Gopalakrishna Adiga on Poetry and on Being a Poet

M. Gopalakrisha Adiga (1918-1992); photo courtesy:

Mogeri Gopalakrisha Adiga (1918-1992) is one of the pioneers of the Navya (post-romantic) literary movement in Kannada that began in the second half of the 20th century. Some argue that MG Adiga (MGA) is to Kannada what TS Elliot is to English. The Waste Land (1922) by TS Eliot is one of the landmark poems of the 20th century English literature, marking the beginning of a new era of free verse, an era where a sense of despair triumphed over the sense of hope and harmony of the Wordsworthian Romantics. Adiga’s critically acclaimed poems in the navya genre punctuated the looming deterioration of Nehruvian Romanticism in India (late 1950s and early 1960s).

Kannadiga teenagers, who are introduced to Adiga in high school, generally fall in love with him because for them Adiga personifies angst and disillusionment. I was one of those teenagers who found Adiga the most practical and the hardened realist of all poets in my textbooks. However, I grew out of Adiga’s frustration as I got older. On my way to rediscovering my roots, I became more and more at home with the Navodaya (Romantic) tradition (B.M.Sri, Govinda Pai, Kuvempu, DR Bendre, Pu.Ti.Narasimhachar, SR Ekkundi, Kadengodlu, KSNa, SV Parameshwara Bhatta, GS Shivarudrappa and others). The Navya school of Kannada poetry, to which Adiga was the fountain head, rejected the style and interests of Navodaya poets. In my view, to reject a noble tradition (in this instance, the Navodaya tradition) one has to be steeped in it. When someone who is steeped in a tradition rejects his tradition, it is easier to believe that the rejection is authentic and legitimate. Many of Adiga’s poems that are popular with the commoner today were written in the romanticist style (including Yaava Mohana Murali Kareyitu, Aluva Kadalolu Teli Barutalide). Adiga was perhaps eligible to reject the style and mindset of the Navodaya tradition because Adiga was perfectly capable of writing some of the best Navodaya poems of his time. The same cannot be said of many of his contemporaries and literary successors.

I know Gopalakrishna Adiga through his poems. Many like me, who read modern classics in Kannada poetry, never saw the great poets and will never know what it is like to be one of those towering intellectuals of a given generation. It is important that we understand the poet to understand his poems.  Reading a few magic lines of verse has never been sufficiently satisfactory and certainly not to me. A few weeks ago, I was reading U R Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) and his recollections of Adiga and suddenly I realised that the year 2018 will mark the birth centenary of Adiga.

Here, I have translated (from Kannada to English) excerpts of an interview with Adiga done by U R Ananthamurthy (URA). URA was a pupil and an approving critic of Adiga. The interview was published in the deepavali special issue of Udayavaani in 1980. In the full Kannada version (available at URA asks ten questions and Adiga has answered them all. In this excerpt, I have selected and combined a few of those questions and answers and I feel these are of interest to poets of any language. It is intriguing that a post-romantic socialist and existentialist like U R Ananthamurthy sounds very romanticist in his questions to Adiga. Don’t we all romanticise people we adore?

URA: Your poems draw a lot of inspiration from memories and experiences of your childhood.  Why is that? Will you illustrate one or two important incidents from your childhood that moulded your intelligence for writing poetry?

MGA: There are no easy answers to your question. It is worth searching for an answer though. Everything in this world looks fresh and new when seen through a child’s ever curious eyes. A child’s mind is like a (semi-molten) ball of wax and the worldly experiences get imprinted invisibly, only to reveal themselves at the right time later.  While this is true for every human being, the collective experience of a childhood takes a new dimension in the life of anyone [poet] with a creative imagination. These experiences and imaginations go beyond the standard notions of spatiotemporal reality and some of my successful poems may have experimented with such acts of creativity. It is difficult to tag distinct childhood experiences as less or more important.  When I look back, immediately I can hear the outcry of a frog struggling to escape the clutching pair of beaks of a crow. I can hear my own despairing heartbeat failing to save the frog.  I can hear and see tens and hundreds of big frogs in the pond near my home, making their ritualistic noise after the rains… I can go on listing many more.  None are less important and none are more so. Each incident had appeared important to me at some stage.

URA: It appears that you shifted from urban(e) symbols in some of your early poems to rural contexts in your later poems.  Has this shift anything to do with your childhood in rural Karnataka? Did the constraints of a language [Kannada] play any role?

MGA: It is true that at the time of Indian independence, we [poets and creative thinkers] were responding to our immediate past, which was characterised by an urbane consciousness. We were trying to escape from the shackles of urbane symbols and inadvertently I used urbane symbols in my early poems.  Perhaps, I should also acknowledge the influence of English poetry since urban thought was characteristic of many western civilisations.  However, writing poetry requires a lot more than merely being conscious of one’s surroundings.  A literary consciousness has to not only recognise and acknowledge the astonishing diversity of life but it also has to draw from a rich array of transient and symbolic inner experiences. Our [Indian] urban construct has not evolved to the level where it can distinguish itself from its rural roots. An adulterated urban language (a mixture of English and Kannada) is incapable of capturing transient inner experiences.The urban consciousness lingered in the superficial layers of my mind for too long and that may have forced me to search for vitality in a rural context (despite deterioration of the rural ideal).  It is natural that a person like me with a rural background, goes in search of a language framework in his rural roots. A poet succeeds when he finds a language that reconciles his inner [sub-conscious?] experiences with the conscious external experiences and knowledge.

This takes me to the constraints of Kannada on thinking and writing poetry [in 1980s] .  The formal form of Kannada language has evolved over many hundred years to serve the poets. There is the spoken form of the masses, and there is the modern scientific and technological vocabulary which is growing by the day. It is a constant three way dialogue between these three forms. Kannada as a language has to produce independent books and articles on the state-of-the-art scientific knowledge, which is still a long way away. A Kannada poet who wants to think about these modern challenges is struggling and his best bet is to go for the language that realistically captures his experiences [implied: rural and childhood experiences].

URA:  Do you feel you should write poems that are accessible [comprehensible] to the people?

MGA: When you say people, immediately the question arises which people? No art is easy for any people. Let us leave the common people alone.  Don’t we see many of those who are supposedly enlightened [educated?] showing limited or no sensitisation to art?  It is important that simple experiences materialise [in poems] with an ease that matches the simplicity of those experiences. At the same time, there will be other more layered and complicated experiences that require an equally sophisticated form of expression. It is wrong to say that a poem becomes a poem only when it is easily accessible and it is equally wrong to think that a poem is a good poem only when it is inaccessible. It is necessary that one has to break the boundaries of literary rhythm and [this is possible] only after one masters the form. However, the aim of breaking free from rhythmic verse is not a quest for ‘loose verse’.  We break free from one rigid frame [form] only to reframe [reinvent] ourselves in a new form. I agree that in the current context we [poets] have a duty to be accessible to the people [India was fresh out of political emergency in 1980]. This must be achieved through good education, through mass media and through nurturing a robust intellectual discourse.


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