. mAdhukari bRitti — a bricolage
To aptly describe the source of the circumcontent, we introduce a new term — mAdhukari bRitti — a practice of collecting food donations from the common household, prevalent for thousands of years among Hindu and Buddhist monks in the ancient villages of the subcontinent. The monks led selfless, mendicant lives with no institutional protection or reinforcement. They would be immensely respected in their little communities as men and women of wisdom but they prefered to remain poor. For food, these monks depended entirely on the generosity of the common household, whom they would approach for a donation once a week or more. Each home would donate something — rice, fruits or vegetables, cooked or even semi-cooked items, sometimes utensils or money — which the monks would use to make a meal. mAdhukari, thus, is a medley of collectibles over which the collector had limited control; it entails an element of uncertainty. In some ways, it is a bricolage of shreds gathered from several homes, assembled, handpicked, and cooked into a complete meal.
In an afterword to Aryanil Mukherjee’s book sunAmir ek bachhar par (One Year After the Tsunami), Barin Ghosal defines GeoPoetics as a poetics of non-nativism that physically transports a cultural borrowing to an alien space, regrowing it in amalgamation with its new environment. The phenomenon can be compared with jhum chAs, or shifting cultivation, an agricultural practice where farm plots are temporarily fallowed and crops are shifted to another plot. Inbreeding or successive vegetation depletes the soil’s nutrient balance; shifting cultivation helps the soil to replenish itself naturally. This practice is widely used in the Indian subcontinent.
GeoPoetics assumes great importance in the context of Circumcontentive Poetry. Most members of our group have either permanently or temporarily emigrated from their original cultural and linguistic domains. We have collectively lived and worked for extended periods of time in four continents and in as many as ten countries. But our group also includes poets like Subhro and Santanu Bandopadhyay who live primarily in Indian cities but spend a few months each year traveling in Spain and the Himalayan valleys, respectively.
Journeys are regular, both in a real and metaphorical sense. This brings us to the paradox of Jantra (machine) and JantraNA (pain, a word that can also be wittily truncated into two words, Jantra and nA , meaning not-machine). Our journeys embed this “negativa.” We announce that all pain is non-mechanical and in the process make room for any or all conflicts and self-contradictions. The circumcontentive bishhaybhAbanA (themes or subjective thoughts) develop into the fables of a new century. Words like “country” and “exile” have become meaningless to us. These words are rarely or perhaps never used in our poetry. Country, to us, is hardly a geography but a particular delta of time.
No wonder so many schools and individual poets assert their granular influence on us. Let’s begin with American Objectivist Poetry. Freshly re-exposed to the works of George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky in particular, we enjoy our resonance with the latter’s description of Objectivism : “An Objective: (Optics) — The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use) — That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry) — Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.” The objectivist focus on historical and contemporary particulars is invincible; however, this focus is digressive as it covers a widely tessellated and discrete field of reality.
5. The swan motif of Advaitabad Vedanta
Advaitabad Vedanta is a school of ancient Hindu philosphy, a system followed by most later Vedantic schools. Advaitabad has a monistic approach, focusing more on symbolic metaphysics than the literal meaning of ancient scriptures. Let’s take the Hamsa or swan as an example. The swan lives on the lake. It explores every corner of it, going under, above and into the body of water in its multiple mudras (gestures). But a close examination of the swan’s own body will reveal that there is barely a drop of water on its feathers. There is a scientific explanation for this. It can be easily explained by the low coefficient of cohesion between water and the swan feather surface that does not affect the surface tension of the water droplet. Thus, it can naturally roll down the concave surface of the swan’s upper torso.
The advaitin symbolism takes us to another realm. The lake represents mAyA, the illusory materialistic civilization one is a part of. The ideal atman, or self, is like the swan. It resides in this illusory world but does not let the illusion in. Likewise, the circumcontentive poem (or advaitin poem) is connected to a diverse but monistic world of plenitude but is unwilling to bind to any particular part of it.
6. Culture ≈ language
Let’s begin with a transitive paradox. Language is public, so is culture. So, is language culture?
What is the writer’s republic made of? We believe it is made of a race of words and expressions that are either motivated or freely associated with the writer’s own whims or orchestrated purpose. These produce a thick description of behaviors in the form of tropes, codes or signs, and lead up to a very complex semiotic system of their own, which is used to manufacture meaning.
Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz utilized what he called thick descriptions in the interpretation and definition of cultures. Words are like people, languages are like cultures, and poems are like communities in their structure. Like a hypogram or a mathematical matrix, a poem is an arrangement whose content and properties can be used to categorize and appreciate it, but not necessarily understand it. While justifying the need for and highlighting the importance of cultural interpretation, Geertz makes many intriguing comments about culture that might equally be applied to language: it is public; it is not a power but a loose association of social events, behaviors, organizations, rituals and processes; it is essentially incomplete. It is a collective inscription that can and must be analyzed. These describe the virtues of the language for the creative arts. It can be deduced from the above that culture, too, represents a circumscribed state.
Cultural interpretation and its methodology parallel poetic appreciation and analysis: the poet simulates the ethnographer in establishing access, building social relationships and rapport, selecting informants, taking geneologies, mapping fields, journaling and analzying. However, the extent and purpose of interpretation may vary. Cultures need to be understood, and the interpretation of their semiotic systems aids that process. For a poem, however, analysis displays the complexities of its language art and may even enhance taste, but analysis is not and should not be aimed at achieving understanding. A poem cannot be “understood.”
Nevertheless, meaning production is at work in the poem in a strongly individualistic manner. As the froth of meaning thickens, the reader begins to realize how his generated sense and acquired knowledge relate to the social collective. This demonstrates how readily language is culture. There is an unmistakable haze in both places — the ambit of true meaning , the centerlessness of the center. Geertz, speaking for culture, describes it as follows: “Cultural analysis is guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape.” Like the duality of content and reality, Circumcontentive Poetry treats language and culture as one and the same.
To paraphrase one of Charles Darwin’s fundamental ideas, it can be said that any organism comes to exist not to create a new problem but to solve an existing one. When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of imaginary mental genes he called “memes” in The Selfish Gene (1976), it provided acceptable explanations of biological and cultural phenomena that hadn’t been explained before.
Let’s think for a moment of something called a “monogene” (man or mon is “mind” in Bengali). A monogene could be used to represent the container holding a particular mood derived from a collection of thoughts, ideas and reflections in response to an experience, direct or indirect.
In other words, the monogene is vaguely analogous to what Dawkins calls a meme. The meme, however, is defined as a unit of cultural information residing in the brain and its mutating replicator in human cultural evolution. In comparison, the monogene does not carry cultural information but is a receptacle of a particular mental environment or mood which is largely conditioned by culture. The monogene sets up a reversible communication system by transmitting and broadcasting. It works like a dual-core processor or like a passing game between two forwards in a soccer match. Consequently, the monogene could be thought of as a derivative of the meme. When applied to poetry, we could call it “poememe” in English and kAbyamonogene in Bengali (kAbya translates to “poetry”).
To return to the question with which we began, what problem does the kAbyamonogene or poememe solve? We think it addresses diverse concerns: the word-soul or word-truth (shabdabrahma), language, self, mind, soul, art and aesthetics. In an effort to solve these problems it releases words, expressions, thoughts, speech and emotions. A poem, therefore, may be made up of one or more such poememes.
A fitting parallel could be taken from the field of graphic art. Any graphic image that is electronically expressed has a skeleton underneath its colorful skin, one the viewer never sees. The graphic tessellation — a mesh of long, skinny triangles that render color, tone, tint and shade according to complex mathematical algorithms — creates the image seen by the viewer. Likewise, one could imagine a poem as made up of a cluster of poememes (kAbyamonogenes) very much like the invisible graphic tessellation — we might also think of the DNA structures embedded in an animal’s X and Y chromosomes. Let’s refer to this arrangement of poememes as the genotype of a poem. The external characteristics of a poem, the visible traits or features that are usually identifiable by literary criticism, will be referred to from here on as its phenotypes.
The genotype of a poem, formed by a specific arrangement of poememes (which could well be time-variant) may not be easy to detect or analyze. Its phenotypes are more easily traceable. Together, they describe what we will now call the poememotype of a poem, working by analogy from the memotype of a meme; in other words, they describe its actual information content. As the poem is read, the poememe is transported like a virus, from the poem to the mon or mind of the reader, to refer to Dawkins’s essay “Virus of the Mind.” Metaphorically speaking, it works like a brain infection.
Once the poememe activates itself in the reader’s mind, it begins to mutate. Unlike a meme, however, the monogene or poememe’s mutation prospects are enormous. It creates mutants of itself in the mind of the reader, which vary tremendously from person to person; with time the process changes, and so does the product. The mutants of the poememe style themselves into another arrangement, thus creating a new genotype. If the reader is also a poet, the new genotype could launch a fresh new poem in his or her mind. The grouping or arrangement of a set of poememes could be called a poememeplex.
This copying is an important function, perhaps the meme’s most important one. In The Selfish Gene, the word “selfish” is a misnomer; even the author regrets its use. In retrospect, Dawkins felt he should have followed the publisher Tom Maschler’s advice and titled the book “The Immortal Gene.” Andrew Brown explains the problem: “selfish when applied to genes, doesn’t mean selfish at all. It means, instead, an extremely important quality for which there is no good word in English language: the quality of being copied by a Darwinian selection process. This is a complicated mouthful. There ought to be a better shorter word — but selfish isn’t it” (2, emphasis added).
In her book The Meme Machine, psychologist and memeticist Susan Blackmore describes the meme as a universal replicator that possesses three key characteristics — replication, fecundity, and longevity. Similarly, the kAbyamonogene or poememe replicates in two distinct ways. First, during the creation process, the poememe replicates from the source of inspiration or experience to the poem. The process is loosely similar to what is called “copy out source” in the world of computer programming. Second, during the reading process, the poememe is transported via the medium of the poem from the mind of the poet to that of the reader. However, neither process can be aptly described by the words “copy” or “replication” as an exact reproduction is neither desired nor produced in this case. The kAbyamonogene or poememe mutates as soon as it is activated. In contrast with memes, authenticity of replication and retention is undesirable for a poememe.
A circumcontentive poem is characterized by a complex genotype made up of a very large range of kAbyamonogenes or poememes. Furthermore, it prefers to use poememes that have very high mutatitive propensity, especially in the presence of other poememes. Naturally, the reading of such a poem calls for an equally complex system of reception involving second-order mutations in the mind of the reader.
The Greek word “cyber” means “to navigate.” Cybernetics highlights the power and skill of navigability and the exploration of a new space which is still being defined in terms of its histories and geographies, cultures and experiences, data and information. Several closely associated fields, namely game theory, system theory, control systems, neural networks, neuropsychology, computer programming and cultural anthropology, continue to be of personal interest to many of us. These help shape and enrich the circumcontent, give it the polymorphism it seeks, make the circumcontent excursive and broaden and refine the idea of the process. There is a teleological aspect in cybernetics which is not particularly something we embrace. In the end we still imagine the poem as an attempt, an unfinished lunch box containing perfectly biodegradable matter.
Circumcontentive Poetry attempts to view language arts, especially poetics, in light of one of the most astounding emergent technologies of the new millennium, information technology, and its closest kith and kin.
One of the first obstacles information technology readily demolishes is distance. It shrinks and expands the world so as to embrittle and crunch the spaces between the entire vortex of cultural experience — the visual, the audible, information, languge, arts, history and geography. This demolition of distance eventually leads to GeoPoetics. It is the age that demands a poetry that is not fed by any hand of particularity, be it of history, geography or people. It would not be entrapped by any one locale. An inherent cultural expansiveness and externalization have become its fundamental traits.
In his 1963 essay “The Mind’s Own Place,” George Oppen famously wrote,
They [Objectivists] meant to replace by the data of experience the accepted poetry of their time, a display by the poets of right thinking and right sentiment, a dreary waste of lies. That data was and is the core of what “modernism” restored to poetry, the sense of the poet’s self among things. So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow. The distinction between a poem that shows confidence in itself and in its materials, and on the other hand a performance, a speech by the poet, is the distinction between poetry and histrionics.
We profoundly honor Oppen’s view of “the data of experience,” which seems almost clairvoyant when seen in light of this new age. Indeed, we further the notion: data, for us, is a dual of information, and duals are often reciprocal relations. Data arrives personified, from private collections of personal or institutional experience, both direct and indirect. Information, by contrast, is more publicly owned data; their interaction gives birth to the classic dilemma of the individual and the collective. Locked in a perfectly reversible and reciprocal relationship, data and information alternately transform into each other, contradict and conflict, engaging in a Darwinian battle for the survival of the fittest.
Circumcontentive Poetry refers to a subject-thought, which is like a bound space. It has walls within which the thought-stream flows to become the poem’s spiritual content. In order to keep the exchange alive between the various rooms, these walls need to be demolished, either in whole or in part. Boundary demolition is one of our essential techniques.
The idea of “culture,” perhaps, is transforming. Is it a loose collection of the rituals of the people in a given historical geography? Or is it a deeper network of living patterns that closely interact with history and politics just as it does with geography and the environment? Geertz describes culture as “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (89). Man’s cultural environment is a collection of many details. These details include both objects and non-objects and their intrinsic codes.
Let’s sift the concept through some examples. In a 2003 book of poems based on his Kolkata neighborhood, Kaushik Chakrabarty uses a visual vortex of very high density:
The old beggar on the footpath, pulls a cheese-cloth hood faked as saree over his partner’s forehead and this is what Bhabananda Road could mean to us, it could mean that “the veritable Bengali son is tucked in between the night signs in a black bottle” that because of a secrecy born from frowns, the afternoon telephone ring is supposed to mean some underfed dig … bloodmarks … a huge truck filled with the silence of raw coal … (antarbartE rupakathAr prachchhad / Front Cover of an Intermediate Fable)
Here one would find collaged images of restaurant menus, tongue-in-cheek street tales, test questions, race-books, movie tickets, TV soaps, naturopathic medicine — a much embritted motley of image-granules, the fragments of a city’s seal. There are compression techniques at play reminiscent of Pierre Alferi’s treatment of Paris in OXO that lead invariably to great dynamic and cultural conflicts.
In “The Endlessly Gazing Poem,” written in Soria, Spain, Subhro Bandopadhyay uses geographical and cultural separations to attain a series of physio/psychological and polemical states. Tradition is orphaned and de-hierarchized; a resistance against the shastras (controlling diction, tradition, theory and notion) begins to gather momentum. The poem seems to ignore cultural and historical divisions of space and time and tries to remain “evergreen” through rootlessness:
Like any other human his voice begins to break too
as the eddies of resistance die we apply aloe scent under
his Debdaru shirt, Atar, aroma, fever, vomit, outcry
we say — get away flesh, evade the scratches
Remembering the time spent in various rings and the elongated
beggar-face, a dog’s resilience; reading something from
the past at the last minute: who deceives, the planet? age?
(apAr haye base thAkA kabitA / The endlessly gazing poem)
A poem is a complex assembly, a poememeplex, as Sukanta Ghosh, for example, might treat it. Like a philatelist’s collection of faces, each face, working like a poememe, gives a pictorial representation of a particular theme, a bricolaged writing of cultural diversities, of themes, of objects and their aesthetics.
10. Geological influence
Circumcontentive Poetry benefits from certain geological observation procedures, which serve as ideal writing aids. Even after detailed examination of rock layers, the range of their construction pattern and their physical and chemical properties, it takes a great deal of imagination, conjuration and a whole level of speculative skills to be able to see the history of a landscape. Decision-making is impossible without this imaginative seeing. Interestingly, such decisions are relative and their importance largely depends on the seer. The platitude that the present is the key to the past forms a basic premise of geological sciences; imagination, conjuration and speculation are thus made conspicuous. Speaking plainly, the geological past is reconstructed from the observation of the present-day river; fossils are understood through the study of present-day biotic life.
Some aspects of Circumcontentive Poetry are similar. Here too, a reconstruction based on real personal data and experience becomes necessary for the poet to create reading matter of his own. Although it generally indicates an assimilatory process, the poet’s observation and reconstruction techniques are most important. This substance we call reading matter may serve as an indicator, or not. It might serve as a bricolage emanating from the assembled themes and may not have a specific direction. To return to Sabyasachi Sanyal’s poem about the relatively insignificant happenings of a freezing, wintry day in Stockholm,
“freezing cold at the two ends of a conducting wire
--- --- warmth is a human’s only valid sensitivity
\ / as it is the current that conducts the nerves
\/ by flowing across them” — I discuss this with Peltier
during tea-break and secretly hoard ice and fire in the storeroom
The duo of completeness and fear alone have made me man
Sabyasachi uses personal data in the poem, crisscrossed by fault lines that he deductively builds from a well-known principle of physics, the Seebeck-Peltier thermoelectric effect. The principle states that a thermoelectric device made from two or more dissimilar metals creates voltage when there is a different temperature on each side, thus generating electricity. The poet sketches a metallic join in the poem with signs; to most readers this might look like a crack or crevice, but it suggests discontinuity nonetheless. He coerces the reader to be consumed by dissimilarities: the individual and the collective, the outer and inner selves. When these coalesce, an electrifying connection results.
When the poem comes into contact with the reader it transforms into an ingredient, becomes more personal data, another experience for someone else. The domino effect continues endlessly, making us aware of the vortex of literary cosmogony. The idea of connectivity or conductivity in these lines can be seen as a metaphor for the transportation of data.
We would like to make another important observation here. The mix of data and information, personal and collective experience, can be very dense and may gain stability as a compound entity depending on the poet’s own perspective on their co-existence. In such a compound state, the poet’s reading matter may not be tangible, bounded by any real geographical boundaries, or perceptible. In order to stay in the vortex of literary cosmogony, the poem is constantly shaped by a continuing process which has no beginning or end. Consequently, the circumcontentive poem is omnifarious; it draws from all sources and does not hate remaking or remixing.
11. Film as “open sesame”
The earliest films were all documents of human life: the films shot by the Manakis brothers in the Balkans in 1905, Robert J. Flaharty’s 1922 silent ethnographic masterpiece Nanook of the North, and Dziga Vertov’s contemporaneous Kino-Pravda series serve as some of the best examples of informative cinema. Later films became increasingly reliant on literature and screenplays. Gradually, in the second half of the last century, the language of cinema achieved fullness. Satyajit Ray once remarked, “what literature has achieved in 600 years from Chaucer to Joyce, films have in 60 years.” And so, in the second half of the last century, a role reversal began. Some writers, especially poets, started to borrow from films.
The film is an “open sesame.” As a collaborative form, it incorporates a dense rag-sack of many arts and skills that come from different members of the unit: the actor, director, screenplay and dialog writer, art director, make-up artist, light boy, sound engineer, and, more recently, the graphic artist and the virtual realist. The final footage run before the eye is thus a bricolage or mAdhukari that can serve as a treasure chest for the innovative writer, especially the circumcontentive poet.
Thus, the proximity of film and culture is another area of interest. Films, especially honest, innovative international cinema (which we sometimes choose to label as art-house) provides an entry point into an unknown society, sometimes four-dimensionally, as in period pieces. The symbiosis of language and culture finds another way to greet us.
Most films are preceded by a text. Even Jean-Luc Godard and many avant-garde directors of the present, who don’t believe in the preexistence of a script, do use some loose, lightweight text from which the film takes off. A complex and rather ethereal journey follows through the levels of reality that build the circumcontent to a place where meanings transport themselves; these are controlled and nurtured collectively even as they provide pockets of individualism for nearly all members of the collective. To be able to recreate a new text out of the experience of absorbing the finished (or unfinished) product bends the spiral towards closure, but not quite; closure is prevented by the non-circularity of the processes, and the text derived from it inches into a new space.
Except for the missing olfactory experience (which reminds us of Tom Twyker’s film Perfume), films engage in a celebration of senses, the kaleidoscope of their impact stretches far and wide, and writing scavenges from it. The indirect visual experience of third-party imagination is often able to provide groundbreaking nutrition to the creative writer.
It is natural for digressive poetic writing to draw inspiration from certain films, especially those where the narrative is destroyed, subplots crisscross at random, or films where arrays of visual sequences are not joined by threads of cognitive meaning (we might think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films, Sergei Parajanov’s 1968 classic The Color of Pomegranates, and so on). Of the poets that draw our attention, John Ashbery’s work stands out as exemplary in this regard.
For the above reasons and more, films continue to serve as an important aid to the creation of circumcontentive poetry.
12. Collective identity
Certain communal characteristics mark our present group. It is not for us to try and analyze how these orientations might have influenced the movement, its motivation and our own work. However, for the sake of the record we feel it is important to list them:
Between the seven of us, we have lived in ten countries and four continents.
A highly polyglot group of writers, we speak, read, and/or write in four languages: Bangla, English, Spanish, and Hindi, with limited verbal and textual exposures to Urdu, French, Dutch, Korean, and Swedish.
The entire group has never met together in a real place. No one member has met all others in person. Some, like Mesbah Alam Arghya, have never met any of the others but Raad Ahmad. Yet writing collectively for a decade, especially in and around Kaurab and Mukta Mancha (Open Forum), has kept the group together. But for the advances in electronics and telecommunication, but for the Internet, this movement would never have been possible.
The group has virtually no formal training in literature and fine arts. Except for Raad Ahmad, all of us received formal education in the sciences, ranging from physics, molecular biology, zoology, geology to engineering and computer sciences.
The group is sketchily but widely exposed to international poetry. The poetics of John Ashbery and some of the American Language poets (Charles Bernstein in particular, because of the breadth of his oeuvre) comes in as a peripheral influence. There is some influence of Ashbery in the works of Aryanil Mukherjee and Sabyasachi Sanyal, while others share a marked interest in his work and that of the Language poets. Likewise, the other-sidedness of Antonio Machado and Jose Angel Valente are believed to have left their stains on Subhro Bandopadhyay. The group is collectively well-read in French and Chilean poetry. Contemporary Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Eastern European, and Latin American poetry have been the objects of our strong, but marginal and individual interests. Despite our divergent collective inclinations, when asked to name our major sources of influence, most members of group point to each other.
As we worked collectively for nearly fourteen months trying to arrive at a common notion of circumcontent, which has largely been developed based on our preexisting poetic work, we realized that just as personal interests varied, perceptive nuances about the idea also surfaced. The problem of convergence, thus, was to identify a common denominator, both of interests and ideologies.
The age of experimentation for the sake of experimentation is over. The hunger for tactical innovations in rhythm, rhyme, beat, sound structure, noise corroborations, and even grammar demolition and language play has been sated. We feel that parallel poetry in Bengal needs to address “content” directly and with a sense of immediacy and fervor. If consciousness is expansive, it needs nutrition from the kind of research-data a writer could generate to supplement or compliment a direct living experience, or else one limits the yield of consciousness. We simultaneously emphasize the need to learn about the strange intersections of several multidisciplinary epistemes — both developing and developed. As more and more threads of life processes, of cultures, sciences and arts become entwined, newer poetic philosophies and processes begin to show promise. Two early stages of the poem-building process are inspection and introspection. These processes grow essentially from opposite directions, from the source to the observer in case of inspection, and from self to the source of experience in the case of introspection. The poem is born from the delicate balance of this cohabitation.
People still respond to Tagorian lyrics with elation — “he spoke of our mind’s deepest possessions.” We, however, lose confidence in these exclamations. The mind’s deepest possessions are often too subjective to constitute a social collective. Language is often universalized, meaning is particularly and discretely located, as dictated by the cultural and social politics of the moment. We view the universalization of language, of expression, as a manic escapade from artistic isolationism. Once the inspective gains have come to terms with introspective moorings, circumspection becomes necessary as the next logical step in shaping the poem. Circumspection helps construct knowledge and extend its boundaries via multi-axial interactions and reactions to the “camped” and “decamped.”
Sensation, consciousness, reality, abstract etc. are just some of the overused literary terms that have come to use from the Western stream of consciousness and to our great frustration remain religiously married to contemporary literary criticism. It is necessary, we believe, to reject the word “consciousness” on the whole and look for a more age-appropriate notion of an individual-collective syncopation. In order to understand and assess newer post-millennium literature, a new literary nomenclature is required. Another ridiculously purist notion is that of a circle (of life, art, reason, logic, etc.). “Circle” is an absolute idea. There are grains of airy truth captured in the froth and eddies that outline the mainstream. Our poetry is a profound confession of these vortices and of their fizzical conglomerate. And as it attempts to represent an assembly, it is impure, all-pervading, un-elemental. The elemental is never all-pervading. It wriggles its way out in order to exclude and govern.
So, the circle has been smashed. It’s an ellipse now, or a spiral or a vortex. Yet we are convinced of the expansiveness of consciousness. As the self transforms, so does the art. Just as there is no unchangeable “I,” there is no poetry that cannot transmigrate.
As Jibanananda Das writes, “another endangered marvel works in blood’s own viscera.” This “endangered marvel” appears to be congenital, imposed at birth, on the self or its era. Introspection provides access to its center. So let’s reapply the data-information duality to clearly sketch out the stages of Circumcontentive Poetry:
Inspection helps construct the data of experience. The new data gravitates towards the social collective, interacts with it and forms new information.
Introspection forms the next logical step, often in conjunction with the first, from which the poet conjures an ontological philosophy, something Swadesh Sen has called “my own reasoning, the best reasoning.”
Information, idea and thought are obtained from a loose exchange between inspection and introspection. Circumcontentive Poetry aims at transforming this fragmented and fractalized interaction into something more holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-axial. This third step is called circumspection.
The fourth step is the construction of the poem. The constructive methodology employed by the poets can be diverse — for some, it could be a continuous single-sitting process; while for others it could be digressive and fractalized.
Step five is optional. It calls for a supportive text or a “sister-text” which need not necessarily be contributed by the writer of the poem. It could also be called the “meditative text” or “derivative text.” The purpose of this text is multifarious. For some writers, it could offer a deconstructive critique of the original text, for others it could be a way to register or document the process of creation, for other still it could serve as a list of the primary and secondary sources of inspiration.
The last stage is the reading of the poem. Reading, however, essentially begins the process by which the poememe is copied and transferred to he mind of the reader, whom we will call the “passive poet,” and in whose mind this secondary or indirect experience of reading a poem causes the poememe(s) to codify the genotype of another poem. This is exactly the stage where the reader becomes the poet.
We believe in spirals, not circles. The construction and multiplication process of a poem is not circular, it is spiral. There is no return to the origin, but a progression (or a regression) determined mostly by the behavior of the poememes that spread like seeds, like the baton changing hands in a relay race.
In this context, one could use an example from medieval literature, The Arabian Nights. The stories of The Arabian Nights have subplots that often blossom into new stories, which have newer subplots that weave newer tales and so on. A network of tales is laid out, and then the teller returns to the main-branch stories. The ladder keeps endlessly folding and unfolding. Circumcontentive Poetry aims at something similar: lay a network structure of facts, ideas and thoughts and ideas emerging from it, the reader will then traverse them all, following a stairway or tree structure that often returns to the beginning idea. One is tempted to refer to the folding stairways at Hogwarts that connect one room to any other, moving in an open-ended way.
Nabalipi: The new text
Ron Silliman’s new sentence was an attack on the individual narrative. Bob Perelman points out that the new sentence was meant to be paratactic, an arrangement of sentences one after the other “without indicating their connection or independence.” It is, thus, more of a loose connection, both disjointed and related; the sentences could be taken out and used on their own, much like the prefabricated units of steel structures. Some Bengali poets from the Kaurab group, especially Swadesh Sen and Aryanil Mukherjee, have been using very similar techniques since the late 1980s; more recently, Raad Ahmad and Sabyasachi Sanyal have also explored this technique. Swadesh Sen referred to this kind of writing as “unitary writing” or “sentence basing” (pangtibhittik in Bengali). The notion of Nabalipi or the New Text, however, postulated as part of Circumcontentive Poetry, is a different approach that applies to the entire text instead of its units.
The nature of the New Text will be composite or compound, much like a mAdhukari or bricolaged text that binds threads coming from different cultures, traditions and epistemes. It could even be multilingual. At least three poets in our group — Sabyasachi Sanyal, Subhro Bandopadhyay, and Aryanil Mukherjee, have regularly written poems in multiple languages, or translated/transcreated their original Bengali work into English and/or Spanish, or have collaborated bilingually. Sabyasachi has written linguistically hybrid poems using both Bengali and English text. There is a rich abundance of English words in Bengali script in the poetry of Raad Ahmad, Mesbah Alam Arghya and Sukanta Ghosh. Alongside this, we attempt to construct sister-texts, derived texts, or helper-texts with many purposes. These are not explanatory but assist the creative work in one way or another. The fundamental idea is to inform and to create awareness in the reader about the work’s epistemological canvas, its alternativity, and its uncertainty. These are the three pillars of Circumcontentive Poetry, and the sister-text enables engagement and training in their particular reading habits.
Many of our book reviews are and will continue to be written as creative literature, as bespoke texts inspired or demanded by the books under review. The helper-text of the poem can therefore be seen as its sister-poem. This sub or inter-text could likewise be translative or transcreative. We understand this sub- or intertext as an optional supportive writing. Subhro Bandopadhyay had called it a derivative text, while Aryanil Mukherjee calls it “sAdhanlipi,” an idolizer-text. A fitting example of Nabalipi’s derivative/idolizer text is Santanu Bandopadhyay’s recent review of Aryanil Mukherjee’s second collection of poetry hAwAmorager man (Weathercock Mind). In that review, Santanu never used the author’s name, did not quote any line from the book, did not include a line of critical assessment of Aryanil’s work. Instead, it was a six-page creative text driven by his reading of Weathercock Mind.
Similarly, in Runa Bandopadhyay’s review section in Kaurab and other Bengali literature journals, “pAThyatA nirmANe” (Constructing Readability, recently published in book form as AntarbartE Pangkti or Meta-Lines [Kaurab, 2012]), she borrows the language of the book being reviewed to discuss the book itself. In the process, a new literary language evolves with each book review. How would such a review be classified? As a main creative text or a subtext? Or should it be seen as the gradual evolution of a new language of non-linear literary criticism where criticism is itself a function of the very text it attempts to review?
Another ideal example of Nabalipi is Sabyasachi Sanyal’s long poem AprilatA (Aprilness). A poetic text that diffuses genre-boundaries, Aprilness would tempt the reader to ask if it was a memoir, poem, philosophical treatise, cultural travelogue or a review of Shankar Lahiri’s book of poems, Mukherjee Kusum (Mukherjee Flower). If one considers Mukherjee Flower to be the main source, should Aprilness be seen as a subtext? The latter dissolves this last boundary too.
In conclusion, here is a list of textual characteristics that define Nabalipi:
1. Nabalipi or New Text consists of many forms, including collaborative, sub- or inter- and transcreative texts.
2. It comprises two major texts: a main text and an optional intertext.
3. The intertext could merge or weave into the body of the main text.
4. There could be multiple intertexts supporting the same main text, written by multiple authors. It could be a bricolage of journal writing, scientific investigation, literary theory, poetry, fiction, screenplay and song lyrics. Aryanil Mukherjee’s recent book mouchAker prakRiti (Nature of the Hive) serves as a typical example.
5. The sub- or intertext may not necessarily be written. It could be a film, a painting, graphic art, a sculpture, a photograph, an animation, or something else.
6. Nabalipi allows for self-collaboration, which is a procedure by which a writer recombines his own creative texts from two or more different periods or genres. Kamal Chakrabarty, the founding editor of Kaurab, has recently completed a book of self-collaboration called chhAyAnouko (Shadow Boat), where he wove new poems with his own poetry from the early 70s.
7. Nabalipi admits a mAdhukari of many different texts separated by torn seams or semi-permeable membranes through which ideas and influences transact.
2. Clinton Seely, A Poet Apart: A Literary Biography of the Bengali Poet Jibanananda Das, 1899–1954 (Kolkata: Rabindra Bharati University Press, 1999). See also Buddhadeva Bose, An Acre of Green Grass (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1948).
4. Please see Bayatullah Quadri, Bangladesher ShaaTer Dashaker Kabita – Bishay O Prakaran (Dhaka: Nabajug, 2009). In Bengali. See also Khondakar Ashraf Hossain, “A Coloured Canopy: Bangladeshi Poetry,” The Daily Star (Dhaka), February 21, 2004, Ekushe edition. See also Humayun Azad, Adhar O Adheo (Form and Content) (Dhaka, Agami Prakasoni, 1992). In Bengali.
7. F. Heylighen, “Memetics,” Principia Cybernetica Web.
8. Cross-product is a term from vector/tensor mathematics which is different from “product” in the sense that it has a specific direction of an array of directions as opposed to “product” which is a scalar.
10. A centrifuge is an apparatus that uses centrifugal force to separate particles, and typically suggests a great outward throw, a kind of extroversion, one might say, or an urge to express or create.
12. This is another scientific/technological/mathematical notion: practical “fields” (areas or zones over which a particular scientific principle works) are not continuous; the function in that domain does not continuously vary, it changes discretely, meaning that real fields are actually “fractured.” All graphic data that we see today in every single medium represents that fractured or “tessellated” form.
14. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1977). We’re trying to extend the cultural idea of Geertz’s (and before that Riley’s) “thick description” to language. For example, we are especially interested in the notion that the gravest challenge to translation is not so much language, but culture. When one models language as a culture it becomes easier to explain the issues of translation/transcreation.
19. All of this draws its metaphors from fluid mechanics, the science of fluid flow where there is an elementary flow, usually laminar; when it gets viscous, vortices form (like froth) and eddies occur at its tail-end that eventually wear out. We use the eddies to represent the mainstream, which might be laminar, or smooth. Here we are thinking of Ashbery’s famous statement “I don’t want to read what is going to slide down easily; there has to be some crunch, a certain amount of resilience.”
22. Santanu Bandopadhyay, “After reading Aryanil Mukhopadhyay’s book hAwAmorager man,” Kabisammelan, Kolkata, 2006. In Bengali.
Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge; it’s just the best we have. More than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking. The contextual openness we incite in the concept of the “circumcontent” impresses upon us a similar notion of science that can tap its way into the heartland of poetic thought. A fundamental assumption we make in the white paper on Circumcontentive Poetry is that it will address a well-informed audience as opposed to the masses as they are generally conceived in Bengal. The greatest stresses Circumcontentive Poetry asserts are on poetry’s “thought-material” and its “way of thinking.” This makes Circumcontentive Poetry immediately coeval with scientific approaches. An important underpinning of the “New Text” is a relentless reflection of this way of thinking. One could, however, ask what makes it relentless. Is it because it has no bias towards the self?
We probably do not want to collect evidence in order to arrive at the poem’s preplanned interjections; rather, the poem will grow based on the evidence it samples. The difference between these two approaches might be considerable although the process is one and the same. A plethora of scientific investigation is carried out in the presumptive mode, such that at the outset we are able to ascertain the “truth” being sought. There is a fundamental fallacy in this approach: it ignores the element of uncertainty. So one might want to analyze all the evidence collected during the artistic or scientific process before any “place” is reached. Even if the work has a goal, let’s say, a theme to dwell on, nevertheless data must be culled and analyzed.
At a dinner many decades ago, the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to the toast “Physics and Metaphysics.” By “Metaphysics” people then meant something like philosophy or a truth that one could recognize simply by thinking about it. Such truths could have been considered as pseudoscientific information. Wood answered along the following lines:
The physicist gets an idea. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He consults scientific literature. The more he reads, the more promising the idea begins to appear. Thus prepared he goes to the laboratory and devices an experiment to test the idea — a painstaking experiment. Many possibilities are checked, the accuracy of measurements is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful experimentation, the idea proves itself to be worthless. So the physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of errors and moves on.
The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded, as he raised his glass high, is not that the practitioners of one are any smaller than those of the other. The difference is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory. The truth that rung out of Wood’s speech was relentless, and this is the same quality with which the circumcontentive poet asks whether poetry has a laboratory. Does a scientist have an experimentally ascertainable absolute truth? Or can there be an “absolute truth”? Instead of meddling into a philosophical debate, what if the poet decided to experiment like a scientist? In the words of Octavio Paz,“poetry is a form of knowledge, of experimental knowledge.” There is no perfect instrument for probing knowledge. The need to innovate, improvise and experiment remains central. Why don’t we likewise experiment with the scientific way of thinking by embedding its codones into the genetic strip of our poetic process?
We ought to explore ideas by means of scalable research, observation and analysis (at times comparatively). We may be seeking the truths of the past already sought by artists, or perhaps the truths sought by men and women of science, both past and present. As Wood reminds us, “the truths they seek are different, but they employ similar methods to ascertain them.” It’s the process and quality of seeking that will distinguish the art we are trying to define.
One major difference between scientific and poetic thought arises not from the process of the experiment but from the subject. A scientist, for the most part, is an observer, he sets things up, no doubt, but rarely is he an object or vehicle of his own experiment. A poet, however, often is. Especially in Circumcontentive Poetry, we yearn to see the poet as an instrument of his own experiment — a fundamental difference from past experiments lies in the fact that this experiment needs to be performed by means of direct and indirect experiences, in a cohesive manner, and through frequent exhanges between data and information, home and world, across boundaries of art, language, culture, and epistemes. The poet could be both the observer and the phenomenon observed. His body and psyche, his entire being could serve as a field in which parametric transformation occurs. Even though information might be acquired without a bias, the field experience tends to personalize it, to originalize the ideas admitted. The data and/or information gathered fashions itself a little differently, somewhat awry, and in the end becomes a poem.
Describing the relationship between modern poetry and science, Octavio Paz writes,
There is more than one similarity between modern poetry and science. Both are experiments, in the sense of “testing in a laboratory”: an attempt is made to produce a certain phenomena through the separation or combination of certain elements which the experimentor has subjected to the pressure of some outward force or left to develop according to the laws of their own nature. This operation takes place in a closed space, in the most complete isolation possible. The poet deals with words as the scientist deals with cells, atoms or other-material particles: he extracts them from their natural medium, everyday language, isolates them; he observes and uses the properties of language as the scientific researcher observes and uses the properties of matter.
As he writes, as he tests his ideas and his words, the poet does not know precisely what is going to happen. His attitude toward the poem is empirical. Unlike the religious believer, he is not attempting to confirm a revealed truth; unlike the mystic, he is not endeavoring to become one with a transcendent reality; unlike the ideologue, he is not trying to demonstrate a theory. The poet does not postulate or affirm anything apriori; he knows what counts is not ideas but results, not intentions but works. Isn’t this the same attitude as the scientist’s? Poetry and science do not imply a total rejection of prior conceptions and institutions. But theories and working hypotheses do not justify experiments; rather the converse is true.
In her poetry, Run Bandopadhyay leaves traces of her scientific thought process. A pertinent question to ask here is this: can the poem be appreciated by a reader unaware of time’s status in the world of mathematical and physical sciences as a fourth-dimension?
Who are you? Grinning for ever behind dimension four?
In the wrap of bodies you fashion after your own whim
I can hear nothing but your own fable. Tell me, tell me as much
as you could within the bounds of Hertz.
Can such a poem be appreciated by readers unaware that the S.I. unit for measuring frequency is named after the German physicist Heinrich Hertz? We would like to answer both ways. To someone who is able to grasp the sense, the facts are redundant. For the other reader who is at a loss, we would recommend further reading. To grasp the circumcontent one needs exploration, and there is no one classroom that will give it all. Indeed, there is no classroom for Circumcontentive Poetry.
Scientific knowledge is a container of ideas, of which some are severely indeterminate and some are nearly certain, but none are purely deterministic. There is no absolute meaning anywhere and this is precisely where science does not have to differ from poetry. The uncertainty principle can be invoked here to highlight the observer effect which helps the reader personalize the received poem.
It cannot be denied that science and humanity have intertwined beyond the point of any unwinding. There doesn’t seem to be a point of return. Consequently, we are excited by the tremendous and long-awaited potential of the scientific consciousness that we embrace and champion. Thus, in our poetry content is often an abstraction and it takes a different kind of consciousness, a different kind of approach to dig into its grooves and take it apart. Unless the fibers of content can be taken apart, content can’t be rewired, recombined and rekindled. As the poet drills harder and multi-axially, it’s likely that more juices will flow, free for the reader to take. We would like to underline once more that the circumcontentive poet is not a teacher but a facilitator. And this poet enters into relationship with a readership that is well informed or has an appetite for information. Ideally, the reading experience is ever-unfurling like Draupadi’s sari — no matter how much it is pulled at, no matter how much it unwraps, desnuda (nudity) never seems to come.
If the circumcontentive poet wants to push his already lodged thought-schema deeper, the reader must be ready to respond. When that happens, their collaboration could widen the path — knowledge often brings on newer and denser mysteries that tempt further penetration. While preparing a presentation of his thought- or content-schema, the poet should not try to asses the reader’s initial response. The initial response could be lackluster, the early entrenchments could be rejected, the interaction between data and information might be eluded, but the poet must realize that the purpose of the entire exercise is not to teach but to facilitate by turning each pebble on the way, by digging deeper in search of the best imaginable delight. This will become the grand adventure of our duo, the circumcontentive poet and his reader. This state is best described by a phrase borrowed from the physicist Richard Feynman: “the pleasure of finding things out!”
Poets do not normally write about such grand adventures, artists rarely attempt to represent them. Singers don’t sing about the values of science. Why doesn’t that happen? Isn’t the beauty of the universe moving? No wonder we invariably end up in science lecture halls mostly listening to boring, narrow discourses that preach to a square choir. In the exact same way, we attend lectures on literary theory that make such primitive passes at the world of science that we are led to wonder: do we really live in the age of science?
One needs to remember the fallacy of statements like, “where science ends, philosophy begins.” Such gesticulations are brought in either to dissolve a particular context or to cover up a genuine lack of scientific consciousness. True scientific curiosity takes multiple forms and these add excitement and mystery to its pursuit. They never subtract from it.
Let’s consider an object of eternal aesthetic charm — a flower. It has a specific aesthetic value for a poet. If that aestheticism is compounded with scientific pursuit, that can help the poet discover a few hidden facts, assemble a few marvellous mysteries. The poet, enriched with this new consciousness, could be led to think of the internal organic cells of the flower; the complex network of chemical reactions underway in each cell surely has a beauty of its own, a pragmatic beauty largely untold in poetry. A flower does not have to be represented by its external physical characteristics, its aroma and so on. Instead, it could be seen in the form of a fractal, a micro-form, a molecular form of life which is repeatable and has an aesthetics of its own. A knowledge of biology might help the poet understand the miraculous motive that determines the coloring and aroma of its petals, its whole evolution — soon he will come to see the purpose of all this well-planned, skillful decoration was to invite the insects, the bees, other prokaryotes and eukaryotes. This discovery might lead to a question: do organisms at a lower level like flowers possess a collective sense of aesthetics? The mathematical poet is easily lured into thinking about why the petals of many flowers, the wings of insects, the rabbit population and so on resemble the dimensional growth pattern described by the Fibonacci sequence.
In 1959 Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.” We, the present group of circumcontentive poets, consider Nabokov’s statement a champion of our agenda. A large chunk of our group, virtually all of us except Raad Ahmad and Subhro Bandopadhyay, make a living in the field of science. For many of us, the involvement is deep, both academically and industrially, with a strong focus on research and development. Scientific thought at times works as an unconscious precondition for our writing. Circumcontentive Poetry aims at a more conscious investigation and presentation of the profound intellectual similarities between science and poetry. It is one of our major goals.
All women and men don’t express and exclaim in the same way. Neither do all hold in themselves the same capacity to be surprised. Profound scientific thought that has an invariable spiritual quality about it fails to invade most poems. Most poets struggle to take on this dimension of spiritual reality, not because their scientific knowledge is lacking, but because of the absence of the contrivance necessary to feel the reach of this scientific breath. The idea of God may be as unique as the idea of Godlessness but neither, for us, seems more astonishing than the fact that the source of earthly life, the sun, is only one of the 200 billion stars of the Milky Way, and our galaxy is only one of the 200 billion galaxies.
The issue of scietific honesty is the key to keeping circumcontent error-free. Although at times a literary text might choose to consciously follow scientifc theory, it could still find easy distractions or deviations, eventually ending up as an intellectual imposter. Artistic creativity often finds itself at loggerheads with scientific honesty. This conflict, if not dealt with rationally, could spoil the circumcontent of poetry, greatly reducing its intellectual cogency.
On the flipside stands the production of a certain kind of poetry that is honestly ingrained in scientific theory, but so severely lacks aesthetic imagination that its ability to appeal to readers outside the world of science remains questionable, as is evident from the poems read at the 2008 Science Meets Poetry convention in Barcelona. In Circumcontentive Poetry, we aim to embed a scientific consciousness in the poet that will enable him to respond to instinct and emotion with logic, rationality and precision. This will help him dilate the range of meanings of his “A-phors,” such that the width of a bird’s-eye view is achievable even at lower heights.
“there were days when I chose to serve as border patrol
before actually crossing over”
I begin by quoting Joaquim Mondal and by asking about fences. About what a fence might mean. We know how it has been represented by European writers, artists and auteurs. For instance, eviction and exile form strong recurrent themes in Ceslaw Milos’s later work as he speaks about a real city somewhere else filled with real people, plants, voices, amity, and love. Similar trends are sometimes dormant and sometimes active in Hispanophone poetry of the second half of the twentieth century; for example, these ideas are especially apparent in the work of one of Chile’s leading poets of the past century, David Rosenmann-Taub, reminding of his emigration from Chile to the US. They also form a key stream running through the foliage of Argentine Juan Gelman’s work. Of particular interest here is how Gelman, while developing a characteristic oeuvre whose themes focused on eviction and political isolation, referred to ancient Bengali poet Ramprasad Sen, citing the poet’s move from provincial Bengal to urban Kolkata, describing this as a displacement. So many examples of the theme of exile in western literature.
The picture differs slightly for most Asian languages, and particularly for Bengali. Crisscrossed by the river Ganga (Ganges), its main tributary Padma, and her other sisters, the Bengal plains are one of the most densely populated areas of the world. A 2004 United Nations report states that Bangladesh is one of the top ten most densely populated countries, with 1,063 people per square kilometer. Likewise, according to the 2001 Indian census, West Bengal recorded the highest population density in India, with 900 people per square kilometer. Consequently, an intense and unhealthy competition to access and claim land, water, energy, and other resources has begun in these areas. While it is a challenge in many countries to find experts in rare disciplines of micro-specialization, in this part of world a hundred applicants show up for a single job opening. For the average newcomer from the West, a task as simple as crossing the street in urban South Asia proves an uphill battle. In other common areas fierce competition ensues, frequently proving the law of diminishing returns, and sinking man’s pride in humanity to the bottom of the trough. Quite often, morality drowns and an ethical imbalance becomes omnipresent. Competition intensifies power politics and leads to corruption. A rich, fertile land that provided easy availability of resources and nurtured the growth of human society, now, due to population explosion, has begun to erode.
However, it is no wonder that the homo sapiens sapiens adapts to such social conditions — and adapts well. A living proof of the Darwinian struggle for existence in modern human society is no more elegantly expressed than here. We grew up reading about the importance of a clean, green environment for a complete organic growth of the human mind and body. However, as we stepped into adulthood, that need was forced out by other, more basic ones. The environment’s turning acidic did not, however, slow down population growth: the three P’s (population, poverty and pollution) remain closely and strongly connected. A countless number of children are stillborn every day on South Asian streets, in cities that resemble fairly modern and technologically advanced urban societies (albeit ones plagued by faulty resource distribution). In villages, this element of contradiction is alien. The arrival of a newborn in most Indian villages is often greeted with indifference. Thus social status in South Asia stands sharply contrasted with that of either the more developed (or should we say better resource-distributed) Western blocs or the relatively underdeveloped African or other sub-Saharan areas.
This daily struggle serves as the catalyst for uprooting young people like Joaquim Mondal. They turn the vestiges of local success into global opportunities, changing their geographical maps. A large Bengali population (in the millions), comprised of meritocrats, opportunists and desperate laborers, lives outside South Asia. A thick section of this migrant workforce, mostly laborers and contract dealers, use secret illegal contacts with immigration agents and middlemen to get out, especially to the Middle East. We, the middle class, know them, but not as closely as we might think. As relations improved in the early 90s between the two major world powers, as Glasnost and Perestroika attempted to liberate the former USSR, as free market economy began to spread in the BRIC countries, the situation changed quite dramatically in Bengal territory. Like ants and rodents drawn to an upturned wok full of decomposing food, people flocked to volatile funds that depended on India’s economic, political and diplomatic ties with the former Soviet Union. As the USSR collapsed, however, these funds camphorized. Simultaneously, aggravated by the pressing need to globalize business markets, and with the search for cheap labor, emigration rates catapulted — tripling in Bengal over the past fifteen to twenty years. An illegal trap has developed alongside this new trend — the machinery of immigration consultation.
The present scene
These rates of competition and emigration are not without precedent. From accounts of migrating villages to the saga of European colonization, many trends throughout history fit the bill. A reverse-colonizing syndrome seems to be the trend — people from this continental space are continuously trying to change their socioeconomic position by relocating to new geographical spaces. No matter what intellectual capsule we find for this geographical displacement, it’s hard to argue that its motivation is not an organic one. In a Darwinian light, this indeed is a struggle for existence. Just as the successful middle- or upper-class student goes abroad in search of a “better” academic and economic future, the struggling underprivileged worker from Uttar Pradesh lands up in a remote landfill in Doha. Wherever the immigrant might drift, he is able to find his own cultural content — a fusion of all the geographical spaces he has covered — and his cultural identity mutates.
Man carries his own geography with him. No wonder the Hungarian youth roaming New Delhi’s Jorhbag area seeks out Hungarian spices; no wonder an Indian tracks down samosas in a remote corner of Madrid. Someone born in the Caribbean in the 70s might be called Shiunarain Chander Paul, but he might as easily have been named Shibnarayan Chandra Pal if born far apart in Bengal instead. In this sense, Joaquim Mondal is no exception: he was named by a Goanese priest who had only Portuguese names in his book. We migrate with our own memory-filled geographies that progressively dilute through the generations that follow and get shattered into smithereens; identities haze out. Dad’s copy of the Upanishads amicably settles down beside his teenage daughter’s birth control pills, both in the same drawer. As migrations and displacements increase, known cultural landscapes are tessellated more and more.
We will focus not on the second or subsequent generations but on the freshly uprooted, on those who aren’t keen to simply pin their own maps to their newly acquired geographies, but who find a way to sow seeds taken out of the new land into their cultural memory. As such, our primary aim is not the self-conflicting world of new diasporic literature, but rather the internationalist being of the Gandhian globe-trotter Amiya Chakravarty, the diary of a veritable paribrAjak. In other words, a supersocial individual, someone who would travel without a mAdhukari, in a quest for the essential, the universal and the particular. Few would know that Chakravarty, who was professor of comparative oriental religions and literature at Boston University, traveled around the US during the Civil War years, lecturing on the Gandhian politics of ahimsa.
Our global circumcontent identifies — inside poetic space — with works that house the mixed streams of geographical sensitivity. It identifies with the soulfulness of a paribrAjak, who believes that confluence is about the sonorous overlapping of cultural waves.
Translated from Bengali by Aryanil Mukherjee.
2. The term “Bengal” refers to the pre-colonial Indian province of Bengal, which today comprises the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Jharkhand, parts of Bihar, and the independent country of Bangladesh, areas still dominated by the Bengali language and its dialects.
3. Amiya Chakravarty (1901–1986) was a major Indian (Bengali) poet, essayist, international scholar, critic, and teacher of the post–Tagorian era. He was secretary to Rabindranath Tagore for some years (1924–1933), a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and a friend of Albert Einstein. He walked with Gandhi in the historic Salt March of 1930. Amiya Chakravarty lived the second half of his long and illustrious life in the US. A DPhil from Oxford University, Amiya taught at Selly Oak College, Birmingham, UK, Calcutta University, India, and in the US, first at Howard University, then at Yale and Princeton as a visiting fellow. Finally, he taught for many years at Boston University as professor of comparative Oriental religions and literature in the Department of Missions and World Religions. Amiya won many awards, most notably a UNESCO Prize and the Sahitya Academy (Government of India) Award (1963). His poetry is currently the object a renewed interest, as scholars are find renewed meaning in his attention to humanist values in the current moment of globalization. Please see Norman Finkelstein’s review of Another Shore.
A caged tiger who is regularly fed is probably not too keen to escape the quadrangle. Look at him — he’s mostly in the midst of a lazy yawn. A child who has never seen a tiger would find it hard to discover his ferocity behind the metal nets, and might instead be moved by his deep eyes, incisive canines and checkered fur. “Here is my new pet!” he might exclaim.
Aryanil Mukherjee’s “Woodense” is not a poem that takes such a juvenile jab at the tiger (one might be erroneously lured to think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Panther”). Rather, it is more about the “woods,” and about the “mouli,” or the “wives”; it is about the “bees,” the “honey,” and the “forest-department.” A whole network of closely connected themes. The “wood” seems to read as an extended metaphor at times, and at other times not. The specificity of transaction traditionally associated with metaphor is mostly missing from the “wood” and all its related concepts.
The poem is based on a newspaper feature (Appendix I) on the problems confronting a marginal community of honey collectors in the Sundarban area of West Bengal, India. During a discussion Mukherjee disclosed that he had graphed a thought-schema as a pre-text, much like a scenario, to use the language of films. The thought-schema, borrowing from graph theory, is an “object-oriented” diagram in the sense that the key themes mentioned in the report are objectified. Each “object” is represented by certain well-defined characteristics (usually descriptors), has a figuration in the theme hierarchy, and is interrelated with other objects.
The poem seems to intertwine two texts, a regular poetic text and a part-poetic-part-informative text, so as to guide the reader through the poem’s desired flow of logic. The thought-schema, in a nutshell, suggests structure that arranges the poem’s thoughts. It also tempts the reader to consider the objects in the poem as metaphors.
Parallel to the traditional metaphor there could be another kind that is indefinitely indiscrete, one that is not used to convey meanings or feelings. A whole commune of metaphors or “A-phors,” as we choose to call them, each with its clouded orbits uniting to initiate a collective thought-stream. The poem, as a result, dissipates ideas rather than controlling them. Because this A-phor-assembly is huskless and granular it seems to fit a wide range of thought-patterns.
The thought-schema of “Woodense” as sketched by the poet.
It might be possible to compare the concept of Six-Sigma to the thought-schema of the poem. Six-Sigma is a technological philosophy, a vision; initiative- and goal-oriented, it can also be seen as a tool. In a nutshell, Six-Sigma can be used as a means to stretch out the thinking process. Essentially a business and technological production management strategy, the term “Six-Sigma” is borrowed from the statistical representation of certain phenomena in process capability study. It is defined by a 5-step process — Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify — expressed as a pentagon with the desired product (in our case, the poem “Woodense”) at the center.
Step I: What would be the first step of the process — “Define”? We feel it would probably be the newspaper feature from which the poem’s thought content originates.
Step II: In the “Measure” step, the poet selects certain facts from the report and/or other related sources, conceives and germinates ideas, develops an understanding of the relationship model that connects the “subjects” (expressed as “objects”) of the story.
Step III: For the poet, the “Analyze” phase is perhaps most important. The acquired data is digested in this step, which helped Mukherjee construct his thought-schema. This object-oriented relational model helped him discover a complex nexus of interrelations and dependencies that are not in the newspaper report and are apparently unseen. For example, he discovers the hidden connections between the tiger as state-machine and the worshipped wood-goddess Banbibi; how the poor, struggling mouli and his family become the proletariat, secretly opposed to the powerful (yet endangered) tiger and its protector, the forest department.
There is so much content in a wood! Trees, the strangely branched assemblies of their limbs, the bird collective, dread and curiosity. One imagination leads us to another — of human society and its demographics, its members as one monolithic block of life. Imagine their brain-wires as a single assembly — that makes a forest:
the hunter comes full circle and gets hunted
circles overlap as in a Venn diagram
Each singular feeling, every sensuous drive of every human adds up to mimic a forest’s density. Each individual is trying to live his own life according to a personal strategy. No one is ready to yield a bit. This leads to a social balance where every member is self-centered, making another kind of forest.
Step IV: The “Design” step is mostly about presentation; it involves the actual writing of the poem. In the case of a technological production procedure, the design and manufacturing phases are the most laborious, painstaking and practical. For a writer, this step might include the selection and structuring of language and the writing of the poem (the presentation). It is possible that for “Woodense” this step involved a forked activity where two texts were written separately and then plaited into one.
Step V: Art is usually not made to “Verify” anything, thus this last step might mean something very different for the writer. This could be seen as a reconsideration phase, where the writer either abandons his freshly composed work to gel or rot for a while and then re-examines it, or discusses it with fellow writers and friends before finalizing the work. This step marks the time when some of us would go back to Step I to revise the entire poem and the process that led to its creation.
Six-Sigma often uses a diagram popularly known as the Ishikawa/Fish-Bone diagram that highlights cause-effect relationships. It is often assumed that creativity is a spontaneous activity. The truth is that creative people use proven tools and techniques to forward their thinking. An augmentative schematic for the poem, different from Mukherjee’s thought-schema can be expressed in the form of a fish-bone diagram:
A fish-bone diagram represents the theme-data.
A fish-bone diagram helps in analyzing collected data. It should not be seen anything more than a tool for constructing thought structures and relating themes, ideas and concepts; by no means can it substitute or enhance poetic ability or imagination.
Now, in this wood, the tiger arrives. With its structure of social power, of political preference and economic disequilibrium, “a quarter on the left pan / a nickel on the right,” the poem seems to simulate the phenomenon of modern money mechanics via the complex tale of a rural society from the coastal forests of southern Bengal. Traditional narrative is avoided; instead, a mixed-media prose language derived from news, cut-up and embroidered with poetry, is interspersed among the poetic stanzas. In the end, it does become a poem of the self-devouring tiger — the common man of everywhere.
There is also an impending politics of religion. The common man begins to think — so much is still hazy, indistinct and obscure. That defines the birthplace of dread, of realization and submission. This is made clear through the figure of the mouli-wife, who submits to the ritual of augur and practices widowhood when the mouli enters the forest. She worships the forest deity and obfuscates truth by complying with superstition. However, positions of social power shift, quacks and clairvoyants assume immediate importance. Scales tip, reversing these binary gradients. The pure spiritual devotion of the mouli-wife is also present; she faces resistance from social consensus passed around as law:
forest department knows it all
we accept the proprietor’s law as just
But she survives it. So does poetry, as it defeats and escapes the tiger’s prowl —
culture of workplace is above all
where bees swarm over the tiger
The official honey collection season began in the Sunderbans last Monday. It’s likely that the intruders might encounter tiger attacks in the process of collecting honey from the deep forests. In the past, several collectors have lost their lives. The professional lives of the people of the Sunderbans have an intimate involvement with the tiger. Because most people live either as lumberjacks, honey-collectors or crab-hunters in the rivulets of the forest region, encounters with tigers are a regular affair for them, very often leading to the loss of human life. Since the Royal Bengal Tiger has been identified as an endangered species, guns or weapons are not allowed in these woods. The forest department occasionally uses shotguns with tranquilizer bullets. Faced with lives of extreme economic hardship, the local people choose to ignore the tiger. Tiger attacks are accepted as destiny. When the man goes into the forest, the wife knows that his return is uncertain. She has learned to accept it. When a family head has to venture into the woods, the wife practices a “mental widowhood.”
With the official start of the honey collection season last Monday, the mouli-wives have begun offering prayers to Banbibi, the wood-goddess. Temporary widowhood is being practiced in more than a thousand families. Until the husbands return, the wives and their families turn vegetarian. They refrain from using soap, oil, and vermillion; they take off their wedding bangles; and they stay barefoot and milk-clad, wearing white saris only.
Karunabala Sarkar, Laxmi Roy of Satjelia, Parul and Minoti Mandal of Lahiripur, Debaki Naskar, Sita Mistri of Sonagaon said, “This is an ancestral ritual for us. Until our husbands will return we will mourn their absence this way. Twice a day during this season we would offer water and honey to the sacred Banbibi and pray to her for the safekeeping of our men.” Tarubala Mondal, a sexagenarian from Jamespur, said, “We have had more tiger attacks this year. Quite often the tiger has entered the village. Now our folks have invaded its den. Mother Banbibi will protect them.”
The forest department has stated that the moulis are allowed up to two weeks for collection. All honey and wax collected will be purchased from the moulis by the State Department at government-stipulated rates. Anjan Guha, director of the Sunderbans Tiger Project and his team of observers are stationed on the river. Mr. Guha told us, “Some believe in superstitions, voodoos, some in the Banbibi, some in clairvoyants and jungle magicians. They all have their own ways to beat the dread. But most importantly we’ve given masks to the moulis. Masks that’ll scare away the tiger. They have been asked it use it at all times.”
Translated from Bengali by the authors.
In his Huffington Post piece, “Suppressing Ugly Truth for Beautiful Art” (May 1, 2012), Alan Dershowitz writes:
Stein, a “racial” Jew according to Nazi ideology, managed to survive the Holocaust, while the vast majority of her co-religionists were deported and slaughtered. The [Metropolitan Museum of Art] exhibit says “remarkably, the two women [Stein and her companion Alice Toklas] survived the war with their possessions intact.” It adds that “Bernard Fay, a close friend … and influential Vichy collaborator is thought to have protected them.” That is an incomplete and distorted account of what actually happened. Stein and Toklas survived the Holocaust for one simple reason: Gertrude Stein was herself a major collaborator with the Vichy regime and a supporter of its pro-Nazi leadership.
Dershowitz seems to have forgotten that, unlike her “co-religionists [who] were deported or slaughtered,” Stein was an American citizen and the US was not yet at war with Germany. Indeed, when the war broke out in September 1939, the United States immediately recognized the Vichy Government and sent an Ambassador — William D. Leahy — to Vichy: the idea, originally, was to pry the Maréchal away from the Germans. At the time that Stein and Toklas settled in the small village of Belley, near Bilignin, where Stein first bought a house in the early twenties, they were not yet in physical danger. The US declared war on Germany on December 11, 1941 — two years and three months later. After that point, of course — think 1942 — American citizens were the enemy and were rounded up and imprisoned, and Stein makes clear that she and Alice were deeply afraid. Nothing happened, not because Stein was a “major collaborator with the Vichy regime” — an assertion that is simply absurd — but because, as two old American ladies more or less hiding in the village where they were on good terms with their neighbors, they were left alone.
Myself an Austrian Jewish refugee from Hitler in 1938 and knowing how complex the situation was in wartime France, I find Dershowitz’s blanket accusations appalling. Maybe he now wants to pronounce Roosevelt a “collaborator” because he sent an ambassador to Vichy; our embassy there, incidentally, was open until the spring of 1942.