T.S.Chandra Mouli: Namaskar! Thanks for permitting us to interview you, sir.
Pashupati Jha: Thank you Dr Chandra Mouli. I am also equally eager to explain my concept of poetry and its situation today.
TSCM: How and when did you start writing poetry?
PJ:Actually, I started scribbling poems since my school days itself. I used to write poems on small bits of paper, on the margins of newspapers etc. and then throw them away. Although I won the poetry contest of my college during Tulsi Jayanti, I didn’t care to publish my poems because of the lack of courage and confidence, and also because I used to compare my pieces with the great poets and then used to feel nowhere near them. So, the actual publication started very late when I became dead keen on finding my poems and my name in print.
TSCM: Please tell us some thing about your childhood, studies
PJ: I had my early education in the government schools of my native place, Benipatti, a small town in the district of Madhubani, famous for Madhubani Painting. Schools were good in the sense that teachers those days were quite sincere. My father, Pundit Prabhakar Jha, was a Sanskrit scholar and teacher. I learnt moral courage and tough optimism from him. My mother, Mahamaya Devi, was a home maker and a pious lady, always ready to help others. I owe my sense of pervasive humanism to her. I was considered a bright student and was awarded the Govt. of India National Merit Scholarship on the score of my High School Board Examination. My degrees of BA with honours in English and MA in English were from Darbhanga where good teachers of English were in sufficient number. My real teacher, Prof S.N.Palit, was largely responsible for making me a sensitive human being and a good student of literature. He initiated me into the realm of glorious literary world. Those days first class in English was unheard of; so though I was university topper, and it was thought to be great achievement that time, I got only high second class. My Ph.D., which I did under U.G.C. teacher fellowship programme, was from I.I.T. Delhi on the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
TSCM: What are your concerns as a poet, sir?
PJ: The present situation of war, wide-spread crime, social and communal violence, is all the outcome of lack of feelings for other individuals, castes, creeds, communities, and countries. Poetry, and subjects like that, revives emotion and brings it back to humanity, enriching our culture, refining our sensibility, and restoring our sanity. Even I.A. Richards talks of how, after reading and understanding a poem, aversions give place to appetencies in the readers’ mind. Gradual erosion of sensitivity among human beings would finally transform us to robots and brutes. I, therefore, take poetry as an ennobling act, both at the level of creator and the reader. Poetry makes our soul sensitive to others feeling; we reach out of our cocoons to the world outside us. This extension of feeling is almost spiritual in dimension. It is relevant in this context to note that most of the great scriptures are written in verse. My main concern is to revive emotion among people through poignant poems by moving their heart for the suffering of others, and thus create an atmosphere of love and harmony As I have written in one of my poems: “every night/when I go to bed/I dream of my daytime promise/of writing a great poem/on love and living/with one and all” (“A Great Poem”).
TSCM: What perceptible influences are there on your poetry?
PJ: Although I have read most of the major poets writing in English, it is difficult for me to judge about their specific influences on me. I rather feel that influences, if any, do not operate at the conscious level, particularly during the heightened sensibility of writing a poem. But I can say that I like Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Frost, Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Derek Walcott, Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Nissim Ezekiel, Shiv K Kumar, Mamta Kalia, and Eunice de Souza more than other poets. I feel, no poet worth the name keeps in mind some great master while actually writing a poem. Otherwise, the product would be a poor imitation. Authenticity of emotion and expression is essential for writing poetry. Specifically, I am moved by spontaneous and natural feelings and scenes, and also by the suffering of the innocent and exploited lot. These elements are more important to me than the influence of any established poet.
TSCM: Do you feel social consciousness or ideological approach is necessary for a poet? Could you elaborate?
PJ: Those who believe in art for life’s sake, put their ideology in their literary works. But for expression of ideology, there are other subjects like Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology, Ethics etc. I rather feel that too much consciousness of a particular ideology is harmful to creativity, because it limits its scope. Creativity should be universally relevant, and for this aim, a poet should keep his mind, heart, and art open to all types of people and ideologies. Shakespeare became great also because there was no specific personal ideology of the playwright reflected in his plays. Shaw, though having an excellent dramatic talent, could become only second to him because his characters were outright his mouthpieces, speaking his ideology of evolution of man to the status of superman through mental, and not physical, power. Social awareness is a help in enhancing a poet’s sensitivity, but it should not be overtly expressed in poems. Every expressed emotion in a poem should be highly suggestive and unobtrusive.
TSCM: How do you employ images and symbols in your poetry?
PJ: There is no method of employing images and symbols in my poems; they have to come automatically, as beauty spontaneously comes to the innocent smile of a child. I have applied, unconsciously though, the symbols of the sun, the earth, the moon, the seasons, and the sky as perennial natural process; at times they also stand for their regular and tireless pace for maintaining natural order and helping mankind. I also employ the imagery of smiles for innocence and joy, tears for suffering, white for virginity and purity etc. I have also used Christian imagery for denoting crucifixion and compassion. In one of my poems, “Poet’s Desire,” I have used the dance of Shiva for poetic inspiration and creation. But I never write a poem to specially make space for images and symbols.
TSCM: What are the recurring themes and images, sir? Could you give a few examples, pl?
PJ: My thematic range is quite large—love of all types like the love of the mother, father, beloved, wife, love for entire humanity, tension in relationships, both personal and universal suffering, exploitation of women and the weak, communal violence—in short, both the fulfillment and the frustration of life, and the final acceptance of them all:
When I make
my balance sheet
of life lived and love lost,
I bank on the gains
and leave out the losses;
then hike the price
of what I have—
this is the way
I do survive. (“Instinct and Experience”)
After love of various types, another recurring theme in my oeuvre has been the process of poetic creation itself. I have probably written maximum poems among Indian English poets on this theme--there are about fifteen poems dealing, directly or indirectly, with how a poem is written. For instance, I value love, worldly or divine, as a catalyst to the creation of a poem. In one of my poems, after an exhausting journey, the poetic spark is ignited in the poet in these concluding lines:
Then you touched me with a smile -
and, after a long, long while,
there was an untimely rain
and I was all poetry again. (“Reviving Touch”)
TSCM: Do you feel poetry festivals or meets promote poetic creativity? Are they relevant at all?
PJ: Poetry festivals allow many poets to listen to one another and discuss their poems. This fosters a balanced poetic criticism. It thus becomes an important meeting ground to know how other kindred souls think of your works. Several life-long friendships begin in such a festival. But this exchange of views should be quite objective; then alone it would be meaningful to both poetry and poets. Both exaggerated praise and downright criticism do not help finally.
TSCM: As a poet what is your view of the prevailing scenario?
PJ: In recent years, hundreds of poets are active in Indian English literature. It is both a good and a bad sign. It is good because this shows that poetry, though not read much, is still not dead. It is bad because half of the current poets do not know what a poem is all about—their poems are either plain statements or versified facts. It should be known to them that poetry is primarily an emotional act rather than an intellectual exercise. Even editors, who publish poetry (a heroic act today), are not very cautious in separating the chaff from the grain. I request already established writers to actively encourage young poets with rich potential. I also request rich intellectuals to donate money for running good poetry journals and also help in publishing poetry collections with unmistakable promise. Big publication houses should earmark some percentage of their income to hunt out and publish new talents as it is done in the West.
I then humbly request important academics of English departments of Indian universities to free poetry from aristocracy of obscure allusions. Poetry is more than mere class-room lecture where elaborate hunt goes on to ferret out real or imagined allusions, intricacies, myths, metaphors, paradoxes and so on; and in this process the heart of the poem--feeling-- is completely ignored. If poetry is almost dead today, the major share of blame lies with these high-brow academics. There was a time in India when even rustic people used to talk in poetry, particularly in and around Mathura-Vrindavan area. Our past masters--Tulsi, Kabir, Rahim, Meerabai—hardly wrote any difficult lines. Even Milton thought of poetry as something simple, sensuous, and passionate. Why should we then carry on all the time with the burden of Eliot, Pound, Auden, Stevens? They wrote like that because the modern life around them was highly complex. Such is not the case with eighty percent of India where life is still a straight line—writing poetry of high complexity here would be unnatural, irrelevant, and highly contrived. I am making these comments in all humility and I mean only the good of poetry, which is good for humanity as well.
TSCM: What are the trends you could notice in post-Independence Indian English Poetry?
PJ: Nissim Ezekiel started a new poetic idiom after independence. Others like A.K.Ramanujan, Jayant Mahapatra, Kamala Das, Arun Kolatkar, Shiv K. Kumar, K.N. Daruwalla, A.K.Mehrotra and similar others further Indianized English expression. But there ought to be the blooming of Indian English poetry beyond these masters. People related to, and concerned about, the development of poetry and creating as well as sustaining the poetic taste, are somehow stuck up with them. This rigidity is going to be harmful for the overall growth of Indian English poetry. Thanks to the many good, upcoming poets, the landscape of Indian English poetry has already expanded; but the Indian critics and scholars have largely failed to acknowledge their presence.
TSCM: Which trends have gained ground? What is conspicuous now?
PJ: Social criticism has led to the growth of satire; but poetry should aim more at the affirmative side of life. This age has shrunk to a very small size, because the moral and spiritual strength of the time has come down to an abysmal depth. But poets should not harp on the darker side of life all the time; they should find out positive possibilities amid such a scenario. So, I have written in one of my poems: “I am wont to hunt out life/ when there is only bitter strife; / wound and blood and death spread, / I share your joy amid my dread”(“Death in Life”). Poetry of intense emotion and eternal human values is call of the hour. It is in this context too that substream poets like Niranjan Mohanty, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Charusheel Singh, Meena Alexander, Prabhanjan Kumar Mishra, Bibhu Padhi and similar others should be elevated to the status of mainstream poets. There is, furthermore, no harm in writing poems of feminist anger; but anger alone is not sufficient for the creation of good poetry. Moreover, there should be subtle suggestion too regarding what should be the shape of things after this protest. There should be some replacement model in the mind of feminist poets to provide some sustenance and continuity after their anger and protest is over. Finally, poems on the whole are written in plenty, but good poems are very few in number and great poems are almost rare.
TSCM: Could you sum up your views on your poetry, please?
PJ: I started late in publishing my poems, only after I was a little more sure of their worth. I have published so far about hundred fifty poems, mostly collected in Cross and Creation (2003), Mother and Other Poems (2005), and All in One (2011). They have been largely admired by critics for their touching themes expressed in direct and effective language. Others have praised their variety and virtuosity too. The British poet-critic, Bernard M Jackson, has appreciated the clarity of concept and expression in my poems, and New Zealand’s poet, Patricia Prime, has found in them passion and creation going side by side with finally creation having the upper hand. Many Indian critics, like Ramesh K Srivatava, B.S.Naikar, A.N.Dwivedi, Late B.N.Singh, have found various potentials and promises in my poems. But left to me, I am still in the process of writing my best poems, and probably this process would go on till the end of my life. Writing poetry is a life-long passion for me.
TSCM: What is your prognosis of Indian English poetry?
PJ: There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. The very fact that poems are still being written in a world which is almost prosaic, mundane and materialistic, is a promising sign in itself. I am sure, a few pieces of bright diamond would always be there amid mounds of coal. So, the time for mourning the death of Indian English poetry has not come as yet—probably it would never come at all.
TSCM: How far the trends or movements abroad have influenced Indian English poetry, sir? Kindly elaborate.
PJ: Modern literary world is changing fast; each decade brings new movement and new trend. This has led to a confused state of affair. It is better for an Indian poet to follow his own conscience and craft than to fall under the alien spell. Yet, I see only one good influence among it all—democratization of poetic idiom and expression and minimizing of the aristocratic exclusiveness.
TSCM: How far these have had an impact on your thought or craft, Pl?
PJ:To be very frank, I am not conscious of any conscious impact on me of any specific movement or school. I write what I feel and not what others feel and theorize about poetry. Probably, all sincere and modest poets like me feel likewise—their poems are their creation and not a ‘recreation’ of others. Impact, if any, are always on unconscious level, assimilated in the lines without the poet being aware of it.
TSCM: Thanks for sharing your erudite views on poetry in general and Indian English poetry in particular. It helps us in appreciating your poetic thought better. We are honoured, sir.
PJ: Thank you, too, for sharing my feelings with you and your readers.
[Previously published in 'Identity and Culture in Literature' published by Aadi Publishers, Jaipur.The book edited by me has been launched in the innagural function of 62nd All India English Teachers Conference conducted in OUCIP, Hyderabad (18-20 Jan 2018) on 18.01.2018.]