Once upon a time I had an ecstatic relationship with poetry. It started with Keats, expanded into Donne, Milton, Marvell, and Shakespeare, and then Hopkins, Yeats, Eliot. I was 15, and the ecstasy lasted until I was about 25. Keats’ great odes set me on fire. He was the first poet I read in his entirety, and he taught me the value of reading whole poets: not only is it the best way to learn to hear them as their voice is discovered and developed, but you also get to see them write bad poems, take wrong directions, make experiments that only half work, until out of the mist of abortions and deformities the most beautiful, perfect flowers of poetry show themselves. From then on I tended to read Collected Poems from beginning to end. Even if you can only do this for one or two poets, you will find it inspiring and instructive to see genius growing and under cultivation; in contrast, if you only ever encounter the peaks of poetry, you will have a misleading sense of what genius is and how it manifests, since you will not see the labor of decades by which most poets reach their summits — and it may cripple your own creativity, because you won’t see that most poets wandered along a path and that they weren’t simply born on the peaks.
Thus for about ten years I didn’t read but lived in poetry. Keats’ odes just went into me without resistance; they were easy to memorize, and throughout the day lines and phrases would play in my head, to be savored and murmured to myself because they seemed to hint at worlds just beneath the surface of my daily experience: “…magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” In my university days at Cambridge, reading and writing almost nonstop, I got to do this full time with all the major English poets. My state of mind in those years — unknown to me because I was in it, as water is unknown to a fish, until it is removed — was rapture, a constant high created by powerful words. It involved being minutely attentive to every word in a poem, every sound, and every possible semantic shading and ambiguity. Of course this attentiveness was also fuelled by an academic culture that emphasized close reading, but the analytical discipline of reading was vitalized by the emotional receptivity of youth and a natural sensitivity. I loved these poems; they gave my life its sweetness, and opened up for me my own heart. I am the kind of highly introverted person who doesn’t really think in words but in images and music, so the impact of the great poets was immense: they allowed me to give names to the motions and events of my own soul, and thus revealed me to myself. But what exactly was this rapture that enveloped me like a cloud as I went through my day?
The ancient Indian classic of poetics, the Dhvanyaloka (“Light/manifestation/world of Suggestion,” written about the same time as Beowulf), called it rasa: literally, taste, relish, savor. Barely any of the philosophical writers on poetry in the West concerned themselves with the distinctive ecstasy that all lovers of poetry know; notions such as the “sublime” are attempts to express it, but end up being bound to particular subject matter or particular genres but not poetry as such. These writers often spend many pages on rhetorical schemas, tropes, and formal patterns of expression — as if it is the skilled manipulation of these and not a special kind of emotional perception that makes a poem a poem. The Dhvanyaloka is entirely focused on understanding what the “soul of poetry” is, and in finding it to reside in the distinctive rapture of a sensitive lover of poetry it then tries to work through theoretical arguments to articulate what exactly this feeling might be. Like most Sanskrit philosophical classics, it can no longer be separated from its major commentaries, and the text itself as we have it is embedded in a dense mesh of scholastic argumentation between different schools of thought. One strand of debate throughout the text runs between the Vedic ritualists on the one hand, who have strict views on the literalism of the Vedas and therefore definite criteria for deciding why a passage may be considered figurative or not; and on the other hand philosophers like the great Abhinavagupta (10th century) who held poetic suggestion to be a special form of non-literal use of language. Indeed, for the Dhvanyaloka suggestion or dhvani is the distinctive characteristic of poetry, whereby the words of a great poem seem to have infinite richness, indeterminate levels of meaning, density of reverberation. The literalist is tone-deaf to dhvani and tends not to “get” poetry; or, when experiencing poetic narrative or drama, is only interested in character and plot. The genuine reader of poetry loves dhvani, is attentive and attuned to it, and through dhvani attains the higher joy of poetry, rasa.
Now rasa is not a passion (bhava), which is the type of emotion experienced in ordinary life. In the recitation of a poem in which the speaker is a woman whose husband has just died, the woman’s grief is the passion, but what the bard feels is not her grief — otherwise he would be unable to speak — but a different kind of feeling, a transcendent emotion that is not a passion but that expresses itself through passion and perceives or tastes the passion. This poem expresses not just grief but the rasa of grief, which needs the passion as a foundation — but which is itself an entirely different kind of feeling. In art we experience feelings that we don’t experience in our normal lives; this is why musicians, when they are deeply moved by their music, have facial expressions that no one ever has when not playing music. The reader or audience with no receptivity to dhvani will never understand this, and will always describe the effect of art with the flat terms of ordinary emotions such as “sad” or “angry.” A rasa is a different quality of feeling. The Dhvanyaloka goes some way towards solving one big problem in Western poetics: in watching a tragedy, how do we get pleasure from experiencing something painful? Are we bad if we do? This is not a problem if the pleasure and the pain of poetry are no longer ordinary emotions; the pleasure is rasa, which is very different from the kinds of pleasure we experience in being massaged or told good news.
The pleasure of rasa may actually feel like the highest spiritual states: it is …an enjoyment which is different from the apprehensions derived from memory or direct experience and which takes the form of melting, expansion, and radiance. This enjoyment is like the bliss that comes from realizing [one’s identity] with the highest Brahman, for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one’s own self… (Bhattanayaka, one of the commentators in The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana, tr. Ingalls, Masson, Patwardhan, 1990, p.222) For Abhinavagupta, “melting, expansion, and radiance” are good, but still a narrowing down of the multifariousness of rasic feeling; yet he agrees that it comes about rather from the cessation of that obscuration [of the true nature of the self] which is caused by the thick darkness of ignorance. (225) This is why in the state of poetic rapture we feel as if the veils have been torn from our innermost heart and we have found ourselves.
To get here we need a high degree of sensitivity and cultivation. Of Sensitive Readers: (sahrdāyānam): The word sahrdaya (lit., “having their hearts with it) denotes persons who are capable of identifying with the subject matter, as the mirror of their hearts has been constantly polished by the constant study and practice of poetry, and who respond to it sympathetically in their own hearts…”The body is pervaded by it as dry wood by fire”. (Abhinavagupta, 70) This is not a democratic vision of poetry; it is aristocratic, coming from a world in which people were expected and allowed to have different capacities and powers. But to one who has sensitivity, the blaze is unstoppable, and the ecstatic mood that comes from a meeting of a receptive soul with the greatest poetry can make a hard life seem worthwhile — and conversely, losing the capacity for rasa can make life seem an oppressive, deadening rote.
I intimated at the beginning of this essay that I once had a relationship to poetry that I no longer have. All things change; nothing is static. Still, how can the capacity for rasa — filled and irradiated as it was by the passion of youth and first love — ever be lost, and if we find later in life that we no longer feel poetic rapture so easily, what does that mean? Am I now only part of what I once was, or have I found a different but nonetheless rich relationship to poetry?