Short Verse Essay

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Short Verse

A Heritage of World Literature

By Aju Mukhopadhyay

The world of epics is not compatible with the present day mood of the connoisseurs. The restive mind of the modern man can neither conceive nor relish the epics though the world is moving with its ever increasing mass of living beings. Sometimes poets of later ages used to contribute their might to swell the body of such epics as a national heritage, though diminishing their quality. The original length of Mahabharata, between 24000 to little over 26000 slokas, swelled to more than one lac slokas. Epics, the literary history of civilizations, like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are no longer produced. The present age is the age of short poems of various genres like Sonnet, Rubaiyat, Ghazal, Haiku, Zen, Tanka poem, quatrains, couplets, other rhymed and prose poems.

The book like the Golden Gate in verse by Vikram Seth is only a novel. Epic poems were written from time to time but not the epics of the lore. Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri, written in the last century, spanning beyond 24000 lines, is a spiritual epic of a different genre.

Though there is no clear definition of short poems, which may perhaps extend to a few pages, longer poems are usually called long poems. I want to restrict my discussion to really very short poems of two to four lines usually. Examples of such creations are available aplenty in world literature. Ancients used very short poems too, to express profound wisdom.

The mandalas in the Vedas, the oldest available scriptures in the world, consist of suktas or hymns of two lines, as heard by the Rishis. Book of Psalms in the Bible consist of psalms of three or four lines each. So are the revelations of the prophet in the Quran made in few short lines. Such things, though spiritual in their origin, have been categorized as religious literature.

We find beautiful short verses, a little later in Upanishads, two chapters of which are given below.

All this is for habitation by the Lord, whatsoever is individual universe of movement in the universal motion. By that renounced thou shouldst enjoy; lust not after any man’s possession (Isha-1).

By whom missioned falls the mind shot to its mark? By whom yoked moves the first life-breath forward on its paths? By whom impelled is this word that men speak? What god set eye and ear to their workings (Kena-2)?

Japan occupies a conspicuous place in the history of such poems, like Haiku, Zen, Tanka, born out of zen and other meditation of Buddhist lineage. The spiritual Gurus in China too sometimes expressed in such manners.

Couplets written by Tiruvalluvar in Tirukkural in the first century C.E. on Ethics (in Tamil Language) are based on kural metres.

Self control places one among the gods; lack of it leads one to the darkness of hell. (No.121)

Mention must be made of the beautiful Rubaiyat, consisting of series of rubai or quatrains, by the famous Persian poet, Omar Khayyam of the 11th century.

Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears-
Tomorrow? - Why, Tomorrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand years.

In Rumi, the Sufi poet of Persia, we get the spiritual flame in his quatrains.

Do you think I know what I’m doing?
That for one breath or half-breath, I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
Or the ball can guess where it’s going next.

We quote a couplet from the ever romantic, bibulous Hafez.

If Hafez’s tears do not move you,
Then why has your heart not yet turned to stone?

Nineteenth century French poets, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud wrote few such short poems.

Urdu Sher of Mirza Ghalib are very famous couplets.

Life would have passed as it were
But the remembrance of your way has brought me here.

We find Indian vachanas or pravachanas, apothegms, aphorisms or sayings credited to someone like Khana in Bengal or just as they are, carried by folk memory. They are sometimes in the form of couplets. Sometimes they look like riddles, but are still valued.

Poet Rabindranath Tagore also included some couplets and quatrains in the vast body of his lyrical and other poems. In 1905 he wrote a few poems in Japanese forms.
Some of the short poems he wrote while sailing back from Liverpool to homeland in 1912-13. Some he wrote in Japan in 1916. Some such poems were written in English as in Fireflies and Stray Birds, besides others in Bengali. The author in his Fireflies wrote, ‘Fireflies had their origin in China and Japan where thoughts were very often claimed from me, in my handwriting on fans and pieces of silk.’ (The Macmillan Company, New York; 1928)

Among the books of such verses in Bengali, Kanika was published in 1899 and Lekhan in 1927. Sphulinga was written between1912 and 1916. A couplet from Kanika is given as example.

The echo always taunts the sound
Lest it may be revealed that it’s indebted to sound.

We may site another beautiful couplet from Lekhan (N0. 41)

The shadow keeps in its breast the memory of light
Picture we call it.

Much after Tagore’s creations of such verses, when Nishikanta Roy Chowdhury or poet and painter Nishikanta, brought up in Shantiniketan under the guidance of Tagore and other teachers, took to writing such verses at the young age of about 21 years, under the general title, Tukri, Tagore took much interest in them and corrected some of them almost beyond recognition but regretted later for that in a letter to poet Buddhadev Bose in 1940. Such poems were published in Bichitra, a Bengali monthly, under the guidance of Tagore in about 1931. Some of the poems were kept in tact. A three line poem from Tukri, as remained unchanged, is reproduced below.

It is better to keep her in my mind
Keep in my dreamland fair
In my thatched house where else to give her share?

Kunjunni, a Malayalam poet recently expired, is famous for his kunjunnikkavithakal, a book of very short verses; couplet, tercet or quatrain, rhymed or unrhymed. He wrote stories and other write ups, mainly for the children, but he is popular for his witty, ironic and humorous short lines. Sometimes they carry profound meanings. He was a man of quite short height, 1.5 metres but he writes,

That I am short
I know I’m tall.

A few more of his verses may be cited for example.

The sky shouts at times;
The sea calms at times.
I’m nailed to myself,
My own cross;
I’m no Christ yet.
My head’s above the earth,
But it’s far below the sky.
It’s a pity
My thoughts dangle between.

Swami Nem Pal of Bulandshahr is a veteran politician and poet. His poems are patriotic and moral, full of feeling for the country. He gives waking call to the youth of the country and judges the society with a sense of righteousness. We may give a few examples of his quatrains from his book, India Malcontent in two parts.

Wake up! Advance
On destined track;
Welcomes thee chance;
Wake! ‘tis daybreak. (5)

Our society
Is so impaired;
It needs piety
To be repaired. (137)

Life of nation
It necessitates
Deep operation. (139)

Kazuyosi Ikeda and Mohammed Fakhruddin have written large number of Haiku poems. Kurt F. Svatek also has written number of very short poems, as in his Touch of Heavens. Large numbers of poets in India and abroad have written and are writing such poems.

The list of poets and poems are not exhaustive which have focused the world of short verses. Such a short poem may be very short lived like spark with fire in its wing, born to die soon but joyous as it lives to illuminate; a very temporary affair.

It may also conceal in its frail heart profound ideas or high philosophies, often born out of deep meditation. Short but beautiful, many times such poems keep a mark in the reader’s heart. It may be hoped that such poems will continue to be born to give joy.

© Aju Mukhopadhyay, 2005

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***** Rabindranath Tagore Memorial Day      


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