03 October 2010

Milton in India: Poetry and Tradition

I'm taking a break from watching the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony—I can report that sports commentary is inane even with an Indian accent. Perhaps "watching" isn't the right word because the news channel NDTV was only allowed to show clips of less than thirty seconds and on a seven minute delay. There's nothing else to do because almost every business in Delhi was shut so I had a meditative day at home.

One thing I thought about was the reason I came to study India in the first place: Living tradition. When I first visited Delhi six years ago, I had a kind of conversion and realised that my degree in Classics was not my preferred way of studying literature because Indians on the whole had a much better sense of the continuity of their culture than Westerners. When we study Classics in the West, we have a tendency to forget about the most interesting aspect of the texts we study, namely their two millennia-long influence on our culture. As I read it, the rapid decline of cultural literacy in the West after the First World War made Classics departments circle the waggons around the study of antiquity and insist that anything else is Comparative Literature. We only study Greece and Rome, 400 BC to 200 AD, but you can study anything you want.

It's an Orientalist trope, of course, that the East is ancient and unchanging, except to crumble picturesquely. Nonetheless my unscientific polling has found that there's some truth to it because Indians are generally plugged into their cultural history. For example, a common expression here, if you talk too much, is that you're telling a Mahabharata—the name of one of the Sanskrit epics (it's as long as the Odyssey and the Iliad put together times ten). No one in the West says that anyone is as clever as Odysseus, patient as Penelope or confusing as Tiresias. Many people in India can also recite poetry from the Islamic classical tradition (the lyric known as ghazal), and do so spontaneously. (Though one question is how much of the cultural continuity is real and how much of it is colonial-period re-imagination of the past. In a sense, it doesn't matter as long as people perceive it to be a tradition.)

That's where John Milton comes into this. Last week I read some of his earliest published works—and embarrassingly for all aspiring poets today he probably wrote better poetry at age 16 in Latin than anything I am likely ever to produce in my life in English—and found myself, a former Classics major at two of the best universities in the US and England, completely dependent on the footnotes. There were dozens of references to myths that I had either never read or had forgotten about. Milton and his readers were so immersed in classical mythology that he was able to conjure it up characters and motifs with just a slight hint.

Having a matrix of cultural symbols that can be called upon is a remarkable gift that we have lost. For example, Milton wrote his "Elegia Prima" (First Elegy) after he had been rusticated (i.e. suspended) from Cambridge and ended up faffing around London for a few months. Milton being Milton, in the poem he transforms London into a dream kingdom where Muses frolic with the gods. It's a funny poem but has a serious message for his friend: Don't worry about me because London is full of inspiration. You couldn't write a poem like that today--it would come across as pompous because the references would be too obscure.

I'm not sure what happened, whether we "democratized" poetry or something, but today we generally read and write what I think of, probably unfairly, as New Yorker poetry. It's necessarily short, and always like Wordsworth in spirit (I look out a window, I have a thought, I end the poem) though generally without technical requirements like rhyme. This is democratic because the only prerequisite for reading a poem about looking out the window is knowing what a window is. I have trouble with this sort of poetry--though of course I admit my example is ridiculous—because it doesn't engage with tradition.

Ah yes, you might say, so all you care about is having poets parrot other people's thoughts rather than creating their own? Not at all. Just as we've lost rhyme and to a large extent metre, not anchoring work to a tradition lowers the bar for writing poetry. A poem becomes a vehicle of pure, solipsistic  expression and frankly that's not that interesting. I don't want to be expressed at, I want to read a story in verse. Here's the contradiction: Embedding your work in a tradition, which by definition is a more rigid structure than just writing your emotions, actually liberates you.

The ghazal is an excellent example. There is a set cast of characters and a series of relationships between them. There is a lover, usually the voice of the poet, and a beloved, who spurns his advances. Predictably, the British colonial state hated the genre—and made Indians feel guilty about it—because they saw it as unmanly whining using amorous stock images. Nothing could be further from the truth. It has embedded within it both a philosophical system (the lover is human, the unattainable beloved is God) and the emotional complexity of desire. The formal requirements are also very strict, which makes it possible to give a virtuoso performance in just two lines. By contrast, it's hard to craft a line of poetry when there are no formal requirements at all because how is it then not prose with funny line-breaks?

I don't want to admit it but the ghazal tradition has pretty much died in India because people don't know the technical requirements anymore and ignore the philosophy in favour of "she loves me, she loves me not." In fact, arguably the best ghazal poet around today is a film lyricist, Gulzar. But that's still much better than the way we have marginalized poetry entirely because we can't replace classical antiquity with something that speaks to us with the authority of tradition. Milton would be disappointed—and he probably wouldn't get published in the New Yorker.

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