There’s a river flowing and in it, a boat carrying a man with large eyes, and with him, some children. The children look like poems and the man is ferrying them across to the other side. During their ride, he’s telling them stories about life and death, about people he has lost, about villages and goddesses. And then, the river disappears. All that remains is ash. If I were to have a dream about Jayanta Mahapatra’s poetry, it would be something like this.

Going through his poetry from the 1970s to 2016, (Collected Poems, Jayanta Mahapatra, Poetrywala, 2017), I can see familiar and unfamiliar terrain – philosophical and geographical – sprinkled with his characteristic detachment, self-deprecation, and arresting metaphors. It is a joy and source of inspiration to rediscover this pioneering poet who contributed a great deal to Indian poetry.

‘The poet is present, but not at the expense of his poetry’

In his landmark essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot points out that “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” He also adds “The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.” In Mahapatra’s poetry, we don’t see overwhelming emotion but a controlled, self-effacing power over thoughts and themes. As if the poet is gazing at a mirror and the reflection is an outline of his body. Inside, there are neatly arranged words or images, which have been placed there deliberately. The poet is present, but not at the expense of his poetry. It reminds me of Eliot’s words from the essay, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

Mahapatra uses images that refer to layers, clothes and masks to cover something, to hide the self perhaps, as Eliot suggested, poetry must do. There’s almost always something lying underneath that needs to be unearthed. And when the unearthing happens, it’s something melancholic.

In reading his “A Self-Portrait”, a very disturbing and self-confessional poem, it would seem that life “was just innocence hung,/a loose and crumpled shirt” upon his body. Besides the striking imagery of innocence as a shirt, the poem goes into the hopelessness of old age, regret and masks that need to be worn in order to survive.

“I didn’t realise I had to live in the future,/in order to face the sleepless night of the present,” says the poet persona, caught between torturous folds of time.

It’s this despair that wades through Hesitant Light (2016). In “Ghost”, “Homecoming”, and “Journey”, there are recurring references to the poet failing to recognise himself, fading light, and a failing body. “Griefs are Full of Unreason; Like Children” and a “Hypothesis of Healing” stare at us, beating us into submission.

Death is an early preoccupation and recurring theme, even in Jayanta’s younger days. In “The False Start” (1980), we have a poem, “Ash” in which we find: “The substance that stirs in my palm/could well be a dead man”. The death of his father, mother, wife and daughter over the years, has irrevocably played a role in this preoccupation. In “Measuring Death”, we are left with a haunting image. He says,

“Death is a handcart you push,
through a dayful of moonlight, of sadness you can’t trust.”  

However, the theme that perhaps comes through most evidently, and more significantly for poets is poetry itself. Jayanta’s poems about poetry do what Eliot’s essay did for poetry and poets: They redefine and analyse what poetry can do. And this is something we find in his writing through the decades.

He questions his poem in “The Lines of My Poem” when he asks, “Is it a mistake to think / that bitterness is just what/a line of this poem needs / to keep it alive?” This seems like a question to all poets. Do we need to be bitter or ironic when we reflect on life? Do we need to breathe darkness into words? Or would it be more just to write with a certain detachment? The answer is for us to find, through our own craft.

In “The Trail of Poetry”, Mahapatra is talking to poets. He suggests, “…don’t let poetry cauterise you like acid,” but to “sit by the window, looking over the courtyard into the street.” Again, there’s a certain distancing he calls for, as we sit down to write.

The poem that calls out to me the most, however, is “The Stories in Poetry”.

I stand on the bank of the poem,
even though each word has a price,
even though this poetry appears as a river,
a river without water
we have to swim across,
and even if its words
do not welcome us to its secret country
where we live without knowing.  

At a time when discontentment and intolerance hang over us like a dark cloud, these lines tell us what poetry can do. There may be no answers in verse. But we must keep swimming. Poets must continue to write. Poetry must flow.

Jayanta Mahapatra has died. But his words are eternal. AK Ramanujan once said that in Indian poetry, poet and saint merge. In showing us what poetry can do, Jayanta Mahapatra has become a poet extraordinaire and a saint, no less.

Anupama Raju is a poet, novelist, literary journalist, translator, and communications professional. She is the author of C: A Novel (2022) and Nine (2015).