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Poetics : East and West

Date Written: September 25, 2017

Although poetry appeared in many countries of the world from times immemorial, it was only in India that an enquiry started on the questions as to what is poetry, how it could be treated, and why it should be written. In the wake of this enquiry, a large body of scientific knowledge regarding the mechanics of poetry and its purpose developed and began expanding through the centuries. We have a plethora of evidence about this in the Vedic literature, Ramyana and Mahabharata. I don't wish to go into all that here. I shall only give one instance from Mahabharata (chapter 207 of Rajya lambha parva) Narada is described as "Paribhushaitaa vaachaam varnatah sarvatorthatah". It means Narada is also a poet. In those days, evidently, according to the scientists of poetry, a poet is one who adorned the word letter-wise and meaning-wise (i.e. word-beauty and sense-beauty). These words remind us of the great Bhamaha of the later period and his theory of Alankara. Those books of poetics are not available to us today. However from the Natyasastra of Bharata onwards, all the literature on poetics in not only available but also remains intact with a tradition of being read by scholars and taught to the students of literature (in Sanskrit). 
The scientific knowledge that developed in this country on the dialectics of poetry, falls into 6 outstanding schools. 
1.The Rasa theory of Bharatha, 
2.The Alankara theory of Bhamaha, 
3.The Riti theory of Vamana, 
4.The Dwani theory of(otherwise called Chamatkaar).Jagannatha who said that last word in poetics says "putras te jataha dhanam te dassyaami iti vaakyaartha dhijanyasya aahlaadasya na lokottaravatvam.ataha na tasmin vaakye kaavyatva prasaktihi." This means sentences like 'son is born to your' ' I am giving you money' though produce immense pleasure, have no poetry in them. Because, they do not produce that uncommon pleasure which is not the same as the pleasure derived from the ordinary worldly experience. The American poet and Harvard professor Archibald Macleish says: ' words-in-the-poem? they seem to have, what I can only call, mere weight than the same words have when we run across them in ordinary coversation, or on the page of a newspaper.' 

Long after in Greece: 
A.B. Keith in his history of Sanskrit Literature holds the view that Bharata?s times was before Bhasa. Bhasa is held to be a few centuries earlier than Kalidasa who is assigned 2nd century B.C. Under these circumstances it seems reasonable to infer that Bharata must have lived a few centuries before Aristotle who belongs to 4th century B.C. I am not inclined to rely on the other view, which places Bhasa before Bharata,since it is based only on the technical aspects of the plays ascribed to Bhasa,whose authorship is not free from controversy. It is also necessary to note that research scholar's have considered on sufficient evidence that the bulk of Natya Sastra of Bharata is only a compilation of portions from the earlier texts on the subject. This pushes the date of literature on poetics in India far earlier than either Aristotle, or Plato or Socrates. 
In the West, Aristotle's poetics is the only book available on the subject in the past. It contains 26 small chapters. Aristotle being a genius, there are instances in the treatise when his mind touches the fringes of profound thought. However his statements are not satisfactory to the mind trained in the Indian Poetics. He says "poet is a maker of fables". What he means by poetry is simply fiction. The bulk of his work deals with dramaturgy. There is one important thing to note in the 25th chapter, which is absent in our works of poetics: it is on the principles of literary criticism. Aristotle generally agrees with Indian poeticians on the question of what constitutes the soul of poetry? In the 22nd chapter, " The greatest distinction is to be metaphorical: for, it is the only one that demands originality and is a sign of genius," he said. 

Then in Arabia: 

In the year 908 Ibn-ul-Mumtaz in Arabia wrote a book discussing on what makes poetry. He was a poet and a scholar. He ruled as Khalif for one day Prof: Najibullah in his history of Islamic Literature called this work the book of Rehtorics: but Sir Hamilton Gibb in his History of Arabic Literature described it as a book of poetics. In the words of Najibullah, the book sums up saying, the "real eloquence consists of the expression of ideas with the fewest words." There is a chapter in the book classifying some figures of speech. Then Qudama in the 10th century A.D. and then Abu hilal-al Askari in the 11th centrury, wrote works on the subject. Out of the two, Askari is important. He says there is nothing new in a poem: the difference between poet and poet is only in the manner of making the poem, which alone constitutes the cause of the individuality of each poem or each poet. One of the theories of the Indian poetics holds the same view. "taa eva pada vinyaasaah taa evaartha vibhutayaha,tathaapi nootnam bhavati kaavyam grathana kausalaat." The same words, the same meanings, yet a poem becomes new due to the skill in making it. After the Greeks, in the world, the Arabs are great torchbearers of knowledge. 


Bhamaha for the first time in our country separated the poetic language from the common language by his theory of Vakrokti. "Saishaa sarviwa vakroktihi anayaartho vibhavyate" said Bhamaha. Theory of vakrokti in fact owes its birth to Bhamaha. Kuntaka is perhaps only his commentator despite his original thinking and establishing vakrokti as a theory. Jagannatha's chamatkara form of the same theory, in the ultimate analysis. 
Let us suppose there is no difference between the common language and language of poetry: then why should you call one a poet and not the other. The question naturally is, what is the differentiating characteristic here? Does this question arise or not? In fact there is considerable difference between the two kinds of language. In the language of the poet there is a commingling of strange meanings. It is to this that Valmiki referred to as "vichitraartha padam", in his Balakanda 4th sarga(275SL)without this element of strangeness called vaichitri,mere words and meanings, that is to say, the ordinary language, can never become poetry. Then, what is this vaichitri? (Otherwise called chamatkaar). Jagannatha who said the last word in Poetics says, "putras te jataha dhanam te daasayaami iti vaakyaartha dhijanyasya aahlaadasya na lokottaratvam. Ataha na tasmin vaakye kaavyatva prasaktihi". This means sentences like 'son is born',' I am giving you money', though produce immense pleasure, have no poetry in them. Because, they do not produce that uncommon pleasure which is not the same as the pleasure derived from the ordinary worldly experience. The American poet and Harvard Professor Archibald Macleish says: ' words-in-the poem? they seem to have, what I can only call, mere weight than the same words have when we run across them in ordinary conversation, or on the pages of a newspaper'. 

The difference between the two languages: 
Then where lies poetry? Jagannatha says: it is in "chamatkaara janaka bhaavanaa vishayaartha pratipaadaka shabdaatwam". This means it is in that word which makes us think and by such thinking reveals a certain skill or poetic cunning called "chamatkaar" which in its turn leads to the experience of an intellectual pleasure: it is in that word, lies poetry. 
Even before Jagannatha,kuntaka in his "vakrokti jeevita" said of poetry "sabdaarthou sahitou vakra kavivyaapaara saalini". The word that everybody uses is 'vakrokti'(the skilled word),That is why he said "Mahaakavi prabandhaanaam sarveshaam asti vkrataa" What is this vakrataa(his skill) 'prasiddhaabhidadhaana vyathirekini vichitraivaabhidhaa',he explained. The same words well known in the common parlance joined in a certain skillful combination to produce a certain surprising strangeness about them, become vakrokti. After this skilled conbination, the same words behave contrary to the principles of their normal conduct, which they show in the course of the day-to-day usage. This is 'Vaichitri' or 'chamatkaar'.Archibald Macleish observes in the same context, "words as sounds are malleable and may be made to multiply their meaning by the management of their shapes and movements in the ear." When Vamana said "visishtaa padarachanaa rithihi",I believe,he meant the same thing. In the ordinary parlance, as there is neither the chamatkaar of Jagannatha nor the management of "shapes and movements" of Macleish nor "visistha padarachana" of Vamana,it is not poetry. 

Word is the Basis of Poetry: 
Though poetry is above the ordinary words and meanings (i.e. the common language),it should be noted that word forms its basis, Therefore Jagannatha said ?Ramaneeyartha pratipaadaka shabdaha kaavyam?(That word which unfolds beautiful meaning is poetry)and then he proceeded to establish it with formidable logic. ?sabdaarthayugalam na kaavya sabda vaachayam..sabda viseshasya eva kaavya padaartharthavam?,(it is not both the words and meanings: but it is only the special word that can be called poetry.).Graham Hough said the same: ?the medium of literature is verbal. Literature is made of words?. Look at the word of the French poet Mallarme, the high-priest of modern poetry,? poetry is not made with words-as-expressions-of-ideas, but with words themselves?. 
The power of the word: 

When it is concluded that the ?sabda visesha?i. e. The special word, is the basis of poetry, then a Himalayan weight of delving deep into the powers of the word descends on the shoulders of the poet (and the critic). It is here in his ?Symbolism? that Graham says ?Literature exploits other properties of words besides their referential ones; e.g, their capability of being organized into rhythmical groups, their auditory and muscular suggestions, their fortuitous kinships with other words. Latent and undeveloped in ordinary language, these qualities become decisive in literature?. From ancient days in our country all the scientists of poetry without exception have been investigating and meditating about the four forms of ?Vaak?(speech) called para,pasyanti,madhyamaa,vaikhari and the three powers of the sound(shabda)namely abhidha,lakshana,and vyanjana. This is an invariable chapter generally in every work of poetics. 
It is above all these levels, nevertheless, that lies the origin of poetry, ninety nine per cent of which is the look with which the poet sees objects or rather the vision of the poet. ? The perfect rose is only a running flame emerging and flowing off and never in any sense at rest static, finished.? A mind which could clothe in a handful words, the eternal fire of life burning in creation, can not be a mere scrap of paper. D.H.Lawrence has adorned the horizons of the 20 Th century with a new sun. What is noteworthy is that the red rose did not appear to him as a flower; he saw only the running flame. We think that the running flame falls from the branch; but where does it go? It appears in the branch; it is another flower to one who is not a seer; but to the seer, it is the same old flower reappearing. The Japanese poet of the 15th century, Arkikida Moritake had a similar vision; ?The fallen flower- I see returning to its branch! O! A butterfly?? here the emphasis is not on the buttefly; it is on ? the fallen flower returning to its branch?. 

?yo apaam pushpam vedaa pushpavaan bhavati?, is the word of an ancient Vedic seer. Whoever knows the flower of the water, is the possessor of the flower.) This has no literal meaning. The entire universe appeared as water to the ancient Indian seers. The lengthy hymn in the 29th anuvaka of the taittariya upanishat is:?Aapovaa idagm sarvam vishvaa bhootanyaapaha??All this is water-the entire creation-the living beings who have ?prana? the food that is ?anna?,the Chandas whcihh are the metres,the jyothis-chakra th celestial world , the Vedas, the gods-every thing is water. This very hymn, which is in literal language, is condensed by a seer into one word?apaam pushpam?. 

What appears to the physical eye is the flower, and what appears to the intellectual eye is the running flame. It is, perhaps this which Kant called ?the thing in itself?, in his critique of the pure reason. The poet expresses what the intellectual eye sees while the non-poet utters, what the physical eye sees. There is a subtle point here? the sage also has the intellectual eye in common with the poet; but that is up to the vision only. From that point they go their different ways. The sage conveys the vision in the ordinary language while the poet conveys it in a special language, which is his distinction. The poet exploits the uncommon powers of the word. It is perhaps for this reason that in a long list of priorities, the Veda places the poet a step higher than the sage. In the 12th anuvaka of Taittariya Upanishat, it is said?Bramhaa devaanaam,padaveeh kaveenaam,rishir vipraanaam,mahisho mriganaam,syeno gridhraanaam?.?. The greatest among gods is bramha, among poets the padaveeh. Among Brahmans the rishi,among animals the buffalo, among the birds the falcon and so on. To place the sage on a par with the poet would be a commonplace statement. But to place the poet above the sate and below only the gods is a statement of Vedic vision. Therefore one who wants to emerge as a poet has to become a sage first. 

Since poetry begins from the very ?look? of the poet, he must commence his lessons of poetry with cultivation of this ?look?, if he has not received it by birth. 

At a times a sage also speaks like a poet, Schopenhauer the German philosopher said, looking at the pillar carrying the weight of the roof of a temple,? this column is the symbol of the will to work. I am here to hold up this roof, murmurs this column ever struggling with the forces of gravitation?. Many people saw the column ?but with their two eyes, Schopebnhauer saw it with his third eye; and it looked as the ?symbol of the will to work?. That is its metaphysical personality. 

Hemachandra said centuries ago, in his ?Kaavyaanusaasana? ?Naanrishih kavi rityuktham rishicha kila darsanaat,vichitra bhaava dharmaamscha tatva prakhyaacha darsanam?. This means one who is not a sage cannot be a poet. Then how to become a sage? By vision. Then what is vision? It is the ability to see the metaphysical content of the subject. Therefore you have to become a sage to become a poet. You cannot escape this disaster even by fleeing to the countries of the west. Because, even there the great poet Rimbaud declares ? I want to be a poet and I am working to make myself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long prodigious and rational disordering of the senses; there is unspeakable torture during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal and the great learned one among men; for he arrives at the unknown?. 

It brings to our mind at once the life of Valmiki. One has to pass through all these tortures; there is no escape. See how wonderfully Rimbaud tells us this great truth ?so much the worse for the wood, to find itself a violin?. After all a mere wood before it becomes a fiddle and begins to emit melodies, what terrible experiences it has to pass through at the hands of the carpenter?s tool; for poet life itself is the carpenter?s tool. 
(From Seshendra Sharma;s poet:s note book; The Arc of blood) 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      -Seshendra Sharma 

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