Commonwealth poetry oh, please. Can we have those games ?

Published : 9:42 am  October 15, 2018 | No comments so far |  | 


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There was a time when people talked about the Commonwealth. That’s a distant memory now, despite the entire flurry about the Commonwealth Games a few years ago. The games became a hot topic only because of all the money to be made out of it.

No one talks about Commonwealth poetry or literature with the same excitement, because that doesn’t smell of money.
The Commonwealth short story prize totals only 15,000 UK pounds, with the winner getting 5,000 pounds. It is peanuts and not enough to get any of our politicians interested in hosting a literary event.
But, while we are getting sucked more and more into the xenophobic maelstrom of believing that we are the centre of the universe, there is a vigorous stream of Commonwealth writing out there.
It isn’t surprising that hardly any of our writers, in English writing or in translation, are represented in 
commonwealth writing.
We have become culturally marooned on an island, quite literally, over the past few decades, unable to separate politics from culture. As the politics of the Commonwealth fade from the mind, so does the culture.

Therefore, it was interesting to come across ‘Commonwealth Poems of Today,’ an anthology edited by Howard Sergeant with more than 100 poems from Australia to Cyprus, India, Ghana, Singapore and more (22 countries).
Published in 1967, it isn’t contemporary; to dig it out of its shelf now is to do justice to all these poets’ honest labour, because poetry, the finest of all written literature, gets forgotten all too easily.
It isn’t because these poems can’t stand the test of time. Fifty years isn’t long enough to test that. They get forgotten because of publishers’ whims.
Even good novelists get dropped. Poetry, followed by the short story, is scorned by many publishers, and it’s all too easy to drop even established poets, while publishers will keep re-issuing only the biggest names, the ‘celebrity’ poets – T. S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, W. H. Auden et al.
Hence, going through the work of these now almost forgotten Commonwealth poets (unless their work and memory are kept alive in their own countries and communities) was quite absorbing. As the editor puts it in the preface: ‘What, then, is Commonwealth poetry? One might just as well ask – ‘What is the Commonwealth?–what, precisely, is the nature of these  links among Indians, Ghanaians, Scots, Malaysians, Australians, Kenyans, Maltese, Canadians, Pakistanis, Englishmen, and many others of different nationalities?

Perhaps in due course, the poetry they produce will help us towards an acceptable definition, but at present, since each of the countries concerned has its own intrinsic problems and is pursuing its own line of development, it might seem that the term ‘Commonwealth poetry’ is largely one of convenience. Some of the countries of the Commonwealth may share the same problems and preoccupations, some may fit into the same general pattern, but the only thing they all have in common is the English language and literature – and many of them have other languages and literatures as well. For instance, Professor K. R. S. Iyengar says, ‘A first look at the Indian literary scene is likely to prove most bewildering. It is said that there are nearly 200 languages and thrice as many dialects in the Indian subcontinent. Many of these have their own literatures, either oral or written. And all are implicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in the abiding life currents of the people.’

Yet, this common bond of language which links over 300 million people throughout the world is one of the strongest and most important bonds they could possibly find. ‘The introduction of English as the official language,’ writes J. O. Ekepenyong (in Commonwealth Literature), ‘is one of the greatest benefits of colonialism in Nigeria. How else could communication of whatever nature among a people speaking about 250 languages and dialects have been possible without the tedious, expensive, time-consuming and sometimes unreliable, process 
of interpretation?…”
“In fact, when in response to nationalistic feeling, the Indian government proclaimed Hindi the official language of the country in 1950, it soon became evident that to discard the use of English would result in a failure of communications and would seriously impede development and progress, so that in the interest of Indian national unity it became necessary to amend the constitution to give official recognition to English parallel to Hindi.


" Sri Lanka has dropped out of the Commonwealth literary sphere"

It is strikingly noticeable that, though the constituent countries of the Commonwealth have their own cultural, social, economic and political problems to solve, each of them is beginning to use English in its own way, and each is developing its own poetic traditions (some, of course, more rapidly than others).
Though this was written in the 1960s, it is as valid now as it was then. If the term ‘Commonwealth Poetry’ is largely one of convenience, was it convenient or inconvenient to replace it with 
something else? 
Since the Commonwealth was started as a political, not cultural, phenomenon, it is worth comparing it with its replacement, which is SAARC.
SAARC has its cultural shows, but no poetry movement comparable to that of the Commonwealth, though four SAARC countries (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh) are part of the Commonwealth, too.
The New Commonwealth of 1949 has 53 members while SAARC has only seven, but the magnitude of cultural activity can’t be judged merely by size. The Maldives left the Commonwealth in 2016, but Rwanda joined it in 2009.
Among the Commonwealth poets of the 60s, there is so much talent that it seems unjust to select a few at random – but that has to be done due to lack of space.

Here are the down-to-earth, no-nonsense words of Australian  David Campbell – “As I was flirting with a girl,
Because my girl was playing hell,
With half a dozen different men,
Swearing from me she learnt the part,
I chanced, as she came in, to turn and catch her…”
Bruce Dawe, another Australian, offers us almost surrealistic imagery –
“Lord, for these mariners adrift/on pain’s equivocal ocean,
Be the buoy bobbing on the 
water’s waste,
The hope of landfall as they listless lie,
In the body’s open boat, feverishly chewing,
The salt soaked leather of words for sustenance.”
Canada’s Raymond Souster writes with both nonchalance and biting irony, in the poem titled The man who finds love on the subway:’

Some mornings are better than others
One day you find her in the first car,
Almost without a word she sits down, curls up on the seat beside you,
And before the train reaches Queen you have known her all your life, and are ready for love.
Then there are black days when you go from coach to coach and she has escaped you/or missed your train.
Taner Babbars of Cyprus says with impish humour, in “Emigrants Iconoclasm’:
As if a left-handed god has placed my village so dangerously on that slope,
Where even dogs sheltered their heads under rocks when barking,
Sheltered cocks, crowed always 
at sunset,
Grapes taught a serious winter drunkenness.

From Ghana, poet Frank Kobina Parkes wrote obliquely about national unity  in ‘’Renaissance’:
Flowing streams merge with 
tribalist waters
To one destined berth,
In the fullness of the ocean
All gain strength,
Sea, sea, swallow me whole,
Swallow me Niger,
Swallow me Nile,
Rivers join with national watersheds,
Making one big sea,
In the unity of the Ocean,
All are free.

Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel casts a gentle eye on human history in ‘Philosophy’ with his measured, elegant verse:
There is a place to which I often go,
Not by planning to, but by a flow,
Away from all existence, to a cold,
Lucidity, whose will is uncontrolled,
Here, the mills of God are never slow,
The landscape in its geologic time,
Dissolves to show its quintessential slime,
A million stars are blotted out,
I think of each historic passion as 
a blink,
That happened to the sad eye of Time.

In ‘The Medal,’ Pakistani poet Tawfiq Rafat speaks in a secular voice difficult to imagine in today’s religion-dominated, militarized Pakistan:
When the telegram arrived
I was combing my hair in the sun,
And gossiping with the servants,
It said the Government were sorry,
My husband was dead,
Killed in action,
For two days, I did not know what had happened
..I was invited to a ceremony where the general gave me a medal
And patted my son on the head.
Now the medal is lying in its box and is taken out less and less,
What shall I do with it?
A medal has no hands, no lips, no genitals.
It is exactly what it looks like: Just another piece of bronze.

From Sri Lanka, just three poets – Patrick Fernando, Ashley Halpe and Michael Ondaatje – are included.
Ondaatje’s ‘Martinique’ has a cosmopolitan air typical of the age: 
The music formed out of spit-filled trombones,
Seeded jazzmen appear through glares of smoked white lights: 
The mercenaries creating grand irresponsibility in the dancing,
Waking the snakes in my head
Until the tongues begin to move
Like black lightning,
Me sitting in this cool 
smokeless room.

Just as SAARC hasn’t sprouted a comparable poetry movement (all these countries have English as a link language, except maybe Bhutan (in any case, poetry in indigenous languages can be translated into English as a SAARC cultural endeavour) one must question why Sri Lanka has dropped out of the Commonwealth 
literary sphere.
In the same breath, one can wonder why Sri Lanka no longer has a poet of the calibre of Patrick Fernando writing in English.
These questions should be answered primarily by the political establishment because our culture and everything else overwhelmingly dominated by politics, and the love-hate relationship our leaders have maintained with the English language since independence is directly responsible for the decline.