The International Poetry Journal in Bengali and English

Issue 39
Jan-Mar '08

The Contemporary Poets of Bangladesh

The most important point to make about literature in the Bengali language in the twentieth century is that there was such a thing as “Bengali Modernism.” Most obviously, Rabindranath Tagore became an international figure; the first non-European (and, for a long time, the only one to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, lionized by Yeats, and generally a part of international literary culture. The culture of Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, has always, in modern times, had a strong bookish bent; there has been a set of middle-class, cultured, general readers interested in discussing literary issues. Although Tagore is the only Bengali poet of the Modernist era widely known in the West, at least two other names are of world importance: Kazi Nazrul Islam and Jibanananda Das. Nazrul Islam, known as the “rebel poet”, could never be assimilated into the paradigm of Edwardian sage imposed on Tagore. Combining aesthetic innovation and political dissent with a redefinition of what it meant to be a poet in a literary culture—which is one of the most isolable common traits of worldwide modernism—Nazrul Islam’s work is a convulsive treasure largely unexplored by Western readers. Jibanananda Das took the modern Bengali idiom and shaped it to his distinctively personal purposes, developing a recognizable voice that threaded many varieties of individual and collective experience through a lyric prism. Although both of these poets survived after the partition of Bengal between India and what was then East Pakistan, their poetry stemmed from a time when Hindu and Muslim writers in Bengali were part of the same poetic tradition.

But political factors should not overtake literary ones in assessing modern Bengal verse. And the most important of these is, again, the presence of a modernist spirit in the literature. Although there was great modern poetry in, say, Arabic (Taha Hussein, Khalil Gibran) and Urdu (Mohammed Iqbal), there was not an organized ‘modernism’ in the Arab world or in the rest of British-ruled India as there was in Bengal. This makes Bangladeshi postmodernism different from poetry written in Middle Eastern or South Asian in a postmodern time, as Bangladeshi postmodernism was following in a wake of a modernist tradition in his own language—a history not available to every stream of contemporary poetry worldwide.

The post-colonial energies of Bangladesh are directed not even against Britain or even against India but against Pakistan—a fellow Muslim country—but one which distance and cultural difference made a politically and culturally untenable conglomerate. If Pakistan, whatever its problems from the start, was, for all the organic premise of being comprised of adherents of a single religion, was in another sense a paradigm of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ as it was a nation conceived on an idea, and not a history—and in a sense M. A. Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan was an even more ‘modern’ one than Theodor Herzl’s Zionist idea of a restored Israel. In contrast to Pakistan, Bangladesh is based on historic linguistic and local traditions. Yet as a nation not simply premised on either religion or language, yet with a determinative religious and linguistic identity, Bangladesh has as rich and potentially contradictory mix of what comprises its nationhood as Pakistan, the fundamental point is that it is false to assume that nations such as Bangladesh have any simpler or less ramified a sense of what constitutes its idea of nationhood than do nations like the United States.

Bangladesh only tends to make world headlines with one of its frequent and all too often tragic natural disasters, particularly floods; disasters of course intensified by the country's lack of infrastructure, although we in the United States should not think, in light of recent history, that we are so different. After the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, Bangladeshi politics tended not to make world headlines. Despite frequently arbitrary actions by those in power during the martial law period of the 1980s, and despite the rising and menacing presence of Islamic fundamentalism, Bangladesh has maintained the forms and, intermittently, the realities of the democracy for nearly two generations, and this is to its credit. Also, inferentially, to the credit of the functionality of Bangladesh society is the high quality of post-Independence poetry; a society that is utterly and perpetually in crisis simply could not produce work of this quality, or the vital infrastructure of schools, publishers, and journals necessary to sustain it. When I met the well-known Bangladeshi writer Shahriar Kabir in 2006, I knew his work as a political and humanitarian activist, but I was unaware of the literary aspects of his career, not to mention a knowledge of modern American literature that would put many a US-trained Ph.D. to shame.

No Bangladeshi poet has achieved worldwide fame as a poet. (Taslima Nasrin is world-famous, but more because she is known as an object of Muslim fundamentalist spleen rather than for her literary work itself). Of the past few generations, it is the late Shamsur Rahman who has the greatest claim to be a poet of world rank. But every poet included here is a notable figure, full awareness of whom will only increase the collective cultural literacy of world poetry.

Ahsan Habib, who begins this selection of contemporary Bangladeshi poetry, gives us a poem of joy, awakening, and emotional replenishment, a morning-poem, what the European poetic tradition would call an aubade. The strength and affirmation in this poem is typical of a poet who was preeminently of and for the people. Already mature when Bangladesh attained independence, Habib contributed vitally to the journalism and the public cultural sphere of the new nation.

Shamsur Rahman, whose “Asad’s Shirt” is the iconic poem of modern Bangladesh, is seen here writing a noonday poem in apposition to Habib’s morning ode. Also in contrast to Habib, Rahman sees the poet not as a rhapsody praising the world but as someone who needs to be a perpetual escape artist with respect to a society that at best distracts and at worst misunderstands and oppresses him.

But the gamblers gather around him
Suddenly excited, shouting,
Thinking the poems are banknotes.
Then, amazed, realizing the fact of poetry,
They tear the manuscript from the man
And toss it into the air.

Rahman here manifests a sense of both the imaginative centrality and the worldly disposability of poetry that is Keatsian in its mix of privacy, generosity, and emotional magnitude. Rahman was a poet central to his nation and time, but who also retained his individuality, and in doing so affirmed the dignity and the personhood of all his readers.
Hasan Hafizur Raman was even more actively involved in the Bangladeshi War of Liberation than was Shamsur Rahman. But, though Hafizur Rahman is known as a public and political poet, “At the Time of Someone’s Death” possesses a pronounced lyric aspect: a sense of delicacy and decorum pervades the poem, as well as a sharp awareness of the interrelationship of the individual and the collective, the single cognitive agent and the larger currents of history with which that individuality, that agency, twines and untwines.
We have not burst into tears yet,
Only a huge vacuum, as it seems, above the sea,
Galvanized our throats as thrust.
We are now self-reflexive and lonely as the earth.

A more pointed political work is contributed by the dean of living Bangladeshi poets, Syed Shamsul Huq, whose bitter, ironic send-up of the jargon of press conferences, with their political rationalizations of the unspeakable, registers a sharp sense of the determination of speech when it is appropriated as a veneer to justify human crimes and conceal the corruption of social institutions.
Is it not true that causing so many deaths
Finally gave you so little satisfaction?—

Three thunder-burned trees are standing
On the way of the market.
All the paths of the village now start from them.

Is it not true that your rivers
Still carry new-killed bodies?
Shaheed Quaderi was a younger contemporary of Shamsur Rahman, who strayed even further from traditional Bengali lyric subjects. In the poem included here, Quaderi distills a tarnished beauty out of a squalid urban landscape.

In the gloomy, dank house of prayer, you unfold your jainamaj,
The dry quilt, the bed, and the happiness of woolen warmth.
Bring back teenaged pleasure through hugs and kisses.

With Rafique Azad, this collection moves into a more colloquial and contemporary register. Azad’s prose poem, at once mocking and melancholy, shows both a perceiving sensibility and a rich field of observed social experience in which that crisp sensibility operates: Henry James in Dhaka. A contemporary of Azad, and a poet often linked to him, is Nirmalendu Goon, whose plain-spoken ode to the night gives us a nocturnal counterpoint to the morning and noontime poems of Habib and Rahman, and also shows the influence of American culture and world revolutionary movements on literature in Bangladesh.

The late Humayun Azad was also a notable figure, remarkable for his courage in standing up to the fundamentalist violence of which he eventually became so tragic a victim. Though Azad, a respected novelist and literary critic, did not concentrate his literary efforts on poetry, the poem included here is poignant in its effect on the reader,

I probably will die for a little thing,
For a little leaf of grass,
And for a little drop of dew.
I probably will die for a petal of flower
Suddenly fly away in summer’s breeze.
I will die for a bit of rain.

Azad, in literal terms did not die for a little thing—he was viciously attacked by a gang of fundamentalists in 2004, contributing to his death while he was receiving medical attention in Europe some months later—the poem nonetheless affirms the importance of the accidental and contingent in a cruel world too often dominated by substance and necessity. Little things are worth dying for because in dying them we take risks, we honor moonlight, clouds, bits of green: shards of wonder, fragments, samples of joy. Azad's love for these small things radiated through his magnificent stand for freedom of conscience, which continues to resonate worldwide. I regret never being able to meet either Humayun Azad or Shamsur Rahman in person.

We then move to the poets born in the 1950s and after, who with some exceptions (one notes with sadness the excessive number of early deaths among the poets included in this collection) are still producing buoyantly today. After the first flourish of nationalist poetry that erupted after the war of 1971 and Bangladeshi independence, Bangladeshi poetry fell into a bit of a post-colonial rut. In addition, it could be said that the poetry of the Seventies in the world generally was caught between continuing in the political vein made relevant by the upheavals of the Sixties, and orienting itself towards new aesthetic directions. Thus Bengali poetry was facing parallel issues with that of the West just as it had during the Modernist era. Though one should not go too far and say the 1970s and 1980s in Bangladesh produced no worthy poetry whatsoever, the loosening of censorship after the lifting of martial law in the late 1980s brought a new variety and innovativeness among the poets in their twenties at that time. Baitullah Quaderee and Rahman Henry write opaque, difficult poetry that is postmodern in its awareness of linguistic distortion and interference, yet still pulses with a vibrant imaginative energy. Whether in the Diaspora, such as Hassanal Abdullah, Naznin Seamon, or Ruksana Rupa, and within Bangladesh itself, such as Tushar Gayen and Shamim Reza, these poets produce an exuberant, savvy, worldly verse all the more notable for not falling into the trap of the speciously ‘global’ but operating confidently from its grounding in the Bengali language and tradition amid an internationalized landscape.
As said before, without the existence of a Bengali modernism this would not be true in the same way, whatever the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the individual poets themselves. As Bangladesh arguably enters a new era without the constant presence on the political scene of the wives or daughters of previous leaders, Bangladeshi poets are poised to explore new opportunities for expression and invention.

The translations were done by the Bangladeshi-American poet Hassanal Abdullah with some assistance from me. Invariable fidelity to the language of the original was less a goal than an attempt to convey a coherent and sonorous meaning in English which retained the sense and thrust of the original. To give a sense of the serial evolution of Bengali poetry in the twentieth century, at times analogous American idioms (that of Hart Crane for at one point, that of Robert Lowell for at another) have been utilized, as well as the preciously global English of the twentieth century’s great civic poet, W. H. Auden. At times, a more poetic register of diction has been inbound in some of the rephrasing. Often, in English translations of contemporary foreign-language poems, an emphasis of contemporary diction, an attempt to pointedly avoid the Edwardian residue that attaches itself still to, say, Tagore in English, leads to an excessive foregrounding of the jagged and/or deracinated, and a removal of the crucial backdrop of ‘high’ language that any contemporary language, whether English or Bengali, draws upon in order to operate within an assured matrix of diction. Ezra Pound and Robert Bly have, deservedly, been important influences on English-language methods of translation; there is perhaps room for a little T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens as well. Hassanal Abdullah, who leads multiple lives as a poet, teacher, and political and civil-rights activist, knows both his native and his adoptive languages well, and has here produced poems in English that yet give us the glorious past fifty years of achievement in Bangladeshi poetry.

Nicholas Birns

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    Shabdaguchha, A Journal of Poetry, Published in New York, Edited by Hassanal Abdullah.