The Elusive Tagore

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Philip Nikolayev in Open The Magazine:

When John Berryman, the great American poet, gave a lecture tour of India in 1957, he fell ill ‘with virus and a high fever’. When he reached Ahmedabad, his condition worsened; by then he had become noticeably thin, already having lost ten pounds. Still, he decided to proceed with his scheduled lecture. Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani writes of this fascinating moment:

‘As Munford finished his talk, he saw Berryman standing in the doorway, trembling, his face drained of color. Then Berryman walked up to the podium and delivered a lecture unlike anything he’d given so far on his trip. For six weeks, he told his small audience, he had been told over and over by his Indian hosts that America had produced no poetry and that the Indians were the most poetic people in the world. But what he’d seen of Indian poetry seemed nothing more than a loose sort of “spiritual sentimentality.” Now he was going to tell them what real poetry was. He quoted a passage from Rilke in German and then a passage from Lorca in Spanish, translating into English afterward for his audience. Great poetry, he explained, sprang only from the pain and anguish of human experience. The audience sat listening to his stunning, fevered performance. If they felt angry or patronised, they did not show it.’

In this case, Berryman’s fever was the likely cause of his bluntness. He had come to Ahmedabad directly from Kolkata. Tagore would have been on his mind. There can be little doubt that in speaking of “spiritual sentimentality”, Berryman was referring to Tagore, whom he would have read in translation. That’s exactly how Tagore comes off in English.

But it does not take a Westerner to question Tagore’s importance.

More here.

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