“The discovery of poets”

April 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm (Sampurna Chattarji, The Reading Room)

 

Reading Borges is like entering a spell.

 

When you emerge, you hesitate to express what you have seen, imagined, experienced. It isn’t the hesitation of befuddlement, but rather the slow dawning of mystery. Short, matter of fact, unadorned, often distanced, what is it about his stories that makes me feel I have dreamed them, and that I will forget them if I wake too soon, too abruptly?

 

Re-reading Borges in Kolkata a few weeks ago, I found this astonishing passage in a story I have long loved and (so I thought) remembered. But here was this passage, crystalline, presenting itself to me as if for the first time:

 

“another of the tribe’s customs is the discovery of poets. Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind. He cannot contain himself and shouts them out, standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground. If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread. Feeling then that the spirit has touched him, nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him. Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him. The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.”

         From Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, first published 7th August, 1970

 

I copied it out on a scrap of paper the day I left Kolkata, as if I didn’t have Borges’ Collected Fictions at home in Bombay, which I could look up any time. That didn’t seem immediate enough. I had to have these words, inscribed, in hand, on a piece of paper that could fit into the small notebook I carry in my bag. No pages blank in the notebook, no time to buy a new one, hence a hastily torn scrap of paper. A talisman, torn from the context in which it first exercised its power over me, now true, and terrifying, only in another, entirely new context – mine, my life as a poet, my attempt to speak, and my often, utter, failure.

 

Six or seven words, generally enigmatic, may come to a man’s mind.

 

I care nothing for the fact that in the story, in that tribe, the poets are always men. What matters is the number of words, six or seven, their enigma, the mind that they enter, like a visitation. This is how poetry begins.

 

He cannot contain himself and shouts them out

 

The aural, the oral. He hears them and then he speaks them. Poetry as utterance. I have always believed this, but never has it been this explicit, this bound to an action, the speed and weight of a shout.

 

standing in the centre of a circle formed by the witch doctors and the common people, who are stretched out on the ground.

 

The poet is the centre. He has an audience that is unaware that it is about to become an audience. It is an audience that is unaware of the presence of the poet until the moment that he shouts. They are a group of people, enjoying, perhaps, their leisure. Their silence. Perhaps (though I know it is not true, not true in the context of the story from which it is taken) they are enjoying the weather, the stillness, the calm, the sunshine, the breeze. Perhaps it is grass that they are lying on. Perhaps some of them were dozing and were rudely woken by the shout.

 

If the poem does not stir them, nothing comes to pass

 

I could take umbrage to the words ‘the common people’. The witch doctors are special, the poets are special, the people are common. I could, if I wished not to pursue, and stay with, the revelation that has – and is to come. Not all poems stir. However loud the shout, however enigmatic the words, not all poems stir. And without that stirring, without the quickening, the restlessness in the listener, it is as if the poem had never been spoken.

 

but if the poet’s words strike them they all draw away from him, without a sound, under the command of a holy dread.

 

Like a blow, a fist, a whip, a bolt of lightning, an idea – the word strike. The power of poetry to move, not to tears, but to fear. Not just emotionally but bodily, physically, move. What is it about the poet’s words that sent them away, the witch doctors and the common people alike? What were those seven fearful words? What is this ‘holy dread’? The audience shudders and moves away. They do this not of their own volition, but under the pressing authority of something bigger than them. And that authority is the feeling the poet’s words inspire, the feeling of awe, of something sacred. They appreciate the poem, that it is something bigger, stronger, darker than them. Then they fear it. Even hate it.

 

Feeling then that the spirit has touched him

 

Are they afraid of contagion? If enigma were to replace the language of the everyday, what kind of disease would it be? What kind of spirit is this that touches a man to shout in the middle of a circle of reclining, stretching, lazing people? What is this about ‘touch’? Does the spirit have fingers that it may touch?

 

nobody, not even his own mother, will either speak to him, or cast a glance at him.

 

It is the contagion of the leper. Give the poet a bell that we may mark his coming. These unfortunates were caught unawares, and so they flee.

 

Now he is a man no longer but a god, and anyone has licence to kill him.

 

The discovery of the poets is their death knell. “And their last disease is hope.” Elevated above the witches, the commoners, the poets become outcasts, disfigured by the power of a shout that has moved and shocked and sent away.

 

The poet, if he has his wits about him, seeks refuge in the sand-dunes of the North.

 

Will he be killed, for staying? Will the horror of those enigmatic words be enough for an act of extreme violence? It has been known to happen. And if he flees, will he write? Will he inscribe, on sand, the words that no one will be there to hear, and so live on, and on, until he grows deaf and mute, from solitude? What will the silence of the sand-dunes be like – where is this fabled north where one may flee?

 

“Though with time he becomes reconciled to his deformities … his sub-conscious mind, which continues to bear the mark of injury, brings about certain changes in his whole personality, making him suspicious of society.”

                                                            – R. V. Wardekar in a pamphlet on leprosy

 

And so suspicion grows, like a beautiful poisonous weed. Narcissistic, the poet saves himself, his right to shout, his access to enigma, his mystery, his mistrust. If he has his wits about him.

 

Embedded in a piece of Borgesian prose about, among other things, Swiftian strangeness, I discovered something essential, and intense, about what it might mean to really be a poet. This is the gift that Borges offers, with the same humility (or is it humour?) with which he wrote, in his preface to the first edition of A Universal History of Iniquity:

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves … Reading….is an activity subsequent to writing – more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.”

 

Perhaps reading that one passage, over and over again, is my act of poetry for now. I cannot tell. All I know is that small piece of anthropological reporting, scalpel in its precision, is at once too close to the bone and too remote. It haunts me.

 

Sampurna Chattarji

 

[Quotes from Doctor Brodie’s Report, Jorge Luis Borges, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, and A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics]

 

 

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