Rima Bhattacharya, PhD
Abstract: This paper traces the geographical expansion of the trend of writing Language Poetry from the 1950s, which gradually influenced the broader spectrum of literature world-wide. A new group of uprising poets known as the Language poets were opting for technically disruptive writing in place of rhetorical and representational writing in order to reflect the spirit of the age. The paper draws a comparison between the poems of the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg and the poems of some of the Hungry Generation poets of Bengal in order to trace out the emotional as well as the technical similarities between these two geographically diversified yet very similar groups in terms of voicing a common spirit of rebellion. Be it the poetry of the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg or the Indian hungryalist poet Malay Roychoudhury, the emotions, sentiments and angst expressed through their poems are the same. In spite of being separated by a huge distance their spontaneous and later censored poetry seem to echo the same rebellious voice and proceed towards the common objective of cleaning the society of hypocrisies and inhibitions.
Title: The common thread between the Beats and the Hungryalists
Department of Humanities and Social Science
Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur
The history of American poetry since World War II represents a contest between a formalist approach towards the experimental impulse of modernism and an anti-formalist revolt that affirms the presence of open forms. Postmodern poetry or avant-garde poetry has always posed oppositional challenges to the cultural establishments of a society. Modern and late modern experimental writers have repeatedly suggested that technically disruptive work is scientific, objective and presentational–the very opposite of representational and rhetorical writing. This was followed by the uprising of a new group of poets known as The Language poets. They were an avant-garde group in United States that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its immediate postmodern precursors were the New American poets, a cluster which includes the New York School, the Objectivist poets, the Black Mountain School, the Beat poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance. Language poetry can be defined as the work of an associated network of writers who share in the main a number of questions about the relation between language and the politics of cultural production.
By the time Allen Ginsberg was reading out his poem “Howl” for the 6 Poets at the 6 Gallery Reading, San Francisco, 1955, poetry has become a tangible social force, moving and unifying its auditors, releasing the energies of the audience through spoken, even shouted verse. Young poets did then engage in an enthusiastic, free-spirited celebration of poetry. The audience participated, shouted and joyfully applauded at times. Ginsberg’s poem is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the true spirit of life. It uncovers the nerves of suffering and spiritual struggle. However, its positive force and energy come from a redemptive and eternal quality of love, although it meticulously catalogues the evils of our time, from physical depravation to madness. Nearly all of Ginsberg’s poems which were based on so-called beat themes–allegiance to spontaneity, rejection of artificial forms, commitment to physicality, pursuit of the non-mimetic, are excellent examples of Language Poetry. All these poems generated a poetics of their own along with their own academically respectable theorists William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson (Merrill 16).
It is extremely interesting to trace the geographical expansion of this trend of writing Language Poetry which has influenced the broader spectrum of literature world-wide. With the first reading of Howl in 1955, Ginsberg explodes on the page with a driving challenge of language, perception, and the development of a new American vocabulary, similar to that of Walt Whitman. Ginsberg's greatest contribution as a poet was the development of a new poetics. Upon the release of the poem as a part of his 1956 collection of poetry titled Howl and Other Poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the bookstore's manager, Shigeyoshi Murao, were charged with disseminating obscene literature, and both were arrested. Only a few years later, in a completely different part of the world, in India, a similar incident took place. On September 2, 1964, arrest warrants were issued against eleven young alienated young poets of Bengal who called themselves The Hungryalists. The group included Malay Roychoudhury, Saileswar Ghosh, Subhas Ghose and Pradip Choudhuri, who had been arrested and charged with conspiring to produce and distribute an obscene book in violation of Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code. The book was an anthology of their writings, in which Stark Electric Jesus was Malay Roychoudhury’s contribution. Later that summer charges were dropped against five of them, but the prosecution of Malay Roychoudhury continued. On 28 December 1965 he was found guilty by a Calcutta court and sentenced to a fine of 200 rupees or one month’s imprisonment. The poem was banned. The court case went on for years. News of the persecution appeared in the November 4, 1964, issue of Time magazine, which brought the Hungryalist movement worldwide coverage. Poets like Octavio Paz and Ernesto Cardenal, and Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg visited Roychoudhury1.
Soon after Independence, poetry in most of the Indian languages went through a turbulent phrase at approximately the same time. As a result of this various “regional” poetic movements were launched; these were often simply called new poetry (for instance, naikabita in Hindi and nayakavya in Marathi). The major context of nineteenth and twentieth century Indian poetry cannot be grasped if one does not take into consideration the vast gamut or network of Indian and foreign literatures surrounding it. It is almost undeniable that “foreign influences” have played a crucial role in the emergence of Indian post-modern poetry. English literature has been an obvious influence, and it has permeated all the Indian language traditions since the nineteenth century. American Beat poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the poetry of Allen Ginsberg also had a widespread effect, on the Indian literary scenario, drawing strong and favorable responses from all over the subcontinent. During the postcolonial decades, the Indian literary world saw the advent of powerful new writers from formerly suppressed or marginal social groups and communities. In the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, poets from lower middle class and lower class backgrounds began challenging the canons of middle-class and upper- caste literary establishments in languages like Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi and Hindi. Among the poetic movements that emerged from this wider phenomenon were the Digambara (“naked poetry”) movement in Andhra Pradesh, the controversial and short-lived Hungry Generation movement in Bengal and the Marxist- Leninist (Naxalite) movement of revolutionary writing in different parts of the country (Dharwadker 220)
For a diversified nation like India it is impossible to maintain a tidy clarity and present a singularly unified poetic attitude to the world. No other country in the world can offer greater extremes or variety in the total experiences which shape poets. The poetic vision of the Hungry Generation erupted in Bengal and rapidly spread to such cities like New Delhi, Bombay and Allahabad. This kind of poetry was dangerous and revolutionary like the Beat poetry, and did seek to clean the society by violence and destruction. This was the poetry of the disaffected, the alienated, the outraged, and the dying. It was a kind of poetry which alarmed and disgusted the bourgeois, for it laid bare their sickened state more clearly than they wished to hear, and exposed the hypocrisy of their decency2. In an interview with Subhankar Das, the editor of Graffiti, Kolkata Roychoudhury states that “the Hungryalist movement has changed the course of Bengali literature once for all. We definitely created a rupture in terms of time, discourse, experience, narrative diction and breath span of poetic lines” (See “Conversing with Malay”). One of the reactions of good citizens had been to accuse the hungryalist poets of hysteria and obscenity, which is reminiscent of the first line of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/ Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (Collected Poems 126). The long and painful persecution of Malay Roychoudhury, ended in his conviction on 28 December 1965 on charges of obscenity. This is an indication of the disturbance that the poets had created in an apparently well-wrought society comprising mainly of corrupted and hypocritical people.
During his India trip, Bengal introduced Ginsberg to a group of anti-establishment writers like himself and the other beatniks. This group include people like Shakti Chattopadhyay, Malay Roy Choudhury, Samir Roychoudhury, Subimal Basak, Debi Roy (HaradhonDhara), Utpalkumar Basu, Binoy Majumdar, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Basudeb Dasgupta, Roy and last but not the least Falguni Roy, who is considered to be responsible for heralding the postmodern era in Bengal. Falguni Roy’s book Nashto Atmar Television (The Television of Ruined Subjectivity), published on 15th August 1973 was supposed to signify the end of modernity in Bangla poetry and thereby herald post-modernity. Falguni Roy completely rejected collectively proclaimed rules and canons and wrote poems which veered toward open, playful, disjunctive, displaced, hybridized, immanent, fragmentary, selfless Bangla indigenous forms. His poems too are strikingly different wherein lines, stanzas, voice-grids are interlocked as against the interlinking form of pre-Hungry Generation Bengali poetry.
In his prose and poems Falguni Roy made constant efforts to dismantle modern poetry's beliefs in unity, hierarchy, identity, foundations, subjectivity and representations, while celebrating counter-principles of difference and multiplicity in everyday life3. It is possible to draw a comparison between the poetry of Ginsberg and Roy on the account of the tremendous fatigue and hopelessness expressed by their poems. Allen Ginsberg’s collection of early poems The Empty Mirror begins with a poetic statement of the profoundest uselessness and hopelessness:
I feel as if I am at a dead
end and so I am finished.
are true but I never escape
the feeling of being closed in
and the sordidness of self,
the futility of all that I
have seen and done and said. (Collected Poems 71)
One would encounter the same feeling of hopelessness and despair in Falguni Roy’s poem “Personal Neon”:
I am devoid of genius
that is why I can touch my nose with my tongue
and prove that I am really a genius
Sometimes while walking in front of
Manik Bandyopadhyay's house I brood
about the street on which he once walked
I am also on the same road, but worthless, Falguni Ray4
The poem expresses neither exultation, nor the certitude of life that provides the human soul with a sense of comfort, but the mood of a spirit that has long been besieged by doubts regarding one’s own abilities and has experienced a face-to-face encounter with the sense of despair. In both of the poems one would find echoes of existential complaints. It is also important to note that both the poems make use of similar spontaneous language and emotions. One would find that Ginsberg’s poetry usually depends upon the existentialist formula: existence precedes essence. While he is writing, he claims to be living or existing through the experience. Thought about that experience (i.e. essence) would reduce the immediacy of the experience itself. Hungryalist manifestoes contain several points to second Ginsberg’s methods. In fact in more than one way Falguni Roy can be considered to be one out of the group of outcast seekers suffering persecution, madness, suicide and among whom Ginsberg includes himself, in his poem “Howl”. The Moloch, which in Ginsberg’s Howl is a representative of social ills, equally oppresses Falguni’s life, although he belongs to a different culture and country.
At that time, Kolkata, then called Calcutta, was undergoing change at a fast pace. Partition had unleashed a catastrophic inflow of displaced people, which was gradually changing the social fabric of border towns as well as the city of Calcutta. Migration began before Partition and continued into the 1960s and beyond. By late 1959 there were processions of hungry migrants; many died or were killed. Malay Roychoudhury’s poem Wolf Dynasty (translated by the poet from the bengali version Nekrayr Bangsho) depicts this sour time of putrefaction:
They pressed a pistol on my temple, yelled:
Why have you basterd turned up again
We'll slap hungry lips with scarlet fangs
tongue will lick the sunbeam from your nails
and stop the tinsel Jatayu's hinged-wing strain.
Oilsoot penury in me lees whatever is stark
designs in secret teak trees behind screen of bark (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 80)
Why have you basterd turned up again
We'll slap hungry lips with scarlet fangs
tongue will lick the sunbeam from your nails
and stop the tinsel Jatayu's hinged-wing strain.
Oilsoot penury in me lees whatever is stark
designs in secret teak trees behind screen of bark (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 80)
The poem in its spirit and use of language is reminiscent of Ginsberg’s poem “America” and a later collection of poems named “The Fall of America”. “America” is a poem, as spontaneous as “Wolf Dynasty”. It is also comic, tedious, honest and yet highly incisive. The poem is an attempt to catch the mood of a particular attitude towards the United States without the interference of logic or rationality. However through all the turmoil, gibberish, and illogicality of the poem, a broad-based attack, which rational discourse can only hint at, is launched against American values. The seemingly hopeless illogicality of the poem, which is also a characteristic of “Wolf Dynasty”, acts as a mirror for the hopeless condition of the Nation it reflects. First and foremost Whitman’s exuberant optimism towards America turns into disillusionment in the voice of the poet: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” (Collected Poems 146). This admission is followed later in the poem by an appeal to America to shake off its hypocrisy and be equal to Whitman’s challenge: “America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes?”(Collected Poems 146). The real impact of the protest in this poem is conveyed structurally. The total bewilderment and confusion that one feels in reading the poem reflects the American dilemma Ginsberg attempts to mirror.
One key concern of the language poets all over the world has been to point out the manner in which traditional poetic genres and forms tend to naively reflect establishmental and institutional values of societies. These writers consciously identify poetry as conditioned by the ideological limitations and power of the written word in traditional cultures. For all these reasons, language poets are considered to be radical revisionists of existing poetic forms. They tend to reject traditional forms, lyricism, narrative, subjectivity, and naively representational writing. They have also accepted that language is constructed by relations of power, and that it cannot naively access either transcendence or the natural world, or unproblematically represent the way the world "actually is." Therefore Ginsberg writes in Wichita Vortex Sutra:
The war is language,
Like magic for power on the planet (Collected Poems 401)
The Fall of America shows Ginsberg moving closer to Kerouac’s conception of the writer as memoirist. Much of the book is drawn from journal transcription, or composed directly on the tape recorder as Ginsberg traveled about the country by car, plane, and train. This is Ginsberg’s most despairing and least affirming book, haunted by a constant sense of doom. The basis of The Fall of America is the violence of Vietnam during the 1960s as reflected in an inner violence of America. The destruction of foreign war is complemented by the devastation of America’s own natural environment. Ginsberg’s poems are based on the Buddhist notion of karma that promises that any present action will affect future incarnations, or the biblical maxim on sowing and reaping. Instead of the ecstatic resources of drugs or mysticism, the only relief Ginsberg projects in this poem is an apocalypse of self-destruction.
On the other hand if one can take a look at India, specially at Bengal, then one would discover that during the period of 1959- 60, the Post-partition Bangla polity was definitely a time of turbulence. The society was filled with angry young men. Indifferent politicians and not concerned intellectuals governed the sphere of influence. A post-Partition turmoil had overtaken West Bengal. It was during this time Roychoudhury had started the movement with his elder brother, Samir Roychoudhury, and two other poets, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Ray. The word Hungryalism was coined by the Hungryalists from English poet Geofrey Chaucer’s line In the Sowre Hungry Tyme. The Hungryalists felt that the post-colonial dream of a new, ecstatic, resurgent India had turned sour due to the licensed existence of a corrupt bureaucracy-politician nexus and the country was hurtling towards a nightmare after partition of the Bengali time and space5. Such an atmosphere which is comparable to the atmosphere described by Ginsberg in The Fall of America, was responsible for the production of Malay Roychoudhury’s poem “Shame on you Calcutta”:
Stay and live with your eunuchs
You are their nurse who piss in bed in winter rain
Lift their legs and change wet pants
Write great words on walls to be urinated by pimps
I don’t want to meddle in your affairs now.
Lips will turn sour if I kiss you after death.
(Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 60)
Both the Beats as well as the Hungryalists believed in spontaneity and acceptance of reality. They were both trying to reintegrate humans with the natural world and thereby to establish a world of “natural humanity”, instead of an “artificial ideal” and for this it was necessary to accept both the holy and evil side of one’s own nature and surroundings. Samir Roy Choudhury, like his younger brother Malay, criticizes as well as accepts the bad side of his city, Calcutta in his poem “So” (translated by the poet from the bengali version “To”) :
Oh Sir, nobody uses the Jadavpur subway for road crossing
during night aristocrat lunatics sleep thereat
a passenger queried- is the taxi-meter OK?
I delivered a counter- is the country OK?
In front of Tollygunj Metro both flyover and subway are being constructed
that does not mean pedestrians will not come under wheels
how will then media-fedia dailies-failies run6
During his Indian sojourn, Allen Ginsberg struck great friendship with Malay and his older brother Samir Roy Choudhury and lived in their Patna house for several months. These were the formative years of the Hungryalist Movement. While Allen cast a certain Beat influence on the Roychoudhury brothers, they too, were instrumental in creating profound cultural influence on Ginsberg. Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journal bears ample proof of that although he fails to mention the Roychoudhury brothers in the book. Touched by the raw and fiery poetry of the Hungryalist poets, Ginsberg brought back to America in 1962-63 translations of a whole bunch of Bengali Hungryalist poets which Lawrence Ferlinghetti published later in a special issue of the City Lights Journal. According to Alden the beat generation and the last World War as a whole did not leave the Indian writer untouched. He by that time has developed a new attitude and has matured a lot. The poets of Bengal gradually started moving away from the Romanticism and elegance of the poetry of the early 1900’s, landing up in a new individualized space. Poets started experimenting with new forms, drawing inspiration from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. It was believed that this kind of “new poetry” took recourse to ugliness and led to the destruction of the human soul in contrast to the previous task of poetry that persisted in the pursuit of “beauty” (See Alden 398).
Ginsberg’s famous poem Kaddish dedicated to his mother, written quite a few years before his trip to India, shows an obsession with the idea of death. For various reasons it had seemed to Ginsberg at that point of time, that the best thing to do was to drop dead or not to be afraid of death but go into death. He began to believe that God was death, and if he wanted to attain God, he had to die: “Nameless, One faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless, Father in death” (Collected Poems 212). The “Hymmnn” which follows Kaddish, ends with the words “Blessed be Death on us all” (Collected Poems 225) and this once again reinforces Kaddish’s consolation for the dead. For Ginsberg, death was a release from the miseries of an unfeeling time and world. One can find a similar obsession with death in Malay Roychoudhury’s poem “Stark Electric Jesus” which begins with the line: “Oh I’ll die I’ll die I’ll die” and again in the same poem, where the poet writes:
I do not know whether I am going to die
Squandering was roaring within heart’s exhaustive impatience
I’ll disrupt and destroy
I’ll split all in to pieces for the sake of Art
There isn’t any other way out for Poetry except suicide.
(Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 68)
Ginsberg’s Kaddish is the personal diary of a son’s witness to his mother’s acute sufferings under the accumulations of life that ultimately result in death. It is also an “autobiographical” narrative because the real history presented is not that of Naomi Ginsberg but the history of her son finding himself in reliving his memory. Ginsberg calls on his Origin, and exploits his recollection of Naomi’s anguish to help him understand the nature of his own:
O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave
Suck first mystic life and taught me talk and music,
From whose pained head I first took Vision –
What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my
Own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee,
O Poetry – and for all humankind call on the Origin. (Collected Poems 223)
In Kaddish the poet expresses a strong desire to return to and fuse with his mother in death. For Ginsberg separation from his mother was never independent but always an absolute, sterile and frustrating isolation. The separation was so radical that it could not be resolved by mere verbal or emotional communication and therefore Ginsberg longs to be delivered from this agonizing isolation by a kind of self-annihilating fusion with the mother. From this point of view, one can understand his incestuous desires, as expressing his wish to get inside his mother and see things as she does:
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her-
Flirting to herself at sink –
Seemed perhaps a good idea to try – know the Monster of the Beginning Womb –
Perhaps – that way. Would she care? She needs a lover. (Collected Poems 219)
One would find the same desire to merge with the Origin in Malay Roychoudhury poem “Stark Electric Jesus”:
Let me sleep for the last time on a bed soft as the skin of Shubha’s bosom
I remember now the sharp – edged radiance of the moment I was born
I want to see my own death before passing away
The world had nothing to do with Malay Roychoudhury
Shubha let me sleep for a few moments in your violent silvery uterus
Let me create myself in your womb with my own sperm.
(Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 68)
Shakti Chattopadhay’s poem Yarasandha vibrates with the same spirit and the poet makes an appeal to his mother to take him back. His unique voice spoke to the urban youth of post-World War II generation. His distinct style, like his friend Ginsberg was filled with a sense of deep angst: Why did you bring me in?
Take me back
The face cold as dark
The sad eyes poor as dry lake
Let your mother take you back
Why did you labor
On the crunched bed of straw
To usher me in? (Poems of a Rebel 8)
The appeal of Naomi’s cryptic advice at the end of the poem, “The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window” undoubtedly bears an unwitting resemblance to Shakti Chattopadhay’s poem The Key (translated by the poet from the Bengali version Chabi), in which Shakti Chattopadhay gives a similar kind of advice to his dear friend Malay Roychoudhury:
Till this day here lies with me
Lost long ago, your dearest key
You open still that chest of yours? (Shakti Chattopadhay Poems 27)
Interestingly, Ginsberg’s masterpiece “Howl” and Malay Roychoudhury’s poem “Wound” (translated by the poet from the bengali version Jakham), bear a striking resemblance. In “Howl”, the first part of the poem attempts to create the impression of a kind of nightmare world in which people representing “the best minds of my generation”, in the author’s view, are wandering like damned souls in hell. This is done through a kind of series of what one might call surrealistic images, a kind of state of hallucinations. Roychoudhudy dwells on the same hellish atmosphere at the beginning of his poem “Wound”:
Awning ablaze with toxic fire above me
I lie watching the winged blue of this crawling sky
Putting down the crushing anger of my suffering
I crossexam my nocturn doubts
Pushing a gramophone needle over the lines of my palm
I scan the prophecy. (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 81)
The mood of the poem “Howl” changes in the second section and becomes an indictment of those elements that are destructive of the best qualities of human nature and of the best minds. “What sphinx of cement and aluminium,” it begins, “based upon their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”. “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!”, he answers, and thus begins to list the soulless, materialistic, sexless mechanized elements of Moloch whose presence leads to destruction and war (Collected Poems 131). In Roychoudhury’s poem “Wound”, however, the poet himself becomes the representative of the decadent society he depicts. Ginsberg’s mental Moloch takes the shape of ravens at times for Roychoudhury as one finds him describing his state in his poem “Wound”:
16 dvn ravens whirl around my torso for 25 years
My bones reel clutching my raw wounds
My peeled fleshblood
Flaying my skin I uncover arrogant frescos of my trap
Ageless sabotage inside the body (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 81)
At other times it takes the shape of hounds that haunt him:
2000 hounds released from out of my skull
Haunting me for 25 years (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 82)
At the end of the poem Roychoudhury even mentions a list of atrocities which he imagines himself to have committed but the atrocities seem to reflect a common attitude of the generation he represents:
I had lifted a 5- paise coin from a blind beggar’s palm
I had looted benevolent money of hearse- corpses (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 83)
Ginsberg’s famous and revolutionary poem “Howl” was initially a highly censored poem. Both Ginsberg’s and Roychoudhury’s poems reflect a common sentiment which is clearly stated in the latter’s poem “Wounds”: I may be censored I can not be disregarded (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 83)
Although both Ginsberg and Roychoudhury were considered to be rebels by their society, both of them at some of time, did realize their limitation as human beings and felt like succumbing to their cruel fate. Thus one finds that at one point of time Roychoudhury is almost ready to give up and accept all tortures. Thus he writes in his poem Humanology (translated by the poet from the bengali version Monushyatantra):
I am ready to be mugged O deadly bat come
Tear off my clothes, bomb the walls of my home,
Press trigger on my temple and beat up in jail
Push me off a running train, intern and trial. (Malay Roy Choudhury Poems 31)
Ginsberg’s humanology is the same as that of Roychoudhury as one finds him reflecting the same sentiments in his poem “The End” where he too is ready to accept death:
I sit in the mind of the oak and hide in the rose, I know if any wake up, none but my death,
Come to me bodies, come to me prophecies, come all foreboding, come spirits and visions,
I receive all, I’ll die of cancer, I enter the coffin forever, I close my eyes, I disappear.
(Collected Poems 259)
In the “Author’s Preface, Reader’s Manual” to Collected Poems: 1947 – 1980, Allen Ginsberg provides an insight to the manner in which his poems were composed: “First thought, best thought. Spontaneous insight - the sequence of thought- forms passing naturally through ordinary mind – was always motif and method of these compositions” (Collected Poems xx). The technique adopted by both the Beats and the Hungryalists was that of the confessional, where the confessor willingly gives priority to the catharsis of thought and feeling over the structure that the catharsis itself is to discover. As early as his first contact with William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg began experimenting with ways to restore speech to the language of poetry. William in turn, while advising Ginsberg was anticipating Olson’s third dogma of “Projective Verse” that “One Perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception” (Merrill 19).
Like all American tourists, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had landed at Bombay (now Mumbai) port in formal Western attire. They visited North and North-East Indian tourist spots and hill-stations with their coat, trousers, tie, shirt, shoes, and socks on. Once they arrived at Calcutta (now Kolkata), their metamorphoses began. They threw away their Western dress and clothed themselves in home-attire of the Hungryalists of the time, viz., handloom kurta-pyjama and rubber chappal footwear, with a cotton sling bag hanging on the shoulder. They allowed their hair and beard to grow like some of the Hungryalists (See Tridib Mitra and Alo Mitra). Allen Ginsberg, the poet of Howl and Kaddish, after his interaction with the painters and poets of the Hungryalist movement, could never remain the same person. Ginsberg’s biographers and critics, most of whom are American, are almost ignorant of Indian complexities and have never taken into account the contributory factors that impacted the poet to such an extent that his post India poems changed structurally, semantically. Poems written by Ginsberg after his India visit are composed in the breath-span of mantras, pranayamas as well as Bangla poetry of 1960s, all of which remained beyond Euro-American academic comprehension. Ginsberg’s chanting and singing of mantras were pregnant with values inculcated in a historical faith-penumbra of the people he lived with in India. Thus in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, one finds Ginsberg invoking “Harekrishna as preserver of human planet”, challenging all other powers usurping state consciousness and thus delivering the sacred formula bringing peace:
I lift my voice aloud,
Make Mantra of American language now,
Pronounce the words beginning my own millennium,
‘I here declare the End of the War!’ (Collected Poems 407)
The central implication of the poem seems to be clear. The poet tries to find out whether the ‘mantra’ of the American language can in some vigorous and magical way put an end to the slaughter in Vietnam (Hyde 293). This particular poem embodies an experience of contemporary American language and also focuses on the cultural irresponsibility of language which in turn establishes the kinship of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” to Carlos William’s and Charles Olson’s lamentation of the separation of language from reality. One can find a similar use of mantric language at the end of the poem “What would you do if you lost it?” where he calls upon the prominent Indian divine figures, to bid them a final goodbye, but which also makes one feel that he was aware of and affected by their existence:
Bom Bom! Shivaye! Ram Nam Satyahey! Om Ganipatti, Om Saraswati Hrih Sowha! Ardinarishvara Radha Harekrishna faretheewell forevermore! (Collected Poems 594)
One finds similar use of language in Ginsberg’s other poems like “On Illness” in which the poet calls upon his dead mother and fuses the Hindu chant of OM with the word MOM, bestowing on the mother, a divine quality to cure, as it is only the mother figure who can provide the best respite from illness:
Om Saraswati Hrih Sowha
Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom (Collected Poems 603)
Whether be it Benaras, Kolkata, Tarapith, Chaibasa or Patna, Ginsberg invariably visited the burning ghats (where the dead are consigned to flames), accompanied by one or several members of the Hungryalist movement. The experience was so earthshaking for him (quite a normal one for any Hindu) that he could, for the first time in his life, understand the difference between the occidental quest for immortality and the oriental quest for eternity. His biographers and critics, who are either Jew or Christian, have never taken into epistemic consideration the dedication page of Ginsberg’s Indian Journals (See Indian Journals 3). Ginsberg, however, could comprehend that the Hungryalists had dispensed with the colonial compartmentalization such as Good/Evil, God/Devil etc binary opposites. The Hungry Generation poets explained to him that each of the triumvirate Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara embody traits which exist in nature itself and nature was never monocentric7. This idea has been articulated by Ginsberg to several of his interviewers. Allen Ginsberg was in awe with the depth of tolerance and resiliency of Indian masses. On his way back from India to USA in the Kyoto-Tokyo Express he had realized that in order to attain the depth of consciousness that he was seeking, he had to cut himself off from the Blake vision and renounce it. While expressing this realization he was actually revealing the impact of the Hungry Generation on him. He was talking about a new awareness gained, which sought cosmic consciousness not in visions but in contact with what was going on around him.
One cannot help but notice the similarity in the spontaneous use of language by both Allen Ginsberg and the “wandering minstrels” or “bauls” of West Bengal, those who like Ginsberg rebelled against the generalizing and the discursive use of language and constructed their songs likewise in order to restore the other function of language i.e, “speech”. Close to the end of his nine-month stay in Calcutta, the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—accompanied by his partner, Peter Orlovsky, the Bengali poet Shakti Chatterjee, and their would-be spiritual guru, Asoke Fakir—had travelled to Siuri, home to a large clan of Bauls, the troubadour poet-singers of the Bengal countryside. After visiting Tarapith they had arrived at a little hamlet outside Siuri. There Ginsberg found the aged, legendary Baul master Nabani Das Baul living in a small mud hut, bedridden and unable to sing. When Nabani spoke to Ginsberg from his sick bed, reciting with difficulty the songs he had once sung so lustily, Ginsberg scribbled Asoke’s roughly translated words dutifully in his notebook. He spent a week with the Baul family. From Nabani’s wife he learnt to eat with his hands, from Nabani he learnt to play the single-stringed ektara and four-stringed tanpura, the instrument that provides a background drone to Indian classical music. He was also schooled in the chanting of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya.”. In an interview with Suranjan Ganguly, Ginsberg mentions Asoke fakir being “both a fool and at the same time a devotional man” and states that he was a person who almost instantly understood the motive behind their visit to India (Ganguly 26). Ginsberg hoped to find, in Baul spiritual teachings and songs, a new wellspring for his own poetic work. Bauls were distinguished from the usual run of men by flouting social convention, avoiding temples and mosques and any denotation of caste. Song and dance were their only form of worship and their bodies their only temple. Ginsberg carried a harmonium from Benaras when he returned to USA, and introduced the custom of extempore poetry composition, and singing, while playing on the harmonium. When he was in Benaras , Anil Karanjai and Karunanidhan Mukhopadhyay, the Hungryalist painters, and Hindi poet Nagarjuna (a Buddhist), had introduced him to this musical instrument, which is played on by devotees when they sing poems composed by Tulasidasa, Kabirdasa, Meera Bai, Tukaram, Krittibas, Ramprasad Sen and other saint poets. Ginsberg had found the same tradition at the Vaishnava, Shaivaite and Ramakrishna ashrama temples in Mayapur, Nabadwip, Puri, Chaibasa, Patna, Gaya, and Kolkata. He translated the word baul as “madcap”8.
Ginsberg’s realization that if a poem was not composed on the tongue, it would become an essay was an insight he received from the stories of oral poets of 19thcentury Kolkata. Ginsberg came to know about people like Bhola Moira, Anthony Firingi, Ram Basu, Jagneshwar Das, Gonjla Guin, Nityananda Boiragi, Nilmoni Thakur, Nrisingha Rai, Bhabani Banik, Krishnakanta Chamar, Raghunath Das, Haru Thakur, and many others from Asoke Fakir, whose Champahati hutment used to be frequented by the Hungryalists. Like the Hungryalists and the Bauls of Bengal, Language poets all over the world emphasized the use of metonymy ,synecdoche in their compositions, which, even when employed in everyday speech, created a different texture. The result was often alien and difficult to understand at first glance, which is what Language poetry intends: for the reader to participate in creating the meaning of the poem.
It is quite easy to guess the reason behind Ginsberg’s fondness and appreciation of Baul songs and poetry. For many years, Ginsberg had convinced himself that poetry held the key to mystical experience and spiritual awakening. As a young college student in New York City, he had had a spontaneous and beatific vision of God while reading the poems of William Blake in his Harlem tenement in 1948. After this visionary experience, he was probably heading toward a path of self- destruction. His India trip, his conversation with numerous sadhus, Hungryalist poets, Bauls, and finally his commitment to Buddhism made him realize that the Divinity for which he had been searching within external sources, actually resides within his own body. The Baul songs, which Ginsberg came across in Bengal were stuffed with enigmas and codes and summed up the similar Baul philosophy of Dehattaya (Truth in the Body), which is most probably the central theme of Baulism9. Bauls' body-centric philosophy can also be connected to the thoughts of the transcendentalist Emerson, and also to the thoughts of Tagore who talks about the Supreme Being, expressed through the physical existence of a human being. In order to understand the body-centric Baul songs, conscious efforts should be made to decode the songs, filled with language riddles, using imagery from daily life-activities, such as fishing, farming, sailing, trade and even robbery, foreclosure, and litigation as spiritual metaphors. Therefore one can easily arrive at the conclusion that it is the common philosophy of viewing the body as the microcosm of the universe, which is responsible for bringing two geographically diversified groups together (The Beats on one hand, and the Hungryalists and Bauls on the other) and unifying them for a common cause.