I recently re-read an essay by TS Eliot that is familiar to most students of English literature, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ which can be found in the collection of essays, The Sacred Wood, and began to think of the tradition to which I might belong and to which, perhaps, I must respond.
Before I say anything else, I apologise for the title of this post, which was chosen for its ease and similarity to the title of Eliot’s essay; I am speaking only of the Indian poet who writes in English. And this is where I struggle: the tradition of Indian poetry in English is simply not that old. The oldest such poet that I remember reading is Toru Dutt, whom I loved as a teenager, and maybe I should read again.
[Tradition] involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
As I prepared to leave for the States, I decided that among the many practical things I had to do, reading a good number of Indian poets* was a priority. I felt that I might have to represent Indian poetry in English (something which hasn’t yet been asked of me) and that the least I could offer was some knowledge of the literature of my country. This is not to say that I hadn’t been reading Indian poetry before this, but that now I was making a more determined effort. I began with whatever anthologies that were easily available and used them to find poets that particularly interested me. I’m afraid I didn’t get very far. Of course, of course, I found some that I loved, but the general feeling was — I was underwhelmed. And if ‘underwhelmed’ isn’t the right word, then I certainly wasn’t overwhelmed by what I read as a whole. And there lies my second problem.
I imagine that a person attempting to engage with the literary tradition of her nation experiences certain things: a sense of being overwhelmed, for one, and if she is a writer, energised and excited to further that tradition in whatever small way, or to encounter it in new ways. Unfortunately, there is very little about the tradition of Indian poetry that overwhelms or excites me. The rare instances — should I count them?
This seems harsh. I don’t mean to indict an entire history; I am aware, even more acutely after I was reminded by someone older and wiser, that the first Indians to write poetry in English were performing a magnificently difficult task, because they had no one in precisely the same situation before them; they could only work with British poetry and Indian poetry in (so to speak) Indian languages. But how does one work with something that is not wholly one’s own and something that is one’s own but is in a different language? And this at a time when national and local identities were not the nebulous things they are now. (Or perhaps they were nebulous? The fact that one was both Indian and part of the British Empire, and possibly also fighting it?)
Another feeling one might have when consciously accessing a tradition is that while one’s admiration is unflinching for only certain writers, one doesn’t necessarily dismiss the others. This is a comment about canons in general: even those writers we don’t admire are generally accepted as worth remembering, as examples of something or the other. It is rare to question the writer’s work entirely. What is upsetting is that writers have been ignored, forgotten. And again, I find myself questioning the worth of so many anthologised, critically appraised writers of the past, and some of the present.
It is important that Eliot says
[The poet] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe — the mind of his own country — a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind — is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.
So my situation is not that I feel the poetry itself should have improved (though certain writers could have been edited out of the picture or given less importance), but quite simply that I haven’t found enough to engage with or channel or feel in my bones — both as a writer and a reader. I cannot help but feel that I have been failed by the Indian poets as a whole who have come before me and that I am failing to understand them. And apparently I’m not alone: a playwright friend of mine says he feels the same way about Indian plays written in English.
To go back to this idea of tradition and writing ‘not merely with [one's] own generation in [one's] bones,’ there may be several approaches to taking on this challenge. One would be to see oneself as furthering what one already views as important in the tradition. Take what you can, in other words.
Another would be, as an Indian poet, to consider a much wider range of work as part of one’s literary order: to take in poetry from as many Indian languages as possible, in translation or otherwise. This is most definitely exciting. The trouble is, if one is serious about belonging to a tradition of Indian poetry in English, poetry from other languages can only help so much.
But our notions of identity have changed. We have access to so much writing, and to much writing in different media, that the idea of belonging to one tradition seems to me antiquated. No matter how we configure our locations on a literary map, boundaries are dissolving. A good writer is a good reader, I know that, and a good reader reads widely. My own literary gods had their own gods coming from all kinds of countries and cultures, but there still seemed to be a desire, or if not that, a feeling that one was contributing to a national literature. For example, the way the Russians refer to the Russianness of their own or their characters’ sensibilities. What if we rewrote Eliot a little; what if, instead of ‘the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country,’ it said just ‘the whole of literature’?
I’ve begun to lean towards the idea that my being Indian and my being a poet are two largely separate conceptions of myself. There is no way for me — no, actually, there is no need for me to reconcile the two, and there is no need for me to respond to a tradition of poetry from this place called India, but only to respond to a tradition of poetry from the world over, or at least, to the tradition formed by a library composed of the books that I have read and will read.
Anthologies organised by nationality (however loosely defined) continue to be published and some cogent arguments for them also exist. But for myself, to take whatever and however I read and use that to be aware of myself as an Indian poet and to channel an Indian tradition of English poetry seems strange and unnecessary. (Is it an amusing coincidence that I’m articulating this now that I live in another country, even though I’ve had these same feelings the past two years? And moreover in a country whose poets seem so conscious of the fact that they are writing American poetry?) When discussing Eliot’s essay in a workshop, one of the poets said that there seemed to be running through the essay a religious motif, an almost Christian asceticism urging the (clearly European) poet to sacrifice himself to the greater cause of poetic tradition. There certainly is a call to action in many parts of the essay, an attempt to elevate the act of writing to some higher order spiritual act, and this is also responsible for my general resistance. And much as I would like to ‘respond to a tradition of poetry from the world over, or at least, to the tradition formed by a library composed of the books that I have read and will read,’ it sounds terribly lofty — and I only wrote that line two days ago. A balance needs to be struck between not taking oneself too seriously (and expecting great things of oneself) and not taking oneself seriously at all.
And finally: although I began with the tradition and the Indian poet, I really only want to think about tradition and the poet.
*For the sake of convenience, I am using the terms ‘Indian poets’ and ‘Indian poetry’ to mean Indian poets/poetry in English. I am, of course, aware the literatures of India in other languages are much vaster.