A Poetry of Proportions:  Nissim Ezekiel’s Quest for the Exact Name 


    The year 2005 affords us a number of reasons for taking a fresh look at the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel.  After his death on 9th January 2004 soon after he had turned eighty, there have been no serious attempts to reassess his work and life.  The new and extensively revised edition of Bruce King’s Modern Indian Poetry in English (2005), unfortunately, does not rise to this task either; the sections on Ezekiel are virtually unchanged from the earlier edition of 1986.  The new edition of his Collected Poems also fares scarcely better.  The Preface by Leela Gandhi is almost gratuitous in that it adds little to our understanding of the poetry.  While John Thieme’s Introduction does offer a review of alternative readings of Ezekiel, it does little either to refute or substantiate these.  Indeed, I would venture to assert that the only exciting piece of work on the poet in recent years has been the uneven, but painstaking and zesty “authorized” biography of the poet by R. Raj Rao, which appeared in 2000.  In this paper, I intend to make two observations on Ezekiel’s poetry and to elaborate on them.  These are based on my insights on re-reading his Collected Poems 1952-1988.  I call them “observations” because what I propose is rather modest and limited.  Neither a re-evaluation of Nissim’s oeuvre nor a necessarily original set of arguments, my observations will be confined to two issues:  the relationship of Ezekiel’s poetry with that of his predecessors; and an essential, metaphysical preoccupation of his verse.  I believe, however, that these observations, if taken seriously, not only pose a serious challenge to the prevalent understanding of Ezekiel as a quintessentially modernist poet, whose favored stance is ironic and secular, whose work shows a clean break with that of the earlier poets.  Indeed, the implications of my second observation that Ezekiel is primarily a religious or, should I say, spiritual poet, is even more far-reaching in that it goes against the grain of most of previous criticism on the poet.

          In respect to the first of the two issues, the modernists' rejection of the earlier poetry is, perhaps, all too well-known and acknowledged to merit reiteration.  Indeed, all three words, modern, modernist, and modernism, imply a break with the past, a rejection of “tradition.”1  There is a near-total on this issue among a group of poets who are, otherwise, rather infamous for their disagreements, rivalries, and quarrels.  Ezekiel, P. Lal, Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, R. Parthasarathy, Keki Daruwalla, Shiv K. Kumar, Pritish Nandy, Gauri Deshpande, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Vilas Sarang, Saleem Peeradina--have all left written records of their dismissal of the earlier poets.  I have not been able to ascertain the views of Kamala Das, Gieve Patel, Arun Kolatkar, Mahapatra, and a few others, but they are not likely to be substantially different.  The only one of the modernists who, perhaps, had a more complex apparatus of literary taste if not a less vehement dislike for pre-modernists was, perhaps, A. K. Ramanujan.

          None of the modernist poets are major critics.  Ezekiel, the most prolific and varied of them, wrote smaller pieces, usually made to order. Ramanujan wrote almost nothing on other Indian English poets. But if the modernists weren't influential critics, they were enormously influential editors and anthologists.  The anthology, not the critical essay, was their primary ideological weapon.  It was through a series of influential anthologies, constituting an ongoing process of inclusion and exclusion, that the canon of Indian English literary modernism was shaped.  Ezekiel himself, as I have said earlier, edited Poetry, Quest, the poetry pages of several journals including The Illustrated Weekly, and The Indian P.E.N.  Lal, Jussawalla, Deshpande, Nandy, Peeradina, Kumar, Parthasarathy, Daruwalla, Sarang, and Mehrotra have all edited anthologies.  Like Ezekiel, Mahapatra has edited two literary journals, Chandrabhaga and Kavya Bharati, besides editing the poetry pages of The Telegraph and The Sunday Mail.

          Obviously, editing anthologies or journals, writing an occasional critical piece or giving an odd interview are, in the ultimate analysis, insufficient to establish the primacy of modernism.  The modernists also needed critical works of corresponding stature to shore up their literary and historiographical claims.  There was, no doubt, a spate of criticism generated by the supremacy of modernist poetry.  Several dissertations were written on this poetry and several books.  Yet, most of these were unsatisfactory to the modernists.  This was criticism written in most part, inevitably, by academics for whom the modernists had scant respect. Modernism had not yet quite penetrated Indian English criticism as it had done poetry.  Critics like K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar and M. K. Naik, or editors of critical articles like Chirantan Kulshreshta, V. A. Shahane, and M. Sivaramakrishna, to name the most respected of them, had often also written about the earlier poets.  Iyengar and Naik were historians in addition to being critics.  In their several books they had never accepted the modernists' rejection of the past, nor the latters' claims to literary and artistic primacy. It took years before the modernists got an answerable critic in Bruce King.  Ironically, by the time King's “definitive” Modern Indian Poetry in English (1986; 2005) and, in the fitting modernist mode, even more exclusive Three Indian Poets (1991) were published by Oxford University Press, modernism itself had more or less come to an end in India.  King's book, much of the material for which came from the poets themselves, received mixed reviews. The other major critic who has written extensively on modernist poetry, John Oliver Perry, as it happens, is also an American.  It would seem that modernist poets were saying that we can entrust ourselves only to "superior" foreign critics because Indians cannot write decent criticism. Such a prejudice is actually implied in Mehrotra's anthology, Twenty Indian Poems (OUP 1990), where he declares that King's first book as the only one he can really recommend to students.

          In the decades before independence, as I have shown in Indian Poetry in English, modernism was a minority ethos.  Poets such as Shahid Suhrawardy, who saw themselves as modernist, felt lost and alienated in an India which was in the last throes of nationalist fervour.  But what was a minority voice became a majority voice almost overnight, as it were, once India gained its independence.  If 1914 was the great watershed that divided the traditional from the modern in Europe, it was 1947, the year of independence, in India.  There is no doubt that modernist poetry inaugurated a new language and ethos in Indian English poetry.  Struggling to find a poetic foothold in an age swamped with romantic-idealist poetry, it suddenly seemed to come into its own in the decades immediately following independence.  By the 1970s, it had established its hegemony over Indian English poetry, a hegemony which was, I believe, even more totalizing and oppressive than that of romantic-idealist poetry.

    The progress of modernism in India is an enormously complex subject an adequate history of which is yet to be written.  Modernism was absorbed differently in different Indian languages.  While its acceptance was swift and almost complete in languages such as Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, and Hindi, it was, arguably, never fully assimilated in other languages such as Assamese, Oriya, Telugu, Gujarati or Malayalam.  Certainly, in several languages, including, English, an older, romantic-idealistic poetry has continued to be written to this day.  In English, such poetry is quite disreputable and hence hardly a challenge to modernist supremacy, but whenever one of the modernists has shown romantic propensities, he has been summarily removed from the canon.  The case of Lal is, perhaps, the best example.  In languages such as Malayalam or Gujarati the older poets were not to be dismissed so lightly.  They continued to wield enormous power and frequently won state and national awards.  In a few languages, modernism had practically no impact at all.

    Another important difference between the reception of modernism in English and in other Indian languages is that in the latter it often had to contend with progressivism, either before or after.  In Hindi and Urdu, modernism came slightly after progressivism; in other languages, the two ran side by side, until one of them spent itself.  It is a peculiarity of English that it has had neither progressive nor Dalit poetry. The hegemony of modernism, thus, went unchallenged until a new generation of poets came of age in the late 1980's and 1990's.

          In offering yet another account of its growth, spread, and dominance in Indian English poetry, I have tried to show that modernism is not merely a matter of changing poetic fashions and tastes, but more properly a literary, cultural, movement, an ideology, and, in its most instrumental sense, a discourse.  It is, in other words, a body of related and cohesive texts with shared assumptions and aims, common codes and conventions, and similar values and goals.  Further, the poetry that modernists wrote is actually more diverse and varied than their poetic ideology.  What really binds them, as I said earlier, is the one common factor their rejection of the past.  Thus, the politics of modernism is, paradoxically, a turning away from politics, a retreat into the experience of the solitary and alienated poet; this, for the modernists, is the best antidote against the prevailing hypocrisy and abuse of language that politics entails.

          It is truly astounding how little the opinions and beliefs of our modernist have changed over the last thirty years.  In a manifesto offered in the introduction to Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (1959), the first anthology of modernist poetry, Lal divided readers into those who liked Sri Aurobindo and those who couldn't stand him.  Though Lal himself seems to have moved closer to the former from being a champion of the latter, this division seems to still persist. It takes quite a bit of experience to realize how deeply entrenched this hatred is.  Mehrotra, always the most candidly intemperate of the modernists, simply says that Sri Aurobindo "spent the last years of his life composing a worthless epic of 24,000 lines."  The very dismissive ease and forthrightness of this judgment is what makes it so seductive.  If one can, on its strength, avoid the trouble of having to come to terms with the thirty volumes that Aurobindo's collected works occupy, which lazy or superficial undergraduate can resist its temptation? Of course, the problems with this assertion start with its very grammar.  There is something comic about the sentence:  why would anybody compose a worthless [my emphasis] epic of 24,000 lines? The very length and seriousness of purpose implied in the information supplied in the statement would appear to contradict the adjective (expletive?) with which Mehrotra prefaces "epic."  Doubtless, what Mehrotra really means is that the epic is worthless to him, not necessarily to Sri Aurobindo or to anyone else.  But why doesn't he say so in the first place?  Why accord an infallible objectivity to what is so blatantly a personal prejudice?

          I do not wish to defend either Aurobindo or Savitri against the strictures of the modernists.  Indeed, they do not need any such defence: Savitri is by far the most discussed Indian English poem and Sri Aurobindo the most studied of Indian English poets.  This evidence is not merely statistical but suggests a history of serious appreciation or and engagement with the poet and his epic.  Savitri, moreover, is the only Indian English and probably the only English epic which has acquired the status of a sacred text.  Thousands of devotees of Aurobindo all over the world consider it a modern Veda, a book of revelation, something which can alter their consciousness.  What all this means at the least is that it is not likely to be a "worthless" poem.

    I shall offer two more personal anecdotes to illustrate the modernists' prejudice against Aurobindo.

          In a seminar in USA2, Shiv K. Kumar once made disparaging comments on Aurobindo and other mystic poets. In the audience was Karin Schomer, the translator of Mahadevi Verma.  She took umbrage at his remarks; she offered a heated defence of the kind of poetry Kumar hated. Later, Kumar confessed to me that he had been taken aback by the vehemence of Schomer's defense. What struck me as extraordinary was Kumar's own complacence about his modernist poetics; he was incapable of believing that any sensible person could actually admire Aurobindo's poetry.  That he had faced no such serious opposition in India was obvious by his surprise.

    Another such incident involves Ezekiel himself.  When he took a look at my dissertation "Mysticism in Indian English Poetry," he was surprised to find himself in it.  He asked to read the section on himself and then sent it to Commonwealth Quarterly for publication.  Later, he told me that of all the poets I had discussed, he was the only worthwhile one!  What he didn't say, of course, was that he was the also the only modernist poet in it.  I would have thought that he was being facetious except that he went on to repeat his opinions on poets like Aurobindo.  "Whenever anyone says anything in favour of Aurobindo or the others, I ask him, `Tell me, do you read Aurobindo.'  That clinches the issue."  I told Ezekiel that I actually read Aurobindo and even enjoyed him.  There was a deathly silence after that.

          What I have been trying to suggest through these examples is that it is possible to like modernist poetry without being allergic to Aurobindo or Sarojini Naidu.  The modernist either-or option is, ultimately, a false one.  The appreciation of modernist poetry and poetics does not necessarily imply a rejection of the nationalist-romantic-idealist-mystic poetic. True, they are naturally opposed, difficult to reconcile, but are they totally incompatible, totally incommensurable?  I do not think so.  On the contrary, to me they are a part of an ongoing dialectic of Indian culture and sensibility, neither entirely true or false, but both together offering a richer, more complete view of Indian literary history.  Indeed, this is the chief thing that distinguishes us from the modernists--at any rate, it distinguishes me from them.  Like a child of divorced parents who loves and gets along with both of them, I like both Aurobindo and Ezekiel, both Tagore and Moraes, both Naidu and Mehrotra.

    I believe I was not only the first to announce the death of modernism in Indian English poetry, but also to herald the birth of postmodernism.  I am afraid both statements have not been well received by the modernists. Ezekiel, responding to the first said that I didn't know what I was talking about while Daruwalla thought postmodernism was, in effect, a lot of nonsense.  I do not believe that tradition holds all answers, but I do believe that it must not be discarded.  It is a valuable recourse.  In literary terms, I want the poetry of Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt, Tagore, Aurobindo, and Naidu alive; I don't want to see it buried.

          I have devoted a considerable amount of space in trying to problematize the relationship of the modernist poets with their predecessors.  I would now like to focus more sharply on Ezekiel’s own poetry.  I believe that Ezekiel’s poetry is much more like that of earlier poets than he ever cared to admit.  For instance, like them, Ezekiel never gives up metre, though he is somewhat more selective with rhymes.  But most of the poets that follow him dispense with both in favour of free verse.  The conventionality of his form is what distinguishes him from most of his peers, except Moraes, and it is actually on this solid metrical foundation that his claims to poetic excellence rest.  Ultimately, we cannot escape the fact that poetry is a special use of language.  Ezekiel more than most of the modernists excels in the use of measured language.   


          Now let me come to the second observation.  I believe among all the modernists, it is Ezekiel who shows a most clearly defined spiritual quest in his poetry.  Ezekiel himself acknowledged this in his interview with Inder Nath Kher:

      I am not a religious or even a moral persona in any conventional sense.  Yet, I’ve always felt myself to be religious and moral in some sense.  The gap between these two statements is the essential sphere of my poetry.  (5)

    From A Time to Change and Other Poems, his very first, to Latter-Day Psalms, his last collection, this preoccupation persists. Always, he is a “man aspiring/To the Good, which may be God” (16) and the way is “Prayer and poetry, poetry and prayer” (ibid).3  In “Something to Pursue,” Ezekiel sets forth his agenda in unambiguous terms:

          There is a way

          Emerging from the heart of things;

          A man may follow it

          Through works to poetry,

          From works to poetry

          Or from poetry to something else.

          The end does not matter,

          The way is everything,

          And guidance comes.   


    What distinguishes Ezekiel’s spiritual quest from that of other poets like Sri Aurobindo is that it is apparently so modest.  I shall talk about this later, but apart from this modest, Ezekiel’s quest is ultimately about perception.  To him, poetry is a mode not just of expression, but of perception.  The spiritual, for Ezekiel, is thus equated with the right way of viewing reality.  Those who can see correctly are the ones who are free of suffering.  It is they who can apprehend what reality really is like.  The rest are deluded by their senses and intellect. They continue to toil blindly and condemn themselves to delusion.  This, to me, is the essence of Ezekiel’s spiritual genius. 

          This obsession with seeing things as they are is connected with trying to understand what is—that reality, both inner and outer, which presents itself to our perception every given moment of our existence.  Reality, then, is no ideal, fantasy, utopia, or dream; it is neither located in some glorious past or some equally glorious future.  Reality is neither a project or a projection, neither desire nor desiring.  Reality is what emerges when the subject’s doors of perception are cleanses and thus do not mislead him or her.  When that happens, the objects of the world, changing and changeable as they may be, lose their sting, their power to hurt.  Through his entire poetic career, Ezekiel strives for this sober, even, and exact lucidity in both perception and expression.

          In the opening eponymous poem of A Time to Change, Ezekiel defines his objective as “The pure invention or the perfect poem,/ Precise communication of a thought” (5).  So it is the purity of utterance and communication which distinguish him as a poet.  This “lucid utterance” (15) of “unambiguous speech” (ibid) is the only safeguard against “the schizophrenic agonies” (ibid) of our times.  But such clarity requires not so much “constancy nor charity nor fear/ But as it were, a preparation,” (14), “meditation, morning and afternoon” (16). 

          In my section on Ezekiel (198-202) in Mysticism in Indian English Poetry, I had hinted at the dual nature, common to all of us, with which Ezekiel struggles with throughout his poetic career.  His quest for right perception and more generally for God or self-realization is constantly thwarted by desires that he himself calls petty or of a lower order.  As he says repeatedly in the first collection, he is “corrupted by the things imagined” (3), “I am corrupted by the world, continually” (7), “corrupted by the world I must infect the world” (8), “Truly, I am betrayed, consorting with/The world…” (26), and “I am reduced/To appetites and godlessness” (ibid), “I am drugged by words, I am an empty tautologous abstractions, I am conscious only of an inner haemorrhage and the evil eye of time” (34).  As I say in that section, “Such relentless self-scrutiny and castigation continue unabated through the other collections as well” (200).  In A Time to Change and other Poems, we also come face to face with the resolution, the “answer” to the overwhelming (quest)ion that the poet raises:

            Obedience to a comprehended law is freedom, peace and power.  Creation moves in submission tirelessly.  Unyielding men are broken by the hours.  (34)

    Quite appropriately, the poem is called “Declaration.”  It does seem like a declaration of faith:

            And look, the liberation!  The poise of being one with God, the precious quietude of blood, the aftermath of bold acceptance.  (ibid)

    Surrender, a conscious yielding is, thus, the answer.  Poetry and prayer, as he himself has said earlier:

            Move in living images, he said.  Rhythms, shapes, colours, forms, they are yours.  In them is embodied the language with which the laws of the universe brighten existence.  (35)

    This poem, “Encounter,” the last of the collection is actually a conversation between a mysterious and mentoring interlocutor and the poet:  “Within the pandemonium of the street I felt his voice, like a command” (34).  The city, with its “shops, cinemas and business houses” seems almost like a phantasmagoria, unreal flux.  In the midst of the hubbub and chaos, the answer lurks, staring him in the eye:  it is an answer he can grasp:  “Not to be divided.  To move into another state, ineluctably, like death. Perfection in the flow of consciousness, like love” (34).  The answer is in prayer and poetry and love.  Sometimes, it may be prayer in poetry or prayer as poetry or poetry as prayer or in prayer.  Sometimes it is love in poetry, love in prayer, prayer as love, and poetry as love.  As I had observed my book, “Through all the corruption and depravity of human relationships that Ezekiel explores in his later poems, the spiritual theme persists….” (201).  What I have added to my earlier analysis is a rather more precise definition of what the spiritual quest in Ezekiel’s verse actually entails.  A metaphysical clarity that comes from seeing clearly, exact and proportionate perception, unclouded vision and expression, lucidity and transparency—these are the means and ends of his poetry.

          The preoccupation with “seeing” correctly runs through the other collections too, though I will not have the time to demonstrate this at great length. For instance, in the second collection, Sixty Poems (1953), there is “A Poem of Blindness” (49).  It is important to notice that the preposition is of not on, which really suggests that unlike’s Milton’s, this blindness is of the sighted:

                All things are hostile to the seeing eyes,

                And I have often felt

                Across the clearest landscape some disguise….

    As an art critic, Ezekiel had a keen sense of observation, but what the poem speaks of is the disguises and distortions of vision.  The poem has a weaker second stanza in which the speaker retreats under the cloak of darkness, trying to flee “the hydra heads” or his “old despair.”  What is the latter?  We cannot be sure, but it has to do, most probably, with the same old contamination of the senses which prevents us from seeing things for what they are.

          The theme of clear perception is, as it must, also be linked to that of the imagery of light and darkness.  It looks ahead to Hymns in Darkness and is woven through poems such as “Luminosities” (50) and “Foresight” (51) also in Sixty Poems. In the former, the tussle is between our homeward “scriptures” and the “seductive world,” while in the latter, it is between an elusive “self-knowledge” and the “ancient gods … buried beyond the mountains.” Poems such as these, I might add, are seldom discussed by critics.  In fact, just as there are oppositions between light and darkness, seeing and blindness, clarity and confusion, there also runs through Ezekiel’s poems the tension between “Speech and Silence” (53).  We see these themes coming to a fruition in a more celebrated later poem such as “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher” ( 135). But poems like “Prayer I and II” (54-56) repeat the conflicts in the first collection with added precision.  What is worth praying for:  it is “The ordered mind/ Erasure of the inner lie” or “let words be intimate with brain”—once again, it is the quest for the exact name, of both apprehending and expressing things as they are.  Poems like “First Theme and Variations” (75-76) and “Second Theme and Variations” (77-78) play out similar notes, “Tracking to the root my versatile duplicates” (77), the shame and the agony of self-deception followed by penitence and uncertain grace.

          In The Third (1958), once again, this preoccupation with faith and fear recurs in terms that foreground the problem of perception. The very first poem, “Portrait,” (87) and “Division” (87-88), the poet watches “with cold, determined intellect… the heart at play” (87), finding patterns which he calls “Spasmodic and repetitive” (“Walking” 89).  “The true business of living” is “to see things as they are” is his “Conclusion” (96-97), though what that often means in Ezekiel’s poetry is “touching, kissing … and loving on the bed” (97).  I would venture to suggest that Ezekiel’s love poems are also about seeing, though this seeing is in the mirror of relationship and registers its sometimes cynical insights in the amoral and compulsive drives of the senses.  Again, in “Insight” (101-102), we return to the theme of seeing and sight:  “nothing can be seen or heard/ Except the soul’s disguise,” says the poet sadly, echoing his earlier lament of the corruptibility of the senses.  The tussle between the “self protective self/ And the naked self” continue in “What Frightens Me” (106), with the poet declaring that “Myself examined frightens me.”  The “endless silent dialogue” often leads only to self-deception, not to clarity, making the poet crave for “the perfect modulated voice” (“Sonnet” 107).  Rather typical of Ezekiel’s love poems is “Situation” (109) with “quiet despair” marking a sexual encounter and the usual “stock of lies.” After the “concealed but clear” motives of watching the naked Cuban dancer in “At the Hotel,” the collection ends on a pristine Ezekiel note in “December ‘58”:  “I see the morning light, the door/ Is opened on an unflawed page” (112).  Once again, the sordidness and corruption of the world are occasionally offset by lucid morning, brief as they might be, and inevitably followed by distortions of the night.

          With Unfinished Man (1960), the urban landscape that Ezekiel explores is best described here in poems such as “Urban” (117) and “A Morning Walk” (119-120).  We have more “Commitment”s (121) and “Morning Prayer”s (122), but what Ezekiel has really found is the “law” of the urban artist, like “Jamini Roy” (125), which makes the “spirit sing and dance” (126). 

          But it is with The Exact Name (1965), that we come to Ezekiel’s mature phase.  Juan Ramon Jimenez’s poem serving as the epigraphy of the collection declares the great theme that I have been trying to expatiate:  “Let my word be/ The thing itself…. Intelligence, give me/ The exact name of things!” (127).  It is this exact name that is perceptibly only to the awakened intelligence that is, I have tried to argue, the central idea in Ezekiel’s poetry.  Autobiographical poems like the much anthologized “Night of the Scorpion” (130-131) or “In India” (131-134) underscore the Ezekiel’s ironic detachment and distance from his environment, while poems like “Perspective” (134) and “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher” (135-135), once again, unify Ezekiel’s concerns with seeing clearly, writing poetry, pursuing virtue, wooing women, and finding love.  In the later poem, the moment of discovery, when the true identity of the object of desire is revealed or the exact name of the thing in itself seized, there an epiphany in which “The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight” (135).  The collection ends with an extraordinary “Conjugation” (146) in which the various forms of pretence are highlighted, hoping thereby for “An end/ To pretension.”

          The following two sections of The Collected Poems, “Poems (1965-1974) and “Poems Written in 1974” bring together some previously uncollected work.  The next collection, Hymns in Darkness (1976) is perhaps Ezekiel’s very best, with important poems like “Background, Casually” and “Island” and popular ones like “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T. S.”  Again, we stumble on the problem of perception:  “Illusion, with the darker root I know/ Makes me bristle with my paltry words” (“Distance,” 192).  In poems like “Mind” (207), the poet critically examines that “Sad artificer” the mind, that “clinging/ Too long to the same static vision” is often “Misled by norms.”  “The Egoist’s Prayers” are self-deprecating, even comic, but hardly mask the deeper frustration at not being established in perfect insight:  “Kick me around/ a bit more, O Lord./ I see at last/ there’s no other way/ for me to learn/ your simplest truths” (212).  But the poem also ends with one of Ezekiel’s clearest declarations of belonging:  “Confiscate my passport, Lord,/ I don’t want to go abroad./ Let me find my song/ where I belong” (213) reminding us of the concluding line of “Background, Casually”:  “My backward place is where I am” (181).  What we begin to realize is that the casual in Ezekiel is actually the serious, just as the ironic is the committed. 

          This constant searching, finding, losing, and regaining of insight comes to a head in the eponymous “Hymns in Darkness”:  “Self-deception is a fact of being.  How, then, to be undeceived?”  These lines might serve as the anthem of Ezekiel’s poetry.  The “war of motives” continues unrelenting, with the poet, “self-deceived,” often losing (218).  And yet, all is not lost:  “So much light in total darkness!/So much courage given, beside the abyss!” (219).  The oscillations between hope and despair continue just as spiritual seeking alternates with sexual escapades.  The poem, punctuated by banality, ends on a note of uncertainty:  “All you have/ is the sense of reality,/ unfathomable/ as it yields its secrets/slowly/ one/ by/ one”  (225).  The lines, shrinking to single words, seem to emphasize the fragility of the insights offered, the slender thread of light in the otherwise gloomy landscape of the soul.

          In Latter-Day Psalms (1982), the poet’s last published collection, there is a much greater clarity and sense of affirmation.  The questioning of Hymns in Darkness has at last yielded to a few quiet certitudes:  “Stop the blind effort,” “Where you are/ Is where you have to be,” “Keep the mind steady./ What you will see/ You will also understand” (229).  And understand the poet does:  “Love is more concerned/ About your fate/ Than you have ever been./ That is why you have survived” (230).  The solution to the whole of Ezekiel’s repetitive fluctuations is given in one line:  “bear your restless with grace” (ibid). At last we know that “the sage is probably a clown” (233).  We also know that the way to avoid the alienation of not-belonging is by expressing gratitude; else one is condemned to the status of a minority who must “Polish up your alien/ techniques of observation,/ while the city burns” (237). To me these powerful lines are a devastating critique of modernist irony, which allows its practitioners a safe refuge from the imperatives of belonging.  “Very Indian Poems in Indian English,” “Songs for Nandu Bhende,” and “Postcard Poems” are, in fact, about the politics not of aloofness, but of belonging.  They combine humour, pathos, satire, and laughter to demonstrate a poetics of compassion and empathy.  “Nudes,” similarly, are celebratory, satiric, and overly erotic with the abandon of older Indian poems.  We find nothing like them in the somber and rather tedious angst of fellow-modernist poets, who turn sexuality into tragedy.

          In the title poem, Ezekiel comes to terms with his Jewish heritage and all that appeals to him, the obsession with virtue, godliness, faith, and good works.  In some of them he also comes to terms with his vocation as a poet.  It is in X, “Concluding Latter-Day Psalm,” that we see the poet’s boldest aversion to the Abrahamic rhetoric of exclusiveness:

                All that fuss about faith,

                all those decisions to praise

                God, the repeated appeals,

                denunciations, laments and hopes,

                the division of men into virt-

                uous and wicked! 

                How boring and pathetic, but

                also how elemental, how spiritual

                the language, how fiery and human

                in the folly of its feelings!

    There is an acceptance of God in the poet’s “Jewish consciousness” but also a definite push to move on “Now I am through with/ the Psalms; they are/ part of my flesh” (261).  No need to thump one’s chest about one’s faith, implies the poet; a quieter internalization and absorption is better:  the images in ancestral voices, like birds and fish, fly and swim in his consciousness. 

          The last section, “Poems 1983-1988” also contain previously uncollected, often unpublished poems.  The slightly amused, slightly baffled wisdom of the earlier work is once again voiced in longer poem like “Blessings.”  It actually contains what comes the closest to being Ezekiel’s credo:

                May you be

                poet, painter, scholar,

                thinker, musician,

                even if you create nothing that matters

                except your life, which too

                has to be created.    (283)

    The poet now speaks with a self-knowledge that is less apologetic, more direct, even if it is less compelling poetically.  He acknowledges the “prophet” in himself, recovering from his despair, opening old wound, afraid of bleeding to death, but knowing nonetheless that he must find “that invisible and intimate place/ of which my prophet speaks” (295). The last poem of the collection may serve as a fitting finale for all of Ezekiel’s work.  It is celebrates a modest achievement that comes from having nurtured a poetry of proportions over five decades:

                I know I shall say it

                gratefully, as persistent and poetic

                as the grass that grows

                between Bombay’s pavement tiles.   (295)

    The singing voice that the poet has sought early on, the clarity of vision, the purity of perception—all these come to be instantiated in the enduring gratitude, persistence, and promise of the creative vibrancy of the grass that grows on the pavements of Bombay—a small triumph perhaps, but undeniable all the same.

          In the second edition of Collected Poems is one addition, “The Second Candle,” “recently found,” the Contents page says, “among the late poet’s papers” (xii).  Thieme in his Introduction calls it “a possible movement beyond his characteristic skepticism” (xxxix).  I see it, instead, as the reaffirmation of the possibility of grace that is always inherent in his writing:

          The second candle is for a miracle I need

          a special favour, a certain turn of events

          what work alone will never bring,

          a gift we do not quite deserve

          but still may get by asking for it.

          Call it grace, if you like, a windfall,

          bonus, dearness allowance,

          more than a promotion, some kind of new dimension, revelation.

          Well, that’s what the second candle’s for.    (296)

    When the second speaker in the poem says, “Now do you understand,” I believe the line applies not just to the poet who asked the question, but also to all those overly skeptical readers who have thought that if Ezekiel turned to religious subjects he did so only, as King puts it, deconstructively (King 104). 


          In conclusion, let me return to my two main contentions about Ezekiel’s poetry.  First of all, the whole premise that Ezekiel’s poetry in particular and modern Indian English poetry in general marks a clean and definite break with the past is questionable.  In Indian Poetry in English I actually unearthed poets before Ezekiel who had practiced modernist verse.  I also argued that what was a minor mode suddenly became the dominant one in the 1950s, many years after literary modernism had established itself in the West.  I attributed the time lag, among other things, to the two world wars, but also to the prevailing idealism of the national struggle for freedom.  The ironic, skeptical vision, somehow, didn’t seem to fit the ethos or mythos of the high tide of nationalism.  It was only after independence that a disillusionment set it which allowed the ironic mode to come into prominence.  The political, social, and cultural climate in India finally became conducive to modernism.  Even so, the spread of literary modernism in India was by no means uniform or simultaneous.  It had entered Bengali poetry even earlier than Indian English poetry and, arguably, it is yet to enter smaller languages like Dogri and Nepali, which are even more predisposed to romanticism and idealism.  The error that Indian English poets and critics have repeatedly made is to consider their own language to be the benchmark or even the defining parameter for the arrival or establishment of modernism in India. Ezekiel’s relationship with his poetic predecessors is thus marked by a much greater continuity than is generally understood or acknowledged.  This continuity, evident in both the form and content, shows Ezekiel’s verse as far more “conventional” in his use of rhyme and metre than that of the later poets.  Therefore, his view of poetry as measured language is closer to that of the earlier poets than to the later ones. 

          In addition, like, say, Sri Aurobindo, the great stumbling block and bete noir of all modernist versifiers and anthologists, Ezekiel is actually a spiritual poet.  Throughout his poetry runs the quest both for the nature of the ultimate reality and for some kind of self-realization.  Furthermore, that this quest is best articulated in just, proportionate, and uncontaminated perception—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting “correctly.”  The correctness in neither political nor religious nor social, but is certainly ethical and metaphysical.  Ezekiel’s poetry suggest that if only we could see clearly and express ourselves lucidly, we would know ourselves, our world, and also God.  Even his overtly erotic poems are really about confessing, owning up, and apprehending the “truth” about his relationships and experiences. 

          So, one might ask, in closing, what is different about Ezekiel’s poetry?  Here one would immediately agree with the conventional wisdom of most of the modernists that the language that he uses is more everyday, colloquial, the lived idiom of contemporary life, not bookish, abstract, or bombastic.  One would also agree that Ezekiel’s view of life lacks the sense of grand narratives or oracular pronouncements.  It is in the everyday, humdrum, even sordid urban landscape of the postcolonial metropolis that he seeks to realize the higher truths of life.  I would add that even his spirituality is different.  It lacks the great affirmations of Tagore or Sri Aurobindo but is instead marked by a humility and modesty characterized by a reduced set of circumstances and a circumscribed quest.  No longer is the vision one of saving humanity or saving a nationality, but simply of surviving, following a vocation, living authentically.  The preoccupation with the means and ends of perception is reminiscent of another anti-traditionalist teacher whom Ezekiel does not mention but must have been familiar with:  J. Krishnamurti.  It must also bear the influence of European intellectual currents such as existentialism. 

          I would suggest that the times were different and so Ezekiel’s poetry had to be different.  From a huge collective enterprise which welded a whole nation together, we now move to a more fragmentary and disillusioned era in which every man and woman must look out for himself or herself.  The grand purpose is gone, as are the magnificent promises.  Instead, you have a society inadequately prepared for the modern world but plagued with the aftereffects of centuries of subjugation and economic exploitation.  Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ramana, Sarojini Naidu and a whole host of other great men and women are dead.  Poetry is more beleaguered than ever and must find a way to survive.  English itself is under siege.  Some of this instability is reflected in all the different jobs that Ezekiel did before he “settled down” as Professor of English, University of Bombay.  It was his stature as a writer that got him the job because, after all, he never did a PhD.  Ezekiel’s career shows a tremendous dedication to his calling as a poet, a heroic persistence against all odds.  It is a more quiet heroism, no doubt, but one this is no less worth celebrating and remembering than the more public and spectacular accomplishments of the great men and women of an earlier era.

          I shall end by submitting that rather than being a “new” poet, starting a new trend, Ezekiel may be seen actually as a bridge between the old and the new, as a person who carried forward the “best” of what he inherited to a new generation which he fostered through his artistry and leadership.  More Indian than foreign, more an insider than outsider, more Hindu than Jewish, more a part of the majority than a minority, Ezekiel actually embodies and carries forward the great themes of a very old tradition of poetry, the theme of finding the meaning of what it means to be embodied, to be human, to be a seeker after truth, to love (wo)man and to love God, to want to lead the good life, which is also the virtuous life, to want to find one’s happiness but also to do something for one’s fellow-human beings, to be rooted, located, to have an identity, to belong, but at the same time, to be a part of a larger world of people, ideas, and art, to be national but also to be cosmopolitan, in brief to be a modern Indian without entirely losing one’s sense of one’s traditions. 


    Works Cited 

    Dharwadkar, Vinay. "Some Contexts of Modern Indian Poetry" in Aditya Behl and

          David Nicholls, eds. The Penguin New Writing in India. New Delhi:  Penguin

          India, 1994: 221-236.

    Ezekiel, Nissim.  Collected Poems 1952-1988.  1986.  2nd ed.  Pref. Leela Gandhi. 

          Introd. John Thieme.  New Delhi:  OUP,  2005.

    King, Bruce.  Modern Indian Poetry in English.  1986.  2nd. rev. ed.  Delhi:  OUP,


    Jaaware, " Aniket.  “The Many Meanings of Modernity.” Haritham 1.2 (1993) 192-


    Paranjape, Makarand, ed.  An Anthology of New Indian English Poetry.  Delhi:  Rupa,


    -----, ed.  Indian Poetry in English.  Madras:  Macmillan, 1993. 

    -----.  Mysticism in Indian English Poetry.  Delhi:  B. R. Publications, 1988. 

    -----.  “Modernism and Its Discontents: Observations on Recent Indian English Poetry.”

      In Mapping Cultural Spaces: Postcolonial Indian Literature in English: Essays in Honour of Nissim Ezekiel. Eds. Nilufer E. Bharucha and Vrinda Nabar. New Delhi: Vision Books, 1998: 43-60. 

    Rao, Raj R.  Nissim Ezekiel:  The Authorized Biography.  New Delhi:  Viking, 2000. 

  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape