Nissim Ezekiel is a poet of self-exploration. He carved out a poetic place for the smallness of the soul. The acute sense of this smallness, the sense of one’s irrelevance to the world, is an important motif in modernist Indian English poetry. In some poets it leads to a sort of self-pity. Not so in Nissim. His poems of a life time display persistent self-scrutiny. From the early works written in traditional metres to the later experimentative poems in ‘poster poems’, psalms, etc the theme spreads itself. It is therefore remarkable that a poet could write about one theme across a period of time so persistently.
Not that Nissim wrote only about the theme of self-scrutiny. It colours most of his poems one or the other way. Like the horses in MF Hussain. THe theme is cast differently in different poems. Generally the poet-speaker confronts a situation (internal or external), where he is required to learn. Thus the poem becomes a pedagogic process. Some of his poems which appear to have no connection to the ‘self’ motifs also indirectly present this pedagogic course. Take ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’.
This is about learning to be a poet. Lover and birdwatcher are the templates from which the poet has to learn his craft. The practice of poetry recommended in the poem is not something one would associate with Nissim, though. He is not known so much for his craftsmanship. His is more a meditative approach. This poem meditates too: on the interconnections between not so much the best way, but a more successful way of doing well in the vocation of a poet, a lover, or birdwatcher. The interconnected images in the poem explain each vocation – running after a rare bird and the right word is as uncertain and risky a proposition as successfully winning over a girl.
This poems works because the intricacy of the images clicks. An image starts out referring to one and then goes onto embrace the other two activities. The first section opens with a reference to ‘pace’ which is taken up in the second section by ‘slow movement’. The iambic pentameter lines reinforce the idea of steady pace. The lines weave in and out of the three ‘fields’ and emerge as single morals learnt.
All three are hunters, we are told: ironically none are going to devour what they succeed to hunt. The quest motif implies the necessity of learning. The poem conducts a lesson through comparisons between the three P, L and BW. P is placed first in the title and in the poem s/he comes the last. This differentiated placement is suggestive of who is learning and who becomes a lesson. L and BW are illustrative cases for the P to learn the craft of poetry. (By the way, ‘birdwatching’ is a slang for leching) The last two lines (internal couplets) of both the sections indicate that the moral to be learnt is for the poet. Thus poet is the learner in this pedagogic process.
If the poet doesnot push his desire to write a poem and waits for the right words, persists in his search for the right sense and sound, the poet can succeed in producing a good poem. In this the poet should learn the patience of the birdwatcher who trails the birds into remote places, silently, waits to get that one view which creates something ethereal: myths of light. Or the poet should be like a lover who patiently woos, but is dedicated to the woman, who will surrender only after having drawn the lover across ups and downs in the process of wooing. But when he succeeds he has not only her persona but her soul: bringling an ethereal joy, myths of light. So should a poet persist in his/her quest for the right words to be able to write a poem that is not crooked or restless, but ethereal: myths of lights.
To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering –
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.
The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart’s dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.