On Losing Sensitivity to Poetry


…if we devote ourselves to the study of grammar or philosophy, we shall certainly deaden our susceptibilities. (A. Berriedale Keith, The Sanskrit Drama, 1924, 322)

The remarkable Abhinavagupta, in his commentary on the Dhvanyaloka, frequently heaps scorn on the Vedic ritualists’ extraordinary insensitivity to poetry. They are not exactly fundamentalists who insist on taking everything literally (as if that were even a possibility with the Vedas!), but even as they bicker and quibble about different kinds of non-literal meaning their main focus is in reading the text as a compendium of injunctions to specific actions, and in this lifelong obsession with instructive denotation they lose sight — indeed, lose their sense for — the power of words to do more than denote. Abhinava’s criticisms also include in their sweep the grammarian and the philosopher, whose main approach in interrogating a text is “What do you mean by…?” and whose favorite challenge to imaginative exegesis is “I don’t see how you get that from the text.” Their training and their habit is to ascertain denotations, and the denotative level of a book is where they are most comfortable. But just as philosophers can use philosophy as a shield against the unknown, grammarians can use grammatical science to ward off the magical powers of language.

I say this not to denigrate philosophers and grammarians — for where would we be without their exactitude and probing toughness? Lovers of poetry and poets themselves, for all their sensitivity, can be woolly-headed, misguided, and intellectually self-indulgent without the regular friction provided by people who can ask them difficult questions and force them to think through their vague but pretty-sounding statements (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”?) — but the key to their mutual health is indeed the unending enmity of two poles of experience that cannot easily exist simultaneously.  “Without contraries is no progression,” says Blake. Sane people usually know that they need to spend time with people who do not share their innate proclivities, and welcome being stretched into their areas of weakness and discomfort. The greatest philosophers can have a profound sensitivity to poetry. Socrates, for example, seems to know Homer by heart, and in the Republic, before the poet is expelled from the city, we bow to him first and crown him like a god. Moreover, to take a philosophical approach to a poem — for example, reading Shakespeare’s sonnets as an inquiry into the nature of love — is not antithetical to poetry but rather a way of engaging thoughtfully with one dimension of the poems — because Shakespeare, like Dante, like Goethe, could be a philosophical poet. Indeed, if dhvani (suggestiveness) is “the soul of poetry,” then the common view of poetry as constituted primarily by rhyme, metrical intricacies, and figures of speech might itself be inimical to the poetic essence.

For rasadhvani, the ecstatic relishing of poetic suggestiveness, the reader needs to have leisure not only to read but to let the words work and echo in the heart. Reading 50 pages an hour is not a good precondition for rasa, and neither is reading constantly with a view to formulate  questions and connections, and to take notes for future use. Thus the academic study of poetry can and does frequently destroy the very enjoyment that drew the student into the field. For rasa to occur, there has to be time and space for a certain kind of immersion or engulfing; the poem needs to be allowed to take over for a while, so that it can be felt. For the young reader of poetry this often happens in memorizing the poem and reciting it in solitude; one gets to know about a dozen poems really deeply like that, and those poems are often never forgotten. But when you have to read two hundred pages of Wordsworth in a week, plus two critical books on him, and then write something, the experience of reading becomes subordinate to a version of productive activity that forces you to put into words what you haven’t had time to feel yet. In grammatical and philosophical approaches to poems, the complex sense of a poem has to be reduced to wholly denotative expressions of “what it is saying” or “what it means.” This reduction is exacerbated when the poems are mostly read in translation, which is really able to capture only the denotative level of a poem (for, to paraphrase Robert Frost, dhvani is what cannot be translated). Thus, to study poems in this way over several years inevitably results in a “deadening of susceptibilities,” and over decades it will probably lead to an inability to read poetry with any pleasure except the pleasures of a grammarian or philosopher — which are nonetheless real pleasures, only not the rich rapture of rasadhvani.

In a job like mine — the study of books from a broad range of cultures largely in translation and with an eye for philosophical insights into the human condition, including also mathematical and scientific masterpieces — the daily turning of a bursting bloom into the dried flower of denotation results in a strange distancing from poetry — strange, that is, to one who once knew intense intimacy. Goethe in translation, Aristotle in translation, Homer and Baudelaire struggled with in the original Greek and French, Euclid in precise demonstrations, and Donne in English, all are given the same focus and attention. The study of language with a view to philosophical contemplation (“what is language?”) necessitates not giving oneself simply and wholeheartedly to the power of the poem. This is not a joyless activity, however; the contemplative and theoretical hold joys beyond the imagination of those who have never walked that path, but again, those joys are not rasadhvani. One effect of many years of studying philosophical geniuses like Plato and Aristotle is that I found myself inoculated to poets of sweeping ambitiousness like Yeats or Pound, simply because they now seem to me quite stupid in their grasp of social or political life — and when I experience a new appreciation for the wisdom of poets like Chaucer or Wordsworth, it is with the mellowed admiration and affection of maturity — but without rapture or surrender. (In my next essay I’ll give a specific example of a poetic “high” and what it looks like to be no longer able to fly as I used to.)

In my case the losing of sensitivity has been an occupational hazard, but to what extent is it also just a result of age?  I vividly remember how in my youth I would become so absorbed in a book that literally ten hours would pass without my noticing; even my belly lost track of time, and my bladder would be my only timepiece. This capacity for complete, utter engagement with a work, such that time actually disappeared, is surely related to a young person’s receptivity to dhvani, which requires surrender and cannot thrive under constant critical exertion. As we grow older, the episodes of timeless absorption become less frequent.  When was the last time it happened to you? When was the last time a poem lifted you into eternity? The loss of it is partly because of the unceasing press and tug of adult duties; there is so little leisure and so little solitude, we have to keep track of so many obligations and details, and even when we have some free time the mind is eaten away by anxieties, fears, responsibilities, regrets. It may be that there really is no such thing as time, and that the forgettings of time that are so available to children (and young lovers) are meetings with the eternity that we actually live in; and that our sense of time is created only by fear of mortality and remorse for things undone or badly done, so that past and future loom much larger than the present moment, which is all the time we truly have. Is losing sensitivity to poetry just a symptom of our fall from eternity, which paradoxically is also our abdication of the here and now?



3 thoughts on “On Losing Sensitivity to Poetry

  1. Krishnan,

    Strange and yet eerily profound your writing about insensitivity to poetry with ageing. Perhaps the net should be spread or cast wider to insensitivity to everything with the advent of ageing. With ageing comes mellowness the sense of déjà vue, the sense of que sera sera, the sense of fate and destiny, that things will come and go and pass, like water under the bridge. If we need to be ‘sensitive’ it has to be at, during and for the moment, for that is what our mind and senses are in reality valid in the time/space that we call existence – the moment or the now. What presents itself as the presence of our being and thought is only that rather very fleeting moment of now. When we reach a stage of spiritual realisation or spiritual wisdom that whatever we experience of the ‘present’ of a ‘moment’ of ‘now’ is in fact an illusion, a mirage, for it is already in the past, when we realise the experience, we naturally desensitise, and thus gather insensitivity. When you hear or see me, you actually see me in the ‘past’ that is your ‘present’. The stars you see in the night sky might no longer exist! The ‘present’ as in time has no meaning for time is by deduction comprised in the ‘illusion’ we mistake for reality. Sensitivity, like clinging, longing, desire, wishing and hoping or worse, wanton covetousness, lust and greed are all figments of the wild monkey of imagination called a self-ego that is falsely projected by or through the mind and its five companion senses. Add the inner or sub(lime) consciousness and then you have the seven evil companions of the evil spirit (the false self-ego of Adam after the Fall) that cannot rest when we die that Jesus spoke about.

    Once again I love and enjoy your thought provoking discourses. It just triggers or animates the mind that is otherwise quietly reposed in meditative but mentally acute contemplation.

    I just love your English. Mine has not progressed much from the Famous Five of Enid Blyton and Biggles of Capt. W. E. Jones.

    And it appears you might be classically trained in Latin, French and Sanskrit and even Chinese. Wow!

    As an aside, your inference that Western poetry of the literature kind can be ‘testing’ to to the intellect, equally applies to Chinese couplets and Zen koans or Japanes haiku. The only difference in contrast to Western poetry is that with the Oriental variety, academic grammatical and philosophical dissection and judgement will get you nowhere. You have to think outside the box, think beyond the beyond – thinking without the mind thinking, see without seeing, hear without hearing or as we say in Zen – listen to the sound of the clapping with one hand. I tease you. Sorry. I found out the hard and long tedious way myself, wasted years and wasted nights (perhaps). The key is ‘silence’. Silent your mind from past experience. Start with an empty cup. Start with a clear whiteboard. No preconceived tenets or ideals or measuring sticks. In Zen we start always with the void. The beauty of a window of a poem cannot be appreciated if not for the void that it frames. A house is not a home without the void of the rooms. The wheel is not a utility if the rim and spokes did not contain and energise a void. For every famous poet did not plagirise. Each started with a blank canvas. We owe it to them to judge them as if they were writing the poem out in virtual reality on a blank folio, watching or listening or reading their poem as it comes alive. For let the dead bury the dead! The poetry must come or be alive in the spirit of the poet, and must be read by a kindred ‘spirit’. Judging a poet not on his own merits but by comparing and contrasting his worth with other poets is thus not very Zen. Did not Jesus say – Do not judge!

    Thank you again.

    Vince Cheok

    • Thank you, Vince. Very profound ruminations! I agree about Oriental poetry — and actually I think the same is true of the greatest western poetry. I have a deep gratitude for the Chan philosophers, in particular the great Japanese writer Dogen, who is at the same time a great poet and philosopher. I’ll be writing on him soon. Your English is much richer than W.E.Johns’ (whom I lived as a kid!), and your responses help me to see a little bit further. I am fairly lazy with languages. I’ve studied more than my fair share, but am actually indifferent to forgetting them and not concerned with learning lots of stuff. The ones I like are the ones that bring me closer to the writers who are my friends and who help me understand life: Greek for Homer, the New Testament, Plato; classical Chinese for Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi; French for Balzac and Stendhal; and German for 19th century poems. I’m not fluent in anything, only English. Sanskrit I’ve studied but dislike and so forget. I wish my Chinese were better, and I want to be fluent in Hakka. Reading is what I am fortunate to do for a living. It has brought me good friends! K

  2. I have a hunch that perhaps no one would be inclined to agree with, but I sense Plato had quite a different understanding of poetry than Socrates. In the Republic is the tale of the chariot draw by two horses. The reason they don’t make it to heaven and the passenger takes a tumble is said to be that one horse is good and one horse is bad. Naturally going different directions, they wreek havoc. But how could you ever get those two to line up? I have wondered if in Socrates’s mind and own voice the yoked pair would be described differently. Truth and beauty. These are so often at odds, as Krishnan you describe so well above. More particularly, though not exclusively, in the west than east. But neither is immune. Truth and beauty tend in different directions.
    It seems to me that when you get those two testy and headstrong horses to line up, to move together, then and there is met the divine.

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