Human civilisation is a record of the relationship between words and thought. And no one knows the problem of this relationship more intensely; no one has felt it in his blood more deeply than a sensitive poet. History throws up ideas, thoughts and perceptions concerning life and reality. These perceptions are conceptualised into dogmas, ideologies and theories. At the social level words acquire the smell of these dogmas and ideologies, like butter in the refrigerator. And as the poet takes on the words for his own creative use in a poem he has to perform a difficult and unenviable dual task: to wrench a word out of commonality into uniqueness and at the same time to invest its uniqueness with the recognisable aura of commonality.

The poem’s task is thus an ambivalence: on the one hand it is the most secret and charmed document of the creator’s soul, and on the other it is the possession of a community to whom he gifts it. It has to be unique as well as universal, the most intensely and secretly confessional and, through participation and access, communitarian.

The consequent tension that is generated is unique to literary and more particularly poetic creativity. If things and objects lean on their names, the names also can have no reality or significance minus the things or objects on whom they are etched. Man and his world are inseparable from the Word. Ideologies that are products of history are served by words and acquire their meaning only in their servitude to history. They are born and die like men. But the poet’s ultimate dream remains to create an image through words that is non-ideological, non-historical, totally nascent and new. That is a challenge and a complicated problem.

The problem is compounded by the poet’s recognition that words cannot fully express reality. But human reality, if it is to be given shape, can be given shape only through words.

The problem is compounded by the poet’s recognition that words cannot fully express reality. But human reality, if it is to be given shape, can be given shape only through words.

Marshall Urban refers to the tripartite function of words. First, words indicate or designate, they are names. Secondly, they can also be an instinctive and spontaneous response to psychic or physical stimuli and, in that form, devoid of any hidden meanings and nuances. Thirdly, and most importantly, they can also be symbols and signs. Thus, in its essence language is the representation of one element of experience with the help of another. It is, in Urban’s words, “the bipolar relation between the sign or the symbol and the thing signified or symbolised, and the consciousness of that relation”.

This then is the basic distinction between the poet and the visual artist and the musician facing parampara, history or tradition. For the poet his tools, his mechanics of being himself and intuiting experience are all historical, usage-worn, anchored in the life of the group, the community. His job is to transform, reinvigorate words into new nuances and significances, into verbal flower on the wasteland of worn-out, rusted, tired social discourse.

He never enjoys the benefit of his basic tools being available in their nascent, original, vibrant form. This is at once an inheritance, an opportunity and also a challenge. The poet’s struggle is how to be totally himself, uniquely alone and at the same time accessible to the group. A poem, and with it the words constituting it and their configurations, is an attempt to transcend language, the language of everyday speech; partaking of history with its ideologies, thoughts and ideas in the social group.

This social language is sought to be concentrated in the poem, given vibrancy and articulation and then raised to a heightened level of meaning and significance. That is the task of poetic creativity and its ambivalent relationship with parampara or tradition. In Octavio Paz’s words “The poem is language standing erect; when language is poetry each word conceals a certain metaphorical charge that is ready to explode as soon as the secret mechanism is tripped, but the creative force of the word resides in the man who utters it”.

In the best poetry that is being written today or had been written in earlier centuries, there is always an inevitable duality. On one hand the essential purpose of using words in poetry is a kind of negotiation with the self, an attempt to find meaning and significance to our experience. Our day-to-day life is full of humdrum inanities and apparent meaninglessness. Poetry seeks to find meaning and purpose in our living. To put it simply words in poetry seek to discover meaning and significance of our existence. It is an exploration of the intimate private world of each individual’s self.

On the other hand, poetry also tries to unravel the intricate connections of each one of us to the others around us. The public space is defined by the very act of our living in society and transacting with others. The relationship between the self and the other is at the heart of poetry’s search for significance.

It has been truly said that no man is an island, but going a step further that all of us realise that often in life we feel like lonely islands with all channels broken down. This duality is an inevitable adjunct of our Being and Becoming. In more than one seminar I have attended both in India and abroad, when this question of poetry and its relationship to society comes up, there are varied responses. Some plead for the autonomy of the poetic self and the secret nature of his use of words to express himself.

Others think in terms of literature’s commitment to man and his world, his struggle for living faced by the indifference of the external world and the often cruel nature of social reality. Not merely in seminars, but also in private discussions with many contemporary Indian poet friends, I have found this duality of approach, the uncertainty of where poetry should take a stand.

The ultimate test for a poet is to be himself, to give expression to the innermost language of his soul and yet to seek to communicate with others in society. Most of my contemporary poet-friends (some of whom I have lost in the last few years), frankly admit their tension in finding a way of reconciling the two objectives. They have tried their very best to prevent the poetic utterance from being merely charmed words arising out of the meditation on one’s own self. Simultaneously, they have tried their very best to communicate with others in society.

The poet’s world, after all, is not a completely lonely world devoid of the existence of others and his relationship to them. They are also concerned that the word in his poetry does not become so transparent as to become almost the words of a slogan which everyone can understand and which can be used as a mechanism for social change and social struggle against adverse forces.

From this struggle, sensitive poets have tried their level best to find a new approach to poetry and a new vision between ‘self’ and the ‘others’; between parampara, our inherited yesterdays and our todays. The reinterpretation of tradition is an unenviable task for new poetry in all ages. It is all the more difficult and complex in Indian society, which has a tradition and heritage extending thousands of years with its secret mode of expressing the self, and the rapid flux of changes brought about by modernisation, changes in our social values and relationships as well as in the political system and economic structure.

Social language is constantly being degraded. It is susceptible to such degradation by the compulsion of functional advantage. The degradation is by making it a set of dried-up and dead jargon and abstract counters bereft of meaning and hence incapable of communicating the faint whispers of the soul. This is the reason why the poet is constantly in an ambivalent relationship with the tradition which, as he is no doubt aware, defines his essential togetherness with others, the group and the community but which, unfortunately, so degrades the word that it is no longer the nascent, the pure carrier of life and reality. And his never-dying dream is to convey the latter in its true essence.

In India we would not be what we are without Vyasa and Valmiki. Their works are a mediation between society and that which both establishes it and celebrates it. Words in a poem, whether in these epics or in the best that is being written today, are revelations. They reveal to us what we are and invoke God’s blessings that man becomes what he essentially is and not what the degraded social usage of it tells him he is.

The poet seeks to transcend the ambivalence by working out an upward movement for the words—from the language of commonality to poetry, from a wasteland of jargon to the dense forest of words in their sparkling shape and form. It is the loneliness of one who struggles to make the tradition, the history, the commonality unique and, through that alone, universal, and not through any demographic jugglery or magic act of numbers.

On each occasion when we are served by words by using them with opportunism we are injuring them, mutilating them. The poet is not served by words. He is servant to the words; he wants to return them to the fecundity and plenitude which is their essential being. It is an attempt to enable them recover this true being and to re-conquer their original state.

The poetic instant is never frozen in time. It is an instant that is forever available in the flow of time. That is why the true poetic experience grounded in intuition denies and extols tradition in the same breath. Even while seeking to anchor words with their uniqueness into a commonality, it seeks to save them from the degradation of motivated uses and jargon-making. That, in essence, is the ambivalent relationship of the poetic process with parampara, history and tradition.