Devotion: An Anthology of Spiritual Poems
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Selected by Lloyd Hofman and Vignan Agni
If there is a mass of Aurobindonian poetry written during the past seven or eight decades, then it is time to have a proper compilation of this impressive contribution in order to assess its impact on our creative writing and its worth in the broader context of what is expected of it, of Aurobindonian poetry. During the fruitful and awe-inspiring 1930s not only did Sri Aurobindo write a new kind of mystic-spiritual poetry drawing inspiration from the higher planes of expression, but also actively and extensively encouraged his poet-disciples to find the true poetic word in their utterances. That certainly was the golden era of Aurobindonian poetry. That does not mean that good poetry ceased to be written afterwards, after Sri Aurobindo's passing away in 1950, but it was perhaps written with less intensity and with a greater degree of uncertainty in respect to the sources of its insight and revelation. We have only to open the Ashram-connected periodicals of the past fifty years or so and we find an abundance of poetry, some of it rising to sufficiently convincing heights.
In this context we should feel happy to see a selection of this poetry anthologised in a single volume, Devotion: An Anthology of Spiritual Poems. There are entries from 111 poets, spanning a little more than 300 pages, plus notes and an index, with a total of 271 poems in an exquisite hardcover edition, designed by Avipro (Auroville prose editors). Considering its fine quality, it has been very reasonably priced at just Rs 400. There is no doubt that the editors have patiently and meticulously gone through thousands of poems belonging to this genre of poetry before making their final compilation. What is not so clear is the criterion employed by them in making this impressive selection. The anthology does not seem to celebrate a landmark event in the arrival of the future poetry in any distinctive or specific way, that what Sri Aurobindo wrote in his critical essays and letters has been in some manner fulfilled, that we are assuredly moving towards the utterance of the spirit in its native tongue, of the seeing speech that is paúyanti vâc. And then, to bring us closer to the creative warmth and ambiance of this genre of poetry, we should have been given some introduction to or some background of the poets represented in the anthology. They appear so distant to us that some poets are even present under two different names. Thus Minnie Sethna and Minnie Canteenwalla are the same person; so also are Gleaner and Themis. More importantly, what is sadly missing in the anthology is an introductory essay or preface setting up the milieu of the Aurobindonian brand of poetry. Different types of poems are included—occult, spiritual, mystical, lyrical, reflective, and surrealistic. A sub-grouping of the collection in these several categories would have helped us to enter more profitably into the various domains of this wide, extensive Aurobindonian world. There are also different sources of inspiration, coming from the overhead planes all the way up to the Overmind, or from the inner recesses of our being, mostly from the inner mental, or directly from the aspiring psychic, carrying with them their characteristic swift or luminous or tranquil elements. In this connection, we may say that it was thoughtful of the editors to have included Sri Aurobindo's comments on a half-dozen poems, those of Arjava, K D Sethna, and Nirodbaran. Finally, there are a few poets who have not found a place in this voluminous anthology; at least two missing names which immediately come to mind are Debashish Banerji and Goutam Ghosal. However, let us look briefly, although in the manner of a review, into the contents of the anthology.
The anthology makes a perceptive beginning with two brief but significant and apposite quotations from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri. If inspiration has the power to bring out the "rhythmic sense of hidden things", then it becomes possible for language to give us the joy of the ever-living, ever-creative Word. Or else a wideness is felt in the wonders of calm and rapture. That is what poetry is expected to achieve. The magic of this poetry is such that it can catch "the moon-pale soul of roses" "in a mesh of sound", as Arjava does; or else, à la Nirodbaran, our days get encircled with dreams of the creator's endless mysteries. Oh, that sunshine! Be it spring or winter, be it day or night, there is all the while and everywhere, the effulgence of beauty, the sweetness and love that radiate from the Mother-heart, as poignantly conveyed in the poems by Dilip Kumar Roy. The mystery becomes more mysterious when we cannot tell why we pick up the lyre and, while playing on it, for what we cry. But Nishikanto has an answer because he cannot choose but love, just love, without raising any doubt, without any question, the way the river simply thrills to join the shoreless, endless sea. And then there is the remarkable imperative in the poet's soul; Sethna assures us in a most forceful way that his warrior spirit darts across the terrible night of death and conquers immortality. This was poetry written directly under the gaze of the Sun of Poetry that was Sri Aurobindo. Has that continuity of poetic excellence and inspiration been maintained in the second and third generations of Aurobindonian poets? That is what Devotion should bring home.
We have a mass of poetry, but very often it looks as though the poet is absent. In The Future Poetry Sri Aurobindo makes a reference to Keats's phrase that a poet should be "a miser of sound and syllable, economical of his means, not in the sense of a niggardly sparing, but of making the most of all its possibilities of sound". I wonder whether we are such misers, such desirable, such marvellous misers. We are not quite conscious of the power of the rhythmic word. Such a word is born deep in the womb of the omniscient Hush, but we are in a terrible hurry, very often busy with mental creations. The urge to discover the point at which the "three highest intensities of poetic speech meet and become indissolubly one, a highest intensity of rhythmic movement, a highest intensity of interwoven verbal form and thought-substance, of style, and a highest intensity of the soul's vision of truth" is an aspect of our own growth, and we do not seem to be aware of it. "The poet-seer sees differently, thinks in another way," says Sri Aurobindo, "voices himself in quite another manner…. The poet shows us Truth in its power of beauty, in its symbol or image, or reveals it to us in the workings of Nature or in the workings of life, and when he has done that, his whole work is done."
Such great things may be done by poetry and the question is: are we doing them? Let us look for some examples in the present anthology.
When Maggi Lidchi writes that
There is a tender pulsing in the heart of life
A hidden meaning that escapes our mind,
That hums and glows in great and littlest
things but for which
The tongue no words can ever find
we feel behind it "a power that emanates a thousand rays". And it is there everywhere, all-pervasively: "It chimes at root of rock and sea | Of earth and sky | It sings in flower, fern and fire". When Narad (Richard Eggenberger) sees behind this world of forms a beauty breaking upon the subtle sight, there certainly is the assuring possibility that this world is not an illusion, that it's not a dream through which we wander, but is for the habitation of the supreme Lord himself, nQDvDsyam idam sarvam. The divine glory bursting everywhere, in every name and form, nDma and rupa. Georgette Coty's bird of blue sings on the bough with a strange sound of strings crossing the sphere—and she tells us to listen to it, asks why it is calling us. The call goes so deep that her soul becomes her eyes in this most magical night. These are indeed fine lines of poetry that describe inner states, or soul experiences.
Lawyers may know the law of the land but, says Nani Palkhivala, they know not
Why honey is the food of bees,
Why winter comes when rivers freeze,
Why faith is more than one sees,
And hope survives the world's disease,
And charity is more than these.
Sailen Roy describes himself as a vagrant soul:
Erratic tramp I may well seem,
Yet where I go is known;
Enamoured with a golden dream
My faith's gigantic grown.
For Ashalata Dash "Lame words leap | And hesitant hands | Compose a poem" when the heart vibrates to the call of poetry already written "in the womb of Time". And for Damodar Reddy it is time for the world to break forth into the dance the timeless Ancient had ordained now that the celestials are here, even as the Master steps alive to embrace this earth. In her poem "Seeking" Themis finds a "hidden Sun within my night, | Moon-nectar in my breast, | Star-eye within my inward sight" and bids them turn outward "Till everywhere I see | The Love that dwells within my eyes | Feed all things secretly".
Chandresh Patel has weathered tempests and ridden strong waves in a storm; indeed, he has passed the test in flying colours and the reward is the surprise, the disclosure of the form that is behind them all. Akash Deshpande tells us of the hushed miracle of silver light bestowing sight on vaster sight, and there's the enormous peace with a fulfilling joy. Suresh Thadani saw with "other eyes" Vishnu of antiquity pervading the air and transcending time and stone, stone that enshrined him and time that bound him in its movement.
What we have in the present anthology is excellent promise. There are often wonderful snippets, with authentic inspiration and expression, but they do not constitute a total poetic experience. Hardly is there a poem which can be said to be a "success", with the power of vision, rhythm and movement, and substance, all coming together and creating a poetic spirit in its full authenticity. Often one senses the poets are in a rush to write out the poem without allowing it to express itself with its native inspiration. A kind of calm, a spiritual calm, a luminous spiritual poise with its receptive silence has to be the support for that to happen and seldom is it present. Yet the aspiring soul of poetry must aspire and the new birth of poetry must take place. How is this going to be?
The anthology concludes with a few excerpts on poetry from Sri Aurobindo, and these could provide the needed guidance. In poetry that aims at perfection there has to be the eternal true substance which is not a product of mental manufacture but comes with the "eternal spirit of Truth and Beauty through some of the infinite variations of beauty, with the word for its instrument". Then, through the personality of the poet speaks the impersonal spirit of Truth and Beauty. "The essential power of the poetic word is," writes Sri Aurobindo, "to make us see, not to make us think or feel; thought and feeling must arise out of the sight or be included in it, but sight is the primary consequence and the power of poetic speech.... There must be a deeper and more subtle music, a rhythmical soul-movement entering into the metrical form and often over-flooding it before the real poetic achievement begins." There has to be the "direct call of three powers, inspiration, beauty, and delight", and if poetry can bring them to the reader through the rhythmic word, then its essential work is done. If this anthology can urge us towards that then it will have served its purpose well, fulfilling genuinely the condition of what "spiritual poems" should be, the Word expressing itself under the five suns of poetic Truth, Beauty, Delight, Life, and the Spirit.
— R. Y. Deshpande
Deshpande-ji, a research physicist and currently a professor of physics at SAICE, is a published poet and the author of several book-length studies of Savitri, in addition to other prose works. He also served as associate editor of Mother India for several years.
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