On Sensitivity to Poetry: Musings Provoked by Sanskrit Poetics

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”. (Abhinavagupta70) 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?


13 thoughts on “On Sensitivity to Poetry: Musings Provoked by Sanskrit Poetics

  1. Krishnan, I love your writing. Even your writing about religious matters has a certain poetry to it. But your writing about poetry is poetry epitomised itself because it explains the rhapsody and rapture of poetry to one sort of musically or poetically tone deaf like I. Your present musings are so touching about love found and lost but then remembered again when memories flood back with an endearing soul. Thank you. Vince Cheok

      • Krishnan,

        I wonder whether you thought I were young and sensitive when I am in fact old and indifferent or nonchalant or more accurately equanimous to life’s outpourings.

        I came from a humble ‘poor’ urban slum village called ChowKit in Kuala Lumpur in the ‘fifties’. Most of the residents just managed somehow to just make ends meet. Nonetheless they were ‘happy’ if they could cope with the travails trials and tribulations of urban poverty.

        Rather than ‘rapture’ you learn or acquire from young of the innate ‘fear’, or should I say the ‘dread’, of the impositions of poverty. Despite the humdrum of village gangs and louts and their gambling and prostitution rackets, life was quite staid and uneventful, so long as you keep out of trouble (from the red-beret cops) or harms way (the triads). You learn quickly when to run out of sight when ‘things’ happen.

        But this innate ‘dread’ paled into insignificance, when I struck indescribable fear, crawling through my bones and sinews one day. The curiosity of a the five year old in me got the better of me when it incited me to throw stones at the cadaver of a dead dog I found in my wanderings near one the ubiquitous rubbish piles all over the village. Not exactly Davy Crockett, it took quite a few throws before my barrage of stones hit their target. Then all hell broke loose! The bloated stomach burst and out come the innards and thousands of worms. At the same time I felt that a thousand ghosts were reaching out to consume me for my sacrilege.

        Years, and that is many years later, when I reacquainted myself with ‘death’ from seeing corpses of my dead parents and relatives and friends, when one attended more funerals each year than birthdays weddings and celebrations combined, you see death as a fact of life, and that childhood ‘fear’ has given up the ghosts that came with the first encounter.


      • I inferred from our little exchanges that you’d be older and more equanimous than me, but not the poverty background: what a way to be in touch with the real ground of life. There’s a book in there. My own background is more middle class, but the traumas there were from the violent racism of middle England. Your exploding carcass image will stay in my mind forever!

  2. I was born in KL at home in a Chinese kampung (what is now Jalan Raja Laut) in Chow Kit precinct opposite Kampung Baru in 1950. I have been residing in Sydney Australia since 2001. Sad to say but my beautiful KL and Malaya (my home) of childhood is no more.

  3. I forgot to mention that I am now retired. I was a corporate and banking lawyer and accountant. I am a Jesuit Catholic cum Chan Buddhist (remaining traditional Chinese in the sense of Taoism and Confucianism) if that makes sense, who reads up on Hindu and Sufi texts.

    • Hah, yes, the mix does make sense to me, a longtime admirer of Matteo Ricci. I have grown to enjoy reading Aquinas while also studying the Daoist and Confucian texts. Even though my name is Indian and I have spent time in India, I identify more with my mother’s (Hakka/Nonya) family. You have seen a lot of changes in your life.

  4. What a coincidence! My father is Hakka. My mother is Hokkien/Nonya. The Hakkas are one tribe that is sort of matriarchal in ‘spirit’. We Hakkas have no indigenous home province, hence ‘Hakka’ as in ‘Guest People’, as we were originally from what is now the Chinese side of Manchuria, and like refugees, over generations, sought refuge in the South China. The Hakka womenfolk keep what is the Hakka tribe, tradition, culture and language alive. Modern China is inextricably linked to the Hakkas. Starting from our Hakka forefather in Hoong Xiao Chuan who led the Taiping Rebellion against the Manchus, through to Sun Yat Sen (Founder of the Republic), the Soong Sisters, and Zhu De and Deng Hsiao Peng and Marshal Yih and the rest of the (Hakka) Long March Army (read Han Suyin – The Crippled Tree), China is China today because of the Hakkas. We are the only tribe with our own Hakka Museum in Moiyen (our capital city in what is now the Hakka Homeland or Hakka Mountains). Yap Ah Loy and Han Suyin and Lee Kuan Yew are featured in the Hakka Museum. Mao Tze Tung’s wife is also featured. There is some vague literature that Mao himself is a fifth generation Hakka. But as for you, be proud that you have a Hakka mother. Hakka women are the Amazon of China. One Hakka female only infantry defeated a whole garrison of the Manchu Army! There is a saying in Chinese – if you want to be happy the rest of your life, go and marry yourself a Hakka wife. They are tough as door nails and hardworking like a sheepdog! The most famous Hakka movie wise today is Chow Yun Fatt of worldwide Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fame. He was already famous in Asia for the movie -The God of Gamblers.

    Vince Cheok

    • That really is an amazing coincidence. As a child in Malaysia and later growing up in the UK, I was always most comfortable in the company of my Hakka family, and even though I haven’t spoken Hakka for about 50 years it is still in there somewhere in submerged form. Recently two of my mother’s sisters came for her funeral, and the house was once again filled with the sound of Hakka — music to my ears. It starts to return to me with exposure. I spent 3 years in Taiyuan, north China, 1986-89, and at the university I talked with an old professor whose specialty was the migrations of old dialects; he was the one who told me about the Hakka migration from the north. I’ve read about the Taipings, have not read Han Suyin but now will, and did not know Chow Yun Fatt is “one of us.” Where exactly is Moiyen? I will visit one day. K

  5. Krishnan,

    Meixian (simplified Chinese: 梅县; traditional Chinese: 梅縣; pinyin: méi xiàn; literally: “Plum County”), formerly Meihsien, is a district of Meizhou City, in northeastern Guangdong Province, China.[1] Meixian former name is Kaying (simplified chinese: 嘉应, pinyin: Jiaying).

    Meixian dialect (Moiyen), also known as Meizhou (梅州話), Moiyen, and Yue-Tai, is the prestige dialect of Hakka Chinese and the primary form of Hakka on Taiwan. It is named after Mei County, Guangdong.


  6. Krishnan,

    ㊗️Raya cina sudah mari , Balik Kampung banyak happy 😘😘😘。 Panggil member cari kaki, mari rumah saya main judi🀄️ dan minum beers/whisky! Kambing🐑 pergi,Monyet 🐒mari , Soi pergi Ong mari ,Tahun lepas sudah pergi ,Tahun ini mesti happy , kena magnum kena loteri , dalam Bank banyak money💰💵💷💶,badan sihat tiap-tiap hari , hari hari senyum 😍😍 tak ada rugi, main judi mesti menang berkali kali! God monyet🐵🐵 and family wish u : gong xi gong xi fa cai 恭喜发财新的一年会lucky。✨🎉🍻🍺🍷🎊🎼🎶🎤

    Wishing you a very happy and prosperous Chinese New Year of the Monkey.


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