72 books in 6 months Challenge: Week 3

This week has been lean. The average of the first two weeks was 6.5. This week I read only 4 books. Will try to improve in the 4th week as there are many public holidays in it.

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Aga Shahid Ali’s “Postcard from Kashmir”: A Romatic Poem

postcard

This is a Romantic poem, the poet is a Romantic poet, and the spirit that animates it is Romantic.

You may remember in the post on the Romantic Spirit, I had requested for some time before I took up the spirit of melancholy later. This is that time and Ali’s “Postcard” is the poem with which I do that. I’ll try a close reading here, and it is for that purpose that I have highlighted, underlined and made boxes all over the text liberally.

My method in this poem will be to begin in the end. The last four lines, i.e. “And my memory…undeveloped” have only one verb: “will be”. They are juxtaposed with the preceding four-and-a-half lines, i.e. “When I return…overexposed”, again  with only one verb: “won’t be”. And yes, there’s zeugma in the yoking of “won’t be” with the four phrases that begin with “so”. The balancing of sentences with opposite verbs is significant. Moreover, “won’t be” in the seventh line is structurally mid-way from both the beginning and the end in this poem of fourteen lines (please don’t call it a sonnet yet).

The strategic positioning and need of negation in future arises from the present that has  miniaturized, commercialized, and (in Baudelairean terms) Disnefied “home” from a prelapsarian past. Irony, the potent weapon of the powerless, is subtly sent to work here. The word “so” is the key. Of course, in poetry, unlike life, accidents are rare. Therefore,  four instances of the same word in four consecutive lines, yoked strongly with one verb at one place, is definitely significant. The unstated structure is “so”…”as” kind of comparison from which the “as” part has been omitted. Inserting it results into:

When I return, the colors won’t be so brilliant [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/ as they used to be in the past of other people]                                                            

[When I return,] [T]the Jhelum’s waters [won’t be]  so clean, so ultramarine  [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/as they used to be in the past of other people]

[When I return,] [M] my love [won’t be] so overexposed [as that in the postcard at present/as they were in my past/as they used to be in the past of other people].

Therefore, there are three possible correct readings of these lines. As the occasion of the birth of all these lines is the arrival of that postcard, the first reading, that’s located in the present time, is definitely and obviously valid. We’ll see towards the end that the second reading is misleading. The third reading, with the past of other people, or Kashmir in the accounts of people other than the speaker, Kashmir is the picturesque paradise on earth that it once used to be. So, the postcard in the present time and all the accounts of Kashmir in other people’s memory or the collective memory of the people of Kashmir exist in an ambiguous tension in the interpretative possibilities of the first few lines centred in “home”.

The word home is linked with hand, love and memory in a neat pattern. The word “my” is the strong binding force that attaches them to the speaker, and to one another in this poem.  It’s his home that he calls his love and holds in his hands, that’s also in his memory. Home in hand is upon the postcard in present time, but it is only a representation, or distortion, of a past time.  Home in memory may have its origin in direct sensory experience and later retention of Kashmir or absorption of a picturesque Kashmir already developed and in place in stories, myths and histories when the speaker started thinking of and imbibing ideas of home. Or, it can be an amalgamation of various personal, ancestral, regional, communal and collective pasts. For our poet, past is ancestral past and it never dies:

snow

Before we go any further with interpretation, a short digression on home and past in Ali’s poetry is in order. Amitav Ghosh wrote a beautiful piece on Shahid Ali’s death, life, and love for his home and culture. In it he mentioned the physical and mental pain the poet went through and also pleasure that he derived from his life: present and past. I remember three words from that piece that meant everything to Ali: Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir. Ali’s poetry and his life are not divorced. He is not fully subjective, but his is not the passionless and hard kind of modern or postmodern poetry. His is the poetry of heart, home and past, and that’s the reason I call him a Romantic. Ali is never away from Kashmir. Kashmir is with him, in him and he in it. Kashmir is not a place for this exile. It has become a memory. It’s vivid, even immediate, but in his mind. It’s his heaven or hell, or whatever else he makes of it.

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Home and pain go hand in hand, as home is not where he is or will be. It is where he used to be and still is, whenever he looks back. The poet’s eyes “in a fine frenzy rolling” glance form present to past, from America to India, from twenty-first century to eleventh century, and

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Irony and repetition are used in the first seven lines too, and alliteration is the force that binds the key words there: home, half-inch Himalayas, hold and hand, the last two words contributing to the masculine rhyme too. Home has been shrunk, and a definitely phallic Himalayas is held in hands. Psychoanalytically speaking, there definitely is rage and repression, along with transference, because pain is not fully expressed and the parental injunction for neatness that had been internalized resurfaces.

The word “home” comes thrice in the beginning of the poem. It’s first shrunk into 24 square inches in area, then reduced in dimensions too into half-inch, and finally denied any possibility of return. The very first word of the very first line of this poem is Kashmir. The very mention of the word Kashmir invokes the following lines:

pIf there’s a paradise on the earth,                                                                                                         It’s here, it’s here, it’s here.

It is from that paradise that the speaker has been exiled. The fall is irreversible. This Adam will never return to his Kashmir. His paradise is lost and not because of an angel denying him access to Eden on God’s orders, but because it’s not there anymore. It can only be found shrunk onto an area of four by six inches. Between the home that he can’t return to, and the postcard that re-presents home, lies its memory.

The postcard of the title that is never mentioned by name in the poem is coloured, as is proven by the ultramarine Jhelum. The very presence of the prefix ultra- that means beyond in Latin is pregnant with possibilities. As affirmed already, there aren’t any accidents in poetry, this particular shade of blue that’s contextually totally justified, is not innocent of other interpretations. The reading of ultra- as over or beyond is underscored and emphasized by the prefix over- in the very next line. Thus there are six indicators (four times “so”, ultra- and over-) in the four lines governed by  “won’t be” that make the negation complete and final. Thus the postcard held in hands in the present time re-presents an extinct Kashmir at the best, probably not even that. In an age of commercialization and packaging, probably the postcard “creates” a Kashmir that the speaker had neither seen nor heard of. That may be the reason behind his chagrin, if it isn’t called rage.

I don’t know why, but while reading this poem, Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” flashed into my mind suddenly. I quote it in part before we look closer:

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,                                                                                    
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The speaker wants (wishes) to go home, although he doesn’t call it by that name. His home is in a kind of pastoral past, and he is away from both the pastoral and the past while he stands in his present time on the roadways or on the pavements. Water is there, just as Jhelum is in Ali’s poem.

The last few lines play, and not so subtly as traces are left, with distortion of home. The coloured postcard of the beginning is not home but an enhanced slice of the picturesque. The scale is altered, home is “shrunk” and hands are left holding a half-inch Himalayas. Thus irony functions to show the unreal nature of colours, neatness and dimensions. The ‘overexposed” love of the speaker is also not home, as the prefix over- suggests. Finally, the memory, looking back at home, will find no colours there, and no clarity of vision. Home is lost irrevocably. Whatever the speaker does, it can never be reached again. The pain of loss is intensified by its erasure from and distortion in the memory too. There is a technical detail that must be mentioned here. Coloured and black-and-white photographs are developed from two different types of negatives. Just as one kind of photograph can’t substitute for another, negatives are also not interchangeable. The Kashmir of the first few lines and that of the last few are not one and the same. Neither are they related in any way. Real or not, the postcard has colours. Developed or not, the negative is black-and-white.

Ali died away from home. He never returned. In a way, it was good for the romantic in him as there actually was no home to return to; there never is a path in space that cuts across time.

The boat laid up, the voyage o’er,
And passed the stormy wave,
The world is going as before,
The poet in his grave.      

(John Clare, “The Poet’s Death”)

The Romantic Spirit in Poetry

To say that there’s one full age of poetry that is called the Romantic Age will be wrong. Neither has there been a simultaneous appearance of the spirit in different continents, countries or languages. So, there’s European, British, American, even Indian (not Red) Romanticism that I know of. I’m quite sure there’re many more, as there’s a lot that I have not read. And a lot more will be produced before I am dead. So, to theorize about many Romaticisms will be more of an academic exercise and less of the pursuit of happiness. Pleasure being central to our experience of poetry, it’d be better to leave abstractions and plunge headlong into the spring of poetry itself. To keep it easy, let’s begin with the traditional British English Poetry of the Romantic Revival.

One unmistakable, remarkable and dominant feature of the Romantic spirit is its positive energy, or, optimism,  hope, joy, release etc. that come with the reading of such poetry. Before we take an example, let it be stated that on the opposite end of the same spectrum, melancholy is a definite characteristic of the Romantic poetry too, yet, why start a page on pleasure on a melancholy note? The joy of melancholy may wait for another, better opportunity.

I quote one full canto, the fifth canto of P B Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, one of my favourite poems. Less will not do.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

It’s true that the choice of poet, poem and lines is highly strategic. It’s also true that the method is unscientific. Equally true is the observation that the odes of 1819-20 are always grouped with the best romantic poems and Shelley’s detractors try to rhyme his last name with melancholy. The point is, that even the melancholy Shelley, when soaring high on the wings of Poesy (a neat allusion to Keats here), could manage the kind of ending that was in no way indicated by “I fall upon the thorns of life”. It was the spirit of age writing through him, and through other poets, major or minor of the age. Hope was in the air, hence, in poetry.

72 books in 6 months challenge, week 2

“Where’s the time?”, ask people, many of them, when introduced to the 72 books in 6 months challenge. And then, there are few whose eyes brighten up. For them, this is the idea they always had. Only it was fully expressed by someone else. For them, the people who have discovered the joy of reading and its value, this challenge is an opportunity. They have been waiting for it to come there way. Some of them had read those many books at some time in their past, long back, e.g. one of them had done it in 2012, and I had done it in 2007-08, but not so methodically. What we are doing here is keeping a log, like the regular strength trainers or weightlifters keep. It performs the functions of the record of achievements (PR, or personal record is the term for it), an inspiration, and a benchmark to achieve and surpass.

As the Humanists and the Romantics believed [or I’d like to believe that they did!]: Man is a work in progress, never complete, never perfect. So, our own past level in reading, when meticulously recorded and stored, will definitely be a help in that progress. The coming together of like minded people for this challenge invokes the induction effect from physics, catalysis from chemistry or symbiosis in biology [the last one may miss the metaphorical mark a little].

This is the log of my second week that ended on 20 October 2016:

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There are times when I feel confident that I’ll read 72, and more, in 6 months, but then, there are times when I’m confident that I won’t. It’s in the times of negative confidence that I need others marching along side. Just as I keep posting for their moral support, they should also do the same for me and fellow readers. Together we can do it. There’s something like the same spirit in a shloka I had read long time ago in my Sanskrit class:

Sangachhadhwam samvadadhwam samvo manaansi jaanataam.
Devaa bhaagam yathaa poorve sam janaanaa upaasate.

[Let’s proceed together, let’s speak together, let’s know ourselves/introspect together. Like gods once upon a time used to worship knowledge together]

The translation of the second line is a bit unsure. That’s one more proof of how fast and completely all data is erased from mind, i.e. how much do we need to keep written record, at least of important things like our progress!

72 books in 6 months challenge, week 1

We, the lovers of literature, stumbled upon an idea. The idea took roots, grew, and became the “72 books in 6 months challenge“. It’s open for all the lovers of reading. We’ll keep posting our progress every week to encourage one another. Everyone is welcome to read. Please post the details of your own progress at your blog and tag it “72 books in 6 months challenge” so that all those who are interested may get encouraged and inspired by the other like minded people. Here’s the report on my first week’s progress:

 

 

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