A New Defence of Poetry

Jeff Kemp

Bengali is one of the more widely spoken first-languages of the Indian subcontinent, not that its 200-plus million speakers would say ‘Bengali’ or ‘first language.’ Instead, they would say / Bangla amar matribhasa with “mother-language” clearly more poetic than “first language” and poetry is where this discourse is headed.

Although, looking at it another way, the heading at the top of this page is / sob lok koi lalon ki jaat songshare. Any of those abovementioned 200 million-plus Bengalis (and countless more with Bengali as their second, or third, etc, language) would instantly recognise the saying ‘everybody asks what caste Lalon is.’

And virtually no-one else would have a clue, so some explanation must be made. is Lalon, born 1774, died 1890 and his longevity is more straight-forward than other aspects of his life.

/ jaat is sometimes translated as caste. Bengal straddles the (mostly Hindu) Indian State of West Bengal and the (predominantly Muslim) country of Bangladesh. In India, Lalon is seen as a Hindu while in Bangladesh, he is recognised as a Muslim. Islam does not have a caste system so jaat would seem to be an ambiguous term.

Except it rarely was, during the decade I lived there. My non-Bengali appearance constantly prompted interest about who I was and jaat was one way the subject was broached, often to discover whether I was a Christian. Another ambiguous term, since neither theology nor religion was the point. My appearance linked me to people whose interactions have, in one way or another over the past centuries, cost colonised (Muslim and Hindu) people of the subcontinent dearly.

So far so …. how to put it politely? … academic. If this enquiry centres on the value of poetry, what is the point of this convoluted preamble? Some germane quotes, such as Paul Eluard’s ‘the poet is he who inspires far more than he who is inspired’ might be useful (18). Or, since there seems to be a hint of universality in Lalon’s quote, surely ‘a man’s a man for all that’ (Burns 4) or even ‘we’re a’ Jock Tamsin’s bairns’ might be useful (although a satirist might suggest the current Prime Minister’s proclivities make him the more likely subject).

It is odd to think of Lalon bringing his words village to village at the same time that Rabbie Burns was writing, or Antony Trollop was giving another “gentle reader” aside in one of his lengthy eviscerations of society. Lalon made a minstrel-like living. Accompanying himself with the drone of an ektara as he sang his verses to those gathered around (perhaps at the weekly markets as was common when I lived in Bangladesh).

“Gentle reader,” then, anxious to find what worth this meandering enquiry might have in a world of pandemic and Black Lives Matter and wanting some affirmation of poetic worth. Perhaps I could suggest that writing is itself a therapeutic endeavour (which of course it is, since effort invested in making coherence from raw feeling is a helpful use of time); or that poetry can quicken sensibilities that, for example, allow a sedentary person some appreciation of mountainous terrain.

No gentle readers in this hurried age but my lived experience shows the power of poetry in a setting as far from here as Barchester Towers (which I have just read, if “just” can be a term that encompasses so many weeks). Trollop’s novel certainly brings us into another culture, both in the world described and the manner of description, thus coaxing me to attempt the same in order to make the simple point that no line of poetry I have encountered in Britain has the power of .

In whatever part of Bangladesh I was, sitting on a bus or walking along the road, when asked my place, my race, my nationality, my religion, perhaps with the word jaat, maybe by questioning my desh, it was from friendly interest rather than antipathy. Nonetheless, the history of interaction between Europe and Bengal does not inherently engender trust (ask a Bengali about the famine of 1942). Yet all it took was my practiced-into-fluency sob lok koi Lalon ki jaat songshare to instantly bring a sense of companionship – no, deeper than that, since the sharing was more than mere bread (the origins of the word, companion) but an understanding that we people are created beings of one Creator and differences matter less than our shared humanity. Perhaps there is a British equivalent that I’ve yet to discover. I imagine someone able to approach first-language Gaelic speakers and quote poetry from when Lalon was alive, thereby showing the surrounding land not as the empty space dotted with ruins that we now see but home giving everything needed through the unfolding seasons, would be welcomed with suidhe agus bi dram, caraid and it would likely not be just the one dram that was offered.

A defence of poetry? It is said that one page of mathematics could win you a Noble prize if it summed up some universal theory of everything. Lalon’s single line of poetry, unknown beyond Bengal, worked for me like a talisman to engender trust more times than I can remember. To judge the value of poetry, the art of infusing language simultaneously with clarity and ambiguity, of holding words to the account of rhythm, risks the danger of the unspoken proemium our poetry in our language and thereby fail to recognise the therapeutic and creative place poetry (and other forms of art) have played in nurturing people subjected to injustice, whether or not by our antecedents.

What does this have to do with Black Lives Matter? Surely a topic that I (white, middle-aged, male) have no place to comment on, yet also too important for any art form aspiring for relevance to ignore. To bring the aftermath of slavery into our culture’s forum of justice is laudable but to stop the enquiry before exploring the role artistic expression (such as poetry) had in fostering humanity despite generations of oppression is to limit the examination.

Lalon, who for all I know may have lived to 116, could conjure universality in a phrase: his legacy of poetry cannot be bound into a single language or culture. Edward Colston’s bequest is the antithesis (fittingly, he died in the century of Lalon’s birth). The symbolic power and physical safety of throwing his statue into a river brings to mind how much British privilege cost in African lives. By contrast, an ineptly rendered single line of Lalon conjures the outsider into one of us, now left wondering how slaves nurtured their own humanity despite daily injustice. They apparently left no legacy of their stolen lives.

Except they did. 

We recall them with almost every tune we hear or sing. The music we claim as our own comes from them.  Rock, rap, rhythm and blues, global movements and industries can all be traced back through earliest recordings of disabled children of slaves who were unable to work in the fields and so became the keepers and nurturers of words sung in gospel faith or disguised defiance.  Creativity wasn’t taken from the enslaved.  Their creations infiltrated the evil of possession, accusing and redeeming from one culture to the next.

Works Cited

Burns, Robert, ‘Song [A Man’s a Man for A’ That]’, in Selected Poems and Songs, ed. by Robert P. Irvine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Eluard, Paul, ‘Statement’, translated by David Gascoigne, in Contemporary Poetry and Prose: May 1936-Autumn 1937, ed. by Roger Roughton. London: Frank Cass & Co., 1968.

Jeff Kemp
was born in Aotearoa/New Zealand and has lived in Asia and the Middle East before now living in Scotland. Writing poetry has been a cohering aspect of his travelling through varied cultures.