Categories
Editorial

Reach for the Stars

Courtesy: Creative Commons
“Nothing can be unconditional: consequently, nothing can be free.”


“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” 

-- George Bernard Shaw,  Maxims for Revolutionists, Man & Superman (1903) 

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a great writer and playwright, used these epigrammatic lines to bring focus on what people thought was liberty or freedom from oppression, from regimes that were dictatorial. While discussing concepts of freedom, one does wonder if political freedom solves all humane issues, occasions we celebrate with great aplomb, like the birth of a nation.

This month started with the observance of July 4th, the date of the American Revolution in 1776 and the publication date of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855. In between these two years, in 1789, ten days down the line, on July 14th, another significant occurrence has been handed down by history to be celebrated as the Bastille Day— the day prisoners were freed from Bastille, a major event that led to the overthrow of the insensitive monarchy in France, a symbolic resurgence of the common, exploited man that has often been seen as an inspiration for later uprisings to reinforce the concept of democracy or liberté, égalité, fraternité.

As we move forward in time, towards August, one wonders if liberty attained by these means was good for all fellow humans? France was part of the Allied Forces that with America taking the lead dropped not one but two atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945, to end the Second World War. Did the ends justify the means? Reflecting the cry and suffering of these victims, we have poetry from Suzanne Kamata, a well-known writer from Japan. Michael Burch on the other hand has shared poetry with us which shows how the nuclear programme continued unrepentant despite the devastation it caused. One must give kudos to the descendants of the victims of the nuclear blast that they have forgiven the perpetrators, admitted their own hand in the Second World War and moved ahead. In that spirit, we have an essay on peace by Candice Louisa Daquin, who joins the Borderless team as a writer-in-residence.

We have much happening in poetry this time with an interview of American poet Jared Carter, a recipient of number of awards and fellowships, including the Walt Whitman Award and the Guggenheim fellowship. He walks us through how he created the poem ‘Yeti’ (first published in the May edition of Borderless) and talks of the impact of artifacts from China and India on his own thought processes, the impact of Du Fu (712-770) and much more. We have a poem in Du Fu’s style this time by George Freek and an interesting poem with a Chinese title by Carter, a title that can have multiple connotations and yet each seems to fit the poem perfectly.

Rhys Hughes has brought humour into our pages with both his poetry and essay on William Mcgonagall, who bore the sobriquet of the worst writer in the world through his life and had things thrown at him when he read his poetry in Dundee. Yet, his work survived the beatings, and he lives on known as the ‘Scottish Homer’.

More poetry by Singaporean poet Marc Nair gives us a glimpse of the little island as viewed by someone who has grown up on it. Poetry is always multi-hued, and we have Lorraine Caputo transport us to a Garífuna village in Honduras. Penny Wilkes takes us ‘Down the Path of Nostalgia’ with a mix of old and new photography, prose and poetry on how almost a decade after the end of the Second World War, she started her love affair with photography and nature. It hovers between poetry and musings, and this time we have a rare musing by Jared Carter too. Devraj Singh Kalsi continues cogitating with wry humour while arranging bookshelves. We also have the backpacking granny visiting Indonesia. Post sharing this trip, our granny — Sybil Pretious — plans a little break from publishing to complete her memoirs.

A riveting flash fiction by Kaiyi Tan celebrates the spirit of conquest in these dark times, weaving into the pandemic lore the quest for personal freedom. Stories this time carry a real life one by Jean Kortum on adoption — her own struggle. But then, stories can be real or unreal – draw a bit from both to reflect bigger truths or create alternates that sink into the human mind as a perceived reality and leave an imprint deep inside the heart, like that of Niles Reddick. My conviction is that some lived experiences of writers seep into each story, whether it is from Bangladesh or India or by our literary fictionist, Sunil Sharma. His narrative continues infused by suspense.

We have a complete translated story of Tagore by Radha Chakravarty as our book excerpt this time. ‘The Parrot’s Tale’, ostensibly part of a children’s collection, reflects Tagore’s response to conventional schooling — a reason for him to start Shanti Niketan perhaps. She has also shared two of her translations of Rabindranath’s songs from Bhanusingher Padabali (1884, Bhanusingh’s verses). Chakravarty generously consented to an interview and has given us a glimpse of her journey as a translator and critic.  We also have translated a long poem by Tagore on our pages, a poem that inspires hope, though it was named Dushomoy (1897, Bad Times) finally. The original name had been Swarga Patthe (On the Path to Heaven) as can be seen from a page in his diary. We have been fortunate in finding a recording of his voice reciting the poem in Bengali and the print of a sample page of the manuscript bearing his signature.

We continue with Akbar Barakzai’s poetry translated by Fazal Baloch from Balochi – this time addressed to his daughter reminding for some reason of Nehru’s Letters from a Father to his Daughter — a book I read as a child.  In addition, we have translations from Korea and Bosnia & Herzegovina, from where the young poet, Maid Corbic, has taken up the concept of freedom of the self and of the nation, both together.

Keith Lyons from New Zealand in his very brief essay has quoted American novelist William Faulkner, “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” And perhaps we need to remember this if for no other reason, then, just to maintain our own sanity in these strange, almost unreal times as we attempt to unite as humankind to free ourselves from an unknown and unfathomable virus.

In a more sombre note, last week, untroubled by the virus, a victim of cancer, Bollywood legend Dileep Kumar, aged 98, breathed his last. Ratnottama Sengupta adds an unusual colour to the Borderless Journal with her tribute to this hugely acclaimed actor. In the process, she unfolds for us a brief history of the Indian cinema, and a glimpse of a world that transcends all man made constructs in quest of perfection.

We have an interesting set of reviews this July. Rakhi Dalal has reviewed Anuradha Kumar’s riveting short story collection, A Sense of Time. A murder mystery for young readers, Murder at Daisy Apartments by Shabnam Minwalla, has been reviewed by Gracy Samjetsabam. The Third Eye of Governance–Rise of Populism, Decline in Social Research by Dr N Bhaskara Rao, reviewed by Bhaskar Parichha, seems to be a non-fiction that looks forward to bridging gaps between academia and the real world, a truly felt need. Parichha has also given us an essay on a man who inspired Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, to make him a part of his lore, a journalist who moved around all of Asia with equal aplomb and a sense of humour – a truly global citizen called Richard Hughes.

I want to thank all our wonderful contributors for making this edition a reality. And readers, we leave you to explore the unknown… like that place we call outer space. A huge thank you again to not only all our wonderful contributors, our faithful readers but also to the fabulous Borderless team scattered across the world.  

Before I wind up, a little bird trills a song of hope in my ear. Business tycoons have started stepping into the mysterious void of space to eventually – let us hope — create affordable travel for common man, though it has started off as an expensive proposition. Will this be an industry that will generate more jobs on and off Earth and find new places for man to inhabit? After all, when George Bernard Shaw wrote his plays and essays, we had yet to cross the frontiers beyond Earth, had never even thought of flying across the world in budget airlines or mining moons!

Will we have a new world, a new outlook and a new set of hopes and aspirations as we stretch the frontiers of our home planet?

Wish you all a wonderful month of reading and thinking.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

The Scottish Homer: William McGonagall

William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), the son of an Irish handloom weaver, was such a bad poet that he has been hailed as a genius. His knack of bungling every subject he ever attempted, of making even the most tragic events seem funny, is almost unique in literature.

Born in Edinburgh in 1825, McGonagall was drawn to the theatre and first tried his hand as an actor. His performance of Macbeth was a classic of improvisation. Having been run through by Macduff, he refused to die and continued declaiming impromptu verses until a well-aimed kick from the assassin finally brought him to the ground.

His true vocation, however, lay with the written word. He received a fatal bite from the muse of poetry one day in 1877, at the age of 52. “A flame,” he said, “seemed to kindle up my entire frame and I felt so happy, so happy I was inclined to dance.”

This inclination to dance did not impede his literary output. Once he began writing, he found it difficult to stop. His themes were as grand as his rhymes were banal. He bathed daily in pathos and bathos, almost drowning in the tub that he enjoyed thumping. He quickly produced over two hundred poems, nearly all of them about battles, shipwrecks or other disasters, the heroes of which were often squashed.

So on comes the iron-horse snorting and rumbling
And the mountain-torrent at the bridge kept roaring and tumbling;
While brave Carl keeps shouting, The bridge is down! The bridge is down!
He cried with a pitiful wail and sound.
But, thank heaven, the engine-driver sees the red light
That Carl keeps swinging round his head with all his might;
But bang! bang! goes the engine with a terrible crash,
And the car is dashed all to smash.

Whenever human folly was responsible for a catastrophe, McGonagall was quick to point it out. In ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’, one of the most famous of his creations, he rounded on the architects and engineers with astonishing hindsight, his tone a curious mixture of pragmatic pomposity and melodramatic modesty. The ending of that epic, with its engineering advice, is especially poignant.

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses…

In the handful of his poems not concerned with violent loss of life, but only with relatively peaceful loss of life and its aftermath, McGonagall plumbed shallows of solemn profundity rarely waded into before or since. His elegiac but often sadly overlooked ‘Funeral of the German Emperor’ contains one of his most remarkable stanzas.

The authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin,
To decorate with crape the beautiful city of Berlin;
Therefore Berlin I declare was a city of crape,
Because few buildings crape decoration did escape.

Unable to find a publisher, McGonagall became his own literary agent and publicist. On one occasion, he even tramped all the way to Balmoral Castle to offer copies of his poems to Queen Victoria in person. But the Queen refused to see him and he had to settle for selling them to the policeman at the gates, one of his few occasions in his career when he earned money from his work.

He spent the rest of his life seeking recognition of his talents. At poetry readings in Dundee, he tormented listeners with his lyrics until they had to resort to throwing peas and other vegetables at him. When these items were abandoned in favour of slushier and harder missiles, he decided it was time to leave Dundee.

I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts, as loud as they can bawl
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me.

In the spring of 1890, McGonagall began to suffer headaches. He went to see a doctor who, in the words of a local journalist, “put a tube up his nose and blew into it as if he were performing solo on the trombone”. The trouble was diagnosed as an air cavity blocked by writing poetry. But McGonagall did not take the hint.

McGonagall seems to have remained undaunted by all the adverse criticism he received in his lifetime. He invariably denounced all his critics as “vendors of strong drink”. He was convinced that the world would one day recognise him as the equal of Shakespeare. In some ways, his faith was justified. He has earned the sobriquet ‘The Scottish Homer’ and all his books are now in print.

Indeed, his poem ‘The Famous Tay Whale’ has actually found its way into a respectable anthology. George MacBeth, editor of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse, defends the poem by insisting that McGonagall “was the first and perhaps so far the only widely known naive poet, and as such he deserves attention”.

McGonagall died in 1902. Many claim that it simply never occurred to him that poetry is an art that demands at least some skill. Others insist that he truly believed he had that skill in abundance. I am inclined to the latter view, but I also sometimes wonder if in fact he knew exactly what he was doing and has fooled us all.

Another consideration: If the purpose of poetry is to entertain, then McGonagall must rank as one of its great masters. There can be no better tribute than the ‘Ode’ composed by the students of Glasgow University in 1891, a deliberate parody of his style.

Among the poets of the present day
There is no one on earth who can possibly be able for to gainsay
But that William M’Gonagall, poet and tragedian,
Is truly the greatest poet that was ever found
above or below the meridian.

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.

.

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