SWADESH SEN :: WHERE NEW POETRY ROOTS
An introduction to Swadesh Sen's poetry
Barin Ghosal & Aryanil Mukherjee
So, the center doesn't hold, as we know. Never did. Instead, it unleashed the centrifuge. And finally, we had a major poet, whom the center didn't hold, neither reject. A poet, who never wanted to read before the public, never approached a publisher. A needle, that chose to stay away from the haystack, so we can discover it every now and then with a little moonshine and a few lazy sunbeams after the rain. The one time Swadesh Sen (born 1935), was felicitated by his small town (Jamshedpur, a steel city in eastern India) poetry folks, he remained off-stage that evening, seated in the audience the entire time; he spoke little, read a couple of poems.
According to ancient Hindu metaphysical texts, five spirits shape the human body and mind - marut (wind energy), byom (space exploration), xiti (a sense of the earth), apa(water energy) and tej (solar power). Environment and education gives him character and consciousness. These extractions help grow a poet's persona (bodha). Heritage, legacy, indoctrination, values and feelings pick up the pieces of a chaotic consciousness and roll them into one. Now it is glued sharpened and honed. The resultant is a strange light which we can see in Swadesh Sen's poetry.
When Swadesh wrote a "public" poetry as if providing guest services; referred back to the "familiar" through its daily intonations, scenes and chores; the rest of Bangla parallel poetry slyly competed against each other with language and form. They wrote a wholesale public poetry about and from factories, markets, battle fields and brothels. Rarely from academics. In the meanwhile, Swadesh kept working at his craft - refurbishing and reconstructing simple, "weightless" words and phrases to arrive at a new language. This new language, shining in its own new light, was, at the same time, striving to rediscover a deserted world - our homes, our farms and small towns. That's his country (the word "Swadesh" means "homeland" in Bengali), his haven, his laboratory and private space. How many of us saw our "homeland" likewise ! Unretraceable and yet traceworthy.
From his deep-seated private domain, (which would sometimes be infested by an inspiring group of radical, local poets) he once said to an younger poet, "what do I look for ?.....a profoundly personal reasoning, the best reasoning and the best judgement that there exists, that is poetry to me, my poetry". Swadesh's poetry creates an extended private space inside the outer vortex that we constantly need to ignore and overlook. The "best reasoning" can often be found in the inner eddies that are ceaselessly swirling up in that private space - mirth, joy, laughter, life's little splendours - all severely toned down. And rediscovered, like Yves Bonnefoy once said "poetry helps us return an object to its real self".
Sometimes Swadesh Sen would make a quiet observation, as if in a repose, and a search for the true shape of the vortex we are in, while never really caring to determine its shape. He loves to occupy a corner of the yard that is Bangla Kabita (Bengali Poetry), moistening his cult-like poetic language with fresh ink - an ink only Swadesh Sen's machinery could manufacture. A language, that fragrances like the fresh, new, vernacular ink made in small, local factories. A language, that is always attempting to renew its simplicity. He writes
take a shower, eat full and well, stay in beauty and style
while you write your poems with a Bangla feel
naked senseless delicately quiet and broken stacks of poems
stuff in your free birds in the real woks of West Bengal
welcome the fine thought to your literature
Sen's language is lyrical in the sense that it has a new phonetical quality about it, completely unheard of in Bangla poetry. It is born fresh from an inner-diasporic Bangla, spoken in large parts of eastern India outside the state of West Bengal. To that accent and rhetoric, he adds his recipe of shifting prepositions, verblessness and a conjuctive blending of lines making it distinctive, musical and hard to steal.
One might be able to see a ghost of William Carlos Williams living somewhere deep down in Swadesh Sen's trenches, but we also know, that is purely coincidental, like mildly matching faces with wildly varying character traits. Like Williams', Sen's poetry had a small town demeanor, like Patterson is to Jamshedpur, a small town of cultural inconsequence (although an important industrial city in the Indian map). One might also argue, that because Sen's poetry is inexorably trying to connect to the goodness of common life around him, while trying to say very little, he has fingerprints of John Ashbery all over his work. When we spoke to him about these possible influences towards the end of 2006, he admitted that he had never read Ashbery, (but was extremely curious about his work) very little Williams but more Yeats, cummings, Whitman, Frost, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Elliot, and Ginsberg.
Swadesh Sen's work seems to solemnly respect all the great traditions of Bengali poetry in its poetics, use of language and artistic demeanor. His work resembles, at the same time, the last milestone of traditional mainstream modern Bangla poetry and the first etching on the mural of parallel, experimental and new Bangla poetry. The Kaurab group of poets, in the seventies, began what they called poetry camps, which represented a voluntary retirement into nature, far-from-the-madding-crowd, where these poets lived for a few days in the intensive care of poetic art. Swadesh Sen's participation in these camps made the discources and the exercise invaluable for his followers. Kaurab's "experimental literature" was born right here in these literary and social isolations. "The Orange Is Placed" (1982) was the first book published from these camps. Swadesh Sen's first book of verse was followed a decade later by "Milk Glass On The Floor" (1992) .
Swadesh Sen once wrote - "Newness has no grief, its unknown to it". A group of younger poets, at the turn of the century, began to cross-refer to his work trying to draw support for their own. They called their oeuvre - New Poetry. A journal with the same name (editors Swapan Roy & Ranjan Moitra) soon sprung up in 2002. Although, Swadesh Sen never made any claim to New Poetry, many, especially younger Bengali poets, see his poetry as an inspiring source of its genre.
His books are listed below chronologically -
The Orange is Placed (1982)
Milk Glass On The Floor (1992)
Stay In The Shade (1998)
Swadesh Sen's Country (Collection, part I, 2006)
The Orange Is Placed
Here is all the care this room can offer
this mind and body. This is my care for today
A much plainer chill is in the shower
Today's flower has slow-cooked its fruit.
Some tin smeared somewhere in the iron
one mind ringing in the mines
one use shines up so fine
a someone who has perfected his cry for us
Someone from all day and all places
no skin and flesh, a morning torso
The water here, the recursive water from here
a pill and a whole attire
slow dwadling mirth and its glob glob
Here is all the care my room can offer
The orange is placed
What was seen in today's light was written today.
The Sleeping Apple
The apple's asleep. Wake him with your teeth
blood pressurized under new skin, this teeth play with
easily, with a mind of its own
a murder looks at its calm landscape
that's the end of apple blossoms, non-chalant teeth grow everywhere
Really, there isn't a single spirit on earth - all human
all unearthly starving vines nearly absent
the fruitlings of milk wither leaving behind cow and water
The apple in the sky wakes up and sleeps again.
Murder him. It. Slash, press, break and pierce
into pieces without signs - folic acid, get to work
Like the silkworm, destroy your self-impression and convalesce
The apple sleeps in the morning - wake him with your teeth.
who shivers, who is scared, who is on the phone with the scheduled, when truth is nearly more mystery, this is fine, fine with me, this, the hum, the Laalgolaa and Bhagbaangolaa, from a state meditated to a loosened, untied being, the easy linear signs now falling, clouds sprouting from spring, bend, they come down as far as lower Damodar, then they come and go, come and go, sketchy buttermilk of fog, autumn porridge and let me tell you about this one unhappy twig who bends and bows with all of its content and blows up finally the contemporary flower, while the ruly man shows his manners, his skin dark, wears glasses, consults his year-planner, he runs on loans, catches his flight to the many foreign lands, someone bribing him with gold, I know one who runs from poptime to skyshop, another sleeps in the hospital, a hospital sleep, one dying instead of living, one can't even die after death, vegetables in the flea market, easy words, one gets in control of them, another looses comfort, content.
Laalgolaa, Bhagbaangolaa - small towns in West Bengal, India
Damodar - A tributary of Ganges
I make birthdays
That birthday can't be found
as there is no room in June.
A treemother asked, are you ok, my baby ?
We won't let you die like that, they say
and they leave us like that
It wasn't wise to dip your finger in the cup
Milk lives on waterland
Beware of unmindful milk
They come raging in from outside
in Bangla words
Lifetime catches me in my flight
Well, why don't we express April to its fullest
spread out the fine colors and print a skirt
for the autistic girl
An outwardly poet sits and stands there
watches cobbles that make the path
with its monostrings and red lettuce
palmistry of palm trees
Poetry, something will happen now
some incident in a fresh egg
a different caste and Saggitarius
Look what is happening under the earth
Poems translated by Aryanil Mukherjee