A first-time reader of James Schuyler’s poetry could have written my notes for this essay:
Loves a list
Letter / diary
Right now, right here
Weather and Light
Addresses, exact addresses
Names of friends
Yet I spent thirteen years editing Schuyler’s letters, years during which I thought of him at least once a day, and at every reading I have given in the past decade or more I read at least one of his poems. Really, I ought to be able to come up with a few new observations about his exceptional poetry.
“A word that’s the poem”
At Schuyler’s best he is that simple and straightforward, that easy to understand, but after the word what is there to do or say but marvel? His poems are elegiac because their present is so real that it is over the moment the poem ends. Schuyler lets the reader live and realize what his poems live and realize, and then the satisfying heartache, the rueful contentment, something is over but not finished, of “a dream you just remember … a day like any other.”
Were he in my shoes what would Schuyler do? Twiddle his pen and lay it down, turn on the TV, take a nap and, oh, “Perhaps there’s time to write a poem / there’s always time to write a poem.” Schuyler wrote art criticism, enough to make a book, because he said he liked to describe. He wrote few book reviews. One was of On the Road. He called it a “boy’s book.” Pretty smart. He had zero interest in manifestoes. There is his statement in The New American Poetry, but it is from a different world, a world of New York, “floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble,” than those of Olson, Creeley, or Duncan. Poetics? I can hear Schuyler burping a yawn. Just get on with it. If you don’t have the gift, where’s the point? He seems to have never studied poetry but read it for pleasure, discovering in his early twenties that he had a talent for writing it and an “innate” — his word — love of words. He wrote poems for readers who, like him, had no investment in upholding official verse culture. He never taught, so he had no flag to pledge allegiance to and no forum in which to separate the “right” way of doing things from the “wrong” way. If the question of how he wrote poems mattered to him, he rarely let on.
If this question matters to you, the path to discovery is in Schuyler’s poems themselves. That Schuyler descends from William Carlos Williams and writes free verse is obvious. That he mastered this form, and by mastery I mean saying exactly what he wanted to say, is also obvious. It is impossible for me to believe that any willing reader has had to learn how to read Schuyler. He delivers the news of the world as he sees, hears, and feels it, and he writes his own thoughts in a voice that over a few pages — open his Collected Poems anywhere — is indelible. He causes you to think that words like “indelible” and “voice” are not worth the breath they take. Schuyler means to communicate, but he is rarely urgent. There is no heavy lifting in a Schuyler poem. He can be trivial — who can’t? — but he has an ear, as his letters show, for pomposity and all high mindedness and stops himself as soon as he hears it in his own writing. He does not demand that you take him seriously, but you do because his effortlessness is enchanting. His poems begin a conversation that the reader is not overhearing but participates in. This reader loves Schuyler’s poems because his lines surprise and delight, and they are fresh. That simple. Are they evergreen? Time will tell.
In a letter to me responding to Just the Thing: The Selected Letters of James Schuyler, the poet Jim Cory writes, “Schuyler is famously frank in his poetry, self-examining in a way that places it at a remove from ‘confession.’” “Remove!” Yes, absolutely. In “Trip” from “The Payne Whitney Poems” Schuyler names himself “Jim the Jerk.” He’s not asking for sympathy. There is no “Each of us holds a locked razor” melodrama in any of the “Whitney Poems.” Schuyler knows who he is, and at the end of “Trip” knows that he has survived by luck. It is “a miracle” not because it happened to him, but because it happened and he is alive to tell the tale. “The simplicity of true drama.” You can’t imagine Lowell naming himself, “Cal the Jerk.”
The “remove” Cory hears is in Schuyler’s tone, casual, and matter-of-fact. He is not writing English literature but a lyric poem whose heightened verbal alertness will have to hold and convince the reader on its own terms. You are free to take it or leave it, but either way Schuyler believes what he writes in these lines from the poem “Dec. 28 1974”:
a clunkhead said, ‘have grown
more open.’ I don’t want to be open
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are.
There is the surface and beneath it … well, there is what the poet knows or thinks he knows, and there are the associations that will insist themselves on the reader, associations the poet cannot know. If there is no surface, there can be no depth. Schuyler is not opening up, but speaking intimately in an impersonal way. A reporter, or observer, if you like, whose gift is, in part, that he is both inside the moments of his poems and outside. And that he has no agenda other than “to say, to see and say, things / as they are.”
What are “things as they are”? At the end of “February” they are “The yellow” … “The shape” … “The water” — all name it but, inevitably, are like “a bit of pink I can’t quite see in the blue.” The reader will often, as Schuyler points out in his “Dear Miss Batie” letter, discover the poem in the same way the poet has. That letter in response to Miss Batie’s thoughts about “February” is the only one I know of in which Schuyler gives a gloss on one of his poems. It ends without his signing off, and possibly he never sent it.
From his breakdown in the early 1960s that led to his eleven-year stay with Fairfield and Anne Porter and their family through his breakdowns as he left that family and into his very dark New York late 1970s — we will learn more about all of this in Nathan Kernan’s forthcoming biography — Schuyler wrote lucid poems and novels. His art arranged the mess of his life into forms that cohere. Reading Schuyler you will enter a world intensified by his words and their action on your imagination, a world that you will step out of but can step back into at any time and be refreshed.
Rilke believed in angels, that the real world is not here and now but in transcendent realms of the imagination he strove to enter. Poetry was one ladder and painting another. For Schuyler ordinary life is real life. In his last years he found religion, but this might be thought of as the foreordained result of his lifelong communion with the natural world.
Perhaps because his own senses were several times deranged, Schuyler is in his poems, and all of his writing, sane and orderly.
William Blake believed that “where man is not nature is barren.” Wallace Stevens echoed this when he wrote that the “world would be desolate except for the world within us.” Schuyler works the other side of the street. His magic transforms the world without to the world within. When nature is not in man, man will be barren, desolate.
Imagine the poet who takes a “dump,” who studies the “smaller, than small” blackhead on his lover’s back and who hears the “great bronze bong” caught holding Yuban Instant in one hand and Coleman’s Mustard in the other. Mazola, Wesson. “A timer pings.” Imagine the poet who watched The Jeffersons and Mod Squad, who watched television the way regular folks do? One day someone will write a few words on Schuyler’s sense of humor, camp and otherwise.
Frank O’Hara called critics “the bores.” They are everywhere laboring to organize all human activity, squeeze the juice out of life, teach and enact laws that discriminate, set standards, honor tradition — the newspapers, the Internet are full of them and their hot air. But they are not the “news” William Carlos Williams had in mind when he pointed out that everyday men and women die of its lack. He meant poetry and not literal but spiritual death. For many reasons — his numerous breakdowns, the comfort of friends —Schuyler lived outside the world of “the bores” spending grim time institutionalized but serving no institution. He didn’t graduate from college, went AWOL from the Navy and did not hold a job for the last thirty years of his life. His poems celebrate friendship … the truth is that they never say so, would not be caught dead in anything so grand as a celebration. He preferred to send flowers. It is the fine and generous quality of his poems’ attention to the people in Schuyler’s life. He had no project, no urge, it seems to me, to convince himself or others that he needed a reason to write a poem. Title it “Today” and go from there.
What makes Schuyler’s poetry difficult to write about is that it is hard, at least for this lover of his work, to write a sentence that comes anywhere near the verve and genius in his lines. And his verbs! The mouth-filling, mind-clenching physicality of his verbs! Scuds, tugs, chuckles, creaks, sighs, reddens, ripens and smites are not in this essay but that are in the last seven lines of “Today.”
To have written these many words and not mentioned pleasure! After forty years of reading Schuyler’s poetry they still deliver pleasure on every level, most of all the pleasure of being stirred when rereading them. Auden, Schuyler’s sometime patron and friend, thought, pleasure the ultimate critical standard. It took me years to accept this. For too long I thought there had to be an intellectual or moral structure to support what gave me pleasure. Could you just love a poem? Yes, you can, Schuyler’s poems are word and deed.
you plunge your face
in their massed
papery powdery sweetness
and grunt in delight
at their sunset sweetness
Afterthought: What I hope will happen is that Schuyler’s letters and diaries will be published together. If I am around I can point out the errors and omissions in Just The Thing, but I don’t have to be the book’s editor. This book will stand beside Schuyler’s poems reminding readers, if they need to be reminded, that letters and diaries are not lesser than poetry. They are of a piece in the hands of this master.
This essay is for Jim Cory.
In this essay, I will try to account for the importance of “the day” in Schuyler’s poetry, but I will come at my subject in a slightly roundabout way. I claim Schuyler as my precedent. In a poem published soon after Schuyler’s death, Clark Coolidge notes that “[i]f Jimmy starts with one thing it’s always the / one in the middle.” So it makes a certain sense for me to begin in the middle of the middle, with Schuyler’s journal entry for August 15, 1970:
John A[shbery] at the Island in August: “I don’t believe in cause and effect.”
F[airfield Porter]: “But you’re taken with coincidences.”
John: “Coincidences never cease to fill me with amazement.”
5:30 and the creeping forefront of the fog wipes out the further view and a gull goes by above it brightly modeled by the afternoon sun.
A nice bit of paratactic collage, Schuyler’s diary does not comment on the conversation that he overhears, but juxtaposes it with a small coincidence of its own: the gull modeled by the sun against the backdrop of the encroaching fog. Schuyler gives this momentary observation, this observation of a moment, resonance by juxtaposing it with Ashbery’s refusal of causation. The gull signals that Schuyler is also amazed by coincidence. While Ashbery might not be astounded by such minimal coincidences — by the fog and a gull — Schuyler is.
Schuyler’s iconic poem “February” consists of just such small coincidences: a chimney, a series of pinks, some greens, and a woman and a baby. Although some tulips on his desk anchor the poem — the pinks and the greens in the landscape come to rest, as it were, in the flowers in the room — they are not fully visible until about halfway through. This delay makes the initial haphazard coincidence of the poem’s particular colors seem inevitable, or, rather, makes its inevitability look like a stroke of aesthetic luck (“I can't get over / how it all works in together”). The poem comes to lay its emphasis on the inside of the room and on details that it has not yet mentioned:
It’s the yellow dust inside the tulips.
It’s the shape of a tulip.
It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in.
That sudden intrusion of yellow and that equally sudden insistence on shape and on the water (not to mention the drinking glass) could blow apart the composition of pinks, greens, and blues, but it does not because each of these details underscores the aesthetic justness of ensemble.
The poem ends with its productively ambiguous affirmation:
It’s a day like any other.
In a letter about the poem, Schuyler claims that while composing “February,” he saw that “something marvelous was happening to the light, transforming everything” and it “then occurred to me that this happened more often than not (a beautiful sunset I mean) and that it was ‘day like any other,’ which I put down as a title.” Of course, the effect of the poem’s last line (he changed the title) also moves in the other direction. Marvelous sunsets might take place every day if you care to look, but this marvelous sunset, with its glorious array of details is a single and singular event, soon to dissolve into its many constituent parts. Coincidence, by Schuyler’s rather scrupulous definition, only lasts for the moment of its telling.
I am making the unremarkable suggestion that Schuyler is an aesthete of the incidental. His customary stance — a man seated by a window — is that of the disinterested observer, and “February” is about nothing so much as the faculty of judgment, about fine discriminations. It celebrates the poet’s ability to appreciate the gradations of the instant as it passes. Schuyler’s sense of punctual time leads him to make the most of the difference between discrete moments, as he does in another poem, “April:”
The morning sky is clouding up
and what is that tree,
dressed up in white? The fruit
tree, French pear. Sulphur —
yellow bees stud the forsythia
canes leaning down into the transfer
across the park. And trees in
skimpy flower bud suggest
the uses of paint thinner, so
fine the net they cast upon
the wind. Cross-pollination
is the order of the fragrant day.
That was yesterday: today is May,
not April and the magnolias
open their goblets up and
an unseen precipitation
fills them. A gray day in May.
The “and” that binds the first phrase and the second has no logical consequence at all because the name of the tree and local weather conditions have nothing to do with each other. They merely cross the speaker’s mind in quick succession. And Schuyler’s question to himself about the name of the tree seems to demand that we read the poem as a real-time transcription of consciousness. But Schuyler then undoes the fiction by redoubling it, by saying that everything that we have read in the present indicative up to this point actually refers to what is already past. The break between the poem’s two moments seems radical, almost catastrophic. Yesterday’s cloud might have turned into today’s rain, but the two days — one in April, one in May –– seem to belong to different orders. April was all about cross-pollination and its lovely specificities. Today is about something else entirely, although it is not yet clear what that is. It is still generic, “a gray day in May,” and the internal rhyme of that phrase makes it banal to the point of tautology. (This might be Schuyler’s version of “A rose is a rose is a rose.”)
“February” commemorates “the day before March first” just as “April” draws attention to the difference the calendar makes. This sense of a continuously discontinuous present plays itself out in Schuyler’s good-natured parataxis, whose disjunctions grow more insistent as his poems wax longer. Schuyler’s style can thus be opposed to Ashbery’s “aggressive hypotaxis,” which, as Ben Lerner has pointed out, maintains the illusion of narrative where none exists and provides “the affect of logic” even where logic is plainly absent. Although he does not speak to Ashbery’s sentences in this way, Christopher Nealon’s recent argument that the poet of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror studiously avoids the punctual event in favor of temporal flux supports this point quite nicely. The passage of time is Schuyler’s great subject, but he does not register it as flow as much as sheer succession.
For all Schuyler’s good nature, though, the punctual is not without its terrors. His frequently praised equanimity of tone is bought at a cost, as his great crisis lyric “Buried at Springs” clearly shows. It begins genially enough, with a joke about a death averted, Schuyler’s refusal to kill a hornet: “There is a hornet in the room / and one of us will have to go / out the window into the late / August midafternoon sun. I / won” (Collected Poems, 42). As it turns out, neither Schuyler nor the hornet has to go in any final way — the hornet is simply escorted out —and the whiff of mortality in the line break at the word “late” is just that — a whiff –– passed over as easily as the enjambment that lays the lightest of emphases on the rhyme “sun” / “won.”
Many of Schuyler’s poems are framed by death, just as the memory of a dead body runs like a seam through his early novel, Alfred and Guinevere. But death threatens to bring “Buried at Springs” to a premature end. Schuyler’s rather typical report of the scene out his window stops short with what looks like a quick recantation:
It is not like this at all.
The rapid running of the
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:
it’s eleven years since
Frank sat at this desk and
saw and heard it all
the incessant water the
immutable crickets only
not the same: new needles
on the spruce, new seaweed
on the low-tide rocks
other grass and other water
even the great gold lichen
on a granite boulder
even the boulder quite
literally is not the same (Collected Poems, 43)
Schuyler’s punctuation is often light, but it disappears here almost completely, as if washed away by the sheer force of time or, more precisely, by the effect of time on this place. Frank was here; Frank is no longer here and nothing that was here when he was is here now. The poem suffers a kind of metaphysical vertigo. Every little thing seems to dissolve — needles, seaweed, and rock — in the face of the implications of O’Hara’s absolute absence. His death disperses everything.
The poem resumes in the second part on a very different note. It concentrates on “the day” as a whole and not its bright particulars:
A day subtle and suppressed
in mounds of juniper enfolding
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness — rocks, trees, a stump —
stands shadowless in an overcast
of ripe grass.
What kind of thing is a day if it can be described as “subtle” and “suppressed”? Schuyler is not writing about the weather as such although weather certainly has something do with it. In fact, weather has everything to do with it. It seems to encompass more than just Schuyler’s chosen patch of coast, because the forecast of rain extends across the Atlantic. But it is not exactly weather that’s at stake here. The lack of shadow might well be the result of a cloudy sky but it is the grass, after all, and not the sky, that is overcast. In the end, everything resolves not into shadow, but into shade even though there doesn’t seem to be a single source of light.
One of the odder aspects of the poem’s odd turn to this description of “the day” is the way that unexpected adjectives and attributes seem to adhere to unaccustomed objects. Shadow becomes scratchy while a stand of spruce is described in terms of sound: “its resonance / just the thin scream / of mosquitoes ascending.” The day is “subtle” and “suppressed.” It is also “delicate,” “tarnished,” and “fractured.” The closest Schuyler comes to bald meteorological statement is to call the day “clammy” and this leads to his final simile:
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk
stained by one dead branch
the harsh russet of dried blood.
The brilliance of the figure lies in its quick accumulation of anomalous specificity. A day might be like wet silk. That would indeed be clammy. But what does that have to do with the stain and why Schuyler’s emphasis on a single branch, let alone a dead one? And what, in the end, is the color of dried blood? Is it the day, the silk, the stain? Of course, it is all of them because the day, the silk, the branch, and the color of blood all stand in for each other, as do the spruce and the mounds of juniper. They all make up “the day” and ‘the day” is nothing less than its atmosphere. “The day” serves as the background of Schuyler’s experience while it is also the experience itself.
Schuyler’s attempt to come up with an accurate description of “the day” is really an attempt to nail down its mood. Even if it is hard for Schuyler to sum up the mood of the subtle and suppressed day, it is easy for us to define the mood of “Buried at Springs.” With its shadowless shade, its screaming mosquitoes and apparently universal rain, the poem provides a little portrait of melancholy. Melancholy famously forgets what it mourns for and colors the world with its loss. The lost object of this poem — Frank O’Hara, who is indeed buried at Springs — and the trauma of his loss are indeed suppressed in the second section of the poem. They begin to come into focus only when the very last lines summon up the grisly fact that O’Hara bled to death, even while displacing this knowledge onto the landscape and onto “the day” as a whole. Once the ghostly object returns, the poem can come to its appointed end.
The tendency of mood to totalize and bring all objects into its orbit sets up the second section of “Buried at Springs” as an answer to the atomizing metaphysical terror that engulfs the first. To look at it this way is to remember that mood is not merely a subjective projection onto the world. Schuyler is one of our greatest poets of mood as well as one of our most attentive describers of objects because mood for him (as for Emerson, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Benjamin) is disclosive. Mood opens things up to us and opens us up to the world. We never confront the world as it is or in general. We approach it in our persons and through our moods.
Moods mediate in important ways. They trouble the distinction between subjective and what is objective, because while mood is clearly about emotions, it also appears to precede us, lie in wait for us. “Mood,” to quote Hubert Dreyfus quoting Heidegger, “is in each case already there, like an atmosphere, in which we are steeped and by which we are thoroughly determined.” Or, as Schuyler puts it in rather Emersonian terms in “Hymn to Life,” “The day lives us, and in exchange, we it: after snowball time, a month, March, of fits and starts, winds / Rain, spring hints and wintery arrears” (Collected Poems, 215). The day is what we live in and live through even as it comes to life through us. We grasp it through mood. It is the objective face of mood and experience.
So it makes sense to say that Schuyler is a poet of the day and of days. “The day” in his work is a unit of time and a theater of coincidence grasped through mood. It is the space in which things and thoughts happen together. The day is always catastrophically short and always shadowed by death, and this lends each single detail its latent pathos.
As “the days tick by, each so unique, each so alike” (Collected Poems, 223), and the punctual gives way to succession. The mood of the day gives over the moods of months and seasons. Schuyler strings days together in single poems (“The Morning of the Poem,” “A Few Days,” and to a large extent “Hymn to Life”) and in sections of books (“Fall and Winter,” say, in The Crystal Lithium). No matter how long a given period is, it is short — shot through with befores and afters, “spring hints and wintery arrears” — and also dogged by death.
The day is always shot through with loss. Almost forty pages into “The Morning of the Poem,” Schuyler provides a homely inventory of his breakfast and his poem:
Before dawn I woke and made my oatmeal, orange juice and
Coffee and thought about how this poem seems mostly about what I’ve
lost: the one who mattered most, my best friend, Paul
(Who mattered least) the Island, the California wildflower paper,
the this, the that, Whippoorwill, buried friends,
And the things I only write between the lines. (Collected Poems, 296)
Indeed, “The Morning of the Poem” could be called “The Mourning of the Poem.” But though it is largely about loss, you can hear a peculiar flatness in the list I have just quoted. Wallpaper seems to carry the same emotional weight as Fairfield Porter (the one who mattered most) and Paul (the one who mattered least). This could lead you to wonder if Schuyler’s celebrated expansiveness is not based on the ability to think of a buried friend as a lost this or a lost that. More to the point might be Schuyler’s preemptive acceptance of loss, his ability to read death into what has not yet passed, as in “From the next room”:
From the next room
the friendly clatter of
an electric typewriter.
Flies buzz in the window
pane. It is their dying
season. The house
is painted gray. The fields
befuzz themselves with
milkweed silk. By the
pond, a beaver gnaws
a tree. Those teeth, so
keen. The road winds
down the hill to here
then winds down further.
The woods are brown.
The sky is gray. What
incredible silence on
this hill surrounds
the friendly clatter,
the buzz of dying. (Collected Poems, 196)
The poem’s observations begin with sound, move to sight as the focus broadens, and then come back to the framing of sound by silence. Perception of sound into figure as the silence of the hill becomes the silence of death, the quietus that follows the buzz of all dying. The sheer contiguity of apparently empirical fact resolves into a metaphor of death. It is hard not to hear the echo of Dickinson in Schuyler’s buzzing flies, but he is not playing with her corrosive ironies. His flies do not disturb any revelation of eternity. They don’t get in the way precisely because eternity doesn’t enter the picture. His is a world of unalloyed temporality where the buzz of dying is a friendly clatter (because we’re all together in this dying business) and the friendly clatter is a memento mori, the buzz of a death that is, as of yet, deferred.
In that period of deferral — the space of Schuyler’s poetry — there is ample room for pleasure:
A better morning comes to pass
Sunlight buttered on the grass
Late, late, I lie awake
Finding pleasure for its own sake. (Collected Poems, 290)
Pleasure takes on any number of forms in Schuyler’s work: eating, reading (evidently Willa Cather alone is worth all the horrors of civilization); everyday consumption (Noxzema shaving foam, Perrier “in the odd-shaped bottle from France,” or Taylor’s Eau de Portugal); hanging out. Chiefest, though, is “the pure pleasure of / Simply looking” (Collected Poems, 220), the sheer delight in the way things appear. Or rather, the attendant pleasure of finding the words that describe what is simply — or not so simply — seen. The archaism of that last quotation — its rhymes and irregular tetrameter — calls attention to the pleasant and pleasurable wit of the term “coming to pass.” The morning comes only in order to pass. Yummy and buttery as it is, it will turn into afternoon and then night. Even so, its passing is not a cause for fear, or sleepless anxiety. The poet will still be up seeking more pleasure, not least of which is the pleasure of sound, of tight rhythms and rhyme.
Pleasure and not ecstasy. Schuyler does not compensate for large losses by looking for commensurately abundant gains. You could argue, in fact, that he cuts his losses down to his pleasures’ size by treating them both somewhat wistfully. Or you could say that the overall affect of his work is one of a gentle anticipation that counters the melancholic assumptions that serve as its base note. In any event, his poems are remarkably moderate. Mark Ford has written about Schuyler’s Anglophilia, his taste for minor English novels, for memoirs, and, most important, for diaries, all of which provided him with models of a rigorous modesty:
What he found in the journals of such as Kilvert and Woodforede and Gilbert White was not only a form of pastoral, but a way of writing that concentrated on the everyday and … suggested how his own poetry might avoid dealing with what John Ashbery calls in “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” “the big / Vaguer stuff.”
The term “pastoral” gets dropped in Schuyler criticism rather easily, even though we might want to be careful. Beyond the touch of the pathetic fallacy that one might read into Schuyler’s experiments with mood and weather, there are not a lot of pastoral conventions or much pastoral conventionalism (mock or otherwise) in Schuyler’s poetry. If anything, his pastoralism, with its celebration of the pleasures of otium, his ruralism, and his mastery of the middle style, shows Schuyler to be thoroughly Horatian. In fact he might well be the closest heir to eighteenth-century English Horatianism that the American twentieth century could produce. In spite of the number of losses, miseries, and mishaps his poetry alludes to, Schuyler’s work as a whole presents a wonderful image of the good life: the poet, living in contemplative retreat, content to look and freely espouse.
Therein lies a possible rub. Schuyler will not put up a fight. O’Hara could shout out his cosmic refusal in a taxi: “muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you.” Schuyler never would. Instead, looking at the daffodils, he claims, “You see, you invent choices where none exist” (Collected Poems, 220). Twenty years ago Douglas Crase wrote that he wondered “if a receptive attention to ‘things as they are’ is apolitical or, to put it more sharply, complicit,” and this problem seems to have troubled Schuyler too. He tried to answer it in a mess of an article on Porter, in which he launched a defense of the painter against the charge of being “bourgeois.” The essay becomes incoherent for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Schuyler cannot decide what “bourgeois” actually means. Is the critique of Porter that Schuyler is trying to fend off Marxist or avant-garde? Is he sticking up for what Porter paints or the way he paints it? Both, it seems but Schuyler has a hard time countering the charges, in part because he is uninterested in what Marxists mean by “relations of production” and in part because he cannot accept the idea that people find figuration problematic. In the end, though, Schuyler never really addresses the core issue, which is Schuyler’s apparently promiscuous acceptance of the status quo. The Marxist wants to overcome the bourgeoisie and the avant-gardist wants to shock or surprise it. Porter is not interested in overcoming, shocking, or surprising, and neither, in the end, is Schuyler. To quote Schuyler, Porter is consumed by the immediate. “Look now,” he writes, “It will never be more fascinating.” Porter’s fascination with the present — his painting’s unwillingness look beyond “concentrated instances,” to analyze or take a stand — does look like a form of complicity.
We have to take seriously the fact that this aspect of Schuyler’s work is part and parcel of what makes him so bracing in the first place: his commitment to immediacy, his fascination with “the day.” By emphasizing concentrated instances and bright particulars, Schuyler’s work clears the poetic stables of so much inherited crap, “the big / Vaguer stuff” that Ashbery alludes to. Schuyler famously writes that “[a]ll things are real / no one a symbol” (Collected Poems, 125), and he actually means it. That said, Schuyler’s pursuit of daily reality leaves everything as it is. In this way, he seems the most complicit of poets, because he does not appear to offer any challenges to the world as it merely is. Schuyler never seems tempted by skepticism because his tenderness for detail will not allow him to stray from appearance. Like Porter, he wants to chart the day, not transcend it; capture the mood and not analyze it.
To see what is at stake here, it is worth comparing Schuyler’s work with An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, George Perec’s comic attempt to inventory “that which happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, clouds.” Charting what Perec sees in the Place Saint-Sulpice over a three-day period, An Attempt is purposefully quixotic. Perec cannot keep up with the doings in the square, let alone exhaust them. Too much is going on, even when — especially when –– nothing in particular is going on. Perec achieves a kind of shiny, uncomprehending empiricism, a paratactic string of unrelated events:
Pigeons on the plaza. A Volkswagen goes by between the plaza and the church
square. The church square is empty.
Two passersby in the distance. Slight sunny spell.
Full shopping bags; celery, carrots
Bouquets of flowers held with stems up
Most of the cake-boxes are in parallelpiped form (tarts?): pyramids are rare.
A bag (Tunisian) on which “SOUVENIR” is written.
I’m eating a Camembert sandwich
It is twenty to one. (41–42)
This whirr of activity demands narrative to bring it together, to make it make sense. What is the relation between these things? Why do these coincidences take place here and now? An armature is needed, and the manic futility of the exercise serves as a kind of introduction to the vast jigsaw puzzle of stories that make up Perec’s masterpiece, Life: A User’s Manual. Elsewhere Perec tells us to really look at what he called the “infra-ordinary” but he is clear that we can’t just look at it. We have to question it, to ask ourselves “about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects” we take up. We have to construct stories, little tales of cause and effect. Coincidence is not enough.
Life: A User’s Manual documents (and barely exhausts) a single apartment building, and therefore an exhaustive questioning of the Place Saint-Sulpice would require an even larger novel than that. So perhaps smaller measures will have to do. Given the frequency of buses in An Attempt, you could imagine the author imposing a little order on that text by looking at a bus schedule. That is a good part of Perec’s point. While we need to be good modernists if we are going to render the banal alien enough to see, estrangement is only the first step in the larger project of questioning. “An Attempt” is just a propaedeutic to further work. To the casual onlooker, the 96 bus pops up out of nowhere, as if by magic, but that is just an optical illusion. Perec’s questioner knows that there is no sorcery to it, just bureaucracy and the vagaries of local traffic.
In other words, the temptation that lies in an undue fascination with coincidence — the appearance of a bus, or the juxtaposition of pinks and greens, gulls and fog — is that while it does make us aware of the world, it turns randomness into fate. Buses do not just happen. What is missing in immediacy is precisely mediation: “the big / Vaguer stuff,” the structures of causation that order the world, like the local transportation authority. Crase’s momentary discomfort with Schuyler’s poetry recognizes the implications of Schuyler’s resolute insistence on the immediate and of his mistrust of mediation. On the one hand, it is true that Schuyler’s poetry is ethically quite admirable. His attentiveness is so opposed to instrumentalism, his vision of the good life where “to enjoy / is not to consume” (Collected Poems, 112) is so gentle that his poetry can clearly be made to serve as a critique of our instrumental and singularly ungentle corner of history. By the same token, Crase’s distrust of Schuyler’s complicity is a sign that ethics do not immediately map onto politics, that the desire to do no harm on a face-to-face level might actually do harm on a macrological one.
It might not be too much of a stretch to say that this disconnect between ethics and politics, the personal and the collective, might well be one of the truest aspects of Schuyler’s poetry because he presses up against it so hard. Schuyler’s poetry does search for totality. It searches for it constantly but can only register its affective shadows. It can recognize it only in moods of melancholy, resignation, or genial anticipation. As such, Schuyler’s genius and his pathos lie in his scrupulous attempt to seek the world in a day or series of days that can never quite encompass it.
(for Simon Pettet)
I remember once asking Jimmy, after I had gotten to know him a little in the early ’70s, how he decided whether a poem published in a magazine was worthy of reprinting in a book. His answer — accompanied, as it often was, by a slow chuckle, which I assumed meant that his response was serious but that there was something faintly inappropriate if not embarrassing in talking about it — was that anything worth publishing once was worth publishing again. In fact, since I saw a couple of his manuscripts which contained poems that didn’t make their way into the book, he wasn’t quite telling the truth. I also remember asking him whether he revised much, to which the answer was no, hardly at all. As far as I know, at least by the time of The Crystal Lithium if not before, that was true. One brilliant local revision I remember from the very long “Morning of the Poem” was his changing “Another day, another dollar” to “Another day, another dolor.” How come I never thought of that.
When I first read (straight through) Other Flowers, the uncollected Schuyler poems edited by James Meetze and Simon Pettet (Farrar, Straus 2010), I was struck by an apparently early version of one of my longtime favorites, “Closed Gentian Distances,” which I had first come across in the Adventures in Poetry pamphlet A Sun Cab and called, in a review, “perfect, if anything is.” Compared to the changeover from “dollar” to “dolor,” the revisions in this poem are on the microscopic side: making a plural noun singular, changing “of” to “off,” taking out some italics, breaking a sentence in two, adding a comma. But these too were inspired, and the poem that was very nice to begin with became — I continue to think — something close to “perfect.” I read both versions to the audience at the Poetry Project launch for Other Flowers, and got pleasure out of underlining the differences.
This is the poem I had known for close to forty years:
“Closed gentian distances”
A nothing day full of
wild beauty and the
timer pings. Roll up
the silver off the bay
take down the clouds
sort the spruce and
send to laundry marked,
more starch. Goodbye
golden- and silver-
rod, asters, bayberry
crisp in elegance.
Little fish stream
by, a river in water.
And this is the version from Other Flowers, which must be earlier but how early I don’t know. (For some reason, despite the book’s nine pages of notes, there isn’t one on this poem.)
“Poem (a nothing day full of)”
A nothing day full of
wild beauty and the
timer pings. Roll up
the silvers of the bay
take down the clouds
sort the spruce and
send to laundry marked
more starch. Goodbye
golden- and silver-
rod, asters, bayberry
crisp in elegance and
small fish stream
by a river in water.
So what’s so brilliant — or at least inspired enough to suggest that Valéry’s famous remark about poets abandoning poems rather than finishing them needs a footnote to the effect that poems can be abandoned and then reabandoned. “Roll up / the silvers of the bay” is certainly a nice metaphor and fits the clever conceit of a day (or season) compared to the steps in doing laundry. But to me, rolling up “the silver off the bay” is uncannily concrete, visceral as well as visual; it gives the bay a skin (sheet? blanket?) in a way you can almost feel. What is a bay doing with something silver on top of it that can be rolled off, anyway? Becoming even more of a surprise in a poem that has subtle surprises at each turn.
The next two changes — the new comma after “marked” and no ital. for “more starch” — are OK, though not important. The comma after “marked” could have been left out; Jimmy had a habit of throwing in a comma (where most of us wouldn’t) in situations that look like an introduction to (unquoted) dialogue, declaration, or, in this case, writing/marking. Why did he eliminate the italics? My guess, though I don’t have a very good one, is that the italics stood out too much in such a small (in every way) poem. The next three (or four) changes are the ones that really make a difference. In the earlier version, the “and” in the third to last line actually looks to me like a mistake. The awkward, ungrammatical coupling of two clauses, one imperative and one declarative, doesn’t sound like Jimmy; it weakens the rhythm and the punch of both of its parts. Could it have literally been a typo? I don’t think a comma before the “and” would have helped. On the other hand, ending the next to last sentence with “crisp in elegance” is terrific. The phrase is a lovely eyeful and mouthful, and “elegance” is a wonderful word to end sentence, line, and direct address. The last two lines, now beginning with “Little” (an improvement musically and colloquially) and producing a brilliant appositive with the addition of the comma before the final metaphor/image, are now magical. Knowing how attentive Jimmy was to matters of punctuation and line breaks, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this missing comma in the original was a typo too. The difference between small fish streaming past “a river in water” (which not only doesn’t do much but really isn’t clear) and small fish constituting “a river in water” is so vast, even in this tiny poem, that I would like to believe the latter is what Jimmy meant all along.
Decades ago in graduate school, I remember reading critics who seemed to think that the official versions of poems in books and anthologies had something inevitable about them: no other word could have taken the place of this perfect one; that line couldn’t have ended in any other way. I’m pretty sure I found the idea of inevitability silly even then. A poem is never finished; it’s abandoned for all sorts of reasons, among them that the poet doesn’t know anything more to do with it or that the manuscript is due at the publisher’s. Specific choices involving diction, punctuation, sentence breaks, et al., are the way they are because that was the way they were when the poet decided to — or had to — move on to the next poem. Small fish streaming by a river in water wasn’t inevitable — fortunately. Neither was the “river in water” composed of small fish streaming by. But it’s brilliant.
It’s a platitude now: of all the technologies of the new millennium, information technology is placed on the highest pedestal. If the present century, or least its first half, goes down in history as the age of information technology, this will surprise few. Thus, at the end of the first decade of the new millennium it is imperative that we view language arts, especially poetics, in light of this emerging technology and its closest kith and kin.
1. Demolition of distance
Let’s focus on politics first, especially the politics of cultural production or the politics of poetry, particularly in societies where it has not been relegated to the realm of subculture. 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 within the entire vortex of cultural experience — visual, audible, informational, linguistic, artistic, historical and geographical. This demolition of distance eventually leads to what we call GeoPoetics. The age demands that its poetry not be fed by the hand of any particularity, be it of any single history, geography, or people. It will not be entrapped by any one locale. Expansiveness and externalization have become its fundamental traits.
In Circumcontentive Poetry, we refer to a “subject-thought.” A subject-thought is like a bounded space. It has walls, and the thought-stream flows within these and becomes the poem’s spiritual content. In order to keep the exchange alive between the various rooms, these walls must be demolished, either in whole or in part. Boundary demolition is therefore one of our essential techniques. For example, in his poem “Art, society, therapy and mosquitoes,” Sabyasachi Sanyal creates rooms full of unguarded, nascent ideas and presents them in a lopsided way, as though they might question their own arrangement. Because this self-interrogation suggests an ailing mind, out of control, a therapist walks in to help:
The therapist asked — what is art
But an organic
accessibility to intuition
a superfast feed-forward reaction leading to a non-value
before you can say — shit!
(the action is hidden for the time being)
alienation is what a performing artist does best
so, try define society
in terms of art and
Gentlemen, you have successfully reached The VOID
It has been a long time
Since we watched TV together in a shallow room
Taking care not to drop blueberries on the couch
Meeting eyes on an instinctive basis
Mosquitoes: Anopheles, Aedis, Culex
And the loft had its fair share of spiders
Weaving, sitting idle, not a single mosquito in the web
A perpetually dark toilet
I mean, see, although you have moved to a better house
3 bedrooms, living cum dining, 2 toilets and a kitchen
Can’t help miss the studio
It’s the miseries that bond people
You want to call the new house a home
2. Cultural conflict
A new cultural politics is on the upswing. In order to understand it, one needs to investigate the term globalization and its motives. Although introduced by the Western corporate world, this term is charged with social emotion, as was evident in the 90s. An array of large and small financial tsunamis in the opening decade of the new millennium, beginning with the burst of the dot-com bubble in the U.S., exposed the world to the true meaning of globalization. Even in the U.S. and the U.K., ordinary people started to feel its sharp end; it became clear that globalization had little to do with cultural unification. It was purely a business proposition and could hurt local interests virtually everywhere.
The Cold War ended and the new corporate powers wasted no time in installing their neo-colonial strategies. The East India Company was back, this time in hundreds: McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nokia and Motorola spread around at will. So-called free markets were not just identified but established. Just as the chain store displaces the street hawker, these corporations began to out-compete hundreds of local- and even national-level companies in as many countries. At some point “full spectrum global dominance” became the stated aim of the Bush government. When I interviewed him in 2005 on the occasion of the golden anniversary of the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti remarked that “American corporate monoculture is just wiping away native cultures all over the globe.” Just as these developments affected the aesthetics of poetry, they altered its language too.
The idea of “culture,” perhaps, is transforming. Is it a loose collection of rituals of the people in a given historical geography? Or is it a deeper network of living patterns that interact closely with history and politics, just as they do with geography and the environment? Speaking of cultural politics, one is instantly reminded of the anthropological idea of “thick description” originally postulated by Ryle and later reworked by Clifford Geertz in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). Geertz described 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.”
Man’s cultural environment is a collection of many elements. These elements include both objects and non-objects and their latent codes of application. Take the expression of grief, for example: in some parts of the world, a mother who has lost her child chooses to wail out her pain while elsewhere other mothers search for inner purgation. In the West black is the color of grief or mourning, but in India it is white. In the same land, Inuit would greet each other by rubbing noses while white men shook hands. Such minute cultural details have, for ages, defined the characteristics and lifestyles of a people in a given two-dimensional window of space and time. With the advent of the new millennium, such thick descriptions have overflowed their cultural and geographic boundaries and have infiltrated poetry. These trends are conspicuous in the works of Kamal Chakrabarty, both in terms of his language (a cross between urban Bangla and local tribal dialects) and the range of experiences he captures. Similarly, in his 2003 book antarbartE rupakathAr prachchhad (Cover-art of an Intermediate Fable), Kaushik Chakrabarty, a much younger poet, describes his urban Kolkata neighborhood:
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 …
Although this work gives the impression of being a single, compound book-length poem, it also seems to have been shredded into separate, individual pieces after the fact. The poem is certainly about Kolkata, especially its southern part, Bhabanipore. Bhabananada Road is a tiny street that creates Kaushik’s confines; it is the environment where he and his poetry grew. One is instantly reminded of a city mural, in some real sense, of the murals of the Kolkata metro stations. Now turn the knob to tune in to the density and abstraction of these metro murals. In this visual vortex one would find collaged images of restaurant menus, tongue-in-cheek street tales, test questions, race-books, movie tickets, TV soaps, Hirmani Karmakar (a certain goldsmith suggested by the last name), naturopathic medicine. This much-embrittled, motley, and granular image contains the fragments of a city’s seal. The compression techniques at play, reminiscent of Pierre Alferi’s OXO, lead invariably to great dynamic and cultural conflicts. Kaushik employs a Geertzian thick description of complex and compound metaphors, mostly visual, that often lead to creative misreadings. Here are poems that emulate a mixing bowl of multiplicity, attempting to destroy the very structures of meaning.
Let’s consider another poem from a very recent book, chitAbAgh shahar (Leopard City) by Subhro Bandopadhyay. Leopard City is the product of a bilingual exercise carried out in the historic town of Soria, Spain. As poet-in-residence and recipient of the Antonio Machado writing grant for 2008, Subhro first wrote a book in Bengali, chitAbAgh shahar, and then later retold it in his Spanish voice in a second book, La ciudad leopardo.
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? or desire?
I begin to frolic with your teen-self, we indulge in this meat-fest
touch upon the meatpiles arranged in rows,
we squelch, suck, bite and then a stony wind blows against our bodies
oh! how we don’t have forerunners! just this open breeze
this red fluxing maya-wear, the sciences we made
the shastras we conceived, and the umpteen times we lent
the dagger, the kingdom of eternal truth is under construction!
Is it truth, all truth, the familiar priest becomes unseen, didn’t
you know that it was for truth alone that this earth
as land as woman et cetera
remains taut creaseless like the medium of exchange
he senses odor’s peak and goes to touch
an already embrittled maple
like a pet dog, this endlessly gazing poem of mine
a couple of gothic icicles, brave boys, sparkle at the top
and bring down in free fall
a few burnt dead leaves
(“The endlessly gazing poem”)
Through its examination of geographical and cultural separations, “endlessly gazing poem” attains many physio/psychological and polemical states. In the opening stanza, the flesh under the “Debdaru shirt” is estranged from its owning spirit. A slightly strange polysyndeton follows, intensifying the mood: “Atar, aroma, fever, vomit, outcry / we say — get away flesh, evade the scratches.” The second stanza leads to an ancient writing whose self-contradictions assume humiliating proportions. They actually begin to remove the reader from the poem through alienation. The question of “truth” buoys up relativistically. The next stanza takes the reader back to the context of the body, but this time its sexuality and openness suggest that the body in question is a woman’s.
As tradition is orphaned and de-hierarchized, resistance against the shastras, which control diction, tradition, and theory, begins to gather momentum. The poem ignores cultural and historical divisions of space and time and tries to remain “evergreen” through rootlessness. But it contradicts itself even while doing that; it “goes to touch an already embrittled maple” and burns like a phoenix in the fire of its own vortex, “bring[ing] down in free fall / a few burnt dead leaves.”
Cultural friction and amalgamation of a similar nature can be observed in Sukanta Ghosh’s first collection of poems, shaheed habAr Ager moumAchhigulo (Bees Before Martyrdom). Sukanta does not directly bring up politics, poetics or social consciousness; his particular friction has an essentially romantic physicality that employs old-style techniques. He uses the female body and mind as a palette to hold, among other things, culinary aesthetics, the aesthetics of reading, and the aesthetics of robing oneself. In this work, the last robes of cultural separation fall away from two conjugating bodies. On back cover of his book, which he himself designed, Sukanta, like a proud philatelist, includes photographs of the faces of all the women who inspired the book. Each face works like a poememe, pictorially representating a particular theme in a bricolage or mAdhukari (collectible) of diverse tastes, orientations, and aesthetics. This leads to a moment of togetherness and cultural transaction, as these examples, in translation, suggest:
as we study anthropology
in a corner of a wooden house
our Helenas will transform to mountain people
After some soup and hot bread
they’ll climb up the hanging roots
she wants to go to Bangladesh
(“Helena wanted to go to Bangladesh”)
you unwind like a plantain flower Anna de Mami
in the pretence of teaching, in our regular salsa class
(“Anna, in the salsa class”)
your shoe needles press into the laterite
you love your white sweat
drink some water Anupama, stay afloat
and wet the birdlines
(“Anupama, in the reserve forest”)
Tomoyo, you love green don’t you! Or is it sunshine?
Japanese women love jewelry
those everyday evenings our leaves birthed shyness
(“Tomoyo, a student of jewelry”)
3. Data versus information
I differentiate data from information on the basis that data is personal property while information is collective. Data can be both individualistic and institutional or proprietory, whereas information can be furnished by small or large societies or organizations; however, information cannot derive from a private origin. When an institution is the source of data or information, they must be carefully distinguished from one another. Information, in this case, needs to be understood on the basis of its collective character or communal properties. Isolated truth or experience is considered data, but when data gains wider acceptance it can become information.
A poet’s task is not to transform data into collective truth, to information, but to express the dilemma of its interaction and coexistence with the collective. For example, travel poems or poems written in the form of travelogues abound in Bengali literature today. A phantasmic dusk behind a hill steals the show, and the typical poem never makes any attempt to relate to the newfound place, its people, environment, community, social and cultural fabric, or its local politics. The data of some primitive personal philosophy is spread around as though it were collective truth; the typical poem tries to elevate this to the status of spiritual or aesthetic information. Circumcontentive Poetry is strongly opposed to such over-simplified modes of data creation, such “hearty” poetic practice.
We consider information to comprise general ideas, public knowledge, taste, orientation and style, and these are mostly clichés. They aren’t usually studied in detail, thus, they are adulterated and fake, but passed off as original. It’s like an error-prone Wikipedia entry: a vast pool of facts that is accepted by the world at large, misinformation and all. Alongside these pseudo-facts, however, there is also lesser-known scientific information, proven and accepted, which could help create new data. This is a special case where data and information do not conflict; the latter helps create new data.
In order to explain how data is formed, one could consider the example of a geologist. A geologist works by collecting natural samples. These samples are brought back to the laboratory, where they are studied, analyzed, classified, and reported. Similar procedures can explain data formation and subsequently the data-information theory. Now let’s turn to a writing style that largely determines the character of poetic literature. In this case, information can be considered as natural or clichéd writing, whereas data can be described as “byaktigata likhanbhangimA,” a “personal oeuvre,” as Utpal Kumar Basu’s “Last poem of this collection” suggests.
At times, a tussle ensues between data and information as they begin to interact, leading, in the worst case, to a Darwinian struggle for existence. We can see this happening in a recent poem by Sabyasachi Sanyal:
there is this house called Eternity
and someone switches off its shutters
and mounts a chinful of architecture
on his fist
the city’s lanterns have returned and
god’s hand turns on the left side of my brain
a carpenter’s hand its skin-quality and
goosebumps just as
its bombs outside
An enigmatic ambience builds here via the “house called Eternity” and the “city's lanterns,” expressions that are neither entirely clichés nor newer constructs, and would probably pass as information. These are used to set up an abstract scene, but data arrives immediately through the hands of a carpenter (perhaps a god’s hands?), their“skin-quality” and shiver. The individual-collective dilemma assumes the proportions of a war as we hear the bomb blast outside. These lines hint at an unseen wire, one that connects the blast to the carpenter’s “goosebumps.” This same wire links data and information.
In another poem Sabyasachi 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.
Here too, a zesty interaction engages both data and information. It begins with a slightly obtuse oriental platitude, “misery brings aesthetics to man,” which qualifies as information. Gradually, however, consciousness expands and the poem becomes a veritable example of what could be called data. Melancholia is completely devoured and personalized. “740” is an unusually bright and unconventional poem made from a bus ride (bus number 740) on a windy, snowy, and bitingly cold afternoon in Stockholm, Sweden. The oblique and radial thought-stream of that afternoon journey provides all of the essential ingredients that make the poem.
A reality that hasn’t directly fled from abstraction entails a process wherein data and information cohabit symbiotically. Santanu Bandopadhyay’s first book asamApta nibeditA (incomplete poems) is woven from the entrails of urban Kolkata, a poetry that is not nature-sourced but made from a union of urban abstraction and imagined travels. It’s almost stereotypical of Santanu to say,
a city shrouded in light’s parenthesis
impeccably dark streets hold mobilities
that transport beyond their usual speed
with myself and that image
captured in the womb continuing to sway and swing at random
likewise they evolve. and earn. hit by spectral headlights
they dwindle each day. each day they lose their way
into meaningless ramblings. disintegrated neurones, illegible
cursings, drowned in the pungent odor of country liqueur
I latch on to the morgue’s blind walls. this describes how, one day
I entered tinsel town.
Santanu creates a monatge of the familiar sights of Kolkata streets —traffic jams, drunkards, headlights of trucks, accidents — a montage of bytes taken from the informational world that overlap with the personal data represented by a pictorial world.
A similarly unitary, hallucinated, sinister and databased world surfaces in Mesba Alam Arghya’s first book, I didn’t go anywhere last night. Many poems in this collection create an eerie atmosphere of urban disbelief. They identify with the local in the form of immigrant neighborhoods in Toronto and Ottawa, portraying them through ample references to drug trafficking and zoning law violations. At the same time, Arghya’s poetry is devoutly entrenched in the traditions of Bengali Sufism and lyric. Such cultural concoctions serve as rich examples of GeoPoetics. The poem “Magic Mushroom” ends like this:
Spiraling down to the edge of the belly button
and giggling, the radio
softly giggling from inside the couch
Night chuckles in our legs, stomach the fountain
We are without knottiness
Apparently there is no “knottiness” in the poem. Yet there is a subjective complexity. Who is sitting in the couch and why? Why does s/he giggle? What does she/he giggle at? It’s up to the reader to probe for answers. Of course, Arghya makes no effort to avoid abstraction, moving between the informational and data worlds, jostling between at least two cultures. This leads to a third world, a third state of fantasm, feeling and fiction, data abstraction as one might call it. In another poem Arghya writes,
eyes near the snake’s hood …
ant’s face from the wall-bricks
shapes on shadow’s torso
crows from deeper neurons
(“Everyone will forget”)
Inserting empty lines between two connected thoughts is habitual for Arghya — he attempts to create separation and divorce. Distance grows between two or more subjective thoughts and hatches a strange abstraction. A personalized sense of digression and creative misdirection begins to form. “Crows from deeper neurons” keeps the reader guessing.
Let’s now consider Raad Ahmad’s poem “Chopin thru it all”:
Chopin on the piano, through it all
through the depths — except for the telephone conference
except for the overtures the girls make
except for their purposeful sextalk around men
without the usual hanky pankies used to spice up life
Chopin playing the change this aussie woman perfects after marriage
her seriousness in crossing the avenue with the infant
to the exact spot where the moon appeared directly above my scalp
Chopin on the piano — excludes the bikebaby’s racist “hello”
leaving a hundred and fifty or may be even seventy-five kilometers behind
behind a century and a half of civilization
giant aboriginal clam collections
although eluding their food habits
Chopin playing their love-sick dawn
their fantasia in D-minor
I vaguely remember the first time I came upon this poem. It was toward the end of 2004, when it had been submitted to Kaurab by Sabyasachi Sanyal along with other new poems by Raad. I knew back then that Raad was living in Sydney. As a graduate student perhaps. When I first read the poem I could visualize a journey, a quick ride. Perhaps on a bike or by car, through an Australian city, Fantasia in D-Minor playing on the car stereo. Chopin playing his original composition.
In a blatant constrast with the way visual abstraction is presented in most surrealist poetry, Raad employs informational abstraction in his poem. He purposely distorts historical facts. He uses knavish language, and his presentation is deceptive enough to suggest that Chopin is playing his original composition, Fantasia in D-Minor. But that is merely fanciful imagination — perhaps the word “fantasia” is used as a hint. It is not only that recording technology didn’t exist during Chopin’s lifetime; more queerly, Fantasia in D-Minor was composed by Mozart in 1782. Mozart died twenty-five years before Chopin was born. Thus, it couldn’t have been Chopin’s original composition.
A more careful reading honors the performance as historical: it is perfectly valid to imagine that Chopin, a profound lover of Mozart’s work, is playing one of his predecessor’s best known and favorite compositions. This imagined variant of Fantasia in D-Minor flows like the savory aroma of a spicy meal through a somewhat strange city. The imagined tune forms the individual’s datastream, dissecting the world of fact and reality — a world not formed by visuals alone, but by other social suggestions and commentaries. Most thoughts carried by the poem are either unrelated or loosely connected. Music is really what binds them, though is not created by the poem but borrowed; it is external. Let’s list the divergent thoughts and commentaries we meet at this poem’s crossroads:
1. telephone conference
2. purposeful sextalk around men
3. usual hanky panky used to spice up life
4. changes absorbed by an aussie woman in her post-marital life
6. bikebaby’s racist “hello”
7. reference to the city’s cultural history
8. aboriginal clam collection
The quick ride takes us through all of this, from moonrise to sunrise. However, the idea of “lovesickness” in Bengali poetry is more frequently associated with dusk than with dawn. Delving into these strange associations, I realized later that there is a valid sense of purpose here too. One needs to consider the central “A-phor,” a term we use to describe the new metaphors Circumcontentive Poetry employs: this is Fantasia in D-Minor. A“fantasia” is not a sad tune, not one of lovesickness. It has rapidly varying tempos, and a great deal of dynamic fluctuation — its pianos and fortes are juxtaposed in quick succession. The fantasia continues to challenge classical pianists today. Thus, it is atypical for such a composition to arouse feelings of lovesickness. The use of the word “fantasia” (the original word is maintained in the poem’s Bengali script) isn’t just deeply metaphorical, it carries the sense of being countercultural.
The poem destroys prevalent norms of poem-making in other ways, too. It begins by spiralling two kinds of experience, listening to music (an indirect experience, as the music in question is an established, premeditated art) and watching dusk (an experience that is direct and universal). The poem’s mood, however, arrives with other indirect experiences and possibly a mix of both solid and misconstrued ideas about the felt world. At some point these are amalgamated into direct experience, and as this takes place the conventional depiction of lovesickness at dusk is crushed and spread like a good garnish.
4. Indirect experience
Data-oriented writing or databased writing could refer quite generally to the art of capturing personal experience. But “personal experience” need not be direct experience. Instances of indirect experience serving as data are abundant in today’s art. Let’s take film as an example. From its inception, much film-making, especially commercial film, has been dependent upon literature. There used to be a story and a teller, be it the author of the original book or story the film was based on, or the screenwriter. A script and dialog writer would often join to form a writing team. This model has undergone revolutionary changes. Many contemporary filmmakers, both art-house and commercial, do not use scripts. Collagework has become more common since the 1960s. Slowly, films have begun to feed creative writing, reversing film’s original dependence on literature. In this way, film can constitute indirect experience for writing. In a poem from his second collection, Cover-Art of an Intermediate Fable, Kaushik Chakrabarty writes,
this illusion or reality — is nothing but maskara to a poem. Oh, failed pack of poets, show me an easier way to write. To fail. This endless hidden flux of seeds, this sculpture of ferocity, the meaning of these endangered words composed on a torn sample of the rain’s textured yarn are still finally some sort of poem-earth.
Art created in unconventional media casts its shadow on today’s creative writing. Indirect experiences often infiltrate it more intensely and intrinsically than direct ones. At times, another artist’s convected realities provide stronger sensations than the surreality that one perceives in one’s own life.
5. Contemporary poetry; cybernetic theory
Let’s put it this way: the data of personal experience — direct, indirect, and composite — is stored somewhere in the poet’s neurons, in a particular sequence. In a data-hive. Or a database. Personal data is stored according to specific rules. The personal database also stores certain information and an understanding following from it; we call this knowledge. Both data and information can be categorized into certain elements. Into fragments of three or four basic types: the intra-element, the inter-element, the element, and the super-element. These elements are stored in some cache, the ROM, RAM or flash memory of the brain.
Think of a child who plays with a box with a yellow lid. The round lid has a sign on it: “MemoryBox.” Inside it are lego pieces split into four categories: element, inter-element, intra-element and super-element. The child pieces them together and replicates remembered forms and structures, hands, legs, tree branches, human bodies, car chassis, the roof of a house, a section of pavement and so on. Initially, these are all sub-assemblies. By means of similar sub-assemblies or subplots, the poet erects his thought-schema, which can be designed like a linguist’s schema, a computer programmer’s object-oriented system design, or an astrologer’s map. This schema can be considered as the blueprint or X-ray plate of his art. Like the sub-assemblies that make up the child’s dream-city, these subplots make up the poem.
Imagine the skills the child employs while he creates his dream-city: imagination matched with memory, the art of assembly, fine and gross motor skills, the utmost concentration, and a body language of his own, made up of his sitting and working postures, his mind and body poured over the floor. A poet’s working style and language are laid out similarly. To a poet, language is a tool or a machination, the body language through which he composes the poem according to what we’ve called thought-schema, or blueprint. All computer applications are likewise written in programming languages like FORTRAN, PASCAL, C, C++, C-Sharp, and JAVA, which are developed after social language, following very similar rules of grammar, semantics and syntax. With this understanding of the articulation and synthesis of human and machine languages, Circumcontentive poet will devise his own particular writing system.
6. Assembly language
Language is the ultimate tool and process for the creation of poetic art. Often it is used as groundcover. No matter how extensive and complete its destruction or dislodging is, by altering its constructs, by defying grammatical rules, by eroding its semantic surface and transforming its semiotic model, or by reshaping sound structure, only the mask is transformed, not the face. The façade might look interesting but as one peels it back, the mystery fades out. To initiate a deeper, more organic change, the data-informational infrastructure and what we have called the poem’s thought-schema must undergo a major transformation.
Let’s contemplate an extreme example of an experimental poem where change happens at every level. One needs a great experience or personal data set to begin with. Next, one needs an interaction of that data with a range of rare information. Subsequently, as each element accumulated in memory’s granary is renewed, this unprecedented data is assembled to create unforeseen structures. A rare thought-schema is generated. But in order to absorb such a thought-schema, one needs a new language, and it is once that language is invented that a new poem is conceived. It is a poem like a star’s light; it can see so much past and so much future that it might become disconcerting to the reader. It would incite him to become a citizen of a town in a dreamed time.
Circumcontentive Poetry should ideally be written in an assembly language. What is an assembly language? It is a language of absorption and adsorption; a language that constructs its poetry and poetics using a wide range of cultural units. Through this process it creates a new foliated metaphorism, or gives birth to “A-phorism.” This representation is granular and depends on mnemonics or cultural memory. Finally, assembly language leads to a particular poetic architecture that excites a specific aesthetics, shifting the gravity of the poet and his work, pulling each toward GeoPoetics.
1. Translation notes: Debdaru: a tall bushy evergreen tree abundant in South Asia, polyalthia longifolia of family Annonaeceae, sometimes called a cemetery tree because it is common in graveyards. Atar: scent. Maya: illusion. Shastra: theory.
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.