You are on page 1of 6

THE CRITICISM OF NISSIM EZEKIEL An Appraisal

BIJAY KUMAR DAS Indian English criticism is of recent origin. Sri Aurobindo is the first Indian English critic who has given a shape to Indian English poetry criticism. Nissim Ezekiels name is almost synonymous with post-Independence Indian English poetry. It is he who has given a new direction and a name, as it were, to Indian English poetry. But when his poetry brought him laurels his criticism suffered neglect. Few people know that he is a critic with original insight and deep understanding. His criticism when read in its perspective reveals the greatness of his mind, and the breadth of his understanding. Though he has written a small number of critical essays, they point to a new direction of Indian English poetry criticism. It is difficult to separate the poet in him from the critic in him, and again the critic in him from the scholar in him. In him not only scholarship merges into criticism but all three poetry, scholarship and criticism act and interact upon one another. Keeping these premises in mind let us turn to his criticism. First I take up the essay, Poetry as knowledge1 for discussion. At the outset Ezekiel makes his position clear. I want to remain within the sphere of poetry and to speak of anything outside it only in terms of apparent relationships. This is always felt to be necessary and important by poets and critics of poetry.2 According to Ezekiel a poet does not theorize. The creator of poetry, even if he is not a very good one but provided be is authentically a creator and not merely a cultural initiator, is bound to see poetry as knowledge in his own special way.3 The experience is vital to the poet. The poetic process can be spoken of through the language of experience. He also admits that the poet too uses that common language and these methods in certain cultural roles he may choose to play. But it seems to me that these roles are secondary.4 He does not agree with those who claim the highest status for poetry among the arts and sciences. He disagrees with C. D. Lewis views on Wordsworths The Solitary Reaper, when the latter says that Wordsworths task was to show the uniqueness immanent in a commonplace experience, to describe or project the state of mind she produces in him and that the knowledge we get from the poem is knowledge of a certain mood.5 According to Ezekiel, knowledge of a mood is

knowledge at all. He maintains that There is a sudden heightening of awareness without which the Highlandlass is not the Highlandlass of the poem but any lass in any landscape.6 The metaphors and images form a cerebral aura around the immediacy and totality of the experience. According to Ezekiel, We know of this experience when we read the poem, to the extent that we respond to poetry. But we still do not know the experience till such time as we appear to have passed through a process resembling that which is implied in Wordsworths poem. When we do, it seems that our experience of Wordsworths poem is complete. In reality, degrees of intensity, dimensions of feeling, potency of thought, quality of inner change, all are revealed as vistas only, with further potentialities clearly hinted at, so that between the beginning and the unseen, perhaps unseeable end is our life itself in the knowledge of poetry.7 Ezekiel believes that one has to live with poetry and not merely to read it occasionally. Versified knowledge is superfluous as knowledge and superficial as verse. Poetry as propaganda is equally suspect, says Ezekiel. According to him, The surrealist movement in poetry, claiming to arrive at the truth by using automatic modes of writing derived from the alleged workings of the unconscious failed miserably to produce much poetry with staying power. Marxist poetry is more Marxist than poetry. Drug-induced states of mind in which the consciousness is temporarily expanded and intensified have so far not produced any notable poetry. Poets who have mystical experiences and project them in verse have occasionally been successful but mystics who write poetry do it badly. Religious hymns, however notable the religious sentiment they express, are not notably poetic. Great religious poetry undoubtedly exists but the greatness is unequally divided between the poetry and the religion, while perfect integration between the two is rare. To be good, poetry has to be an independent art.8 Poetry to Ezekiel is an art which is independent of all other branches of learning. He believes in working on a poem - revising and re-revising till it achieves a kind of perfection. He is not pleading poetry for poetry sake far from it. He implores upon us to see poetry as knowledge. Ezekiel disagrees with I. A. Richards when the latter describes the statements of poetry as pseudo-statements. He argues that the distinction between two types of statements in terms of true and pseudo is deplorable because poetry is true or nothing, though its mode of approaching, grasping and expressing the truth may be different from that of science. Poetic truth is not pseudo-truth if such a term is permissible. It has to be examined in its context and may be located anywhere between the strictly personal and the universal. In fact, even when it is strictly personal in the sense of not corresponding to the known external facts, it is still true or false to the poets feelings, and the truth or falsehood is revealed in the quality of the statement, in the coherence, consistency, tune and resonance of the poem as a whole. However personal the poetry

may be, it has to obey the laws of truth, even the truth of an experienced contradiction poetically expressed, which gives it a universal significance ... But the statements poetry sets out to make are true statements in their own context and according to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.9 It is not correct to say that poets do not think. Ezekiel differs from T. S. Eliot on this point: Ezekiel maintains that What is more plausible is that the thinking is done in poetry as in philosophy or literary criticism and then projected in a form which conceals its conceptual character. 10 Ezekiel rightly observes that poetry that is broken up into thinking on the one hand and all the other elements on the other, which are then further broken up into individual units or qualities, is no longer poetry.11 Unlike Eliot, Ezekiel believes that Shakespeare does all the real thinking which the poetic imagination requires. Without real thinking his poetic imagination would be powerless.12 Commenting on the relation of poetry to knowledge, Ezekiel says: I think that if the relation of poetry to knowledge is not more often discussed by poets and critics, it is because they are afraid of its narrow, utilitarian connotation the false expectation it may create of a highly organized body of concepts visibly within the body of poetry. The body of poetry is emotion and the knowledge assimilated in it is emotionally assimilated. Otherwise it is not poetry though it is often the prose element of it in the guise of poetry. 13 Ezekiel considers metre, metaphor, image, symbol, structure, texture and tension as means of poetry but not its ends. The ends of poetry are meaning, knowledge and truth. Knowledge is the centre of the trinity. This essay is highly intellectual and thought-provoking. But it confuses rather than clarifies the proposition taken by Ezekiel: Poetry as knowledge because he has not explained what he meant by knowledge. Is it the knowledge of the poet that the poem expresses? Or is it the knowledge derived out of experience that the poem expresses? Should we take knowledge in the sense of power? Ezekiel cleverly avoids this problem by stating in the beginning of the essay that we know what poetry is and that we know what knowledge is. Nevertheless it is a very illuminating essay on poetry seen as knowledge in a specified context. Ezekiel has made an attempt to define Indianness in Indian English poetry in his essay What is Indo-English Poetry.14 He rightly observes that There is no single Indian flavour which alone can claim the designation and that its value, too, depends on a host of generative factors which should never be simplified for purposes of praise or blame.15

Ezekiel considers some titles of Ramanujans poems a having Indian orientation. According to him A mere glance at what is Indian in Ramanujans Selected Poems, is enough to indicate a complex interaction of psychological forces kept under linguistic and formal control. This complex interaction can hardly be called Indian without adding the word modern to it.16 Ramanujans poetry raises in the Indian readers mind sophisticated questions about ancient and modern Indian culture. According to Ezekiel, Kolatkars way of being Indian is natural and effortless, seeing the present in the context of the past. Belief and habits of the Indian tradition crumble under his sharp glance without recourse to any special poetic devices of the kind of which Ramanujan is a master. 17 Indian reality and the presence of Indian scene are easy enough to recognize in Indian English poetry. Similarly complex organised response to contemporary Indian situation can easily be found in modern Indian English poetry. One such example, according to Ezekiel, is Adil Jussawallas Missing Person. Though Ezekiel gives a few examples of Indianness in Indian English poetry, it leaves much to be desired. He is not very clear about the term Indianness in this essay and his reference to only a small number of poets regarding Indianness in their poetry is not very satisfactory. He too quotes liberally and profusely from the text to drive home his point. To Revise or Not to Revise 18 is an essay on the poetic process, that is, - how poetry came to be written. Ezekiel believes that as a rule poetry should be revised before it is published. Since poetry is a craft, it needs revision. Inspirational poetry does not need revision but there is a great danger to it - that is, when inspiration stops, poetry stops. There are two extreme viewpoints - one, inspirational poetry does not require revision, secondly, there is Valerys view that a poem is never completed - it is abandoned. Ezekiel believes that there are a number of positions accepted as viable between these two extremes. He says, I assume that there is such a thing as temperament which inclines the poet towards one or other mode of creation, and sometimes a combination of modes. As he comes to terms with it and understands its ways, he revises or does not revise expects inspiration or finds substitutes for it.19 Ezekiel suggests that a poet should have an open mind regarding inspiration and revision in order to make his poetry artistically viable. According to him Involvement in poetry, comprehensively, is of course the first condition, loving it, caring for its past, present and future, wanting very much to write it and to achieve some degree of excellence in the writing, thinking about its problems, assessing and

judging it without inhibitions, trying to assimilate knowledge of it; and even becoming acquainted with its psychological signs and signals, this is the beginning, the most elementary ,basis of poetic practice. 20 Ezekiel has a word of caution for the poets who want to revise their poems. Thus he says: In revising poems, poets should guard against the danger of adding complexity like a varnish or altering a structure for the sake of a more intricate rhythm, which may choke the meaning. A poem should never be revised to accommodate mannerisms but to eliminate such as have crept in. Clearly, then, revision is a double-edged weapon. 21 In an article entitled The Writer as Historical Witness: Culture, Colonialism and Indo-English Poetry, 22 Ezekiel maintains that the bulk of Indo-English poetry is necessarily remote from historical witnessing. He is of the opinion that, when ever there is vitality in poetry there will be variety as well, and much of it will seem, superficially, to be only self-regarding until we see it in a full human perspective. In that perspective, the personal-private has a curious tendency to become everybodys experience. A lot of poetry, then, I argue is public when it is most private, writes Ezekiel and goes on to say that to assess Indo -English poetry in relation to two concepts: one is that of major and minor, the other that of Indianness would be more constructive and profitable. I am inclined to agree with Ezekiel on this point not fully but fifty per cent. It is difficult to say who is a major poet and who is a minor poet. There is no clear-cut border line between major poetry and minor poetry. Even Eliot was called a great minor poet by David Daiches. But it is desirable to assess IndoEnglish poetry in terms of Indianness. Ezekiel argues that Indian references and images by themselves do not make an Indo-English poem Indian. The determining factor is the sensibility at work in relation to all things Indian, which are not to be identified with what is claimed to be a wholly indigenous perception or way of thinking. Indo -English poets are effective witnesses of cultural history when they use those modes (i.e., irony, parody, scepticism and allied modes of thinking) naturally and authoritatively. says Ezekiel. It is not difficult to agree with him on this point. The validity of Ezekiels criticism lies in the fact that he is both a creator and a critic. His observation is based on first hand experience and that lends authenticity to his criticism. NOTES
1

Nissim Ezekiel, Poetry as knowledge, ed. S. K. Desai and G. N. Devy, Critical Thought, (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1987) Pp. 226-236 2 Ibid p.227,

3 4

Ibid p. 227 Ibid p. 228 5 Ibid p. 228 6 Ibid p.229 7 Ibid p.229 8 Ibid p. 230 9 Ibid p.231 10 Ibid p. 231 11 Ibid p. 232 12 Ibid p. 232 13 Ibid p. 233 14 Nissim Ezekiel, What is Indian in Indo-English Poetry? Osmania Journal of English Studies Volume XIX, 1983, p. 50. 15 Ibid p. 51 16 Ibid p. 54 17 Ibid 18 Nissim Ezekiel, To Revise or Not to Revise, The Literary Criterion Volume XVIII No. 3, 1983. Pp. 1-9. 19 Ibid p. 3 20 Ibid p. 3-4 21 Ibid p. 7.