“What Is It to Be a Poet?”: Niranjan Mohanty on the Art of Poetry

Sanjay Kumar

Department of English, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, India 221005

Any discussion of Indian poetry in English inevitably veers round two seemingly perennial questions, first the choice of English as a medium of creative expression and second, the anxiety of Indianness. Such ideologically motivated questions though important from the nationalistic perspective concern only the social function of literature, and a whole host of other important issues relating to the art and vision of poetry are either obscured or relegated to the background. This paper argues that we need to move past this form of ideological literary judgment and focus more on the specific awareness of the actual poetic resources which go into the making of poetry of Indian English poets: how a poet uses the moral and aesthetic compass to shape his poetry, what does he make of his own poetic impulse and intentions, what is the nature of the poetic moment, etc. This will lead us to a better and richer understanding of the poet and her oeuvre. It is with this objective that this paper looks at a major contemporary Indian English Poet, Niranjan Mohanty and his own meditations on the act of writing poetry not as discursive reflections apart from the poems but built into their very thematic and formal structure.

Keywords: Jayanta Mahapatra, Orissa School of poetry, self, subjectivity, word, world, creativity, vision

I begin this paper with a disclaimer. Though it is about and on Niranjan Mohanty (1953-2008), a much acclaimed contemporary Indian English poet, I scrupulously avoid two questions with which any enquiry or discussion of Indian poetry in English inevitably begins: why does an Indian poet choose English as a medium of her poetry and not her mother tongue, and the second one, to what extent her poetry reflects the Indian sensibility. Or in other words, what Meenakshi Mukherjee calls “anxiety of Indianness”, a cross which every Indian writer in English but particularly poet has to bear. From imitation to resistance to adaptation and assimilation to autonomy, Indian writing in English including poetry has come into its own and moved past these questions. In his Postcolonial Poetry in English (2006) Rajeev Patke says, “The ability to use English unselfconsciously has been the principal achievement of the poets of the Indian subcontinent, from the generation represented in A. K. Mehrotra’s anthology (1992) to that represented in Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen Contemporary Indian Poets (2002)” (76; emphasis added).
Makarand Paranjape, a poet of considerable repute himself, too makes a similar claim though in a different context. According to him, the post-Independence poets in English continued to write under the spell of European modernism even as it had come to an end on the European soil.  This spell was finally cast aside by the poets of the 1990s. He says: 
But the real break with modernism in IE poetry did not come until the 1990s. The reason for the sudden shift in poetic activity was two-fold: first of all, a new generation came of age. These poets, though they were raised on modernism, found their own aesthetics somewhat modified by the time they began practicing their craft. The identity crisis of the earlier poets had passed and with it the anguished questionings of the Indianness of the writing self. Similarly, the detached, ironic scepticism of their predecessors also seemed a bit artificial and forced to the new poets. They desired to break free from the purist mode of modernism with its primacy to imagistic precision and linguistic exactitude. The new poets sought greater emotional room, more opportunities for a free paly of thoughts and feelings. With greater self-assurance and lesser inhibitions, they went on to voice their techniques.  (1055; emphasis added)
Whether it is “the ability to use English unselfconsciously” as suggested by Patke or to write “with  greater self-assurance and lesser inhibitions” as in the case of Paranajape, the Indian English poet, now released from the anxiety of Indianness, could concentrate on the actual business of writing poetry and sure enough, this newly acquired freedom leads to release of fresh create energy and potential into Indian poetry in English.  
Another consequence of this newly acquired sense of freedom is a kind of techtonic shift in the center of gravity of poetry in English. It no longer remains confined to the metropolitan centres like Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata); it spreads to backwaters like Cuttack, Calicut, Surat and Allahabad (now Prayagraj). This trend begins with Jayanta Mahapatra who went on to become the first Indian English poet to be honoured with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award (Indian Academy of Letters) in 1981 for his long poem Relationship. His recognition as a major Indian English poet marks the beginning of a new phase in Indian English Poetry. And soon after we have fresh and new talents like Prabhanjan Mishra, Shalini Gupta, Rachna Joshi, Niranjan Mohanty, E. V. Ramakrishnan, Sanjiv Bhatla and others joining the ranks. What began as a trickle soon turned into a wide stream.
Mahapatra’s commitment to and involvement with the rich historical and cultural heritage of Orissa inspired the younger poets from Orissa like Bibhu Padhi, Rabindra K. Swain and Niranjan Mohanty to write poetry rooted in local culture and imbued with local idiom and color. Mohanty brought out an anthology of poems by Oriya poets writing in English, The Golden Voice: Poets from Orissa Writing in English in 1986 in which he claims that these poets including himself constitute what may be called Orissa School of English Poetry, a school marked by a kind of meditative inwardness. These poets carve a private space in their poetry which Mohanty describes as:
the most innocent space governed and oriented by a will, defined and perpetuated by a faith that encompasses all, that comprehends all, the dead and the living, the past and the present, the hackneyed and the sublime, the time and the timeless…. This space enables to know, scan, dissipate, diffuse one’s self as much as it permits him/her to move out of himself/herself in order to measure the changing patterns or rhythms of life…. I am inclined to re-affirm that English poetry by poets from Orissa bears a distinctive flavor and essence. (4-5)
Mohanty’s own poems are richly meditative, often turning inward and exploring the inner recesses of consciousness. Though mystical and visionary, his poems speak to us with a startling directness and beguiling simplicity. Beginning with Silencing the Word in 1977, Mohanty brought out as many as eight volumes of poetry:  Silencing the Word (1977), Oh This Bloody Game (1988), Prayer to Lord Jagannath (1994), On Touching You and Other Poems (1996), Life Lines (1999), Krishna (2003), Tiger and Other Poems (2008) and A House of Rains (2008). He regularly contributed to prestigious journals and magazines like World Literature Today, International, Poetry Review, Toronto Review, Suns Stone, 100 Words, South Asian Review, Journal of South Asian Literature, Indian Literature, Femina, Illustrated Weekly of India, New Quest etc. While his own poems have been translated into Hindi, Urdu, Spanish and Portuguese, he also translated poems from Oriya and Bengali into English and Bengali into Oriya. His translation of medieval Muslim saint poet and devotee of Lord Jagannatha, Salabega appeared as White Whispers in a special edition of Indian Literature. His Oriya translation of sixty poems by Jibananda Das was published in a volume called Nirjhar (2006) by Sahitya Akademi.

With this long prologue, let us now come to the main issue with which the paper is concerned: how often does a poet ask herself what it is to be a poet?  Surely, every poet must confront this question sooner or later, and I would say, every time she sets her pen to paper.  However, the popular belief is that the job of a poet is to write poetry and not to reflect upon it.  She reflects on life which is the very stuff of which a poem is made, but as for reflecting on the art of poetry, that is best left to critics and aestheticians.  “A poet is not always the best judge of his poetry.”  There is certainly a grain of truth in this dictum, but together with this also goes the notion that the poet does not really know what she has done or is doing. This is precisely the issue which Edgar Allan Poe takes up in “The Philosophy of Composition”:
Most writers – poets in especial – prefer having it understood that they  compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition… the case is by no means common, in which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen pell-mell are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner. (432-33)
Is, then, a poet no more than an artisan who is well-skilled and well-versed with her tools and equipments, but does not really know the inner dynamics of the work that she does?  Of course, she chooses her form, meter, rhyme, rhythm, words etc., and these choices are, it is believed, determined by the choice of her material, but as to the larger question what informs her choice of content and form, or in other words, the possibility of a notion of poetry informing the choice of a particular content and form, that is considered to be a far more abstract, complex and philosophical issue to be answered by the poet herself. To my mind, such a claim is a far-fetched one.  It might be true that a poet is far too involved in her work to objectively assess or evaluate it, but to claim that she does not really know what she is doing is certainly misleading.
A poet is a conscious artist, one who is conscious of what she is doing.  The act of self-reflection is inbuilt into the act of writing.  She may not always explicitly articulate or state it, but this self-consciousness informs her poetry.   Quite often, the poet, instead of talking about her art of poetry, lets her poems speak for themselves; sometimes the poet, like a Wordsworth or an Eliot, speaks about her own poems, and also about poetry in general; and very rarely the poet, like a Wallace Stevens, makes the very act of writing poetry the theme of her poems.
Niranjan Mohanty belongs to this last category of the poet.  Some of his poems in Oh This Bloody Game! (1988) – “When a Poem Begins”, “Truth”, “Of This Habit,” “It Is All Light Then,” “What Is It to Be a Poet?” and “A Poem Neither Begins Nor Ends Only Breathes and Whispers” – deal with the art of poetry.  They address a whole range of issues: what is a poem; what it means to be a poet; the relationship between poetry and self; the relationship between poetry and the world; and the relationship between poetry and language.  In short, they constitute his manifesto on poetry.
           For Mohanty, poetry is nothing short of a divine and sacred act of creation.  The poet creates a world through his imagination and this world alone is real and “All else is fake” (“When a Poem Begins” 1).  He gets a glimpse of the divine  through the act of creation. In an essay “Creating a Space of One’s Own: Poetry in English from Orissa,” he claims that he subscribes to Seamus Heaney’s view that  creation of poetry is  attended by introspective waiting and enduring; a poet waits, endures and nurtures poetry like the Irish saint, St. Kevin  who waited and nurtured  the blackbird’s eggs:
Once Saint Kevin knelt to offer his prayers at Glendalough in County Wicklow, with his arms outstretched like a cross. A blackbird perched on his arms, laid eggs on it, as though it were a branch of tree. Saint Kevin took pity on the bird. Partly because of his pity and sympathy and partly propelled by his faith in creation, Kevin remained immobile for weeks. Only when the eggs hatched and the little ones had strong wings to fly, Saint Kevin changed his posture with a profound sense of satisfaction. The determination of will and faith flanked by patience resulted in the formation of the new life. (4)
Akin to the Saint Kevin’s nesting of the bird-eggs in his outstretched hand, a poet poised at the threshold of the real and the ideal soars high till he connects with ‘the network of eternal life”.  According to  Mohanty, a poem is a
             single act of the mind
wherein a tiger, a rose, a river,
a snake, an apple appear
simultaneously and form
a world and a sky of love hangs
over it, poised.

I know
this sky only matters.  (“When a Poem Begins” 48)
Through the act of imagination, “this single act of the mind,” the world of discrete entities is welded together into a unity.  “The sky becomes a pool” (“When a Poem Begins” 48) in which all become one.  The discrete entities begin to shed their unique identities and reveal a common identity.  The tiger, the rose, the river, the snake and the apple merge into the lotus which
             blooms in it
slowly, like the faith
in the clanking temple bells.
                           (“When a Poem Begins” 48, emphasis added)
           The poet, then, is a visionary who has the vision of this organic unity of things.  But this vision does not come of a sudden; it is like an arduous journey which the poet has to undertake.  This is suggested in the slow blossoming of the lotus.  But after the slow arduous process, when the vision of truth comes, it comes almost unannounced and with an amazing simplicity:
I never knew that the truth would come
to me with such simplicity
as the face of a morning.  (“Truth” 17)
But more than the vision of the truth, it is the very process of arriving at the truth which is important for Mohanty.  It involves coming to terms with the self and with the world, and it demands ultimate sacrifice:
Perhaps, between dying and death
truth settles, somewhere,
moistening the air with the colour of tears.  (“Truth” 17)
           In his search for truth, there are changing terms of engagement with self and the world as is evident from the lines quoted below:
You seem to begin a war
against none other than
an unknowable self within.
Initiate a dialogue
between yourself
and whatever you see, touch,
feel and hear around.  (“What Is It to Be a Poet?” 49-50)
From waging a war on the intractable and unknowable self to initiating a dialogue with it and the world around, the change cannot be more pronounced.  There is a movement from willfulness to mindfulness, from a certain egotistic desire of mastering the world to a surrender of ego.  It is indicative of the deepening and maturing of the poet’s vision.  There is the realization on the part of the poet that the self and the world are not predefined entities and do not exist independently of each other.  They are bound to each other in a communion. Both of them come into existence through a dialogue between them, and this dialogue invests them with meaning:
This dialogue is a burial
of all out-worn speeches, words,
hackneyed gestures and rhythms,
heart’s automation and gold’s glow.  (“What Is It to Be a Poet?” 50)
Through this dialogue the poet comes to have a fresh perception of the self and the world.  He begins to see things in a new light.  For him, the creative act is a process of organic becoming through which the materials are transformed into something absolutely new, and also very likely, strange.  Mohanty’s views here seem to come very close to those of Coleridge, but there is an important difference.  One may, for a moment, think of Mohanty as echoing Coleridge’s notion of imagination.  For both Coleridge and Mohanty, imagination is central to the poetic enterprise.  For both of them, imagination has the esemplastic power of uniting the subject with the object, of shaping things into one.  But here the similarity between the two ends.  For Coleridge, it is the poetic self (subject) which has the agency as poetry is an intentional act, a product of the “conscious will,” even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.  As opposed to this view of Coleridge, imagination is, according to Mohanty, not unfettered and unrestrained.  Imagination is always constrained by the presence of the physical world (object).  Objects (as objects) are not essentially fixed and dead.  They are not always already formed just as the subject is not always already formed.  Nor are the objects mere projections of the subject.  The agency does not, according to Mohanty, lie with subject only; it belongs to the object as well.  The object is not just reduced to being an aspect of the subject.  Both the subject and the object become fully formed through a dialogue between each other, and it is this dialogue which creates the possibility of the unity between the two.  What interests Mohanty is neither the subject (the poetic self) in itself nor the object (the world) in itself, but their dialogue, the very process of negotiation between the two.  According to him, a poem is that dialogue itself:
And slowly you learn
that this dialogue is your wealth,
and you, yourself,
either a shadow or nothing.  (“What Is It to Be a Poet?”  50)
           What is important to note here is that there is no finality to this dialogue. It is an ongoing process, and there is always a certain tentativeness to it. Therefore, the unity of the subject and the object is always tentative and is subject to revision and reformulation. It is because of this tentative nature of the unity between the subject and the object that his poem
hangs poised like a dream
between the edge of possibilities
and the dawn-drawn drabness of the real.  (“It’s All Light Then” 45)
           It is because of this dialogue that the world becomes available to the poet:
Ancient rumours of sin and salvation
of cross and crucifixion
of miracles and myths,
yours, all yours.
The deer you chased
and the women you loved and unloved
the glow-worms you longed for
--are all here.  All’re yours.  (“What Is It to Be a Poet?” 51)
           But this world becomes available to the poet not through an act of appropriation, but through an act of the surrender of the will:
The garden you arrive at is cool,
And slowly you become the garden. (“What Is It to Be a Poet?” 51)
The changing terms of engagement with the self and the world in Mohanty’s poetry are also reflected in the changing terms of engagement with language as well. As the French linguist Emile Benveniste says, “It is the language which provides the possibility of subjectivity because it is language which enables the speaker to posit himself as ‘I’, as the subject of a sentence” (224-25). It is through language a poet constitutes himself as a subject. Mohanty also seeks to realize his subjectivity through words. He constitutes himself as a subject in the poetic discourse through words. But this capturing of the self in words is an elusive process.
           Just as we see him initially waging a war on the unknowable self and the world, we also find him waging a war on words, trying to tame them by imposing his will on them:
I hunted words; wounded them and tamed them
to my basic need of articulating my silences.
I imprisoned them without caring for the songs
hidden in them, the myths of joy secretly sleeping in them.
      (“A Poem Neither Begins Nor Ends Only Breathes and Whispers” 63)
           But this illusion of the mastery of words soon gives way to the realization that words have a life of their own, and that they too breathe and whisper.  Mohanty in his obsessive concern with words echoes Jayanta Mahapatra who too is baffled by the uncanny power of words. Both Mahapatra and Mohanty suffer from an anguish that arises from an acute awareness of the responsibility of communicating, restriction of language and multiplicity of meaning: “defeated as I am by my own tactics, my poetry,/ by the words I measure with pain” (Mahapatra, “Will a Poem of Mine Be the Only Answer” 45).
For Mohanty, if there has to be a dialogue between the self and the world, there has to be a dialogue between the self and the word as well, as the word re/presents the world:
                    And all at once,
I heard something breathing, whispering.

I heard someone singing in the groove of my bones.
In the distant darkness a tree of light stood up
Bearing words green with laughter.
And I pat slowly on the sleek back of a poem.  (“A Poem Neither…” 63)
The word becomes the thing itself; there is no separation between the word and the world anymore.  It is only in a state of separation between the word and the world that both of them are subjected to violence.  In fact, separation itself implies violence.  Poetry is the process of reuniting the word with the world, and in realizing this vision of unity between the word and the world, the poet also realizes the vision of unity between the self and the world.  Poetry is reaching out to the world in an effort to reach within.
Thus, we have in Mohanty a poet who not only thought long and deeply on life, but also thought long and deeply on the art of poetry.  He made his poems present not only his views on life, but also his views on poetry.

Works Cited

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics, U of Miami Press, 1971.
Coleridge, S. T. Biographia Literaria. Edited by Adam Roberts. Edinburgh UP, 2014.
Mahapatra, Jayanta. “Will a Poem of Mine Be the Only Answer.” Life Signs. OUP: 1983.
Mohanty, Niranjan.  Oh This Bloody Game!  Berhampur: Poetry Publications, 1988.  All the poems cited are from this volume.
_____. The Golden Voice : Poets from Orissa writing in English. Berhampur: Poetry Publications, 1986.
______. “Creating a Space of One’s Own: Poetry in English from Orissa.” A Great Orissan Pilgrim: A Study of Niranjan Mohanty’s Works, Edited by Jaydeep Sarangi, Sarup Books, 2009, pp. 1-16.
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English. OUP, 2001.
Paranjape, Makarand. “Post-Independence Indian English Literature: Towards a New Literary History.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 33, no.18, (May 2-8, 1998), pp. 1049-1056.
Patke, Rajeev. Postcolonial Poetry in English. Oxford Studies in Postcolonial Literatures in English, edited by Elleke Boehmer, OUP, 2006.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.”  Concise Anthology of American Literature, edited by George McMichael, Macmillan, 1986, pp. 431-439.

SANJAY KUMAR is Professor of English at Banaras Hindu University. His research interests include Modern American Literature, Translation Studies, Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies. He is engaged in a comparative study of South Asian vernacular and folk literary and cultural traditions as sites of articulation of alternative modernities.  His latest publication is an edited volume, China, India and Alternative Asian Modernities (2019) published by Routledge, London and New Delhi. He is currently working on a book project on the oral epics of Bharthari and Gopichand, and co-editing a volume of essays on a sixteenth-century Odiya vernacular text, Lakshmi Purana and a related Bhojpuri folksong based on the story of Lakshmi Purana.

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