Wallace Stevens once said "It is equal to living in a tragic land to live in a tragic time". The 20th century was a very tragic time and we had a lot of committed poetry (or as people call it "Poetry of Witness"). This was a new phenomenon. Possibly, one of the reasons being that there never had been such atrocities and there never had been such killings. In World War I, the death toll was in millions, 60,000 Indian soldiers died in the conflict.
In World War II, we saw brutality inflicted upon the Jews through Hitler's gas chambers, we saw the terrible crimes of Stalin; Mao Zedong massacring thousands, the Armenian genocide and of course the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. So committed poetry is, as Polish poet Milosz, or Caroline Forche, whom I read with in Struga, dubbed as "Poetry of Witness".
What is literature?
Balzac called the novel "a mirror that moves on the road". Fiction is both a mirror and an escape from reality. Poetry has to fight on two fronts: Firstly, it has to tackle or re-tune reality. Fiction retunes reality, so do playwrights, by re-fashioning reality in a few hours; a novel will fashion it over a longer period. Secondly, poetry has to retune language; one can't write poetry the way you report for a newspaper. Reportage and poetry can never go hand in hand.
If you are writing creatively, you have to deal with the environment, the times. For example, today we have to deal with unfortunate events that took place in Dadri, we have to deal with the death of rationalist professor MM Kalburgi and professor Narendra Dhabolkar. These people were not shot because of a communal agenda, they were shot for their views and ideas. These are the times in which we are living in India.
Committed poetry is period-locked. If you talk about Partition, Amrita Pritam's famous poem comes to mind,
Today, I call Waris Shah, "Speak from your grave,"
And turn to the next page in your book of love,
Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,
Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,
Rise! O' narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,
Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.
Such writing is period-locked. Partition has passed by, it is history now. It is now only in books on Partition that such writings of Amrita Pritam or Sa'adat Hasan Manto will have relevance. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dennis Brutus was a big name who wrote about apartheid in South Africa. Who reads Dennis Brutus now? Can he be found in any anthology of the 20th century poetry, perhaps not. The trouble about poetry of witness is that it gets trapped in a certain period.
Carolyn Forche has a poem that addresses the genocide in African countries. In the poem, she meets a colonel over dinner with 300 people, where the colonel boasts of killing many. He then brings a bag full of human ears and keeps it on the table. She says that the ears start trembling on the table. If I was writing the poem, I would have altered the fluttering to how the ears started talking about the atrocities inflicted on them. I will never forget that poem.
We are all witness of the times. TS Elliot's poem Preludes,
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
...depicts the times of 1910, 1912 etc... If we write today, we too will write about the times. Poets also have to raise their voice against what is happening.
The Sahitya Akademi kept quiet for 40 days after the death of Kalburgi, but I am not just blaming the Akademi, I am blaming the writers too, they kept quiet till Nayantara Sahgal gave back her prize. There is this lethargy amongst us, we don't immediately rebel against something terrible.
(Transcribed from Keki N Daruwallar's speech at Kaafiya Poetry Festival.)