Saturday, July 25, 2015

Our man in Dublin, Yeats

Gayatri Jayaraman    25-07-2015

It is the Irish poet's sesquicentennial and the world is rediscovering him. Why has India forgotten him?

If you were in England this summer, you would have seen Yeats verses up all over the Tube... "Sailing to Byzantium", "Versus he made when a stranger asked who he was" by Lady Gregory, (of the Irish Literary Reform movement and whose son, Robert Gregory's death is the subject of Yeats' "An Irish Airman Forsees his Death"), and "What is Truth" by Louis MacNeice, whose criticism of Yeats and his beliefs is crucial to knowing the poet and the man.

I was reading Yeats in the rain recently and was reminded of American poet Vijay Seshadri's evocative casual recitation of my personal favourite lines from "Sailing to Byzantium" at the Kitab Khana in Mumbai on a trip late in 2014, to illustrate another point he was making.

"Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light;..."

Writing for Poetry Ireland this month to commemorate the year, Seshadri writes: "His subject matter wasn't exactly incidental to the pleasure I got from him, but it was improbable enough, even though it was often political, to a teenager living in the American Midwest during Vietnam and the civil rights movement, and in the rising tide of second-wave feminism. His feeling and allegiances were just as distant. At the same time, though, his language was immediate and stirring, and his voice was recognisable because he was a major, often unacknowledged, influence on a whole generation of contemporary American poets, black-and-white, I was reading at the same time I encountered him."

Seshadri, who is better known as he who composed "The Disappearances", which ran on the back page of The New Yorker in the aftermath of 9/11, but whose best known work I see as "The Long Meadow" which bears the distinct mark of the Mahabharata, admits he has been deeply influenced by Yeats, whom he says taught him to read John Ashberry, while yet claiming to bear an Indianness that is incidental to his Midwest upbringing. Seshadri is more an American poet, a Pulitzer-prize winning one, than an Indian, a self-deceit I wager borne out by the stamp of Yeats, who was equally an influence on a generation of Indian poets, upon him.

Not only did Yeats write the introduction to Tagore's Gitanjali, and push for his Nobel, which he would never have got left to the opinion of those such as Philip Larkin (who referred to him as "Rabindrum Tagore", "some Indian" and his work as "f*ck all"), but was instrumental in having The Post Office performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913. While he disagreed on Tagore's later books, he was not the be all and end all of Yeats' Indian influence. Influenced early on by Vedanta, the Vivekachudamani, via Mohini Chatterjee whom he met in Dublin, the Bhagavad Gita, and striking up a friendship with Purohit Swami with whom he translated the Upanishads in 1935, but also built lasting friendships with Indian poets, the likes of Sarojini Naidu and Manmohan Ghose. It was much of Yeats' ready embracing of the mysticism of India that found in him the problematic for critics like Ernest Rhys and Louis MacNeice. It spawned a poetic pagan Irish possessiveness of Yeats, with Rhys saying of him: "It was Ireland, not India, gave Yeats his poetical birthright and mystical bias."

Yet, Yeats fought for the integrity of the poetic identity of India like few before him and none till TS Eliot, though more detachedly, had done. From Mansarovar to the Himalayan shrines they reminded him of Irish pilgrim trails and he spoke of consciousness like it was but natural to Irish mysticism that he have one.

Among the later poets, Yeats and his trimetre would continue to haunt Dom Moraes' lyricism, early Nissim Ezekiel, in the antithesis that he was to Kamala Das, and in Keki Daruwala's longing for mythological escapes, amongst others.

It is amazing, and gratifying, that the nationalistic Yeats is not turned into a Hindutva icon, a Max Mueller of sorts, in the deeply divisive modern day Indian sociopolitical context. So monumental is the channelling of Yeats that he becomes the unwitting (though Yeats would surely argue otherwise) catalyst by which a poetic identity of India is passed on.

So when Seshadri begins by saying "There were almost no points of contact, external or internal, between Yeats' experience and my own," he is hurting to be reminded:

"Who has not felt a little of the despair the son of righteousness now feels, staring wildly around him?

The god watches, not without compassion and a certain wonder.

This is the final illusion,the one to which all the others lead."

... You, Seshadri my friend, are in denial of all the India we are steeped in. As are we.

Source: dailyo  

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