Double Issue, 48pp
Shamsur Rahman: A Poet of Bangladesh
I first heard of Shamsur Rahman in the early 1980s, when I was learning about contemporary South Asian poetry in general, but I did not read him in depth until much more recently, as translations became available in English. In a very general sense, two aspects stood out for me about his work. First of all was the way his poetry was political without being propagandistic; a poem like "Asader shirt", on one level a passionate protest poem, ion another level uses the image of the shirt to symbolize violence and loss on a more abstract level, retaining the songlike, incantatory quality of the lyric. Secondly, the way in which his poetry, though using images with originality and in abundance, was not 'fixated' on the image as some of his English-speaking contemporaries were; yet neither was his poetry wholly discursive, it radiated a quality that could only be found in poetic language and not in versified prose. A poem like "The Eternal Sunlight," recently translated by Hassanal Abdullah and Stanley Barkan, begins with a wonderful evocation of ordinary experience, language in which the reader can linger and baste, language that, though hardly luxurious, offers a kind of lucid peace. Then, in the latter half of the poem, we confront an allegory of the situation of poetry in the world: how it has no cash-value, how it is seen by many as superfluous, not utilitarian, not expedient. "The fact of poetry" (a phrase that reminds an American reader of William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop) daunts, embarrasses, and outrages those who are only concerned with more material speculations:
But the gamblers gather around him
Suddenly excited, shouting,
Thinking the poems are banknotes.
Then, amazed, realizing the fact of poetry,
They tear the manuscript from the man
And toss it into the air.
In the end, these outraged gamblers
Snatch away the sunlight.
But the poet remains calm as they depart
Fading away into the air.
The poet survives his own mockery by the others; but it is less a triumph than a passive abstention, even possessing a sense of futility about it. In other words, Rahman does not romanticize the poet; and in this way he is not an "aestheticist". But there is a space for poetry apart from the world; and that space is valuable for itself. This tempered attitude to art puts Rahman in the company of many of his most sophisticated twentieth-century peers.
Shamsur Rahman was in many ways a national poet of Bangladesh, especially in that his poetry was associated with the years of unrest that led to Bangladesh's liberation and political independence in 1971. (As I told Shahriar Kabir at the Shamsur Rahman tribute held in early October, this is one of my first memories of any world political event; I was six years old at the time, and remember distinctly hearing on the television that East Pakistan was now called "Bangladesh" and there was much violence and suffering there).
This link between art and the creation of a nation gave Rahman's work a stature and a burden that would be challenging for even the most talented poet to assume. Rahman, as far as I can tell, coped with this position with great integrity, never taking himself too seriously, always remaining responsive to the life of his people and to the life of the mind and of the senses.
As I have learned more about Bengali poetry, I have found inspirational its intercommunal aspect, the way Muslims and Hindus respect the poetry of the other, the way in which the political border between West Bengal and Bangladesh is a bridge as much as a barrier; at the Rahman memorial, I heard Muslims speak of Hindu poets the way, say, a Frenchman might speak of a Belgian poet, a German an Austrian, or a Canadian an Australian. Bengali literature had a great history preceding colonization, and also a considerable modern flowering, represented by Nazrul Islam, Rabindranath Tagore, and Jibanananda Das, that gives it a world ranking comparable to say Irish or Japanese. Rahman brought this tradition into the contemporary age and adapted it to the faster pace of the late twentieth century.
Rahman's activities on behalf of civil society and against fundamentalism were also notable. I first became aware of the violent activities of fundamentalists in Bangladesh with the attack on Humayun Azad. Rahman was another figure who dared to think for himself and suggest that human beings should not be prisoners of a collective ideology. Rahman was truly motivated by conscience and a wish to promote human rights, human decency, and freedom of thought in his beloved country which, for all its problems and political instability, has succeeded in maintaining its nation hood for over thirty-five years.
Shamsur Rahman is a pillar of Bengali poetry; what the world will come to realize in future years is that he was a part of world poetry as well. As we commemorate and celebrate a wonderful life, we should dedicate ourselves to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Rahman's magnificent literary contribution.
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Shabdaguchha, A Journal of Poetry, Published in New York, Edited by Hassanal Abdullah.