Shabdaguchha: Logo2 edited by: Hassanal Abdullah issue: 59/60


Poetry and Essays:

Hassanal Abdullah 
Roni Adhikari 
Kayes Ahmed 
Rassel Ahmed 
Chak Amitava 
Pallav Bandyopadhayay 
Stanley H. Barkan 
Nicholas Birns 
Jyotirmoy Datta 
Jyotiprakash Dutta 
Caroline Gill 
Nirmolendu Goon 
Clinton Van Inman 
John McLeod 
Manas Paul 
Matin Raihan 
Hasan Sabbir 
Naznin Seamon 
Amiyakumar Sengupta 

Letters to the Editor:
Maria Bennett 
Laura Boss 
Stephen Cipot 
Joan Digby 
John Digby 
Arthur Dobrin 
Kristine Doll 
Maria Mazziotti Gillan 
Adel Gogy 
Mary Gogy 
Mike Graves 
Leigh Harrison 
Yvette Neisser Moreno 
Marsha Solomon 
Tino Villanueva 
Bill Wolak

Letters to the Editor:
Babette Albin 
Chandan Anwar 
Mansur Aziz 
Laura Boss 
Rumana Gani 
David Gershator 
Caroline Gill 
Isaac Goldemberg
Zahirul Hasan 
Omar Faruque Jibon 
Gholam Moyenuddin 
Hasan Sabbir 
Subir Sarkar 
Tabrish Sarker 
Bikul Hossain Rojario

Cover Art:

Ekok Soubir

These four poets [Tagore, Nazrul, Rahman, and Azad], of different generations, religious backgrounds, and worldviews, reflect the modern heritage that poets of the twenty-first century can learn from and disagree with as they wish. They mark out recent Bengali literature as one of the world’s greatest and one that has brilliantly registered the worldwide changes in modern and postmodern literary culture.
—Nicholas Birns

Shabdaguchha: The 15th Anniversary Issue

Nicholas Birns

This Torn Flag of Mine: Modern Bengali Poetry

For terms like ‘modern’ to be meaningful, they must make sense worldwide. This is true, for instance with ‘medieval;’ for all the contested nature of that term, one speaks not only of medieval France but medieval Nubia, medieval Persia, medieval Japan—those terms makes sense at least across the Old World. Similarly for the term ‘modern’ to be probative it must be as applicable, say, to poetry in Bengali as to peotry in English and French.
What does ‘modern’ mean in literature? It does not just mean recent, or up-to-date. It has to do firstly with a certain severity, a stripping-down of language, and an abstention from rhetoric and verbal luxury. This mentality is indicated by Hemingway’s (aptly brief) Nobel Prize speech, where the American writer said, "How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written." It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.” In other words, merely being learned and eloquent and cultured would not help; one has to take imaginative risks impelled by the awareness, later articulated by Harold Bloom as ‘the anxiety of influence” that so much has been done by previous writers. Added to this, though, in literary modernism was what William Butler Yeats called the fascination of what’s difficult.” Stripped-down did not just mean easy, but was combined with a sense of constitutive challenge posed by both questions of technique and by the convulsive and often traumatic material provided by the twentieth century.
Yeats, who respected and promoted the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, is a good starting-point to approach Tagore and modern Bengali peotry but just because of the role in postcolonial theory and criticism given Yeats by such critics as Edward W. Said but because Yeats, like Tagore, did not see his modernism as fully cutting himself off from the Romantic tradition. Both were lyric, even oral, poets, was well as tremendously learned ones; both cared for the folk and song traditions of their colonially suppressed cultures and tried to forge a link between these and more purely written ideas of literature, This made Yeats and Tagore different from poets such as T. S. Eliot, and contributed to Tagore, after his great moment of fame in the West in the first decades of the twentieth century, being, after a time, stereotyped. Yet some of Tagore’s major interests—science, drama, and linguistic revitalization—were acutely those of such Western Modernist poets as Yeats, Valery, and MacDiarmid. Tagore also spoke to the “international’ (as compared to today’s buzzword, ‘global’) aspirations of modernism, By this I just do not mean his embrace in the West, signified most importantly by his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1912, before, for instance, anybody from the United States had received it. In the short run, this 'made’ Tagore in the West; in the long run, it ‘made’ the Prize by de-provincializing it, by asserting—and at least sometimes doing this with truth—that the subsequent European writers picked for the prize had been scrutinized by world standards. Tagore, indeed, was the fulfillment, after nearly a hundred years, of Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur (world literature), of a writer who was truly international. And one sees this most, paradoxically, at almost the opposite end of the world from Bengal—in Latin America. Tagore visited the region in 1924, and made contact with Victoria Ocampo, editor of the crucial Argentine journal Sur. He provided an important example for Latin American authors who wished at once to write at the highest levels available worldwide yet not to reject the immediate life around them in favor of staid European novels. When one looks at the acclaimed writers from the Indian subcontinent, whether in English or in other languages, one can clearly see the debt they owe to Tagore; the less obvious debt of Latin American writers, and eventually African and other writers of non-Western origin, is also immeasurable.
After this colossus, it is inevitable that other twentieth-century Bengali writers would loom smaller on the world scene. But to acquiesce in this easy assumption is to miss much significant work, written within the cauldron of decolonization, partition, and, a generation later, the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Bengalis have always been a nation of readers, and one whose intellectual curiosity has been expressed in a public literary culture that for many decades has continue to endure and even flourish even amid what have often been highly adverse material conditions. A poet such as Kazi Nazrul Islam was Tagore’s contemporary and had many of the same interests, yet his public image unlike Tagore’s, had a sharply political tinge. Nazrul's dedication to the anti-colonial struggle gave the role of the poet in modern Bengali culture a public torque analogous to that shaped in Turkey by Nazim Hikmat in Pakistan by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and later on in Palestine by Mahmoud Darwish. From the perspective of the 1940s, it might seem that the efforts of Nazrul had been rewarded. Bengal was free from colonial domination, with the western portion a powerful state within India and the eastern portion constituting East Pakistan, separate from the western portion of this first modern state (other than Israel) constituted deliberately as a home for members of a given religion. The failure of the original Pakistani project was helped along by the dictatorial and insensitive nature of the regimes in Pakistan, but also was evidence that religion was not enough to unify a people, that cultural and linguistic identity mattered more. The generation of Bangladeshi poets coming to maturity after partition continued in Nazrul’s public vein, but this vein became decidedly secular and civil in purport. Realizing, though, that part of civil society is the presence of a vital and autonomous role for the imagination, the independence of art, these poets had their own version of the lyricism and personal yearning so prominent in Tagore. Thus Shamsur Rahman was a consummately public poet, writing not only about political events but also about daily life lived amid the hustle and bustle of the ordinary. Yet he is also a poet with a private and lyric core, as seen in this translation by Hassanal Abdullah:

I become happy

When you come from a distant place
And rest your feet on my yard,
I become happy.

When you sail our remembrance on the
Edge of your body, and set a pair of pigeons free,
I become happy.

When you tern yourself into a glass of water
In a moment to quench my thirst and stair at me with hope,
I become happy.

When you spread the red carpet on the your face
And bring the dawn in my sight,
I become happy.

In this stormy garden, you are the last flower,
Who helps the leaves to sprout in joy,
I become happy.

When you take the afternoon nap, keeping a butterfly
On your breast, the misfortune gets afraid of itself,
I become happy.

When you set a rose on my lips
And call me with passion,
I become happy.

When you come to me condemning the obstacle
And raise the torn flag of mine into the wind,
I become happy.

The poet’s flag is torn, but it can still be raised into the wind by love and recognition, by private passion and public hope. For Rahman, small moments of respite are also potential vehicles of personal and collective liberation, as in “The Eternal Sunlight” where the distractions that besiege the writer’s life ultimately cannot withstand the convinced, inner sense of calm maintained by the true poet. Writing amid his people’s liberation struggle in the early 1970s, in which the independent nation of Bangladesh was born amid suffering and atrocity and heroism, and living through the subsequent decades of disillusionment and perseverance, Rahman insists on a double role for the poet: as public conscience and private reserve. His diction, combining a fundamental lyricism with striking and sometimes surreal imagery, correspondingly models both availability and the touch of nuance that the poet needs. The meaningful writer must both reveal and hide himself or herself: and Rahman’s honest and coruscating oeuvre bears this out well.

Fundamentalists in search of a false purity if there ever was one, murdered Humayun Azad, a secular martyr. But he should not just be remembered as a political poet or a controversialist, as can be seen in the first two stanzas of perhaps his greatest poem (again translated by Hassanal Abdullah).

Probably for a Little Thing

I probably will die for a little thing,
For a little leaf of grass,
And for a little drop of dew.
I probably will die for a petal of flower
Suddenly fly away in summer’s breeze.
I will die for a bit of rain.

I probably will die for a little thing,
For a short coo of a cuckoo,
And for a little wave from a toddler’s face.
I probably will die for a few drops of tears
Hanging from someone’s eye.
I will die for a bit of sunshine.

Azad obviously did not know how he would die when he wrote the poem; yet the juxtaposition of dying for a little thing and dying for a very big thing like freedom of thought is both ironic and clairvoyant. Dying for a big thing—freedom of conscience—is also, paradoxically, dying for a little thing, for the right to the smallest moment of dignity and privacy, for the love of nature and art that can only truly be lived in an individual and idiosyncratic, not a mass or conformist, level. If Azad had the prescience to know that the thugs were coming for him, that thuggery would doom and corrupt and infest everything we once thought ideal, he also knew that the last failsafe in the face of all this is the poet’s doing the work with integrity and forthrightness. Azad was a gritty poet who faced the realities of life; yet in this very starkness there is considerable potential for hope and redemption.
With these last poets, we are on the verge of the postmodern era. Though, as worldwide Bengali poets have shown increasing awareness of verbal textures, popular culture, and such sociological variables as gender and class, this does not mean that the achievements of the modern period—a refraining from flowery language as a cure-all and am embrace of the poet’s ambiguous public role—have been lost. These four poets, of different generations, religious backgrounds, and worldviews, reflect the modern heritage that poets of the twenty-first century can learn from and disagree with as they wish. They mark out recent Bengali literature as one of the world’s greatest and one that has brilliantly registered the worldwide changes in modern and postmodern literary culture.

Manhattan, NY

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Shabdaguchha, an International Bilingual Poetry Journal, edited by Hassanal Abdullah