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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

My Favourite Poem

I am not sure it is wise to choose a favourite poem out of the millions that exist. It would seem to exclude all the others from the imaginary summit of a fictional pillar. The circumference of that pillar means that there is only room for one poem up there and it might be better not to erect the pillar in the first place and leave the literary landscape unobstructed.

But it is too late for me. I have already chosen a favourite poem. In fact, I have chosen a favourite several times. The first poet I read in any depth, Edgar Allan Poe, provided me with my first favourite, not ‘The Raven’ but a slightly less famous work called ‘The Bells’. How I loved the tinkle, jangle and crash of the cadences in the stanzas of that piece!

I read it again recently and found that it retains great musical power and it is still a poem I regard with intense fondness, but it is no longer my favourite of all. That is hardly surprising considering I was reading Poe when I was 15 years old. Our youthful tastes change not only according to our experiences but also as a result of all the other literature we consume. There is surely a tendency to prefer narrative poems when we are small and a diminishing reliance on actual stories as we grow older. Yet it was the music of ‘The Bells’ that fascinated me rather than the febrile images it contains.

Jabberwocky. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I think my love of euphony has always meant that I relish the way a poem sounds more than I appreciate any meanings it might convey. This is why it was easy for a nonsense poem to become my new favourite and to gently push aside the Poe piece. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ became for me the supreme poem and I learned it by heart. It is a poem that makes contextual sense despite all the meaningless neologisms with which it is sprinkled. Somehow, we understand the new words coined by Carroll and there is no need to have them explained. It is a poem that we absorb through osmosis rather than through the normal process of everyday communication. A masterpiece!

When I was 18 years old, I began reading Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and a few other English Romantics, and I discovered ‘Ozymandias’. Now this seemed to me to be a perfect poem. It had music, imagery and a moral, and furthermore it was ironic, an archaic episode with timeless relevance. Again, I learned it by heart, and I found myself in the not uncommon position of reciting it to myself whenever I happened to be confronted with an ancient ruin, whether the blocks of a tumbled castle or shattered torso of a fallen statue. It is a poem that turns a reader into an actor, an introvert into a declaimer. It became my new favourite but only for a short while. The poem that caused it to fall in my estimation was another in the same anthology I was reading.

An Illustration from Kubla Khan. Courtesy: Creative commons

Kubla Khan’ struck me as especially appealing because it has a wildness about it that balances out its sense of control. I am not sure why Coleridge affected me to a greater extent than Shelley (and Byron affected me hardly at all) but I was enthralled by the imprecise exoticism and the intimations of doom among paradise in this poem, which is as menacing as it is delightful, as frantic as it is magical. Coleridge himself regarded it as a work in progress, a frustrated potential, unfinished, a burst dream bubble. I wonder if a continuation might have diminished it? The fragmentary nature of the piece adds to its allure by increasing its strangeness. There is atonality here as well as smoothness, like troubling chords inserted in a serene nocturne.

A few years passed and I discovered a new favourite and had to topple poor old ‘Kubla Khan’ from the apex of that idealised pillar and replace it with The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the first Edward Fitzgerald translation, but whether this series of seventy-five quatrains can be regarded as just one poem is open to debate. Personally, I regard the quatrains as linked inextricably by mood, metaphors as well as theme, and there is a mini-sequence within the whole that gains significant momentum by being treated as a single creation. My ambition once again was to learn the work by heart and recite it at moments that were appropriate but despite my efforts I failed in the endeavour. There was simply too much wordage for me to succeed.

I tried reading more modern poetry, serious and mature work that I failed to understand at first and had to consider very carefully before I could tease out any meaning. I read Akhmatova, Rilke, Pound, Eliot. I tried (but was generally defeated by) Ginsberg, Olsen, William Carlos Williams. This was all well and good but my candidate for new favourite turned out to be something light, an insignificant ditty dashed off by a poet who wrote it as a gift for a friend, and once again it was the music that won me over, the jangling, tinkling, tingling, clipping, clopping, jingly rhythms. ‘Tarantella’ by Hilaire Belloc imitates the sound of a guitar and clapping hands, it clatters along merrily, nostalgically, a tribute to an ephemeral occasion in a mountain tavern that can never be lived again, and the words and their phrasing evoke much of the atmosphere of that night with an appreciable impetus. A candidate for new favourite, yes, but it ultimately failed to displace the Rubáiyát.

That was in my early twenties and soon after I lost interest in poetry, I have no idea why, and rarely read any. Occasionally I would browse an anthology and discover something interesting, but only a few poems made any impression at all on me, and none became my favourite. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám remained at the summit of my appreciation by default. My return to poetry was slow and uneven. The work of Federico García Lorca caught my attention and I chose ‘Canción de Jinete’ to learn by heart, which I did, probably poorly (my Spanish was never fluent). A little later I discovered the precocious genius of Arthur Rimbaud and taught myself ‘Le Coeur Supplicié’ because its torrent of fantastical words appealed to my inner ear.

Unfortunately, what I believed poetry had to offer was something I had no great use for. I misunderstood what it had to offer. That is no great crime, but I did miss out on its delights for a long time. Not until my mid-thirties did I start to return to the pleasures of poetry, and it was the humourist Don Marquis who ushered me back into the heaven I had forsaken, yet it is too much to claim that any of his poems became my favourite. I adore his cycle of poems about the cockroach Archy and the cat Mehitabel, but they must be taken as a whole in an evolving mythos. No individual poem of the cycle is worthy of special attention at the expense of the others. All are good, but together they are brilliant and thus they disqualify themselves from the game.

Now that I was reconciled with poetry, my tastes widened, and I read from a broader set of cultures and times than before. Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Tagore, Basho, Tu Fu, Housman, Holub, Mandelstam, Eliot, Yeats, Edward Thomas, Dorothy Parker, Ai Ogawa, Ogden Nash, Derek Walcott. I was very enthusiastic about the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan, so I read his poetry too and found a poem called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ that neatly summed up my own hopes for the future of the world. Did it become my new favourite? Not quite. I continued reading. Pessoa enthralled me, Cendrars and Queneau dazzled me. Complicated poetry dealing with the human condition and experimental verse based on mathematics made me nod my head sagely in a close approximation of a deep appreciation.

The City’ by C.P. Cavafy became my new favourite. I had heard his name often mentioned but felt no great desire to explore further. Then by chance I saw this particular poem. What a terrific piece! Hard, bleak even, wrenchingly bitter, but it does not depress the spirits of the reader despite its melancholy message. On the contrary it seems to inspire the reader to action. The poem is quietly and relentlessly insistent that you will never change your life for the better, that you can never escape the circumstances that have trapped you. It issues a challenge to the reader. Prove me wrong, the poem seems to say! I immersed myself in as much of Cavafy’s poetry as I could find. I went out of my way to visit his house in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, so wonderful did I now regard his work. Was this the final destination on my poetic voyage?

Not quite. There was another poem by another poet sunk deep beneath the surface of my awareness and it had been there for a long time. I can say that it had probably been my secret favourite from the beginning. I must have read it in an idle moment and forgotten about it, or thought I had forgotten about it, but it remained on the seabed of my subconscious, and ultimately it wrecked all the poetical vessels that followed, for I was never fully satisfied with any of those I called my favourites. I rediscovered it one unexpected day and it returned with unstoppable force into my affections. It was written by a poet who went to sea and saw the world, who travelled rather aimlessly for a number of years before the urge to write poetry took hold of him.

‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield is evocative and beautiful. It is heady and a little regretful at the same time. It contrasts the supposed splendours of the past with the drab present, and yet ironically in our own age we perceive romance even in the grime and smoke of Masefield’s ‘present’. Three ages are given to us for contemplation, a pre-classical time, the golden age of the Spanish Main, and the very start of the 20th Century, and three ships loaded with merchandise to represent those ages. The ships of Assyria and Spain are loaded with exotic and tropical treasures. They are floating envoys of a pair of widely spaced but equally fabulous cultures. The British ship is grimy and ugly and it wallows through a drab sea on a blustery day, carrying cargo that is practically an insult to the taste of the aesthete. The language employed is perfect for Masefield’s purpose. I know of no poem I like better.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine…

Cargoes (1903), John Masefield (1878-1967) 

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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Categories
Essay

The Incongruity of “Perfect” Poems 

Rakibul Hasan Khan discusses Sofiul Azam’s poetry collection Persecution from a postcolonial perspective

Sofiul Azam is one of the most important English language poets from Bangladesh. Persecution (2021) is his fourth poetry collection, which has recently been published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). His poetry has already appeared in some of the leading poetry or literary journals across the globe, including Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, The Ibis Head Review, and Postcolonial Text, to name a few. In Persecution, Azam shows an astonishing poetic talent, offering some wonderful poems on the themes of love, war, and politics, among others. If we read the poems of this volume purely from an artistic viewpoint, we will find most of them as what might be called “perfect” poems, but we may find the same poems somewhat problematic if we read them from certain political perspectives.  

The volume has recently come to me travelling a long distance from its publishing house in Ireland to my present residence in New Zealand. This journey, which began in Bangladesh where Azam lives, has covered three different countries of three continents. Such a transnational breadth is the main motivation for writing in English for many South Asians today, who have internalised English as a language of their own for their creative expression, inherited from their colonial past.

These poets capture the complexity and multiplicity of South Asian life with the common thread that binds them all — the language, English. Their expressions are somehow distinctly South Asian. This fact makes Azam stand apart from many of his counterparts in Bangladesh. Very few English language poets from Bangladesh, especially those who were born and brought up there, write such “perfect” poems in English. But Azam’s perfectly written poems in “native” like English with somewhat Western outlook and a poetic expression deriving from Western literary canon make some poems of Persecution incongruous in the South Asian context. In this essay, I will shed light on this incongruity while exploring some other features of his poetry.    

The most obvious influences on Azam in this collection are Eliot (1888-1965), Auden (1907-1973), and Walcott (1930-2017). Perhaps, among them his true poetic inspiration is Walcott, who is sometimes alleged to be more an English poet  than a Caribbean. This is somewhat true about Azam as well, but his situation is, of course, unlike Walcott. Azam is a self-made poet who has mastered his art of writing poetry in English through reading, overcoming his spatial “limitation” of living his whole life in a Bangla dominant country like Bangladesh where English is no more than a foreign language. Therefore, it would be an injustice not to recognise his extraordinary achievement in mastering the language to write like a ‘native’. But his poetry is not all about language. Azam’s success in Persecution lies in the fact that almost each poem is neatly written, maintaining outstanding poetic and artistic expressions. If the poems were decontextualised from their social, political, cultural, and historical backgrounds, this would be a collection of “perfect” poems. Azam in Persecution is like Walcott – more an English poet than a Bangladeshi! It is, of course, an overstatement, but there are some truths behind this assertion. To illustrate my point, I quote some lines from his poetry:

I tell myself that I can afford to be happy
like a grizzly bear only having to feast on salmon
moving upstream through shallow creeks to lay eggs and die.
I need to act like a hiker does, getting all he needs
On the wild shrubbery dense paths in Yellowstone. 

(“The Capitoline Wolf,” 14-18, pp. 15)

In the quoted lines, no one can doubt the mastery of Azam’s versification. If one is not informed of who is the writer of these lines, it would be hard to imagine these were written by a Bengali (English) poet. Objects and images like “grizzly bear”, “salmon fish”, “hiking” and “Yellowstone” are so foreign in the Bangladeshi or even in South Asian context that they seem to be incongruous in an otherwise perfect poem.  

But Bangladesh is not untraceable in Persecution, particularly in the part entitled “Heat of Interrogations”, where Bangladeshi landscapes reappear time and again through the poet’s nostalgic recollection of his childhood life in his hometown near the Garo Hill. The hill and a backyard pond in his grandparents’ house are the two most frequented places for the poet to escape from the complexities of metropolitan life of Dhaka where he lives. There is a clear undertone of English romantic poetry in the poems of this section. The quoted lines below may clarify my point:

I grew up picnicking in the Garo Hills.
In summer, I saw trees and clustered vines
dance in the wind and get covered with red dust. 

One day we will go there, to see together
the rain falling and washing the dust 
off their green foliage. 

(“Rain,” 28-33, pp. 17)

This superb poem somehow reminds me of Yeats, especially the early Yeats of romantic phase. I quote some lines from “Coming of Age,” another poem from this part, which casts a shadow over a nostalgic recollection of childhood event through the experienced poet’s realisation of its innocent cruelty:

Even as a child, I did atrocities like floating rat pups
in a coconut shell on a pond’s calm water.
I hear their sqeaks though I’m not degaussed
to such evils yet, drifting far from atonement. 

(11-14, pp. 12)

Such memories are the backbone of his poetry. In retrospect, he offers a profound insight into his life, which has a general appeal: “What am I but an accumulation of memories, / each of which is surmounted with unsuccess?” (16-17). It is true that every individual is an accumulation of memories.

This is a prominent feature of Azam’s poetry to attempt to give vent to some sad truths of human lives in general terms, especially in this part of the volume. The following lines from “The Pond at Grandpa’s House” may support my claim:

                       But I
Remain tensed like a hyacinth
Worrying about the lowering water. 

(17-19. pp. 19)  

This “lowering water” perhaps makes all of us tense, humans whose existence is as uncertain as that of a hyacinth and threatened by the drying up of water – the most vital source of existence. It is more so for Azam who does not want to strike his root in any particular place:

                              I don’t ever relish
the singular idea of being rooted in just one spot;
I rather feel like a rhizome branching out new roots
from its nodes, trying out its various potential climates
for the plurality is itself a self-renewing adventure.
Losing faith in those too preachy about the singular,
I prefer to be an unpaired jerk lusting for the plural.
If I say this planet is where I began and my windows
open into the universe, would I be allowed to belong? 

(“Earth and Windows”, 22-30, pp. 30) 

This is an unequivocal statement of Azam’s internationalism or transnationalism, renouncing any specific national identity.

Azam’s preference for a transnational identity is a common choice among many poets and writers of the so-called postcolonial world. It makes them different from the traditional postcolonial poets who usually express their deep desires to be rooted in their lands and cultures. Therefore, Azam’s choice of a transnational identity, against the backdrop of his ancestral home that he often revisits, can be interpreted as the conscious choice of a poet whose writing in an adopted language opens up before him an outstanding opportunity to explore other horizons. But there are scopes for raising questions about the intention of such transnationalism. Is it an opportunity for the poet to make his poetry more presentable to an international audience, since creative writers in English from Bangladesh and South Asia in general inevitably sense the shadow of an international as well as an unknown readership at the back of their minds?

I am aware that I am making a clichéd and contentious claim, and I may even be charged for being a nativist for raising such questions. Therefore, I must clarify my discomfort in coming to terms with the idea of transnationalism, which I think is largely confined to privileged people who can afford to assume multiple identities. This is perhaps a narrow and simplistic view of transnationalism, but it cannot be denied that those who adopt transnational or multinational identities are generally from privileged social positions. However, one particular feature that intrigues me the most is Azam’s romantic recollection of the past often with a profound attachment to nature. It makes him, to me, the last romantic of the post-postmodern age!

Part two of the book, “The Flames of Desire,” also exemplifies his romanticism. It is the spiciest part of this volume, but some of the poems in this part slightly disappoint because they do not fulfil my expectation of capturing the complexities of human relationship that I expect from the twenty-first century love poems. I am quite sure that many readers will differ and I admit that what makes me critical of Azam in this volume is essentially because of our ideological differences; his poetry as a form of art has mostly nothing to do with it. However, an exciting feature of this part is Azam’s experiments with metaphysics. This part brings out the influence of English canonical literature in shaping his poetic sensibility and artistry. On the one hand, the erotic and sensual images that he creates with an abundant use of conceits may remind one of John Donne, on the other, the rendering of the metaphysical elements in a modernist vein will remind one of T.S. Eliot who rejuvenated metaphysics in modernist poetry. The following lines from “Krishna’s Return Home” show evidence of his use of metaphysics:

As I reluctantly walk out of your woolen warmth
far worthier than the promise of a kingship
in heaven, I see washing on the line under the sky
with a few stars peeping like pot-bellied spies
through the curtains of dark clouds. (1-5, pp. 37)

These lines, once again, reflect the impressive craftsmanship of Azam who succeeds in matching the poetic talents of the English poets who influence his poetry.  

The extramarital sexual trysts that Azam accumulates in this part may titillate readers. But while emulating the erotic art of a seventeenth century poet like Donne who is notorious for his misogyny, Azam also falls into the same trap of presenting women as an object of men’s sexual pleasure, without any agency. The poem “Who Doesn’t Want to Make Love to Someone’s Wife?” is a case in point, from which I quote the following lines:

Could I borrow you?
I promise you will be returned unhurt to him
who’ll know nothing of rain’s work on a taro leaf. 

(10-12, pp. 47)     

This wonderful poetic expression is problematic for its gendered undertone. Although it may sound like making a gross interpretation of a love poem, I cannot overlook the fact that the quoted lines’ that show women are men’s possessions and they can be borrowed like any other objects. It sounds like a very offensive idea to me. Similarly, in some other poems, he compares different parts of a female body with fruits to be consumed by men.

The third part of Persecution, “Embers of Disappearance,” contains the most politically conscious and powerful poems. I enjoyed the poems of this part the most, but some of those are, unfortunately, problematic for being Eurocentric in outlook. One example of Azam’s Eurocentrism or a Western attitude is his treatment of wars, which is a recurring theme of this part. Surprisingly, Azam does not look beyond the world wars of the twentieth century to reincarnate the horror of war, assumably because of his politically apolitical and liberal humanistic Western outlook. Here lies the main incongruity of his poetry, at least from my ideological perspective. I think it is incongruous of a twenty-first century Bangladeshi poet to rely so heavily and uncritically on the World Wars to reflect on the horrors of wars, whereas there are so many ongoing and past wars in his part of the world, so many struggles of the oppressed.

Even his so-called transnationalism and lack of belonging to any particular place perhaps do not justify his stand because there are also many poems in this volume that reflect his awareness of place and time. Therefore, his position is curiously ambivalent in relation to his homeland. This kind of ambivalence is often considered to be a quintessential characteristic of the so-called postcolonial poets, but the paradox is that Azam does not seem to be very keen to identify himself as a postcolonial poet.  

Azam’s treatment of wars also indicates the influence of modern English poets on him. The following lines from “Requiem for the Undead” reflect his reminiscence of Eliot’s rendition of the horror of the First World War in “The Wasteland”: “A desert greens with corpses planted as seedlings. / Did dry sands wish to be washed out with blood?” (11-12, pp. 76). In the same poem, Auden’s account of his devastating experience of the Second World War in “The Shield of Achilles” is echoed:

Weary footfalls, the oars knifing the watery flesh.
The dreams that linger are burst-out bubbles
or hollowed-out conches washed on alien shores.
Batons, barbed wares, and the cold greet the future.

(21-24, pp. 76) 

Similarly, in another poem, he echoes the final line of Walcott’s famous poem “A Far Cry from Africa.” Walcott writes “How can I turn from Africa and live?” and Azam writes “How can I write poems and think of beauty alone?” (“Worries at a Hilltop Resort”, 27, pp. 89). Such kind of “intertextualities” are often intentional. They are undoubtably very artistic and evocative expressions, but the problem is neither the intertextuality nor the art, rather the context of the time and place when he wrote these poems. Do I sound like a nationalist now? I would rather call myself a postcolonialist. However, the influence of classic English war poets like Wilfred Owen or Keith Douglas, or the Cold War period’s poet Boris Pasternak, or the holocaust theme of Auschwitz in his poems indicates not only his inclination to present twentieth century modernist themes but also his Western point of view of meditating on his own experiences and perspectives. In this sense, he is a twenty-first century modernist poet from a postcolonial location, although it is not unusual among the Anglophone postcolonial poets to embrace Western modernism as Jahan Ramzani explains in his comprehensive study on such poets in A Transnational Poetics (2009). The irony is that Azam and many others seem to reject the identity of the “postcolonial,” but that identity persists to hang stubbornly around their necks like the dead albatross.

The most ambitious poem of this volume is “Prayers to the God of Jihadists.” In this poem, Azam deals with the issue of Islamic radicalism, which is a pressing concern for the contemporary world, particularly for the West. Azam also writes the poem largely from a Western perspective, which is evident in his use of the word “jihadist” – a popular Western coinage to describe the radical Muslims, and it is sometimes indiscriminately used to label Muslims in general. For many in the West, Islamophobia has ominously led to suspect every Muslim as a potential jihadist, and by writing this poem from their perspective, Azam seems to simplify a complex issue. The poem thus turns out to be a problematic one despite having enormous potentialities to become a great poem.    

Nonetheless, there are many poems or short expressions in Persecution which save Azam from doing injustice to his poetic merit. “Persecution” and “The Photographer” are two such poems. In these poems, Azam offers exemplary political consciousness, being fully aware of his time and place. I quote some lines from “Persecution”:

In the wake of the Confederate flags flying
o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
I know brown won’t ever be de-browned to white. 

I’m a genealogist, cracking the encryption codes
of all those suspicions under my critical lenses.
Oh, don’t let colour and culture make distance between us.

Elsewhere lines of sanity are now increasingly blurred.
Erich said Hear, O Israel! A new Holocaust is raging on.
So between an anvil and a hammer I stammer:

For Jews in Hitler’s war my sad tears drip,
Also for kids bombed out in the Gaza Strip.
Not anti-Semitic but you know Zionists never get it. 

(43-54, pp. 93)  

Whereas the above lines from “Persecution” express Azam’s consciousness of international politics, the “The Photographer” represents his awareness of national politics. In the latter poem, Azam makes a bold statement about political persecutions in Bangladesh. The photographer in the title of the poem alludes to a renowned photographer and political activist in Bangladesh named Shahidul Alam, who was arrested on the ground of sedition during a time of political unrest in 2018. In the following lines from the poem, Azam asserts his support for the photographer, protesting the repressive political regime that restricts freedom of speech:

                         I want caged birds
to sing their dreams out loud so that captors

feel the horror of wings being of no use.
Palmyra palm trees, though rooted,
make wings of their fronds. And only freedom

gets us on the wing. But in this country,
rules from their laboratory rain down on us
clay subjects and wash away what we made

solid with labour. I wonder if they’ll wise up
to the light brewing under darkness.
Those mute photographs will be vocal soon. 

(“The Photographer”, 17-27, pp. 104)

Thus, Azam expresses his solidarity with an artist who fights for freedom of thoughts and expressions through photography. This poem of a national subject matter has an international significance, for nowadays persecutions for dissents are very common everywhere around the world. It also justifies the titling of the volume.   

In fine, I repeat that Persecution is a collection of “perfect” poems. There are some problematic areas in this volume, but those are hardly because of any artistic weakness of the poems; rather, Azam’s ideological position sometimes weakens his political stance. His over cautiousness with form and expression is probably another reason of his political compromise. There is hardly any contemporary issue that he does not deal with in this relatively thin volume. Though I have not mentioned it in my discussion, his ecological consciousness is another highlight of this book. Therefore, I warmly accept this collection, keeping in mind the way the speaker of one of his poems asks his beloved to accept him with all his imperfections:

                        I am not

requesting you to accept me as a gem
you might have lost by mistake on the way,
rather as one humanly rife with imperfections. 

(“Who the Hell Benefit from Denials?,” 51-54, pp. 60)

Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at rakib.hasan82@gmail.com.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL