Nepali Poetry: Imperatives for New Avenues

Mahesh Paudyal

When poet and critic Matthew Arnold, as early as the last eighteenth century said poetry could replace religion in the future, he was coldly received. People were apprehensive as to why poetry would and should replace poetry. But Arnold was a visionary who foresaw at least two things. First, he knew that science was slowly dispelling medieval religiosity, and people were not finding a place to anchor their faith. In other words, faith was leaving the world with a cadence as were shingles on the shore of the Dover Beach. Second, he probably anticipated that the last remnants of religious refuge would be theoretically and philosophically dispelled, and as expected, Nietzsche brought in the decree. Neck to neck with Nietzsche’s rise to prominence was the avant-garde movement in English, led by Water Pater and Oscar Wilde that proved much of the conventionality to be weak and frail. Famous as the ‘naughty nineties’, the decade brought back the spirit of the Bohemians of late Victorian England. Their rise and the almost simultaneous rise of Nihilism to the limelight among academicians and scholars further shook the base of religion as a panacea to all existential questions concerning life and good conduct. Closely came the First World War which brought devastation never preceded in the past. Millions were left dead, and millions were injured. The belief of man in any superhuman power was challenged, and faith in forces beyond the world got a blow.  All these confirmed Arnold’s apprehension, and reechoed the cadence on the Dover Beach – the same cadence Sophocles heard long ago on the shore of the Aegean Sea. When the Second World War came and battered the world, the question of faith was almost non-existent.

Where verdict does the future court have for Matthew Arnold? Has faith really receded? Has poetry become the religion of the world? Sadly, the answer to the first question is ‘yes’ while to the second one, it is still a big, big silence.

There is no doubt that poetry holds the potential to ascend to the rank of religion. It has not, in our case, been able to do so hitherto, and that is a question to be pondered over. First, to argue in favour of poetry’s ability to become as revered as religion, we can take two examples. First, when a man comes face to face with a dumfounding crisis in life and is trapped in a dilemma or conundrum, he seeks an answer either in religion or in poetry. We quote Sally and say, our sweetest songs are those that tell of the saddest thought. We quote Shakespeare and wonder what a piece of work man is. We recall Wordsworth and reiterate, the child is the father of man or think of Southey and say, sweetest is the voice of love that welcomes our return. Where else does a man go when the constitution or the law is always far away from the laity when crisis comes all of a sudden, uninformed?

The second example comes from inscriptions in public places. Inscriptions in public places come from poets. They too come from leaders no doubt, but as leaders are politically indoctrinated, there always is a chance that there are people who do not agree in totality with what a leader says. Poets have the potential to belong to everyone, though of late, factional poets too are burgeoning. One can find quotations from poets on railway platforms and even on the wall of trains in South Korea, for example.

The greatest success of literature, particularly in poetry should be measured through its reach to the readers. There often is confusion that when critiques label a work as a ‘milestone’ or ‘unprecedented’ it is successful. We must first transcend ourselves from this illusion. Successful poets become cultural icons, and as Mathew Arnold says, ‘touchstones’. Poetry should always aspire to ascend the ladder of public appreciation and become a touchstone.

A thorough scansion of the most successful poets across the world shows that a poet secures himself a position for permanence among the people if he shares any of the three important characteristics: rootedness in myth, an allusion to history, and novelty of the idea.

Before discussing why should and how can poetry be rooted in myth, some clarification about the nature of myth itself appears pertinent here. Of late, regrettably, though, there is a tendency to brush aside all myths as superstitious, conventional, regressive, and ideological. Myth, apologetically, is not as simple as that, and such premature and dogmatic fallacies in our interpretation bar us from our advent into the reality of mythical originality.

Myths are not just of incidental rise; they too are deliberate. Man has, since the earliest time, been a curious being. This curiosity predates Thales, Democritus, Archimedes, Newton, Kepler, or Bohr, and goes back to prehistoric times. Before science becomes a layman’s tool, what happens to those curiosities? Man resorts to myth and seeks answers. Those who are creative enough invent their myths. For the larger interest of society, some creative poets and storytellers do the task. These myths slowly diffuse into the laity and settle in the collective unconscious of society. This collective unconscious which is by and large the social counterpart of Freud’s individual unconscious is so firmly rooted in a culture that some fair-weather political indoctrinations can never brush them aside as outdated or superstitious, or even ideological.

Those works of art that address the collective unconscious of the society that is by and large derived from myth or what Northrop Fry might love to call the ‘archetype’, hold the maximum potential to transcend the test of space and time, and belong to the larger fold of space-time continuum. Poetry that has its roots in the myth common to all members of a culture can become timeless. In doing so, however, it doesn’t necessarily need just to reiterate myth. It can allude; it can recreate; it can revise; it can question or, it can add and subtract. It however extends its roots to myths.

Such poetry has two advantages over the ‘water-bubble’ poetry that comes with the political need of a time and dies out with time. Man’s economic condition is not constant. It fluctuates, and so does interest. It, therefore, is a fallacy to believe that an individual – elite or proletariat – remains in the same class all the time. The class itself is both a mobile and flexible category and is inevitably plagued by transience. Poetry, serving a particular time’s economic or political interest, therefore, falls into disuse as season changes. But poetry rooted in myth, though myth itself might be of ideological construct at times, has stronger chances to penetrate layers of temporal contingencies, and pervade.

The second advantage of rootedness in myth is that literature rooted in the cultural myths of the writer becomes an exclusive property of that culture for which the rest of the world has to consult it or refer to it. The same is not, and can never be, available in its original form to the rest of the world through a source other than the literature of that very culture. Writing about general human reality is a global phenomenon, and one’s poetry will not necessarily sound new or worthy of attention. When it alludes to myth, it is likely to be read both out of curiosity and for research purposes.

Writing about myth has had a glorious tradition. Homer and Virgil dwelt on myth. Shakespeare pulled myths down to the stage. Coleridge relied upon the supernatural, and Keats brought mythical allusions. TS Eliot made up a pastiche of mythical and other allusions. Wole Soyinka and Chinuwa Achebe brought alive the Nigerian myth before the world. Indian writers fall back upon their past. Tagore has the supernatural tradition before him. Tolstoy explored the secret facets of mythical legacies in a number of ways. And incidentally enough, much of such writings catch the attention of the readers, curriculum framers, and researchers from other cultures the obvious reason being that such stuff in the original is not available elsewhere.

The history of a culture is its specific belonging, and always a hot cake for consumers from other communities. By history, I don’t mean the world history to which, everyone has access. I also don’t meet the national history of a large region, be it a nation or a continent. Such kinds of stuff are normally carried by the curriculum in the discipline of history. By history, I mean tribal history, ethnic history, history of a region, a clan, a community: stuff the historiographer neglect, history though banal, power eclipsed and neglected. I mean an ethnographic history, a source of tribal knowledge, a move to locate knowledge in the periphery, away from the centers of power: both political and epistemic. The history I am talking about is the history directly from the mouth of the people that somehow failed to find space in what is called nationalistic history, and remained unexplored hitherto. I also mean history ‘against the grain’; something that could not be thought of during the heydays of the dictators of any form – autocratic or pseudo-democratic under the veil of democracy.

Literature with local, micro-level history is likely to draw a global audience. Such literature should always offer a promise for adventuring into a world unexplored hitherto. Why people love to read Momaday, who came from the Native American tribe of the Kiowas, is because, his literature is a bottom-up history that was always hidden from the American mainstream or nationalistic history that focused on the allegory of oppression and the drama of freedom played by the whites, guided at times as conquerors, and then as the conquered. Black American and South American writers went back to their tribal and racial history, collected stuff, wove them into their narratives, and furnished new stuff to the world. Mississippi and the culture around it come alive in William Faulkner, while Alabama burns and kills in Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King. James Baldwin gave Prometheus a renewed interest in world literature. Ha Jin writes paradoxes within Chinese history that would never otherwise come out and become public. Such histories, small though in magnitude, can give the author a specialized space among a galaxy of writers who are still struggling to secure for themselves an identity.

Arguments might be floated that writers across the world have become famous without talking about myth and history. The answer to this argument is that such authors write of themes that are novel in literature. Robert Frost wrote on issues seldom thought of, though they address real-life situations. Of course, his idea sounds novel when he says:

The brook was thrown
deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
in fetid darkness still to live and run —

 In fact, much of human civilization has been to finish off nature, including rivers. The river must have gone underground, but its ‘immortal force’ has somehow remained immune to human reach. Much of Mirja Ghalib is about love and intimate human sensibilities, but the way they have been projected has remained unsurpassed in world literature.

Of late, a type of discussion among professionals and academics has started about the international position of Nepali literature. The discouraging absence of Nepali authors in the curriculum abroad is plain enough to explain the state of affairs. Reasons are more within than without. Much ink has been spilled. The nation has been shaken no doubt, but Nepali literature has not been able to assert itself globally. Not a single author from this part of the world has become a global literary icon. The cases of Samrat Upadhyaya and Manjushree Thapa are different, for their writing premise is largely Western, as they are not stationed in Nepal. Moreover, they ought to wait to see if they can make remarkable advent in the curriculum across the globe.  One might also wonder if they are exclusively writing Nepal and its experiences for the world.

Where then, are the explanations for our absence in the global scenario to be sought? Saying that we lack translations is not a wholesome answer. The answer lies in our inability to explore our myths and history, or our inability to assert something that is new in theme, not just new in presentation. A discussion of myth and history, therefore becomes pertinent here, vis-à-vis Nepali literature.

Though Nepali poetry has a long history, the publication of Bhanubhakta’s Ramayan in the 1860s had two-fold significance. First, the erstwhile linguistically divided Nepal was offered a unitary base of language that has come to us as Nepali, our lingua franca. Second, it brought myth down-to-earth, and addressed the collective unconscious of not just a community, but of the whole civilization.

A long time, almost for a century after the publication of Ramayana, Nepali poetry was largely dominated by metrical verses. This age shows the rise and maturity of Motiram Bhatta, who albeit, lived a short life. He championed metrical verses of love and romance, and not much serious and philosophical work in literature came forth. Following him was a spell of vacuity in Nepali literature largely because of the Rana Rule which was stringent and autocratic not just in politics, but also in literature.

Rana rule too saw some literature, and Lekhanath Paudyal furnished much of his finest lyrics during the period. With Lekhanath, however, literature was more or less entangled with moral agendas. Yet, Lekhanath deserves attention for his engagement with mythical themes, bringing them down-to-earth for addressing human psychological issues. His metrical intricacies and linguistic refinement however barred him from transcending the national boundary and making an advent into the larger foray of world literature.

Following his age was an age of turbulence, characterized by the anti-Rana movement. Balkrishna Sama, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and Siddhicharan Shrestha pioneered the movement through literature. Though Sama was more engrossed in philosophical and symbolic writing and Devkota in romantic and artistic creation, it was Siddhicharan who actually gave a literary fervor to the anti-Rana movement. This age has to date been regarded as an age of unprecedented fertility in Nepali literature. Samas’ plays have been unprecedented. Devkota, owing to his thematic eclecticism and finery of expression earned himself the title ‘Mahakavi’ while Siddhicharan became the Yugakavi, the poet of his age! The ground these exponents prepared eased the task for their descendent, which had taken a clear-cut modernist route beginning with Gopal Prasad Rimal in the mid-forties of the twentieth century. Nepali poetry has, in production, never looked back since then.

Alternating between themes of revolution and romanticism, the terrain continues with an exceptionally high order of creativity for quite a long time, following Gopal Prasad Rimal’s ‘Prati’ published in Sharada in 1937 A.D, regarded as the first free-verse poem in Nepali literature. This free verse, which also marked the dawning of structural modernity in Nepali poetry, has to date, remained the most dominant verse form in Nepali literature. It should not however be forgotten that alongside such free verses, poets like Madhav Prasad Ghimire and Kedar Man Vyathit continued writing in metrical forms.

One of the most dominant characteristics of Nepali poetry since then has been that it has never been able to free itself from the theme of revolution. The reasons are historical. History as such has seldom been written, but the need for a rise has however been always iterated. The reason is that people’s democracy and associated civil rights have never been secure in Nepal. The fall of Ranas was accompanied by the reinstatement of the monarchy. Though King Tribhuvan conceded power to the people through an elected parliament, King Mahendra imposed autocratic Panchayat rule upon the people. Though King Birendra’s rule appears by and large placid, the referendum of the 1990s in favor of or against the panchayat gave poets an opportunity to become revolutionary. Closely following the people’s movement of the early nineties showed the rise of Maoist conflict that culminated in the fall of the monarchy in Nepal forcing King Gyandendra to leave the throne forever. The latest phase is one that has not still been able to sort a clear-cut mission for the socio-political transformation of the country. Poets are once again engrossed in socio-political agendas; envisioning a better future for the nation’s life, or expressing disgust at the status quo.

Over more than seventy years, Nepali poetry has experimented with a number of forms and subjects. History has been written about no doubt, but it is all but the nationalistic history of the kings and rulers that the world knows of through the media. The type of ethnographic and tribal history, this paper had been talking about, got seldom written. The myth was by and large forgotten, and Nepali poetry had not much novelty to invent. As a result, it reverberated between the hills of Ilam in the east and Dadeldhura in the west, or between the Himalayas in the north and the Tarai in the south. It could not ship itself beyond its frontiers.

It, therefore, is imperative that Nepali poetry should now change its route. It should be more engaged with research agendas than with agendas of assertion. Myths, that belong to and only to the Nepalese should make their forceful advent into its literature and force the world abroad to look hither. History, that has never been written, should be resurrected. The newness of themes should be sought, keeping itself abreast with what has been written across the world. Our poems now should become expressions of the collective unconscious of the society we write from and about. Myth, brought in and celebrated to such an extensive extent, has not yet been detected in a poetic volume of any poet writing from the Nepali cultural space.