By Thoithoi O’Cottage
Poetry to me is more an object of art than (a text) of philosophy—by dint of its medium, i.e. words, poetry is unable not to mean something (or to be meaningless), quite like it that a human can’t but be the biological matter of flesh and blood while life is not just these materials, but poetry transcends its meaning and forms a world of affects/aesthetics where rationality loses all its logical and ethical footing or relevance and irrational/amoral affects begin free plays in all myriad possible ways. Art, philosophy and science are distinct areas of life where different forces of life respectively preside: philosophy creates concepts, art produces affects and percepts, and science gives functions and propositions of the actual physical world (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994). However, as these forces of life interact with and overlap each other, we may never encounter a pure work of art or philosophy, or even of science without any trace of the other forces. Texts only lend themselves to our distinct categories of works of art, philosophy or science based on the maximum tendencies (artistic, philosophical or scientific) they have within them (Colebrook, 2007, p. 12). A poem may be steeped in philosophy or in scientific ‘functitives’, to use Deleuze’s term, but it (irrespective of its length) is still primarily a poem, a work of art but not a philosophical treatise or aphorism, or a scientific statement, not because its elements have been versified but because they have been transmuted into affect-giving forces. A philosopher remains a philosopher, not a poet, until he transmutes his thought(s) into emotions/affects. The process of this “transmution of emotions” differs from poet to poet, and its modality shapes their poetics. The transmutation of personal emotions into impersonal emotions, for example, is the central theme of T.S. Eliot’s conceptualization of poetry’s metaphysics as is professed in his Tradition and Individual Talent (SW, 1920).
Reading Meme’s poetry is an experience in the sea of affects, bobbing in their tidal waves which are never violent undulations but quite familiar steady heave powered by keenly felt emotions or those that the personas have become blasé about (because these emotions have in time become integral part of their selves) such as cordial shocks, anguishes, sorrows, loneliness and silence, nostalgia, helplessness in fate’s own room, which develop like tumors in the body of the sense of love, timelessness, and ageless beauty. That said Meme’s poems, gathered so far in her debut collection Ahangba Ka Amasung Chitthi (AKC) (Empty Room and Letter), do not suffer from what Ranjit Hoskoté (RB, 2002, p. xvii) calls “diarrhea of emotion” which is characteristic of the work of almost all young poets. The emotions in these poems are not raw emotions—they are emotions purified in the fire of creativity, sublimated into aesthetic drops of fuming liquid gold. Meme’s emotions are rather subtle, like a background strain in a symphony, perhaps the most inconspicuous but tuning up all the other instruments to itself. These emotions are not ones you can tap from some particular lines—they are rather the atmosphere permeating the poems than handy materials concrete and cut-and-dried out there for you to touch, examine, photograph or pluck out partially as quotes. For example, the emotion in Hanubi (Old Woman) is fed by the percepts progressively painting the images throughout and in the course of the three stanzas making up the poem:
drinks up the night
and climbs into the pit
of the pot.
in dreams like reality.
Her face lightens up
When she finds the walking stick,
desires to awaken the morning
when she hears
in the sound of
her grandchild’s anklet.
(AKC, 2012, p. 9; Trans. Thoithoi O’Cottage)
This poem does neither do any thinking in it nor provoke any thought in the reader—it just feels, and makes the reader feel, communicating to the reader the old woman’s routine emotions in the evening of her life, when dreams and waking-day realities start to coalesce, and everything that she sees and hears around her now conspires with time to awaken all the memories of her past life right from childhood, making her nostalgic and habituating her to day/dreaming. These emotions are waves formed on the surface of her being by the layers of memories in her subconscious and unconscious which now condition most of her conscious being, both while sleeping and while awake.
A poetic alchemy almost like this occurs also in the title poem, Ahangba Ka Amasung Chitthi (Empty Room and Letter):
an empty big house
the rooms all empty,
your soft breeze
but in one room,
on a decrepit
stood a strong
with might and main
on its dignity.
towards the western hills
drinking the rasas
of mother Earth.
(AKC, 2012, p. 77; Trans. Thoithoi O’Cottage)
In Ka Amasung Ei (Room and I) the emotion is even sharper:
I go on
in this room
in this house.
I and my room
for the house
changing on and on
(AKC, 2012, p. 19; Trans. Thoithoi O’Cottage)
The gloom in this poem stems from a melancholic conditioning affected together by loneliness and the existential subjection of life to the wear and tear of the act of living which is always helplessly passive against the ever-active passage of time, which can never take life away with it where it goes, but leaves it only with its dry slough. Time takes time away from life, thereby gradually squeezing its temporal space and making living eventually impossible, and this wrench is most sharply felt in the monotony of loneliness, because loneliness is the most advantageously placed vantage from which to watch time pass, other fellow beings live, smile, laugh, cry, have fun, go on and die, without the onlooker himself/herself living his/her own life, because loneliness has sapped him/her of most of his/her vitality, while having sharpened his/her sensibility extraordinarily thereby enabling him/her to feel acutely the entirety of the cruelty of all the pains plaguing him/her.
In these and most of other poems in the collection affects dominate thought, or in other words they are mostly thoughtless, which means that these poems do not have any purpose: they do not teach the reader, instruct them, correct their misconceptions about this or that, try to change their perceptions, challenge certain ideas, deconstruct certain ideological formations, or propagate or construct a personally preferred ideological stand. This is where Meme’s poetry most starkly contrasts with and stands out from almost all the rest of the young Manipuri poets writing at the moment.
In both his preface (AKC, 2012, p. vi) to, and review (WCT/DM, 2012) of the collection, Dr. Sharatchandra Longjomba reads the make-up of Meme’s lines—the minimalization of lines down usually to one or two, or sometimes three or very rarely to the maximum of four words—as acts of or being indicative of deconstruction in these poems, though he does not mention what they deconstruct despite the review article’s claim, in its very title (Breaking Lineation Norms: Trace of Deconstruction (Waheiparenggi Chatnabi Thugairakpa: Deconstructiongi Masak)), of the minimalization’s being the deconstruction in poetry’s ‘sentence’ (or rather line) structure. Differently, however, I can’t read this line minimalism as any mode of deconstruction in/of anything than as the measure to the beat of which the personas deliver their thoughtless speech. It’s very unlikely that Meme, an amateur violinist and student of Indian classical music, would have let her lines go taal-less, or let them sing a crapella. Even when no such possibilities are entertained shrugging them off as mere/wild guesswork, and when we over-emphasize the untenability of a common-sense claim maintaining that the speech or verse lines, if they are of a musician or a singer, is surely rhythmical, even then Meme’s lines have some subtle beat variously rhythmed by the contextually variable pace intrinsic to the personas’ states of mind emotionally charging their thought/lines. In other words, this minimalization in Meme’s verse lines seems to be indicative of nothing but their subtle internal self-timing to varied time-frequencies, which is felt within many individual poems and across the collection.
In fact, this minimalism is not an inventive maneuver at this moment of poetry’s history when many poets famous and unknown have trimmed many of their poems down to thin threads of one-word lines. The post-modernist poet, Larry Eigner (1927–1996), for example, was famous for his slender gossamer lines.
It should be noted at the same time that one (or two or three) -word verse lines are not the guarantees of a poem’s deconstructing its subject (if any) or poetry’s lineation in the same way lines of more words or of usual lengths (with or without regular meters) are not symptomatic of a pathological deficiency of a questioning attitude. Meme does not do any formal experimentation either on these poems with this style of lineation. Form is still accidental or contingent in Meme’s poetry if she is making a formal attempt, an assumption unsupported by the innocent nature of her poems I have known so far, both in and off this collection.
Referring back to the phrase “thoughtless speech” above, the speeches of Memean personas are thoughtless because these personas just speak, not to communicate some message but because they out of nature engage in purposeless speech/speaking. Poetry, in its mode, is quite like the speech of the mad—such a speech serves no purpose. However, ‘mad(ness)’ and ‘thoughtless speech’ here should be understood differently from Foucault’s “madness” (which, like those of Memean personas, is not a pathological one) and “thoughtless speech” in which the unspeakable is spoken in (apparently) incoherent ways using metaphors, symbols, images, and other figures of speech. In Foucauldean aesthetics, as James D. Faubion says:
[t]he literary quest for experiential and expressive frontiers—a mission of discovery that leads beyond referentiality, beyond imitation, beyond “reason”, beyond the established generic bounds of disciplined invention, to the edges of coherence and interpretability just short of madness—has come to a considerable cost: it has obliged literature to share some portion of the fate of madness itself. (AME, 2000, p. xviii)
While Meme’s poetic speech is far from such kind of madness—perhaps different in degrees if not in kind—her poetic adventure hopefully and interestingly starts without falling prey to propagandism or didacticism because she does not (except in a few instances) assign any political or philosophical responsibility to her poems. While poetry could be made to perform various functions, it inherently serves no purpose than being aesthetic, and aesthetic is purposeless, and if ever it has a purpose that purpose, in Kantian terms, is a “purposeless purpose”. Whether or not it is based on fact, poetry has emotional/affective truth aesthetically present in verbal medium, which painting has in color. This quality associated with poetry certifying the beautiful exceeds any kind of explanation, be it aesthetic, semiotic or semantic. Writing about the nature of beauty in poetry which is mostly “pre- or post-verbal”, Sven Birkerts says:
A work completely laid to rest by analysis, with no over-and-above aspect…cannot possibly lay claim to beauty…That “over-and-above” quality, that which does not yield to analysis, is not explicable; that is the object of the search—though, of course, it cannot by definition be had. But it can be referenced, pointed toward…Music can be subjected to stringent analysis, it can be precisely notated, and yet the notations give no purchase whatsoever on beauty. Because while a note can be named, a sound, and from sound a melody, cannot. And with poetry, beauty and mystery begin at the very point where denotation ends (Birkerts, 2012, pp. 76-77).
Poetry of poor or shallow sensibility, however, does not produce enough affects, because affects in poetry are tides caused by epistemic elements called sensibilities, while they are not sensibilities themselves. Elements of philosophy, politics or psychology should first be metabolized for them to release poetic energy in the form of sensibilities, and to texture a poem’s body with percepts/affects. Otherwise the piece of versified composition, though passes as poetry for tone-deaf, insensitive readers, remains suffering a pathological condition symptomized by indigestion accompanied by propagandism and didacticism. It is a difficult challenge for the poet to charge his/her poems highly with sensibilities without committing propagandism or didacticism. The poet’s maturity enables him/her to navigate this dangerous stretch between this Scylla and Charybdis. Meme has yet to make her voyage.
Sensibility in poetry is nothing but the poet’s self-awareness expressed through his/her poetic personas’ consciousness reflected at least in their modes of being. Sensibility, though the ethico-epistemic sediment of his/her overall wisdom and acquired knowledge, is different from its raw materials in that it is no more raw philosophy, politics, psychology, etc. While Meme’s poems are wet with affects, they have a general sensibility deficiency syndrome. It’s not that Meme’s poems do not possess any trait of philosophy—they definitely have philosophy, but they don’t think on the edge of contemporary philosophy, or don’t even add to our traditional thought. They do not even consciously do thinking, and the nature of the poems’ ambience of thought/belief seems to have seeped down through the poet’s being rather as a matter of wondering habit than an act of conscious engagement with philosophy. For example, Mapung Phadaba (Incomplete), one of her poems which do some degree of thinking, while does some wondering about the persona’s identity, does not plumb a fathom deeper to investigate the object of her query:
and bought me
I learnt to wait
Even as I count
Who am I?
(AKC, 2012, p. 55; Trans. Thoithoi O’Cottage)
Two other exemplary poems belonging to such most thinking kind in the collection, Namuna (Mould)
Jumping up and down
reaching the hands out up high
for the unattainable
morning, day and night.
as they come out
like different casts
the same single mould.
O me! I start
(AKC, 2012, p. 59; Trans. Thoithoi O’Cottage)
and Cheishu (Walking Stick)
How is it
that you’re in,
I always fall
whenever I release you,
you pushed me over.
in fact to leave me
and go away.
Minding your gesture
I took it a challenge
to stand by myself,
thought I surely could,
I will remember
being with you.
(AKC, 2012, p. 47; Trans: Thoithoi O’Cottage)
do not intrigue the reader philosophically. Of course, they should not necessarily have to, as noted above. The point simply is that there is a conspicuous want of adequate sensibility in Meme’s poems for them to have depth and lively textures essential in undeniably beautiful poems.
However, despite this dearth, AKC poems beat with emotions (which sensibility could have enriched), and these emotions flow in a subtle strain of sadness running across the collection without pressing its claim over the lighter spirited ones. This sadness in most of these poems cannot be seen to its end, and of course we are not sure of their origins, and this uncertainty, this suffering without obvious or no pathological conditions (which, though not absolutely, can be traceable back to a temperament or disposition born of slow conditioning to some existential aridity or somberness) interestingly adds to the poems’ mystery, which is an essential component of beauty in art. At the same time, where this sadness glooms in these poems, a subtle sense of love invariably accompanies it there, adding a titillating gravity to the poems. Besides the other poems mentioned or reproduced (as translations) partially or in full in this article, Ayukki Raga (Morning Raga), Tumdaba Ahing (Sleepless Night), Mon (Pillow), Urum (Shade), Khourangba (Thirst), and Ashram among others sigh with this melancholic strain.
While the emotions associated with this strain are not sourced by something you can cut out like cancer cells from the poems’ tissue, certain images that repeatedly appear in several poems across the collection function as the major tropes: (empty) big house, time, old pieces of furniture (decrepit table, old big almirahs), empty room, door, window, darkness, shaft of light, old woman, children, etc. While not necessarily autobiographical, these images seem to have deeper and more beautiful significance in the poet’s more subjective context.
Meme’s personal relationship with life, thus, is a flickering flame in the wind—it is love with both its joy/pleasure and its tragedy, blended inseparably together like wetness and liquidness in water. In AKC, no lighthearted poem (just a few of them in the collection) is unaccompanied by some trace of sadness, and no melancholic poem goes wild unchecked by love. However, it seems Meme loves life with its love pickled in muffled or euphemized tragedy, and though a tough Meme does not react noisily or throw up her hands either in utter helplessness or in angry protest, her quietly sensitive soul very keenly feels every gnawing or nibbling action of life at her, but she puts herself above puerile or existentialist complaining by talking right into life’s face and saying that she expects neither more nor less from it. Along Nietzschean lines, she recognizes the internality of tragedy in life, and thus, encountered with life, she, in order to live, makes art, as an artistic reflex action (a capability most people don’t possess), out of the tragic raw materials life can provide, thereby building a middle world (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 23), making being less painful, if not enjoyable. Through creative fermentation poetry comes out of life’s waste just as roses sprout on thorn bushes, one of the wonderful and glorious things that make life worth living thereby reversing Silenus’s wisdom: “The worst thing of all for mankind would be to die soon, the second worst to die at all.”
1. There is much more to poetics (from Greek poiesis meaning ‘active making’) or poetry writing than mere versification. While a line of demarcation cannot be practically drawn between any mechanically versified passage and a piece of poetic composition, I doubt the mechanical brick-layering of versified lines can deceive a sharp reader’s poetic sensibility. (Prose and poetry (perhaps the worst), because they share the ground of their material ontology—language, meet at some unlocatable coordinates in the continuum of language’s spectrum.) Something about any dryly versified passage betrays to any sensible reader its deception or artistic pretension, or its saplessness. Versification can be done nicely of the texts of the whole published books, papers, treatises of philosophy, mathematics, sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.), but I don’t think they, presented thus, will make poetry. It’s not that philosophical concepts, scientific laws, mathematical principles cannot be the dominant point of any poem’s concern, but that it’s neither this concern (what the poem says) nor the versification that makes a composition a poem.
2. In his The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the story of King Midas having long hunted wise Silenus, Dionysus’s companion, without catching him. Nietzsche writes:
When Silenus had finally fallen into his clutches, King Midas asked him what was [sic.] the best and most desirable thing of all for mankind. The daemon stood silent, stiff and motionless, until at last, forced by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and spoke these words: ‘Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you—is to die soon.’ (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 22)
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