Poetry and Nature have always been interlinked. The poet recognizes the intrinsic value of all and everything and poetry in more than one way is the struggle to find the true expression, a suitable mode of celebrating this unique realization. Then what do we mean by nature poetry? There are two aspects here: the act of poetry and poetic utterance and the sense of the natural. These require to be closely examined.
The idea of nature has become quite complex in the present, more so on account of the nature of our complex human culture! Human expansion on planet earth has been quite drastic and with disastrous consequences for the non human world. And an ecological wisdom has dawned on us almost quite late. However, poets the world over had been wise enough to perceive the human nature nexus and the complex web of life from very early ages—but the fate of poetry is such that it has moved away from its essential prime position in human society. We have displaced poetry from our lives with dire consequences. After all, poets have the uncanny knack of reminding us of the bitter sweet truths of life and living. And it behooves us to forget them and turn a blind eye and deaf ear to their utterances. Let them sing of nature or human unsuccess!
Now, in the present age of technology and market capitalism nature has been bundled out of the human cultural spaces. Our way of experiencing things in the present is dominantly anthropocentric, everything revolves round the human’s being. Our history and culture has left a meteoric track of burnt out traces in the heart of non-human nature. In ecological terms we have dangerously dwindled out the biodiversity of nature–species after species has vanished and are vanishing minute by minute. Our dominant ways of life has not only polluted the earth but the air water and even the skies. We have concocted a culture of resource extraction and manipulation to such an extent that all of planet earth is nothing but a huge reservoir for our dominant species. There is hardly any space left for any other life on this lonely planet. We produce enough waste, solid and other wise that soon we wouldn’t know how to get rid of all that. Over and above it our science and technology has equipped us with too sophisticated weaponry that plays havoc with the very arteries of all life— we are like ignorant kids carelessly toying with our nuclear and chemical weapons. When all is said where then is the space or even the need for the poet to sing? Is he just another worthless bard, another Cacophonix?
Ecology has become a catch word in our times—and of course with enough reasons too. A new kind of critical thinking has also taken shape which was also historically reasoned—we call it ecological criticism or eco criticism for short. Ecologically sensitive critical theorising has drawn special attention to the nexus of poetry and nature. Poetry might sound simply anachronistic in a world of supertechnology but the poet requires to be read, heard and heeded to. As we have said earlier poetry and nature were always hand in hand, how then do we speak of nature poetry in particular? All nature poetry need not directly describe nature nor even refer to nature as we commonly understand it. In fact, all poetry is nature poetry. Nevertheless, we need to subtly differentiate between nature poetry and poetry of nature. Poetry that merely celebrates nature as a backdrop or sensual description, we could call simply nature poetry. It is significant no doubt. The second variety, poetry of nature, is something a little more sensitive, a little more evocative, a little more self-reflexive. As one self-reflexive ecocritic has phrased it: speaking of nature is speaking for nature! So then poets as Shelley had so excitedly described are the unacknowledged legislators of the world! Provided, we might add, the world listens to them!
The earliest suitable instances of Nature Poetry and Poetry of Nature can be found in the Vedic and Upanishadic texts.The poet in the Vedas is the Kavi, the seer, the Vates. He/she is able to perceive the true, the beautiful the vast—satyam, rtam, brhat. Seeing things steadily and seeing whole. It was a holistic perception that the Vedas envisaged. The entire cosmos was unified and interconnected and the poet’s vision encompassed the entire gamut of creation. Nature was never perceived as the other, an adversary to be conquered, dominated and subjugated. It was an organic world view that the Vedic poets held forth. Take for instance the oft quoted mantra in the Isa Upanishad:
Isa vasyam idam sarvam. Yat kim ca jagatyam jagat,
Tena tyaktena bhunjita ma gridha kasyasvit dhanam
This mantra invokes us to enjoy through abandonment. All this that is seen and unseen- – that constitutes this jagat– all that moves in this world, is enveloped by Iswara or the Godhead. Call it by whatever name we will. Be it matter or mind or life or energy, call it what you will, there is a pervasive movement of a unified source that unites all and everything in its origin and continuity. Therefore, find your enjoyment in renunciation, for, to whom does it all belong? Naturally, to all. Do not grab what belongs to others. I have argued elsewhere [See my Nature and Human Nature: Literature, Ecology, Meaning (New Delhi: Prestige, 2009)] that this forms the seeds of Ecological Wisdom in its sublime essence that is the hallmark of the Vedas. If only we had listened to the poets!
In our present day world of the market place, where all and everything is commoditized and merchandised, little wonder that the poet’s voice takes the back seat. Who, if I cry, would hear me among the angelic orders? wrote Rilke in his Duino Elegies. Competition has become the order or better still the disorder of the day. That men may rise by climbing and clambering over the other. War and chaos, pollution and natural disasters, political scams and terrorist marauding– the twenty first century is witness to crimes and disasters of unending dimension in an unprecedented scale. The world today is leading from one crisis to the next. And the intellectuals or the pretentious scholars and thinkers, hand in glove with the power-bickering politicians and power-mongers, in the open market, inhumanly betray the people continuously, without a conscience! The world of the twenty first century has acquired bizarre and horrendous dimensions far–outstripping the Orwellian imagination of 1984. Here we not only practice double-think but continue to live in a virtual reality. Hollywood and Disney land may very well symbolize the real for us as much for the Americans. So much for our postmodern condition. The poet’s writing/utterances are so far deep buried under the rubble of human civilization. Our only interest in the present apparently lies in building comfortable cocoons of illusion that we mistake for innocuous entertainment. The television, the satellite versions of the various channels, the internet and the virtual space of the digital screen only have come to imply the only meaningful real for us. We appear to be blissfully ignorant of the capitalist values that have taken over the entire globe where human liberty and dignity are cleverly manipulated and juggled about by a select few. The world has now only two divisions—the haves and the have-nots. The haves are the real and those who are misfortunate to be on the side of the have-nots are mere insubstantial shadows moving about and being played around in an unreal screen. This is where the relevance and significance of the Upanishadic mantra surfaces. Do not grab what belongs to others. After all to whom does this all belong? Nature here is not seen as red in tooth and claw that the rationalistic scientific temper of the eighteenth century enlightenment taught the western world to believe. Nature is not the other –degenerated and deformed and subordinated in an anthropocentric mould. Nature is the bountiful, the fount of plenitude wherein compassion and tolerance reign supreme. Not in competition but in tolerance and understanding can the human being reverberate in harmony and unison with the rest of the universe. The non-human world is as real as ourselves and has the right and privilege to exist and thrive not determined or designated by our needs and uses. The shift from the anthropocentric to the bio-centric has been envisaged by our Rishis of the Vedas so poetically. The roots of an ecological wisdom are to be found in the Vedic hymns. The poetic insight holds the key to human release and redemption. Poetry leads us to a new world free from remorse and regret–a world conceived in compassion, tolerance and understanding. Yes, let’s share the Heideggerian vision that poetically man dwells!
Poetry is the community’s voice; poetry is the individual’s hope. For me, Poetry is everything. It is meaning it is existence; it is my very life breath. At times, nevertheless, I have often felt that I was hiding my head under the sand like the Ostrich when threatened. Perhaps poetry then appears as a refuge, and escape from the pressing burden of existence. It is pleasure and delight; it offers succor and hope, compassion and sanctuary. What I churn out might not mean much later, in fact I myself might not read it ever again, but the very fact that it was there in the time of need is a comforting feeling. I do not know much about my own process of poetry making—there is a secret pleasure at its surfacing. I like to watch and wait for the event. I discovered poetry around my teens, as it would have happened to many others as well. My earliest attempts were at nature writing. I loved the feel of the blue expanse of the skies, the touch of earth—dawn and dusk, and afternoons. I recall that I became most creative around noontime, and that was the hour when I discovered my solitude. The world was pieces of joy for me to reflect upon and meditate at a distance—everything lay so open and so inviting. The temptations were very strong indeed. And then of course there were other poets. Real people and books. My academic reading and writing has certainly helped me gain greater insights and my intuition and inner views supplemented those as well. I had always valued the interior voice—my mind was constantly creating, alert, alive and active. Perhaps it was the anxiety and apprehension of leaving out any minute of my life unexamined! I wanted to make every minute count, make it real, and close-examined! Often this obsessive self-reflexivity has been a burden and a distraction. Nevertheless I am now convinced that life becomes real and meaningful only when one struggles free from remorse, regret, and misgivings, and what more enterprising manner than through poetry? This is not to state that the affairs of the world are of fragmentary importance for the poet! Far from it—the poet needs to be alive to everything and everyone, living and nonliving, human and the not so human! However, every poet needs to price the inner self, that seat of compassion and understanding, that very soul of human existence. This is the hradye guhayam, the inner caves of the heart that the Veda speaks of, I guess. Of course, poetically man dwells. And only as a poetic event can the contradictions and confusions of the world be in the final analysis be resolved. This is the dance of Siva that ancient Indian seers spoke about. That eternal cosmic dance that swells from the tiniest of atom’s energy through the vastness of infinite universal being! This ever evolving, ever recurring dance of the eternal energy neither ebbs nor ceases, but continues to delight in its own relish, the satchitananda. Let poetry lead the way through these troubled times.
Another unique instance of poetry of nature we can rediscover in the texts of the Sangham poets of the Tamil country. The period that spread prior to 1st century CE and lasted for over five generations produced a unique body of poetry, that is usually classified under under two heads –Pattuppattu (Ten Songs) and Ettuthohai (Eight Anthologies). These songs bear testimony to the metaphysics of a people who lived in extremely close relationship with nature and whose very thinking was biocentric. Aintinai, or the five-fold categorisation of the environment into Kurinci, Mullai, Marutam, Neidal and Palai, combined with the corresponding flora and fauna, should be seen as the earliest attempt by the Sangam poets towards the formulation of an environmental aesthetic, where the human bhava seeks its correspondence in the natural vibhava.. This is the interlinking of the human and the nonhuman in a unified aesthesis The akam poems abound in sensual descriptions of nature and the poet’s eye moves between the inner and the outer nature. We read in Auvayyar: Kattathu kaimannalavu, kallathathu ulahalavu (all that we have known is but a handful of earth, and what we have not yet known is as vast as the world). It is intellectual humility that this Sangham poet teaches us; a humilty born in the face of the highest wisdom that is one with nature and all being. This necessarily forms the keystone of a world-view that calls out to the sensitive ecocritic to be desperately resuscitated.
In many ways, the ancient Indian poets were wiser than one can imagine, for they do not stop with the confluence and divergence of all and everything, they also speak about the light beyond the light. Hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham, tat tvam pusan apavrunu satyadharmaya drisyate. The face of Truth is covered with a golden light, unveil it O pusan, so that I who love the truth may see it! This is the way beyond simple contradictions, where all dichotomies cease to be and the eternal process of becoming continues. This is where oneness and difference can co exist. This is that state where the tiny ego merges with that Divine ananda—the eternal bliss of existence. Poetry, I believe, can lead us in the dark.
Take these instances from the Tamil Sangham poetry. Here the landscape does not become a mere alienated backdrop but assumes a characteristic role in the entire scheme of things. These poets were Formalists much before the European theorists started thinking in these directions! I also have included one poem from K Satchidanandan, former editor of Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature (later its Secretary) and a renowned Indian poet. There are a few selections from my own work—what I have tried to show with these instances is how poetry can weave in and out of nature. In fact the very idea of a text includes this aspect of weaving: a text is a woven thing very much like a fabric. The selections reveal how the land becomes included not merely as a foreground or middle ground, but something of an elemental presence within the corpus of the text.
From Tamil Sangham Poems
What He Said
O did I not think of you?
and thinking of you,
did I not think and think again of you?
and even as I thought of you
was I not baffled
by the world’s demands
that held me to my work?
O love, did I not think of you,
and think of you till I wished
I were here to sate my passion
till this flood of desire
that once wet the branch of the tall tree
till I can bend and scoop a drink of water
with my hands?
[Auvaiya:r (Kuruntokai 99) Trans AKR]
What She Said
People say, “You will have to bear it.”
Don’t they know what passion is like,
or is it that they are so strong?
As for me, if I do not see my lover
grief drowns my heart,
and like a streak of foam in high waters
dashed on the rocks
little by little I ebb
and become nothing.
[Kalporu Cirunuraiya:r (Kuruntokai 290) Trans AKR]
Source: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pehook/226.sangam.html date: 06-06-2010
Water lilies bloom
in the lagoons
where cranes part the water lilies
looking for fish
then fly away to stay
in fragrant seaside groves,
near my lover’s village washed by the sea.
His love for me
is greater than the sea.
[ Neithal (Ainkurunuru – 184)]
Of course all poets are primarily humans, no doubt, but reaching into the heart of poetry provides them with a touch of the divine, in many ways. When once the poet has gone beyond all and everything, crossed over from the small circle of human deceits and perversions, beyond the tiny borders of the constraining self, then the entire world appears in a new light, radiant and charged with new meaning. Nature as we know it then ceases to be and Nature surfaces, where everything is benign and blessed! Take this short poem for instance:
On Wet Grass
That footprint on the wet grass
need not be death’s;
perhaps a folksong had gone by.
The butterfly quivering on your palm
has something to tell you.
How the mangoes and jasmines
awaited your cupped hands
to stop their fall midway.
Don’t you hear the sea whisper,
debts are not to be repaid?
Even your dark little room
has a piece of sky.
Everything is blessed:
fish, cicadas, sedges,
sunlight, lips, words.
[Stammer and Other Poems. Delhi: Konark, 2005.]
There is none other that the master himself—Gurudev Tagore—who has touched the true truth of nature and human nature through his poetic melodies. As far back as 1940 while in the ripe old age of seventy nine, the poet wrote:
Bird, do not forget your song tune—
else my day break will lose its purpose, do you know that.
As the young light tenderly touches tree after tree,
the tremor from that wakes your own melody—
you’re dawn light’s pal, do you know that.
At the centre of my waking
your little melody sweetly piping, do you know that.
Underneath my night’s dream, I don’t know what it says, your matin,
a hymn to fresh life’s start,
do you know that.
[Of Love, Nature, and Devotion. Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore. Translated and Introduced by Kalpana Bardhan. New Delhi: Oxford, 2008. P 148.]
As I have mentioned earlier, nature poetry need not be demonstratively imagistic and refer to the non human nature. There can be subtle echoes of the presence of the web of life and also the footfalls of other than mere human’s being. Further, there is this mistaken notion that writing about one’s self or writing the self is something of a retrospective turn, something derogatively termed as romantic. I for one have always resisted this subversive attitude to the self—indeed the major focus of my poetry has been from within. Poetry, as I have argued elsewhere is a revelation, a recognition of the true self. And where else can the poet turn but to one’s own self? All life is a struggle to come to terms with this—and poetry works as a means towards this end. It is a facilitator and a felicitator at the same time!
Murali Sivaramakrishnan, POEMS
1. Small Town Thoughts
I grew up in the small town
acquiring an affection for the forest
and landscape and the quiet houses.
–Yevtushenko, Zima Junction
My feelings are mine own. No one can, nor know
How to feel the feel for the forest and rainbow
Sad thoughts like rain filled clouds and tearing birds
That appear and disappear noon and early night.
The insects hide deep in the brown earth
And sing. The scorpion emerges from his hidden cleft.
All in this small town. There is also the Brainfever bird
Announcing the summer heat and the silent Iora
Hidden in the trees. Above all there is our river.
And here our old house. It was never ours.
My father in his spare hours painted everything green.
I have not inherited his deep distaste for nostalgia.
When his eldest daughter died
He destroyed all that was hers. He disliked memory.
It is like trailing one’s fingers in the water
When the slow boat turns. The cool green shadows
Ripple, the trees are overturned. The picture
Is a soft swell now. Let us turn the other way.
There was never any forest, nor rainbow.
Even the birds. But the houses are so quiet.
Small town thoughts like rain filled clouds and tearing birds
Appear and disappear noon and early night.
2. The Quick, the Easy, and the Blue
A lot of stuff on earth is quick to deflect
Its own extinction—at least some are often doing so
With such frequency that we are able to live together
As a living community—do we end up with an evening
To spare to look up toward the blue, blue expanse,
Sometime? Perhaps all living things
Are never quick enough not to be killed.
We make sure a lot of them do—so much so
For our space ensured safe on the globe.
Water and earth are easy to strangle
Under dams and rotting garbage—we can
Reinvent the plastic disorder to disrobe the living mantle
Of any left over star for that matter. Air is
Snuffed out like a huge candle. Fire cannot
Prevent its own disaster. Only the deep, deep blue
Gasps for survival. We are reaching for you, we are reaching
For you. Ah! That our greed should exceed our grasp
Or what is disaster for? We be quick, we be nimble.
3. An Animals’s Eye
An animal’s eye can see right through you
With its blank stare it just looks at you
Your very thoughts are transparent to it, your very being,
Just being there, the animal looks, sees, remains,
Like God– a staring animal can see you beyond your clothes
Your well groomed looks and pretended demeanor—
You walk nude once again, child, son, brother,
All relations and notions cut off, baseless, once again
The very self, the animal self. An animal’s eye
Closes in on itself and your image disappears.
You wake up again into your cultivated self.
An animal’s eye can make and remake.
4. Days and Nights
Hirakud, Sambalpur Feb 2009
There is a line of light that traverses the hill
And bisects the valley below. All day
The sun looks down at this amazing sight
Where hill meets valley and breaks
The fall of light and shade.
Purple, grey, brown,
And blue the hill radiates the ray’s fall.
Until night wipes out the light and blossoms
With the nightjar’s quivering wing.
Many flowers bloom and fall, many-petalled
And bright and dull.
In the valley some are heaped
And piled on the breeze’s reckless swing
Some lie awake all day all night
For the rain-priest’s ritual shower
And an unknown traveler’s dusty tread.
Water, huge and wide on this one and only shore
Lies open-eyed under a vacant sky.
A large bird floats silently by
Slowly drawn into the slanting line of sight.
All hills are the same. All valleys too.
A boy once eager to learn and know fled home
And the oft-trodden pathway of his fathers
Enchanted by the design that drew him close
To a huge hill’s heart, listening, shivering
Figuring a new will and being from the stony self
He heard the huge heart, felt the rhythm
And seeped into its very being.
A god’s large self.
This large water can hide nothing
It always reflects itself in the sky
Sometimes not knowing
Where it ends and sky begins
Or where they both end.
Daylight breaks shivering
Over the crude shoulders
Of the cold hill.
Night is like a towel
Thrown over the flames of the sun.
What is there to choose between?
(Poems from The East-Facing Shop and other Poems, 2010)
In the contexts of self reflexive poetry the poet could also be demonstrative to the level of being dogmatic about human-nature relationship. Ecologically sensitive poetry could be even philosophical or contemplative, prophetic or even overtly declarative! However, in the world of the poet there is no cut throat competition for domination, no all-extinguishing passion, despite the struggle for survival—of life against life, of word against silence. After all who wins who loses? All life becomes poetry and continues to be– Travelling between dreams and judgment !
In the final analysis nature poetry is poetry of the senses and it ushers in a sensibility that has been laid aside and under the rubble of our culture of deliberate insensitivity. The recognition of the intrinsic value of all and everything, the great upsurge of profound love that the poet feels towards all living and non living things in the universe, constitute its deep characteristic. After all, life becomes meaningful only when there is the abiding presence of love. As the Upanishad reminds us time and again: to whom does it all belong? Profound poetry of nature recognizes the true value of sensory experience and the role of the human imagination in interpreting it, shaping it, moulding it, into a poetry of meaning. We who stand on the threshold to a new awakening need to know that this is the last frontier of human awakening, a time to recognize our role and situation in this our lonely planet! We have only one earth despite the huge, huge, space beside it. We have only us to talk to! We are the lone ones.
Prof. MURALI SIVARAMAKRISHNAN, May 2010