Amal Kiran & poetry

Amal Kiran's book "Inspiration and Effort"

Amal Kiran’s book “Inspiration and Effort”

Amal Kiran ! This guy is one of those tiny flowers with an intense colour, tucked way off the meadow on a mountain trail where not many venture and so not many would know of. Moreover, such flowers grow a little closer to the precipice for folks to know of their existence. How do I know? Had the good fortune of a helpful hand pointing in that direction as I stood look at the vista with her. All through those couple of days that I spent with this man’s daughter, I had no clue of the fine writing that awaited me in a Pondicherry bookshop. We spoke very little of Amal Kiran except a few references to his days in Aurobindo ashram. It was when I begin exploring further that I came across his book which opened up a whole new trail into poetry which I didn’t know existed. I say this because I have only been a consumer of poems. I do not and can’t seem to write poems.

This is about how Amal Kiran’s book Inspiration and Effort: Studies in Literary Attitude and Expression (Published: 1995, The Integral Life Foundation, USA) offers an easy to identify explanation of where might be the source of inspiration lie, in those splendid imaginations turned into words by Shelly, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Byron.  It is well worth to re-produce this section from the first page of his book, wherein he dives straight into the intent of the entire exposition. He begins –

You hold that genuine poetry is written always by inspiration – effortlessly – as if in a state of semi-trance. A correct view, this, as regards fundamentals. But you may take my breath away by adding that, because in my letter I used words like “tried”, “attempted”, “sought” when I spoke of producing poetry of a mystic and spiritual order new in many respects to the English language, you drew the conclusion that I wrote my poems with a manufacturing mentality which thought out with intellectual labour all of the phrases, lined up the different parts like a mechanic rivetting joints and constructed artifically an unfamiliar out-of-the-way model!

Inspiration is a fact and it does come from a region that is beyond the muscular brain and the tense sinews of thought: it comes from a hidden fountain of force which is more spontaneous, swift, suggestive, vision-bright and harmonious: its outflow brings in a condition of mind cleansed of a too external and intellectual and deliberately constructive activity – hence, the semi-trance, as it were, of poetic creation.

The part I am most interested in is where he speaks of ‘spontaneity’ as the point that is ‘never properly seized by those who do not write poetry’ and goes on to explain how the process might work for those who are recognized for their poetry. Recently, reading an English translation of Kutti Revathi’s poem Rain River written in Tamil,  I marveled at the way her words could create that intense moment of desire and longing. I wondered if the entire thing came in one gush to the poet. It stayed with me for a long time. Amal Kiran’s thinking on this process appears clear and sort of helps in having a perspective on what might the process involve. It may not necessarily be the same for every poet, but it is worth a look. He writes –

The ordinary notion is that spontaneity is the first flow of words when one starts writing or the flood that overwhelms one all of a sudden. It is frequently these things but it is not confined to them. The spontaneous word is that which comes from a certain source – the deep fountain of inspiration beyond the logical and ingenuous brain: no more, no less. There is not the slightest implication that the initial flow of words is the most inspired: it may be so or it may not – everything depends on whether you are a clear medium or a partly clogged one. If you are not quite clear in the passage running between the creative source and the receptive self, the lines that come to you all of a sudden or at the first turning towards poetic composition are likely to be a mixed beauty and even a facile imitation of the beautiful. Consequently, you have to take a good deal of corrective pains or resort to a total rejection. It is of no moment how much you re-write; all that is important is whether at the first blush or at the “umpteenth” trial you catch unsullied the shining spontaneity of the secret realms where inspiration has its throne. Shakespeare never “blotted” a word; Keats “blotted” a thousand, and yet Keats is looked upon as the most Shakespearean of modern poets in “natural magic”. Even Shelly, to all appearance the most spontaneous of singers, was scrupulous in his revisions. What still kept him spontaneous was that each time it was not intellectual hacking and hewing, but a re-vision, a re-opening of the inner sight on the hidden realms in order to behold as accurately as possible the lines and tones, the shapes and designs of those dream-worlds weaving their simple or complex dances.

To end this section, Amal Kiran mentions Humbert Wolfe’s lines which ‘brings another mode of sight, speech and rhythm equally flawless:

Thus it began. On a cool and whispering eve

When there was quiet in my heart she came,

and there was the end of quiet. I believe

that a star trembled when she breathed my name.

(Humbert Wolfe)

Amal Kiran’s book – Inspiration and Effort, is a rare one from Indian authors on poetry and the process of it. He was an admirer of Aurbindo’s Savitri and a long time resident of Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry. In over ten years that I have been visiting Pondicherry, I have not been quite attracted to read Aurobindo’s poems or his works. But Amal Kiran now makes me want to do that.

Meanwhile, from a completely direction, I read yesterday on Flavorwire – Why Queer Poetry Still Matters, which mentions yet another terrific gang of poets – Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Langston Huges and more recent ones.

I am not sure if I will ever manage to write poems, but the fact that poetry holds immense power in it to make one see the world and himself in newer and insightful ways, I am convinced of!

 

Seeing the old through new lenses – Digital Humanities

A few weeks back I attended a talk on Digital Humanities organized by Center for Public History at Srishti . I figured that what appeared new was something which we (my startup partner & I) were already doing without quite knowing that a new set of technology tools applied to sociology is now going by a new name called ‘digital humanities’. It applies a range of computing and digital technologies to humanities discipline making research in this area deliver on aspects which were earlier not possible. Some rather peculiar and interesting ways of looking at text and images have emerged as a consequence – Google’s n-gram viewer for instance and wordle tool. While  I think these computational tools are exciting to use and valuable in exploring and mining material, these do not make for very sound techniques which can be at par with the conventional research methods.

Here is a small wordle based analysis to explore what is the kind of shift in focus, value, thinking and prominence of literary ideas that happen in over a century. [Wordle generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.] For this I use Nobel Prize in Literature citations from year 1900 to 2010, a period little more than a century. I split this duration into two periods of 1900-1950 and 1951-2010. The split at 1950 is to contrast between pre and post World War II world. And in what manner does such a large scale (almost the entire world gets involved) and extremely bloody event in the history brings about a change in the values and literary themes pre and post war. Like the way Walt Whitman’s work gets shaped by his experiences as a field nurse during the American Civil War, I try to explore how global ideas shape after WW II. Here, I assume Nobel Prize in Literature as a representative of global values of the time. 

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1900-1950 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1950-2010 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

The two word clouds were a fascinating picture. Notice how a major word “recognition” before WW II changes to “narrative” after the war. In fact, the word “recognition” almost disappears along with “idealism”. And well, I am tempted to look at “idealism” ‘s disappearance after WW II and “realistic” ‘s appearance.

A quick discussion with my peers (when I project these two images and ask them what is striking for them) reveals a multi-dimensional view. Words like “condition” , “human” , “sympathy” and “life” by their appearances post 1950s suggest a wide and rich range of reasons that made these as key concerns of literature after the people worldwide live through some of the most horrendous times. When I look at this picture, it comes out as a fertile ground for various sort of enquiries – sociological, literary and in writing styles also.

This, I think is the deliverance of digital humanities – these ideas which wouldn’t quite have occurred to an investigator. It has been a valuable tool in my research projects.