On Poetry

This article is part 1 of 3 in the series On Poetry

            Poetry concerns itself with the activities of our inner world. It paints in a motion picture the blossoming of our heart. It sheds light on those aspects of human life—regardless of their significance—that generally escape our attention. The poet’s eye is a veritable camera lens that captures in minute detail the attributes of everything it focuses on. The mirror of his heart reflects those forms and features of objects toward which we turn a blind eye; the cavern of his mind reverberates the sighs and whispers that are a decibel too short to appeal to our ears. He thus possesses a rare sensitivity. Stirred by worldly experiences, he responds by building a new world within himself. This is pratibhā, the faculty of creative imagination. Thanks to this, the poet can convert a hedge to the Himalaya, an elephant to an ant. If he so wishes, humans can become deities and deities, humans.

            Our ancestors thought of pratibhā as a product of our actions in previous births. It might be so; its origin is unfathomable. Similarly, a question that is difficult to answer is the following: ‘For one imbued with creative imagination to produce poetry, are worldly experiences necessary?’ It can work either way, but for his work to be successful there must necessarily be semblance between the world he creates and the one we have seen. If his poem must echo in our heart, if his painting must give us goosebumps, some synonymity is imperative between the experience of the outer world prior to our encountering his art, and that of the inner world he newly secures for us. Based on the congruence of these two experiences and the degree to which we find it attractive, the poet’s work seems real. A popular poet succeeds in making people subscribe to this reality en masse. An extraordinary poet, on the other hand, achieves the same with a few people of refined sensibilities. Both are great artists in their own right. The ‘great’ tag however includes numerous rungs. Doubtless, rungs also exist outside this tag.

            The poet and the scientist are twins. They intend to discover in new ways the beauties of life and the underlying truth of the universe. Both ought to be endowed with pratibhā. They must engage in tapas and have a friendly attitude toward life. Although the two of them deserve utmost freedom, they should progress cautiously, with an element of fear at the back of their heads. These aspects are common to them. There is also a point of difference: while the poet’s eye is fixed on the inner world, the scientist’s focuses on the outer world. The poet influences our heart and the scientist, our body. But can mind and body exist without each other? As soon as our stomach growls with hunger, our mind loses composure. If the mind is preoccupied with a worrisome thought, the mouth does not accept food. Mind and body are, after all, two units of the same living being. Mutual influence is hence natural. Fine arts such as poetry, music, dance, and painting initially appeal to our heart and later influence our body. Contrarily, the effect of sciences such as physics, chemistry, economics, and sociology is first seen on our body and later our mind. Poetry and science, therefore, are not opposed to each other.

            An unshakeable fidelity to truth, which is supported by honesty, is the primary characteristic feature of science. This also marks out poetry, and it is important to understand how it is different in them both. Science always focuses on tangible objects: we can identify and describe in accurate words their attributes such as mass, texture, and colour. It is because of this reason that everyone has the exact same experience of these objects and holds the same opinion about them. As a contrast, the matters that poetry deals with are not tangible. How does one measure Sītā’s grief, Draupadī’s anger, Bhīma’s fury, Yudhiṣṭhira’s forbearance? Kuntī doted over her co-wife’s children but Kaikeyī detested them. Is there a scientific explanation to this anomaly? Everyone responds differently to poetry and therefore have various views about it. The concerns of science are set in stone; those of poetry are like shape-shifting clouds. While direct perception validates science, our experiential response validates poetry.  

            Rasa is the principle that underpins honesty in poetry. As far as poetry is concerned, rasa is the truth. ‘One plus one is two’—this is the mathematician’s truth. The poet’s conception of it is different. He holds King Solomon’s insight as the truth: When two women approached Solomon with a baby and claimed it as their own, he ordered his servant to cut the baby into two parts and pass each half to them both. One woman immediately said no to this while the other remained silent. “The opposing voice is the mother’s” was Solomon’s judgment. Let us consider another example. Suppose I am summoned to the court and the lawyer points to a man and asks me, “Do you know this person?” I say yes. He then questions, “How many teeth does he have in the upper row of his mouth? How many in the bottom row?” I am clueless. Does this mean I lied when I initially said yes, I know him? Absolutely not. The lawyer was concerned with the truth about the man’s teeth, but what I had in mind was the truth about his nature and conduct.

            Let us consider yet another example. Never in my life have I visited London. But I have observed with great interest its maps and pictures, read a fair bit about the city’s architecture and the lifestyle of its people, and curiously listened to my friends recounting their London experience. Contrary to this knowledge is the experience of one of my friend’s servant. He has no knowledge of English whatsoever. Neither has he seen various maps of London nor has he closely observed the nuances of the English society. But he has visited the city with my friend. It is no wonder that his knowledge of London is better than mine. This is because mere words cannot express the truth of his experience. Seen this way, truth that is based on personal experience and vivified by the touch of human nature, is the essence of poetry.  

            Why does one read poetry? Is it with a sense of duty? Curiosity? Nobody reads it for dry information. A certain attractive strength sets the poetic truth aglow, which is totally absent in scientific facts. This strength works its magic in two levels: it first transports the reader to an environment that is different from his immediate surroundings. It is a world where sunlight does not scorch, and the wind does not prick. It is a fantastic setting where cows and lions are the best of friends. We completely lose ourselves there. The poet presents before our eyes everything we longed for in our world—everything we thought was endowed with grace and goodness but did not last long enough for us to enjoy them fully. The unalloyed happiness in which we forget ourselves marks the beginning of art experience. Metaphorically, this is the garden outside the mansion of poetry. As and when we walk in and acquaint ourselves with the people therein, we understand they are not far removed from us at all. They have the same joys and sorrows as us; just as we are, they too are helpless before the fury of fate. As this understanding grows, we become one with those people. We quarrel, shed tears, and share happiness with them. Is this not what our ancients termed tallīnatā? (self-forgetfulness caused by intensely involving in the situations portrayed in art).

At the end we are wonderstruck by our own experience. We find ourselves musing, “Do these virtues really exist in us? I would behave exactly like Bharata—only if I were to have a brother like Rāma. Bhīma showed no trace of pity for the fallen Duryodhana; but I would. What made me appreciate Arjuna’s respectful attitude towards Urvaśī? And what made me nod in agreement when he developed a liking for Subhadrā?” Such questions open the doors of heart and usher us into the space of infinite possibilities residing within.

This is a translation of select portions of the Kannada essay Kelavu Sāhitya Samsyegaḻu, taken from the work Jīvanasaundarya mattu Sāhitya. This was a part of the author’s Presidential Address at the eighteen Karnataka Sahitya Sammelana. 

To be continued.




Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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