Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Indian Nonsense"

I came across an anthology called The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense, while browsing in a bookstore in suburban Philadelphia. The book is a collection of nonsensical poems and short stories from all over India, most of them translated into English. It’s one of those rare Penguin India titles that ended up getting distributed in the U.S. (An earlier book, which I discovered in exactly the same way, was Samit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies. Also, I should point out that the editors of The Tenth Rasa have started a blog to promote the book.)

I’ll say a bit more about the idea behind the collection below, but what I have in mind for this post is a celebration of nonsense by example, not so much a thorough review For now it might make sense to start with a couple of poems. First, the spirit of the collection is perhaps best captured by a favorite Sukumar Ray poem, “Abol Tabol,” (translated alternatively as "Gibberish" or "Gibberish Gibberish" to catch the reduplication), first published in Ray’s book of the same title in 1923:

Come happy fool whimsical cool
Come dreaming dancing fancy-free,
Come mad musician glad glusician
Beating your drum with glee.
Come O come where mad songs are sung
Without any meaning or tune,
Come to the place where without a trace
Your mind floats off like a loon.
Come scatterbrain up tidy lane
Wake, shake and rattle ‘n roll,
Come lawless creatures with willful features
Each unbound and clueless soul.
Nonsensical ways topsy-turvy gaze
Stay delirious all the time,
So come you travelers to the world of babblers
And the beat of impossible rhyme.
(Translated by Sampurna Chattarji from the Bengali)

("Glusician" is not a typo, by the way; its utter unjustifiability is in some sense the point of the poem.)

Another of my favorites from the collection is an almost-limerick, originally written in Oriya by a writer named J.P. Das, and is called “Vain Cock”:

Taught to say ku-ku-du-koo, ku-ku-du-koo
He only said, ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’
Such a vain cock—
You’re in for a shock:
Not tandoori, you’ll only be stew.

(The joke here of course is that in many Indian languages a rooster’s cry is rendered along the lines of ‘ku-ku-du-koo’, and presumably in the Oriya version of “Vain Cock” the phrase “cock-a-doodle-doo” is rendered phonetically exactly as in English. The Vain cock, in short, is due for stew because of irremediable Anglophilic tendencies in his onomotopoeic ejaculation.)

And yet one more, this time by Annada Sankar Ray.

“What the Little Girl Learnt”

Yes ma!
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
No ma! No ma!
That’s all bull.
Not black, not a sheep.
Not at all woolly.
So where’ll I get wool?
You’re wrong, fully.
(Translated from Bengali by Sampurna Chattarji)

We obviously lose a little here in translation from the Bengali, especially at the end. But the point still comes through: “No ma! no ma!/That’s all bull” is a way of talking back to the dominance of English nursery rhymes in India, even outside of "English medium" elite spaces. Shakespeare and Dickens may have begun to give way to Tagore and Rushdie in Indian English literature classrooms, but "Baa baa black sheep" and the gloom-filled "Ring a Ring a rosies" still rule the nursery rhyme canon. (In this case, "black sheep" also has a certain possible racial tinge, which Ray seems to be resisting.)

Other nonsense rhymes in The Tenth Rasa have a bit of an anti-colonial flavor to them as well. For instance, there’s a Tamil folk rhyme translated by V. Geetha:

Mister Rat, Mister Rat
Where are you going?
I’m going off to London
To see Elizabeth Queen.

You’ve got to cross the seven seas
Pray, what’s your solution?
I’ll buy a ticket for a plane
And fly across the ocean.

You will get hungry on the way
Pray, what will you eat?
I’ll buy bajjis and vadas, hot,
And give myself a treat.

(Vadas, yum. Exactly what I would want to eat if I were going on a journey across the seven seas, to see the Queen of England…)

The many words for different kinds of food, in different Indian languages, is also widespread theme, as we see in a short tidbit from Sampurna Chattarji’s collection, “The Food Finagle: A Culinary Caper”:

Idli lost its fiddli
Dosa lost its crown
Wada lost its violin
And let the whole band down.

(The above was originally written in English, and part of the pleasure here is in hearing the sound of south Indian dishes – Idli, Dosa, Wada – spilling phonetically into English.)

As I hope these examples illustrate the pickings in The Tenth Rasa are quite rich. People who haven’t been exposed to this type of writing before might want to also get ahold of Sukumar Ray’s wonderful Abol-Tabol, for which a quite decent English translation is available.

And Heyman, Satpathy, and Ravishankar have piqued my curiosity about the Indian experiences and writings of the father of English nonsense writing, Edward Lear (Lear spent two years in India, and left an extensive travel journal, as well as a handful of excellent poems, including “The Akond of Swat” and “The Cummerbund”)

For the curious, here is a bit more on the way this volume was put together:

The Title. The title is an allusion to Bharata’s Natya Shastra, which has a famous chart of the nine literary Rasas, or moods (“spirits”): love, anger, the comic/happy, disgust, heroism, compassion, fear, wonder, and peace. The one that was missing was perhaps the rasa of “whimsy” – or nonsense. The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore noticed the absence, and suggested that a tenth rasa might be needed (he also published a volume of writing for children, as well as a collection of Bengali folk rhyms called Khapchhada (1937), which has never been translated in its entirety. And Sukumar Ray, the most famous Indian nonsensicalist of all (the Indian Lewis Caroll) took up this charge quite directly, which contained an apologia at the beginning of the Bengali edition: “This book was conceived in the spirit of whimsy. It is not meant for those who do not enjoy that spirit.” In his introduction to The Tenth Rasa, Heyman points out that the Bengali for “spirit of whimsy” is “kheyaal rawsh” – where “rawsh” is the Bangla version of “rasa.” Thus, The Tenth Rasa.

The Sense in Nonsense. Some readers might think we are just talking about “pure” nonsense, but Heyman defines the specific literary genre he is working with quite carefully:

We may begin by classifying literary nonsense texts as those where there is a type of balance between ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense.’ Such balance is necessary if the text is not to become either plane sense, as in a best-selling crime novel, or utter gibberish, as in a baby’s babbling. The former is unremarkable, the latter, unintelligible. Good nonsense engages the reader; it must ‘invite interpretation’, implying that sense can be made, but at the same time it must foil attempts to make sense in many of the traditional ways.

In order to keep the balance, the ‘sense’ side of the scale must weigh heavily: Nonsense thus tends to be written in tight structures, that is, with strict poetic form or within the bounds of formal prose. It also usually follows meticulously many rules of language, like grammar, syntax and phonetics. Nonsense stories are about identifiable characters and the usually simple plots are understandable.

In short, in order to be interesting, nonsense has to be carefully crafted; it usually bowdlerizes the kinds of literary forms with which we're most familiar.

A little bit later, Heyman describes the distinction he makes between nonsense and related genres like riddles, fantasy, and fables:

Jokes, riddles, light verse, fantasy, fables—none of these forms is in itself nonsense. A joke is funny because it makes sense; nonsense is funny because it does not. A riddle is clever because, eventually, it makes sense; nonsense is clever in how it suggestively does not. Light verse, fantasy, fables… nonsense can live in any of these forms and more. Indeed, it thrives on some overarching form that gives it some recognizable shape and meaning—something to make sure the nonsense techniques do not make the text explode into boring gibberish—yet the form itself provides only such (necessary) restraints; it does not equal nonsense. Thus, nonsense is a kind of parasite inhabiting a host form, yet it has a life of its own.

In short, what we’re speaking of is not just any old bakwas, but the most refined rubbish.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Little on Poet Alan Shapiro (Revised)

I first learned about Alan Shapiro’s poetry a couple of years ago, when someone suggested I read his book Song & Dance. I loved it, and then when a colleague suggested Tantalus in Love, I ate that up as well. This spring, I decided try and teach Tantalus in Love in my “Introduction to the English Major” course at Lehigh, along with a couple of essays by Shapiro (including this moving memoir-like essay, from Virginia Quarterly Review, about which I have more to say below).

Earlier in his career, Shapiro was included in the movement known as the “new formalism,” where poets started to reconsider the classical forms, and come to use more rhyme, meter, and formal structures in their poetry. Shapiro was somewhat ambivalent about being described that way (by Robert Richman, in the conservative/reactionary journal The New Criterion), and Shapiro wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry called “The New Formalism” (Critical Inquiry 14, August 1987: JSTOR link), where he discussed his ambivalence about the movement.

Yet I am anything but cheered [to be referred to as a New Formalist]. And not because I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, though this may be a part of it; but because I suspect that what Mr. Richman hails as a development may in fact be nothing but a mechanical reaction, and that the new formalists, in rejecting the sins of their experimental fathers may end up merely repeating the sins of their New Critical grandfathers, resuscitating the stodgy, overrefined conventions of the ‘fifties poem,’ conventions which were of course sufficiently narrow and restrictive to provoke rebellion in the first place. Any reform, carried to uncritical extremes by less talents who ignore rather than try to assimilate the achievements of their predecessors, will itself require reformation. If James Wright, say, or Robert Bly, produced more than their fair share of imitators, if they even imitate themselves much of the time, they nonetheless have written poems all of us can and ought to learn from. Maybe we have had too much of the ‘raw’ in recent years. But the answer to the raw is not the overcooked.

This strikes me as right on the specifics, but also worth considering as a general way of thinking about periodization in literary studies (not to mention, literary theory). Later in the essay, Shapiro dismisses the argument that form reflects a poet's ideological inclinations (i.e., if one were to say the New Formalists, who emerged in the 1980s, were in effect practicing "Reaganomics" poetry), and he reminds us that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound pioneered modernist free verse even as they espoused authoritarian politics.

Shapiro affirmatively cites Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to support the idea that knowing the past well is essential for serious poets, if they want to avoid merely imitating the current fashion. Notably, however, Shapiro doesn't address Eliot's comments on "depersonalization." This is an important omission, because while Shapiro has been attentive to poetic form in his own work, the subjects of his work have in fact been directly personal -- autobiographical, in fact. Song & Dance relates to the death of Shapiro's brother (see "Sleet"), and books like Vigil and The Last Happy Occasion address the death of his sister. If anything, Shapiro appears to be a highly "personal" poet, someone whose subjects follow in the footsteps of those chosen by "confessional" poets, though his style differs sharply from theirs.


In "The New Formalism," Shapiro looks closely at the relationship between sound and sense in a series of poems, some by contemporary writers working with meter (not always well), and some from the English Canon (George Herbert's masterful "Church Monuments"). He likes Timothy Dekin's "Sunday Visiting Day" and Timothy Steele's "Profils Perdus"; he criticizes (quite carefully) Dana Gioia's "Cruising with the Beach Boys," and Norman Williams' "Learning to Whistle." Shapiro also draws a distinction between "rhythm" and "meter," which I found helpful ("The metrical norm of iambic pentameter... is an abstraction, a theoretical construction-- I am, I am, I am, I am, I am-- but because no two syllables carry the same stress, that is, the same length and degree of emphasis, every line of actual pentameter verse will and ought to depart to some extent from the metrical norm").

But Shapiro isn't rejecting formalist tenets out of hand. Rather, he aims to show that sound and sense go hand in hand, and that the use of form can in fact be crucial if deployed in the right way:

If the best poetry provides a model of consciousness at its most inclusive and active, then the formal tensions, the rhythmical interplay of stress and accent, sentence and line, become the technical extension or expression of the imagination's power to unify and balance. We can think of meter as analogous to the familiar, the expected, the more than usual state of order; and the variety of rhythmical effects as corresponding to the concrete, the sense of novelty and freshness and a more than usual state of feeling. In its active engagement with a subject, meter provides a kind of dynamic restraint. In much the same way that the narrow banks of a channel can intensify a flow of water, meter can hold in check the workings of passion at the same time as it speeds them on. But to restrain in this way implies the presence of some powerful energy in need of restraining. To arouse and heighten expectation and attention through the subtle recurrences and variations of sound implies something in the subject worth expecting and attending to. Meter in and of itself is worthless.


The poems in Tantalus in Love were written long after Shapiro’s essay, and what one sees is an openness to what looks to me like “free verse,” with strong suggestions of traditional meter and form informing the work.

The book in fact has some of the conventions of the oldest poetic form of them all, the epic poem. In Shapiro’s case, the book's poems are structured as a long narrative, but instead of figuring heroic acts, the story is of a modern marriage falling apart. He does offer a classical "invocation," and an "in medias res" opening. The poems themselves, variations on a central theme, might serve as "enumeratio."

I was intrigued to see, in the opening invocation, a variation of an elegiac couplet:

Let there be never again
a moment in which
your sudden shining isn't
sudden as it rends

the dark we walk in. Make us see
no matter where
we gaze that the bush burns

(Here, the second couplet is similar to elegiac meter, with a longer first line -- I'm reading the four lines as effectively two subdivided lines -- and a shorter second. It's really the second line that comes closest to classical elegiac, though: "we gaze that the bush burns/ unconsumed." The first line is iambic, in contrast to the first lines of elegiac couplets, which are trochaic.)

My students liked Shapiro's poetry, but were divided about his memoir-like essay, "My Tears See More Than My Eyes: My Son's Depression and the Power of Art." Several students were concerned that Shapiro exploited his son's depression in the essay, by including a number of potentially embarrassing details about his son's suicide attempt, his institutionalization, and even the fact that he's been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs: Even if all this is included in the essay with the son's permission, isn't it a bit much to use his suffering in this way? I defended the use of personal material in the essay, though in the end I did walk away wondering whether Shapiro might have been able to make the same point without including details that might be potentially harmful to others in his life.

Shapiro broader goal in the essay is to articulate a concept of art that is in fact fundamentally personal, in that it is based on suffering -- though it certainly doesn't end there.

Where there is suffering, which is to say, where there is human life, there is art. But art doesn't merely mirror the bad things that happen to us. It shapes what happens into meaning. And there is always great joy and pleasure, even happiness, in the fundamental act of shaping. It's not, as Plato believed that some part of the soul desires to weep for itself; it's rather that the soul possesses a stubborn need for pleasure; it urgently desires to convert weeping into laughter, the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form. it is a uniquely human instinct--to bring the greatest degree of childlike exuberant playfulness to bear upon the harshest and most difficult realities, answering the tragic gravity of life with the comedic grace of imaginative transformation, shaping life into a vitally clarifying or comprehending image of itself.

The key phrase might be "the sorrow of subject matter into the joy of form." The idea that the form of art (the forming of our experiences through art), can be a way of expressing joy even in suffering, seems to bridge Shapiro's early essay on poetic form with his various poetic and essayistic representations of suffering around him. One doesn't write a sestina or a villanelle about cancer just because it's more likely to be approved by the editor of a poetry journal; one does it because it gives joy to try and find the form that expresses an intense thought or experience in poetic language. And for Shapiro at least, such poems can also directly express -- somehow -- traces of joy even in the face of great difficulty.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Afro-Pakistani Poet

Via 3 Quarks Daily, I read a profile of Noon Meem Danish, an Urdu-speaking poet from Karachi who is of African descent. The author of the piece, Asif Farrukhi, makes reference initially to some places I hadn't heard of:

Whether you think of Lyari as Karachi’s Harlem or Harlem as a Lyari in New York, for Noon Meem Danish places provide a context but not a definition. ‘I am what I am’; he explains his signature with a characteristic mixture of pride and humility. Off-beat and defiant, he was a familiar figure in the literary landscape of the ’70s and ’80s. His poems expressing solidarity with the Negritude and the plight of blacks all over the world were referred to in Dr Firoze Ahmed’s social topography of the African-descent inhabitants of Pakistan. Karachi’s poet Noon Meem Danish now makes his home in the New York state of mind, and feels that he is very much in his element there. (link)

Lyari, one learns, is a town in/near Karachi where many of Karachi's Africans (an estimated 500,000 of them) live. Their ancestors came to Balochistan as slaves via Arab traders (Noon Meem Danish defines himself ethnically as "Baloch," which was confusing to me until I made the connection).

The Afro-Pakistani community, perhaps not surprisingly, hasn't been treated particularly well, according to this essay in SAMAR magazine (skip down towards the end for some disturbing references to the extra-judicial killing of African youths). It's not surprising that Noon Meem Danish, given his penchant for poetry, would consider leaving.

Danish is pretty forthright about the difference in how he is perceived in Karachi vs. New York:

More than home, Karachi was for him the city of the torment of recognition. ‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf Urdu. I had to explain myself each time.’

Karachi University wouldn't hire him, but NYU did, and now he teaches at the University of Maryland (where he teaches in the foreign language department -- Urdu, I presume). It's interesting to think of someone of African descent emigrating to the U.S. because it's less racist than the place where he grew up, but there you have it.

You can see Noon Meem Danish reciting at a Mushaira on YouTube (he's at 2:30).

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Monday, May 07, 2007

A Challenger in Pakistan

We're starting to see real signs that Pervez Musharraf's hold on power in Pakistan may not be absolute. Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a speech in front of thousands of supporters in Lahore yesterday, expressing dissent with the current government. Chaudhry has been under house arrest in Islamabad since March, and it isn't completely clear to me how he was permitted to address the public on the grounds of the Lahore High Court. But he's clearly become a popular icon of secular dissent with Musharraf's rule, and his speech has to be making authorities nervous:

Speaking to the crowd, including many lawyers, the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said, “The concept of an autocratic system of government is over.” He added, “Rule of law, supremacy of the Constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the Constitution are essential for the formation of a civilized society.

“Those countries and nations who don’t learn from the past and repeat those mistakes get destroyed,” he said.

He said the government had no right to impose laws that violated basic human rights.

Mr. Chaudhry spoke at the compound of the Lahore High Court, under the scorching Lahore sun. Seventeen judges from the Lahore High court also attended. Many of the supporters covered their heads with newspapers to escape the heat. Banners urging the independence of the judiciary and denouncing the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hung on boundary walls surrounding the compound. Political workers, who were not allowed inside, listened to the speech outside the boundary wall. (link)

Chaudhry was also greeted by thousands of cheering bystanders on the side of the road between Islamabad and Lahore; the fanfare was so intense that what is normally a four hour journey took twenty-five hours!

I briefly and irreverently mentioned this brewing crisis back in March, but a much more thorough analysis of the back-story of Justice Chaudhry's dissent by Anil Kalhan can be found at Michael Dorf's "Dorf on Law" blog.

As Anil maps it out, probably the most important issue is actually Pakistan's prosecution of the war on terror, specifically its policy of "disappearing" hundreds of people accused of being Al-Qaeda supporters. While Pakistan's hunt for terrorists has resulted in some important catches, including especially Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, its growing dependence on authoritarian practices has become increasingly unpalatable to many Pakistanis. And the presumed cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, the latter with its secret detention facilities, has to be galling to both Pakistan's secular liberals (they do exist) and the Islamists on the right.

There are other issues on the table too (human rights in Balochistan, and corruption surrounding the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills), and Justice Chaudhry has apparently built up a reputation as an activist and a progressive over some years, as this detailed analysis suggests.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Musharraf will continue to let Iftikhar Chaudhry speek freely. And one has to wonder whether the feeling of dissent represented by the support for Justice Chaudhry can be transformed into an actual political movement in Pakistan.

As a final note, the following Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal was being played over the loudspeakers at Justice Chaudhry's rally. The Times gave it to you in English, but here it is in transliterated Urdu as well:

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
When the mountains of cruelty and torture

Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
Will fly like pieces of cotton

Hum Mehkumoon ke Paun Talay
Under the feet of the governed

Yeh Dharti Dhard Dhard Dhardkay gi
This earth will quake

Aur Ehl-e-Hukum ke Sar Uper
And over the head of the ruler

Jab Bijli kard Kard Kardke gi
When lightening will thunder

Hum Dekhain Gay
We shall see (source)

Yes, Hum dekhain gai. That is probably about all that can be said at this point.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Peter Nicholson on Auden, and against the "Poetic"

The Auden centenary is coming up, and Peter Nicholson has posted his poem, "Asking Auden," from 1984 at 3 Quarks Daily (seems we're in a linking-to-3QD mood over here). He's also posted a short essay with some reflections on the function of criticism, specifically poetry criticism. The highlight for me is the following:

There is a problem specific to poetry: mistaken thinking about poetry by the general public. Misuse of the word 'poetic' is so common as to be beyond repair. Proper poetry dives into the world, takes in its multifariousness, its roughnesses and tragedies, its joy at beauty, even as the poet grabs on to the broken glass shards of the Muse's patchy visitations. 'Poetic' is not another word for nice, kind, sedate, palatable. Between top-heavy pronouncements from various spots around the publishing globe and the general public's indifference to the real poetic, falls the shadow, Cynara, of the individual writer's efforts to get him or herself understood on a proper footing.

It's true, as Robert Hughes said in Australia recently—a critic has to have a harsh side, otherwise all you get is blandout. That apart, critics will come in many guises. One will behave like Stalin, casting the unchosen to outer darkness. Another will gather in a sheaf of sensibilities with an almost creative zeal. A few imply they have read everything and therefore their commentaries come with an air of supernal wisdom. Nothing of the kind, of course. . . . Personally, I can't think of any critics with whom I am in general agreement about literature or art. When reading all these people you can get an interesting perspective, learn new things about art and artists, enjoy the erudition, if worn lightly. However, in art, it is essential not to let others do the thinking for you. Perhaps that's even more important with artists you admire and who write on art too. I often disagree with some of my favourite artists. Wagner seems misguided on all manner of subjects. 'Poetry makes nothing happen' and 'All art is quite useless' are two statements from Auden and Wilde that irritate me.(link)

(I had to look up "falls the shadow, Cynara". Did you?)

I like Nicholson's general point here. While good criticism can be helpful and insightful, it's almost never really "authoritative," partly because even benchmark critics have their own spots of extreme idiosyncrasy, and partly because every reader brings an essentially unique combination of taste, experience, and intelligence to the text at hand.

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