What is poetry? Before I answer this question, I want to address the question of whether language came after poetry or if poetry came after language. I am not going to check this by reading history books but rather by making a statement: poetry existed before language. But how could this be? Before I answer this I have to explain my view of what poetry actually is.
Poetry is to speak your mind. What is it “to speak your mind?” How we express your inner feelings and share by “speaking your mind?” This expression can be pleasure and pain, sadness or happiness, or may be degrees or combinations of them all. This “expressing your mind” can be made through your smile or outcry; a burst of excitement or even simply through silence. Silence is a part of language. Poetry becomes a complex medium: multi-dimensional, mysterious, meaningful and symbolic expressions or waves of emotion in your inner mind. Poetry is an inner dialogue. Poetry is a dialogue between you and yourself, the “you” existing in your mind. When this poetry emerged, language had not yet started to exist.
Let me clarify. The human mind experienced pain before language existed. For expressing inner pains, man and women could cry. In order to cry you do not need to know a language. This reality is still the same as it was in the beginning of human existence. For musical variants or compositions of uttering expressions of crying, you do not need any language. You do not need Bengali, Latvian, Swedish, Norwegian, English, Spanish etc. The same way, a smile or laugh does not require any pre-existing language.
Silence does not require any language, either. But silence itself can be a powerful expression. It is a proof in poetry that the sound of water flowing, the falling of leaves, of snow, rains, a stormy sea, roaring wind, wild clouds, bees’ movements, the moos made by crows, songs sung by cuckoos. They are universal expressions. Poetry exists independent of literary theory. Human minds change like the colors in the sky. But from the beginning to the end all poetry is to speak, or express, your mind.
This expression of your mind is true whether we are talking about a hundred line epic story or a simple three line short haiku poem.
The expression of your mind has a relation to the colours in nature. This language is international. To elaborate, let me say that the feelings in a human mind, the pains and pleasures are similar today as they were thousand years ago. The unhappy look in your face exposes the sadness in your mind. Your smiling face tells that you are happy. This does not change, does it?
This is the same in the expression of colors around you. White cloud in the blue sky, the different variants of green on the leaves, colourless water, white of milk or red blood. These are expression of colours we all can see. But what do we actually see?
The inner observation in your mind seen as colours are images and impressions hitting you from the outside. How is it possible for a human individual to express this poetry of a smile, a cry or of silence when there was not already a pre-existing language in the world? They needed signals and symbols to express their happy or sad experiences. A love couple communicates signals through their eyes; a mother and her child can tell a lot without expressing a word. Poetry is similar. To have this universal expression of your mind in poetry, language should not be a barrier.
Then what is the common instrument to understand, measure or judge poetry? To judge poetry every human individual has two pairs of instruments: two eyes and two ears. That is why we say that poetry is to see, poetry is to hear. This seeing is to see life, to grasp what is real. This seeing forms images in poetry. Here visual art and poetry are connected. What is the language of images, of art? It is to celebrate the freedom of colours, form and freedom of imagination. The painter simply needs colours, a brush and the freedom of imagination. The same applies to the poet: poetry requires pen, paper and freedom of imagination.
You do not need any particular sky or globe for your imagination. There is no limit to imagination. Thus poetry acquires the language of imaging and the timeless and universal dimension of language.
In the city of Riga, 21 poets from 21 different languages read their poems out loudly in their respective mother tongues. None from the audience can speak more than their own respective mother tongue. The audience is also from 21 different languages. How does the audience come to appreciate the poems read in different languages? They will to a certain extent judge through their ears, by the quality of the sounds. Some disturbing, some melodious and beautiful. This initial appreciation can be a door to further understanding of the poem. But to fully appreciate the same poem you need to start a journey into the same culture, its history, language and the nature from which it has grown. But by getting a little closer to the same sounds and music you have taken a small step and come a little closer to the same spirit. Just like the 20 other languages and cultures. Poetry becomes a road to greater understanding and appreciation of one another.
In the same way, if you gather singing birds from 21 different countries and you listen to their songs, you can appreciate variants of sounds and rhythms. You can love their songs, and most likely come to love a particular bird. But to understand a bird fully, you need to immerse yourself in “birdyness,” you need to be a bird. Since you can never become a bird, you can get as close to it as possible. It will make you richer I am certain! (But do not forget who you are).
The American beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem he called “Jessore Road” about the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. When we read this poem, we need to understand English, but then suddenly – because he has grasped the essence of our history - he is no more a mere American poet to us. He turns to become a poet belonging to us as well. The same applies to the poem, Jessore Road which gets an international dimension as the Liberation War got attention in the world at large. Ginsberg grasped the basic, human predicament, what it is to be a human being in search of freedom. He has become “Bengali” as well. He has become unlimited by borders of geography and culture.
Language of poetry develops through change and diversities. These diversities exist in a certain time and situations. Thus poetry turns to be a love-letter to time.
Therefore, I claim that poetry is a forerunner to philosophy. Poets are pioneers to philosophers. Poetry is a primary formula of philosophy. A poem from a brave poet can be a warning or a reminder for an autocrat at the center of power and it can even make him nervous. It has happened throughout history and it happens even today when the contemporary Indian Bengali poet Shankha Ghosh addresses the misdeeds and corruption of ruling elites in his poems. In the same way, we all know that a powerful love poem can touch the hearts of lovers – and even those who never loved.
Words of writers and poets can become weapons, weapons of mass influence: Master philosopher Socrates’ last words “I to die, you to live” still hit the faces of greedy crocodiles in the corridors of power. Sometimes, when lines or phrases from a poem become popular, culture barrier ceases to exist. The language of poetry picks its music from syllables and words and sometimes turns words into bullets. Thus poetry becomes universal.
After reading a good poem or listening to a good song, it will have an impression that lingers in your ear. It can be beautiful and pleasing, it can be disturbing or upsetting. One can play with words in poetry. But I hold that you need to accept three truths first. We talk of three aspects of text: image, story and musicality. Every poem requires all of these three truths, no matter whether it is a small poem like a haiku or a long poem like an epic story.
Let me quote a short expression by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore,
“Water falls, leave moves.”
The four words carry a story through images and musicality along its few syllables. Even if you do not know the language Bengali, you can enjoy the “taste” of musicality in your ears. But to grasp the story, and realize the depth of imagery, you need to get closer to and finally immerse yourself into the culture and language of Bengali. And the four words will become a universe in 5 syllables you will never forget.
Let me present one of my poems, before I end this:
Story of Water and Stone
I split the heart within my heart,
Build a house from stone.
I see my life inside –
A devastating storm within.
I see the sea in your eyes
Rising above water level.
Water embraces water
Where you see our house.
High tide strikes high tide,
The sun absorbs water,
Clouds soak up clouds
And life strains to breathe.
Bengali-Swdish poet Anisur Rahman made this presentation at an international literary seminar in the Latvian capital, Riga on June 3. 2019.