God in Poetry: Does he exist in a Postmodern World

(Published in Modern Literature, 10.3.2020)

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Father! Thou must lead.
Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me be bred
That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.

This is from a poem by the famous Renaissance artist, sculptor, poet and architect Michelangelo. This particular poem, ‘To the Supreme Being’, was translated into English by the romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Here Michelangelo reaffirms his faith and talks of divine nature of inspiration, how God gives him the ability to write, paint and create. Michelangelo wrote about twenty poems, some of which bring to life the paintings of Sistine Chapel.

Centuries down the line, we find Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the opposite end of the world still acknowledging divine participation in his creative process. His experience seems to be close to that of Michelangelo. He finds that he is infused with a creative urge and inspired by divinity to create. In Kemon Kore Gaan Koro he Guni’ (How do you sing O Divine One), he acknowledges this divinity:

How do you sing O Divine One,
I only listen to you in awe.
The tune is like the light that flashes through the world,
The tune is like the breeze that flows through the skies,
It thunders like a torrent ripping through rocks
Flowing creating a wondrous music.
I try to sing in that tune
And yet I cannot find that tune in my voice.
The lyrics hesitate to say what I want —
My life surrenders itself to you
You have trapped me
In this web of tunes

When Tagore and Michelangelo composed these poems, they wrote of being in touch with an energy that led to the creation of the most beautiful. In ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ (1819), romantic poet John Keats had stated –

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Imagination, beauty and God all merged together for the Romantics to create a sense of wonder and awe. However, it is difficult to find a definition of beauty or God in today’s poetry or postmodern literary thought. Essayist Pete Lowman, a doctorate on God and the English novel, enquires into this: “But now we have a culture that does not believe in God, so what is beauty? Is it purely subjective?”

Art is perhaps as close as we can get to it. French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, an atheist and one of the major influences on postmodernism, defines the concept of art“The rising ground is no longer below, it acquires autonomous existence; the form reflected in this ground is no longer form, but an abstract line acting directly upon the soul. When the ground rises to the surface, the human face decomposes in this mirror in which both determinations and in determination combine in a single determination which ‘makes’ the difference.” This kind of thought is often applied to poetry, making it an intellectual maze -perhaps too complex for the common reader to comprehend. But such art is not beauty or God. It is more an exclusive artistic expression to which only some can relate.

South Asian English poetry, while often influenced by occidental thought, seems to have continued having a stronghold in the voice of the people. Though whether God has ceased to exist as an entity or inspiration is not really talked of, the angst of the people has often been reflected in poetry. Amrita Pritam wrote passionate poetry in Punjabi. Her poetry, often feminist reflected on the issues faced by a woman in a patriarchal society. Her most famous ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ (Today, I Invoke Waris Shah), around Partition (1947) cried out against the violence that ripped through the subcontinent piecing it into India and Pakistan.

Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from your grave,”
And turn to the next page in your book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.

Some South Asian poets have gone deep into the politics of national identity to appease occidental critics. Nissim Ezekiel in his ‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ has tried to create a poem which is supposed to be depictive of how Indians think and speak.

I am standing for peace and non-violence
Why world is fighting and fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understand

He did what he was advised to by opinions such as that of Paul Gieve who states“A writer needs a national or cultural identity, without which he becomes a series of imitations, echoes, responses; he does not develop, because there is nothing at the core to develop.” But, is that not rather a limited definition of a writer? Should poetry not be universal rather than defined by an outmoded concept borne off the steel mills of Lancashire in the eighteenth century?

While South Asian English poetry still reels under occidental influences, recognition, awards, communism and Nietzsche’s ‘God is dead’, in the mid-twentieth century, around the time Nissim Ezekiel was twenty and, two years after the death of Tagore (1941), Sartre explained the lack of God in his essay called ‘A New Mystic’ (1943): “We should not understand by that that He does not exist, nor even that he now no longer exists. He is dead: he used to speak to us and he has fallen silent, we now touch only his corpse. ”Was this a reaction to the World War that bore existentialism as its own child and adopted Kierkegaard’s absurdism and nihilism as its foster children and wove them deeply into the intellectual thought process so that it continued to bear fruit into our times?

Lowman traces the start of this disbelief to romanticism, imagination and then to Camus, a strong proponent of this philosophy. He explains, quoting Camus: “‘Up till now, man derived his coherence from his Creator. But from the moment that he consecrates his rupture with him, he finds himself delivered over to the fleeting moment, to the passing days, to the wasted sensibility.’ He (Camus) illustrated that waste on another occasion by remarking, ‘A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.’”

Then, can there be a reason left to write?

A current day favourite, Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges, finds one. He says wrote poetry because the lines came to him and bothered him till, he wrote them down.  “If I don’t write this down, it will keep pushing on and worrying me. the best thing I can do is to write it down.” And the source of inspiration? Borges says“I know for a fact that I accept my inspiration, but I am not sure where exactly it comes from.” Borges never admits his inspiration rests on the divine.

In an age of disbelief, Cambridge has taken on cudgels to foster religious imagination in contemporary poetry.

Read the rest in Modern Literature

Of Statues, Sausages and Stardust…

 

What could statues, sausages and stardust have in common?

Stardust is equated with wishful thinking (which is what leads to creation of great artworks) and sausages are being mooted for immortalization with a thirty meter statue in the offing in North of England. I read that in an essay and then from a newspaper report that had prime minister Boris Johnson wearing a garland of sausages and rooting for a huge statue of Heck’s sausages in Northern England! He loves those sausages so much that he thought they were German!

The tallest statue in Germany stands at 53.44 meters and dates back to the late nineteenth century. Some Asian statues beat the German one with their youthful good looks and height! The Lushan buddha in the Henan Province of Buddha stands at 153 meters and was completed in 2008. The Guanyin statue in the middle of the Lake in Hainan province was completed in 2005.

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Yan Di
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Shi Huang Di

The “ Mount Rushmore of China” stands 105m tall in the yellow river scenic area and bears testament to Chinese emperors Shi Huang di ( the First Emperor, the man who took the Terracotta warriors to his grave in Xian) and Yan di ( the flame emperor, who came before Huang di and probably acquired the name from slash and burn tactics to clear farming lands). I have a feeling that the spirit of Yan di likes to descend on Brazil and Sumatra to inspire ‘slash and burn’ for clearing lands! Though Brazil has one too… a tall statue. Standing at a height of 110 meters, along with the monument, the statue of Christ the Redeemer was completed in 1959.

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Leshan Buddha, Chengdu

However, one must add in all fairness, China has some tall ancient statues too … like the statue of Leshan Buddha carved into the Hills that stands at 71 meters made between the 713 and 803 CE. Said to be hewn by a sage to tame the wild waters created at the confluence of the rivers Min and Dadu that flow at its feet, the Buddha makes one feel really Lilliputian as one measures their height against its thumb. Here the statue was made by a monk to help mankind. The hewing evidently calmed the waters enough to give traders and wayfarers a safe crossing at the waterway… used much like the highway where the sausage will grow to bring glory to Mr Johnson.

Myanmar made its mark too when it came to lying and standing Buddhas! The Laykyun Setkyar is the second tallest Buddha statue in the world at 130 meters. At its foot lies the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world. The Laykyun Setkyar was completed in 2008, the reclining Buddha in 1991… of course the Rohingyas, who were denied citizenship in the 1980s continue to await the compassion of the giant Buddhas, or is it that they are denied that as they continue different?

Though prime minister Modi of India is normally quiet on all issues relating to any controversy, he could not let India down in the matter of statues. He decided to create a stir by beating China and the rest of the world if in nothing else in holding the record for the largest statue — that of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel*. The statue of Vallabh Bhai Patel stands at 181 metres tall as a symbol of unity and harmony— the tallest statue in the current world. Patel’s contribution was great too! He persuaded all the little princedoms that refused to join Nehrudom to become a part of India under Nehru…

Talking of unity, another statue that comes to mind is the Statue of Liberty in New York which had a plaque inviting all immigrants to shelter under the umbrella of America from 1903. The lines now will no longer open up America to all and sundry.

The original lines of the poem (The New Colossus, 1883) by Emma Lazarus are:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A BBC report said the lines would be translated to:

“Give me your tired and your poor – who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

The lines are in keeping with the current immigration policy (public charge rule that will take effect on October 15, 2019), said Mr Cuccnelli, the acting head of the American citizenship and immigration services. “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American,” he added clarifying the government stand.

All that is fine as every country has a right to create laws, except one wonders, a few centuries before the Europeans started out on their voyages in quest of Gold, Glory and God, who inhabited America?

Long before the Statue of Liberty, in the days before the Europeans set sail to hunt for Americas or the Indies, exquisite sculptures were hewn into a basalt cliff in the ancient temples of Ellora in India. Made between 600 and 1000 CE, the caves house deities from three religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The largest monolith carving of the Kailash temple is a wonder to behold as is the architecture of the Buddhist caves. How these caves were carved in those ancient times remains a mystery and one can only conjecture at the skill level of the workers. There are griffin-like and sphinx-like creatures in one of the panels. One wonders if a worker from Egypt or the middle East had wandered in… because those were long before the days of visas, of real/conjectured walls and all immigration policies which returned immigrants to their home countries.

In conclusion, I would like to add, that the best way to make statues or punish those who  disagree or have a different opinion is to travel back in time to get Medusa Gorgon. She can freeze people or giant sausages with a glance… and if you want a colossus… I am sure scientists will soon be able to stabilize the contraption from the popular Hollywood movie, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, and blow up the normal sized statue made by Medusa!

 

 

*I wonder why Mahatma Gandhi was not chosen for this honour… He fasted against the Partition, was killed by a Hindu fanatic and his sesquicentennial birth anniversary has been commemorated this year!