The World of
Assamese Poetry
Modernism in Assamese Poetry

Harekrishna Deka

Looking back at the last half a century or more of Assamese poetry, I find that modernism as an attitude, or an outlook, or a world view, has occupied its central space. It was not so when it first appeared on the scene. It was received with suspicion, derision or bewilderment by the practitioners of the then mainstream poetry. Today, the mainstream poetry is modern poetry which deliberately overturned the conventional structures of rhyme to attain greater freedom in expression. It was the image, and not rhyme, that became the privileged vehicle. Despite encountering strong hostility from thevotaries of poetic convention, this new poetry survived and endured. From being avantgarde at its beginning, it has become the ‘tradition of the new’ over the decades. When it was avant garde, it searched for new pathways, and when it needed a mooring in history, it discovered its place in tradition.

The half-century of poetry that preceded it has already been labelled ‘Romantic’ in the history of our literature. But despite tell tale differences between these two kinds ofpoetry, particularly in their verbal structurations, one cannot but notice that some romantic strains still continue to flow through the veins of the modern poetry and one often finds in the individual poet a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder, transcendental idealism and above all an inward looking vision towards an inner world of the self. In this sense, romanticism never died despite all the privileging of intellect by our modern poetry in itseffort at fusion of sensibility and in its search for objective correlatives. But yet, all theradical differences in the structuration of the new poetry would be superficial, if not meaningless, had there been no essential difference between the perception and the vision of the earlier and of the later poets. To me there is an essential difference in this respect.

Both kind of poetry found a social site where modernity was already in place and where the dynamo of progress was driven by the market forces with all the attendant goods andevils. Maybe the resultant vortex was slower in the earlier period and faster in the later. But in both the cases, a definite gap had occurred between the perceiving subject and itsobject creating a desire in the subject to bridge the gap. To the subject, the object in itscontent appeared to lack true form (‘Beauty’ in case of the romanticist and ‘Order’ in caseof the modernist). The romantic had his idealism through which he discovered the facultyof a creative imagination in his self and had the self-assurance of his ego to bridge thegap and modify the subject-object relationship in fulfilment of his desire. In the robustphase of Romanticism, the poet-personality always inhabited the space of the lyrical ‘I’ that is the site of the speaker of the poem. The perceiving subject in its creative effort tobridge the gap between itself and its object had the imaginative fulfilment of being unifiedin a modified vision and this unification generated a suffusion of energy. In this suffusionthere was danger too. A time came when the poetic feeling in the effervescence ofenergy lost sight of the object and turned back to the emotional inner space of the subject, only to wallow in sentimentality. This came later and this was the decadent phaseof romanticism. At this juncture, modernism came as a new attitude.

Whether in its robust or in its decadent phase, the eye of the romantic subject-personality moved along the metonymic axis, using the logic of association, although at the verbal level the use of metaphor or symbol was not uncommon.

For the man of modernism, modernity created faster vortices and when he wanted tocapture the present for the eternity, he found it problematic. He wanted a sure ground below his feet to encounter modernity but he could not find one. He tried to be a realistbut found reality fractured. His eyes could not move along a metonymic axis, as, looking at objects, he found only fragments. He looked at himself and became self-conscious. He did not want to infuse the lyrical ‘I’ of his poem with his personality for fear of being sentimental and therefore, he created a persona or put on a mask. His eyes moved alongthe metaphoric axis to reorder the fragments he found and this metaphoric roving was forfinding correlation between those fragments. He looked through the images for correspondence with the objects and to restore their wholeness. He felt this perception tobe precise and the associatinism of the romanticist vague. Notwithstanding his sense of irony, the modernist poet’s master trope is not irony but metaphor. His irony is in his sense of life. If the romanticist was a metonymic connector, the modernist is a metaphoric restorer. His restoration is through correspondence and his habit has been to gather up fragments in images by a method of juxtaposition or montage or collage.

But whether it is romanticism or modernism, we in our land have always been belated romanticists or modernists. The western wind has always been late coming to us. Modernism has been the prevalent mode of thought or attitude or sensibility during the entire second half of the twentieth century in our land. But in this half century or more, the western man has found that he is already ‘post’ the modernism. A modernist despite allhis juxtaposition, montages or collages (in formulation of his images) accepted the rule ofsyntax in his sentences, but a postmodernist western poet in his mind-boggling experiments, sometimes puzzling, sometimes curiously attractive, does not hold syntax to be the essential mode of verbal construction. If a modernist found fragments, he wanted to re-order the fragments for a possible meaning, but the postmodernist feels that if thereare fragments, so they are and he would not re-order them for a possible meaning to befound below the surface of the correlated fragments, but would combine them for afree-play in language along the surface. He would not move from image to thing on a metaphoric axis but would slide from image to image creating a simulacrum. For John Ashbery, it is a new mimesis with ‘consciousness as the model’. He paints a picture of a ‘mind at work rather than the objects of its attention’, as Paul Hoover has said. John Cage finds a fundamental indeterminacy in all language games; his lyric becomes musical score-sheets and for him poetry is performance, where even stage-setting and the gestures and voices of the speakers change the significance of a poem in each performance. In some of his poems, capital letters in between words of the sentences accost the reader to break the habit of looking at the sentence horizontally and to look vertically to capture key thoughts or names. A votary of ‘Language Poetry’, Charles Bernstein, does not believe in poetry of things but in poetry of technique. The postmodernist poet prefers to be an artificer rather than an artist. Bernstein believes inthe materiality of language and does not want it as a vehicle of expression reaching towards a unique meaning. Language is a site of free-play for a postmodernist poet with a multiplicity of combination and indeterminate results. Languages of business discourse, advertisement, journalism, visual media are grist to his mill. High and low are not like water and oil but like water and milk for him. Jackson Maclow even brings out a computer print-out of partial anagram on a person’s name and selects random words tocreate a vocabulary to dedicate a poem to that person. If the romanticist had his Prometheus and the modernist his Tiresias, the postmodernist perhaps has his Proteus. This Proteus is his language.

Nothing of this nature is yet happening in Assamese poetry. An Assamese modern poet has not given up his search along the metaphoric axis. But the west-wind blowing fast, who knows the postmodern virus would not colonize our thought-site soon. If it happens, let it be so. But my feeling is, humans have always searched for meaning in his ontological existence and in his epistemological quest. And a postmodernist, too, for all his juissance in the free play of words, would not remain content with his simulacrumalone.

Courtesy: The Sentinel, January 14, 2001.

Photo Harekrishna Deka (b. 1943) is a poet and a fiction writer. He has published several collection of his poems and fictions. Recipient of Sahitya Academy award, 1989, and Katha award, 1995. Read his poems and short stories..

       Poetry Home   Top of the page
Home | Assamese Fiction | Music From Assam