# Shailendra Chauhan
To what is the poet responsible? Can poetry involve itself with politics? Or is it an autonomous, aesthetic object? While there can be no hard-and-fast rules, poetry that ignores the historical relationship between the self and society becomes lifeless.
A Question I should like to ask myself today is: If poetry makes us more conscious of the essence of our day-to-day existence, of life's complexities and meaning, does it have an effect upon action, even political action? One would confirm that this is a very old idea; and that one cannot deny the truth of the statement that there is an eventual effect on our actions, whether social or political. And if poetry may influence politics, we could say that poetry is politics, and so this poetry is not poetry at all, it is just not good for anything.
But life is reminiscence, and therefore our poetry too is reminiscence. This memory, this terrible sepulchre which we have inherited, and carry inside us, will not leave one alone, ever. And the poet will ask: Who is that child crying, why, without a mouth? Along with that eternal equation of rich and poor, the splintered dilemma of day and night, of peace and war. Can poetry ever help to solve it? Can poetry ever turn the world and the workings of the world into song?
Familiar as I am with a little of Indian English poetry and the poetry written in Hindi, Marathi and Bengali would I be wrong to conclude that most of our poets are encased in a private world of their own invention, where they cultivate certain delusions? For example, in their superiority to practical life, the belief in the autonomy of their poetry, and their innermost desire to resist change formally, intellectually and emotionally. The dilemma of narcissism, of too much self, I should think, deviates from the direction of true poetry that should find a sense of relation between self and other, the inner and outer world, the personal and social worlds. John Berger, in The Success and Failure of Pablo Picasso, writes perceptively about this dilemma of modern artists. I like to quote:
They are far away and unseen - so that at home most people are protected from the contradictions of their own system: those very contradictions from which all development must come.
Many of our poets (those who live in a bureaucratic of academic world) elevate the artist to the ethereal, where we deny the connections between self and other, separating language from social relations. We revere this isolated human being (our artist, our poet) and treat his imagination as something he has inherited, a gift from God, as though there were no logical relationship, or historical relationship between the self and the world. We are then aware that we write without any real sense of community or audience.
That is probably why the poetry of many Indian English poets fails, when these poets prefer to live abroad, "exiled" by their own choosing. Such a poet, humanly, would be very lonely. But what will this loneliness mean to his art? It will mean he will begin to write longingly about the country he abandoned; or write patronisingly on the values he grew up with. Later, he is sure to run out of subjects or themes. He might not run out of emotion or feelings but he will, one feels, run out of subjects to hold them.
Clearly, the great poets of Latin American and Eastern Europe live inside history, as is the case with our poets writing in their respective regional languages, and their imaginations are vitalised by that deeper perspective. In comparison, much of Indian poetry in English appears lifeless, stuck in the mire of trifling intimacies, without the arms of history and tradition. Frankly, I should like to write such a poetry, a poetry which comes out of the ashes of our own culture. However, to cultivate this relationship between the social and the personal doesn't seem easy. One is afraid that such writing could bring in a measure of self-consciousness to it because of a loss of moral poise.
However, with his stance of resigned defiance, was often against the idea of the poet as thinker. In his words: "In truth neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking - that was not their job." What appears as thought in a poet is no more than the emotional equivalent of thoughts prevalent in his time. As far as poetry is concerned, whether these thoughts were part of a great philosophy or not is indifferent, so long as they express some permanent human impulse. At the same time, poetry should have the freedom to express in any way appropriate to it the diversity of human experience. We may take this further to say that a poet is responsible to his conscience, to his sense of what is right and wrong, that comes from both knowledge and judgment. To locate the relation of poetry to social action is difficult. Perhaps this has never been done; so it is not possible to define what that relation is. But this is true: that poetry has some effect upon conduct, in so far as it affects our emotions. To what extent then, is the poetry, say of someone like Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, an effect?
Poetry has the right to judge. One feels one has the right to make such a statement. One can infer that our right to judge is fed by the obsequious ways of our politicians, who must ingratiate themselves with a mass electorate. This is evident because our public men may think and feel like the emperor Aurangzeb, but there are none who would talk like him in front of their public audiences.
Poets, probably, watch the game of politics from the sidelines. We are spectators, when we are poets: not players. Although the view from the sidelines enables us to see clearly much that is blurred to the players, it also distorts vision in certain ways. And our poet, the spectator, easily assumes toward the players an attitude of condescension, inclining toward disdain.
So, a great danger we encounter, as poets, away from direct participation in the affairs of the community, is that we take ourselves easily as the guardians of moral purity. I could say: Politics is dirty and the government is a fraud; but I, as a poet, am clean, my aims honourable. I have better things to do than politics, and no time to waste on plotters and schemers. Politics can only distract me from those better things, remove me from the better people who do those better things, and probably splash me with mud and blood in the end.
So let a poet not be snug in his belief that he is the upholder of his society's (or of his country's) morals. This is wrong. Let not this vanity lead to a sort of ranting, a protest that could ultimately veer him away from the true poetry that is his goal. In one of my own poems, there are three lines which say:
Any time my Government breaks its promises, a line of this poem is dragged along the wide, clean streets of New Delhi...
Maybe this is an example of what I referred to, i.e., of my stand as a guardian of moral behaviour. In stating this I do seem to suffer from a small sense of guilt - a guilt that our educated middle-class carry with them when they go on to criticise the government for whatever ails our people. And yet, no world would perhaps exist unless poetry (out of all the arts) creates it for us. And this poetry has its source within every person who lives.
Therefore, I don't think it would be out of place to say that the poet who doesn't see what is happening around him is dead; and the poet who only sees reality around him is also dead. The poet who is only irrational will only be understood by himself and his closest friend or lover, and this is very sad. The poet who is all reason will even be understood by fools, and this is also terribly sad. So poetry will not stand by hard and fast rules, by good and evil; but it will be there and cannot be defeated.
In the end, two alternatives come to mind when one thinks of the responsibility of poets. First, is it right to put such a burden on a man of imagination and dreams, on a poet? Secondly, is there no other class of individuals (I should say, intellectuals like scientists, philosophers and statesmen) who might also be held responsible?
Poetry is a deep, inner calling in man; from it came liturgy, the Vedas and Psalms, and the content of religions. The poet confronted nature's phenomena and in the early ages called himself a priest, to safeguard his vocation. In the same way, to defend his poetry, the poet of the modern age accepts the honour from the masses. Today's social poet is still a member of the earliest order of priests. In the old days he made his pact with darkness, today he must speak and interpret the light.