Grasmere churchyard.. Grave of William Wordsworth and his wife Mary.

PaperPlanes#5 – His Words are Great Music!

I am convinced that there are three things to rejoice at in this Age—The Excursion, Your Pictures, and Hazlitt’s depth of Taste.
– John Keats in his letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon on 10th January, 1818.

The onset of life is poetry. A rose may smell as sweet by any other name but a child’s first words with the maternal force of divine, in any shape or form other than the rhythmical, cadenced cry cannot weave the same magic in the ears or the airs of the world. When a mother lullabies her child to sleep for the first time, poetry becomes the first and the sweetest words of instruction for a lifetime. When a Teacher establishes her first contact with the aliens on earth who are to be schooled to become humans, poetry drenches and softens the first pathways of unyielding greatness.

Professor William Hastie taught at the Scottish Church College, Calcutta. At the time, this college was known as the General Assembly Institution. The Professor in one of his classes was discussing the ‘Great Poem’ of William Wordsworth – The Excursion. It is the longest poem written by the poet and is considered to be one of the most influential poems of its time. The poem advances through a debate among its 4 main characters – the Poet, the Wanderer, the Solitary, and the Pastor. This poem was published in 1814 and is arranged into 9 books. Notably, the 3rd and the 4th books consist of a conversation between the Wanderer and the Solitary regarding religion, spirituality, and human virtues. As with every other poem of Wordsworth, these lines too were born from the deep meditative reflections of his mood. For me, Wordsworth becomes one with his subjects of poetry – nature, mind, or soul notwithstanding, he seemed to transcend into the inner chambers of entities he dealt with. Naturally, he remains one of the most difficult poets to teach in a classroom.

 

But descending
         From these imaginative heights, that yield
         Far-stretching views into eternity,
         Acknowledge that to Nature’s humbler power                
         Your cherished sullenness is forced to bend
         Even here, where her amenities are sown
         With sparing hand. Then trust yourself abroad
         To range her blooming bowers, and spacious fields,
         Where on the labours of the happy throng
         She smiles, including in her wide embrace
         City, and town, and tower,–and sea with ships
         Sprinkled;–be our Companion while we track
         Her rivers populous with gliding life;
         While, free as air, o’er printless sands we march,        
         Or pierce the gloom of her majestic woods;
         Roaming, or resting under grateful shade
         In peace and meditative cheerfulness;
         Where living things, and things inanimate,
         Do speak, at Heaven’s command, to eye and ear,
         And speak to social reason’s inner sense,
         With inarticulate language.

         – From Book 4, Despondency Corrected, The Excursion – William Wordsworth

During his lecture on the poem, Professor Hastie was explaining the nature and meaning of ‘trance’. For his students to have an understanding of the subject, he directed them to visit Dakshineshwar in Calcutta and see Sri Ramakrishna who was believed to be a realized soul in spiritual experiences and someone who went into Bhava-Samadhi (a state of ecstatic and heightened consciousness or spiritual ecstasy) at will.

Narendranath Dutta, who was present in the classroom, heeded to Hastie’s advice and went to see Sri Ramakrishna. This young man was to become Swami Vivekananda through his association with Sri Ramakrishna in the years to come by collecting gems at his Master’s feet and influence the history of humanity in a way that the French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland described thus – His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero !
India was hauled out of the shifting sands of barren speculation wherein she had been engulfed for centuries, by the hand of one of her own sannyàsins; and the result was that the whole reservoir of mysticism, sleeping beneath, broke its bounds and spread by a series of great ripples into action. The West ought to be aware of the tremendous energies liberated by these means.”

Sublimity, thy name is Poetry!

Haiku Monument of Matsuo Basho in Yuno Pass

PaperPlanes#2 – Warming up to Haiku

To say I’ve hated haiku as an art form is a gross understatement; I had never given it a moment’s thought, forget considering it poetry!

And it’s not just the kitsch that most wannabe pseudo-intellectual or insta-intoxicated Sufi/Zen oafs churn out and repeat all over Whatsapp and other digital media either.

Consider this epitome, that’s now a cliche in the haiku universe, the piece that eventually led to the coinage of the word haiku (it was originally hokku, and the hokku used to be part of a longer poem, renga; Masaoka Shiki came up with the term for standalone haiku, made popular by Basho):

an old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

( furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

if you care for the original Japanese text.)

This piece by Basho has been hailed for portraying eternity in a moment, stillness, Zen and whatever the reader’s fertile or troubled mind conjures – it has over 170 official translations in English alone.

No matter how many times I read or thought it over, for the life of me, I couldn’t find any such depth in it. And so I gave up on the genre altogether as snake oil being peddled by Japanophile zealots.

(And lest you should think me an ignorant boor, you are free to peruse this:

https://whrarchives.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/a-contrarian-view-of-bashos-frog/)

So when I recently picked up The Classic Tradition of Haiku (there was nothing else around to read) I tried to keep a very open mind and was truly astonished by the unassuming simplicity and nothingness of it. And then it struck me!

It wasn’t haiku that I hated all these years but the over-interpretations of them! (By the way, haiku is both singular and plural.)

Haiku, rather hokku, is, what it always was, a simple rhythmic formal description of nature – nothing more, nothing less.

It is just a terse fleeting image of a transient natural phenomenon. True to its Japanese roots, it does not overdo on either sentimentality or meaning, it just states an existential fact.

And this very elemental picture, a word-image of an ephemeron in this phantasmagoria we call living on this blind plane of existence, it is this observation that is, and creates, its own meaning.

And so it is, that it is the water in the still pond that makes a sound, not the frog that eagerly jumps into it!

(And it’s not a mere play on words but the revelation of the paradoxical in the commonplace that lends the tiny haiku, barely 11-17 syllables, its unfathomable power – the recognition of truth!)

Having said that, human nature is also nature, and while Basho is synonymous with haiku to today’s western-educated youth, it is the soft sadness of Kobayashi Issa that resounded most vibrantly in me, whether it be his compassion for animals:

Exhausted by
the crowd of children –
a sparrow

or this gut wrenching observation:

her row veering off,
the peasant woman plants
toward her crying child

However, if I had to pick one quintessential haiku, it would be this masterpiece by Kikaku, Basho’s flippant, though arguably best, student:

It is my snow, I think
And the weight on my hat lightens

 

 

 

About the Author – Kaushal Suvarna has published two poetry collections – Siamese Compassion and A Trans-Arabian Handshake. He writes at https://lovelifeetc.com.

 

 

 

A Thomas Nast Santa, from 1881, wearing the modern Santa suit

PaperPlanes#1 – Made of Poetry

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

Reproduced above are lines from the poem The Night Before Christmas composed by Clement Clarke Moore for his children on the Christmas Eve of 1822. The poem was originally called A Visit from St. Nicholas and travelled time to become the most defining description of the modern day Santa Claus. How?

In 1863, Harper’s Weekly hired Thomas Nast to draw Santa Claus bringing gifts for the troops fighting in the American Civil War. Nast resorted to Clement’s poem for his inspiration and the resulting Santa was welcomed warmly by the troops. This Santa was a much more relatable one when compared to the ones depicted before Clement’s poem. Nast drew this Santa every year for 40 years.

Years later, Coca Cola in 1931, commissioned D’Arcy Advertising Agency and Michigan-born artist Haddon Sundblom to create a campaign featuring Santa Claus who would be friendlier and more approachable than the earlier versions being used by the company till then. The inspiration came again from Clement’s poem. The ‘jolly old elf’ has come to represent happiness as well as Coke till today,  all from a poem that went out anonymously when it was published for the first time!

 

 

ReferenceCoke Lore Santa Claus