March 23, 2014
My first encounter with Tamil poetry came in the form of a short poem by Auvaiyar, written two millennium ago:
Bless you, earth:
you are only as good
as the good young men
in each place.
This poem appeared in a book of classical Tamil poetry called Poems of Love and War from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, selected and translated by A.K. Ramanujan, which featured poems from around 100 BC to AD 250, and late classical poems from the 5th and 6th centuries.
The poems were divided into two distinct sections, “Akam” (pronounced “aham”) which were love poems, and “Puram,” which were about heroes and battles. Akam means heart or household, and the poems are distinguished by the landscape each poem evokes and, in turn, the particular experience of love each landscape connotes. The Tamil called this “Tinai” in their poetics.
The subtropical climate of Tamil Nadu in southern India ranges from seaside to mountains, agricultural fields to forests, and desert. Each landscape is associated with a certain mood and the poems typically feature a flower, tree or plant of the corresponding biome. For example, as Ramanujan points out in his translator’s note, “Kurinci, a mountain flower; neytal, blue lily; mullai, jasmine; maratam, queen’s flower; palai, a desert tree.”
The poems are distinguished by straight-forward emotions and plain language (at least in translation), with a simplicity rivaling Chinese and Japanese poetry.
Take Kapilar’s poem of longing, “What She Said to her friend” (p. 13):
You ask me to forget him,
How can I?
wearing its dark raincloud
as a bean flower
the east wind opens,
that blue sapphire,
is never out of sight.
We know from the Tinai that each landscape corresponds to a phase or experience of love: union/mountains; separation/desert; patience waiting/forest; anxious waiting/seaside; and infidelity and resentment/lowland farms. In the poem above, the speaker is clearly longing for the union or reunion with her lover on his mountain, which she keeps in her memory.
Tamils have a strong attachment to their language, which is central to their identity. Many refer to it as Tamil̲an̲n̲ai, “the Tamil mother.” It is one of the oldest surviving classical languages in the world, and written Tamil is a beautiful Brahmic script. Thankfully, this anthology is bilingual, which allows the reader to see the poems (if not read them) in their original form.
Poets such as Mahakavi Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan — the latter a kind of Tamil Fernando Pessoa who wrote many of his poems in various pseudonyms — brought Tamil poetry into the modern era. Their work gave Tamil poets freedom from the constraints of traditional Tamil poetics and expanded the subject matter available to Tamil poets.
In Our Translated World: Contemporary Global Tamil Poetry is a recent anthology of contemporary global Tamil poetry, published by the Tamil Literary Garden of Canada and TSAR Publications in Toronto. The work of the Tamil poets in this anthology clearly bears the mark of its modern predecessors, but also the influence of modern and contemporary poetry from Europe and Asia.
Not surprising, given the book is a selection of recent poems from Tamils around the world. Indeed, the anthology, edited by Chelva Kanaganayakam, features around 80 poems from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Tamil diaspora in England, Canada, and elsewhere.
As Chelva writes in the introduction, “for Tamils, particularly in the last three decades, the experiences have been one of displacement, trauma, nostalgia, and despair.” This is especially true of Sri Lankan Tamils, as many tried to escape ethnic conflicts on that island nation.
For some Sri Lankans, such conflict breeds a conflicting nature. For example, Chandra Bose Sudhakar, who defends his choosing a life of books,
Life began with some books:
that the words in books
produce no rice became
the problem of our lives.
For Sudhakar, “books swallow the howls/ of my tormented heart” and offer the Sri Lankan poet, who was killed by armed men in his house in 2007, a kind of acknowledgment he couldn’t find elsewhere.
Some poems in the collection have echoes, intentional or not, of classical Akam poems, such as this one by Majeed, which sounds to me like a desert or separation poem:
You live on
in the empty spaces
that cannot be filled
with anything else.
Or consider the seaside imagery of another poem by Auzhiyaal, which could be in the voice of an anxious lover trying to find solace in the littoral environment:
At the end of each day
our minute secrets
a pregnant silver fish
a sea weed
a pink sea rock.
The freedom afforded by contemporary poetics may bely an ignorance of Tamil classical themes and symbolism, as some of the poets freely mix landscapes, emotions, and place, such as in this poem by Rashmy,
Parting is always bitter;
everywhere, eventually brackish;
nerves starved with lust,
the soul’s love
draining, filled to the brim.
From our paddy fields
we will harvest
the day after yesterday.
Others call out the connection, such as Anar does in her poem “Marutham,” with its rich depiction of the farm fields and rice paddies indicative of the agricultural landscape and a hint of possible infidelity in the lines,
The fragrant smell of
ripe paddy in the fields,
offers a giddy sense of joy.
As much as the poets in this collection have deep memories of their Tamil past and poetry, the poems in this collection are, as the editor writes in his introduction, “a form of transformation, a gesture about the future. Whether the poems are ostensibly realistic or self-consciously fantastic, the poems move beyond ethnographic detail to offer an imaginative sense of the Tamil experience.”
And for poetry readers, the Tamil experience is a rich and rewarding one in the hands of the poets, translators, and editor of In Our Translated World.