Sometime before 2015, I picked up an old copy of a Penguin Classics book called Speaking of Siva. Originally published in 1973, I liked the cover (a wonderfully rhythmic, eleventh century bronze figure of Siva as god of the dance) and flicking through it I liked the look of the brief, irregularly-lined poems inside. I lack a god but feel an appetite for the spiritual and, since my excitement and delight in translating the Daodejing texts for Enitharmon, I am always looking for something to feed that hunger. I found the poems inspiring (I was not the first to do so) and especially early in 2015 I wrote versions and impromptu original poems ‘in the style of’. These were laid aside for a couple of years, but I have recently returned to them – partly under pressure from the historical moment we find ourselves in, living in this most disunited of kingdoms. I hope to publish some of the results soon. Meantime, I was astounded later to discover the influence of this same little book on Ted Hughes. Here’s that story . . .
One day around 1973/4, Ted Hughes bought or was given A.K. Ramanujan’s just-published Penguin Classics collection of translations entitled, Speaking of Siva. Ramanujan was presenting to the English-speaking world a collection of free verse lyrics written in India around the 10/12th century. Hughes quickly wrote to his friends, Daniel Weissbort and Lucas Myers, urging them to read the book as well. A notebook survives with Hughes’ many creative responses to these still relatively little-known poems. Jonathan Bate has argued that Hughes found these poems attractive because they “squared the circle of being both depersonalised (tapping into the divine, the mythic, the archetypal patterns) and highly personal: “They are uttered, not through a persona or mask, but directly in the person of the poet himself”” (Bate, p. 338 and quoting Ramanujan).
Hughes later wrote to Ekbert Faas that he had first read Ramanujan’s translations after suffering from a chronically sore throat for about a year. He suspected that he might have cancer and “began to write these vacanas as little prayers”. Some of these poems are the only parts of Gaudete (1977) to be selected for Hughes’s Collected Poems (2003). The language of these poems is lean and starkly beautiful often addressing the theme of transformation in violent and graceful modes, often ambiguously autobiographical:
Once I said lightly
Even if the worst happens
We can’t fall off the earth.
And again I said
No matter what fire cooks us
We shall be still in the pan together.
And words twice as stupid.
Truly hell heard me.
She fell into the earth
And I was devoured.
The term ‘vacana’ means something spoken, speech, or a word uttered, as in our phrase ‘my word is my bond’. And vacana poems consist mostly of simple, direct, honest speech – they have no formal metre or rhyme, and very little punctuation – and they present themselves as spontaneous, authentic, plain engagements with the divinity, in deliberate contrast to more established channels of worship. As Ramanujan’s title suggests, they are written to the god Siva and – at least start out from – the ideal of a mystical relationship or process of becoming one with the god or the divine Creative Source.
So they are a form of worship, the devotee speaking directly and truthfully to the god as one might speak to another person – a husband or wife – using natural, colloquial language to express love and devotion, but significantly they also give vent to anger, puzzlement and despair. The poems are full of repetitions, refrains and paradoxes and, although they are spontaneous and passionate and grounded in common everyday experiences and images, there is a spiritual meaning in their worldly metaphors. One common element of repetition is the naming of the God – for Dasimayya this is “O Ramanatha”, for Mahadeviyakka it is “O lord white as jasmine”. Another frequent trope is a concern about the inadequacy of language; no words or image or metaphor can adequately describe the mystery of the god. Above all, vacana poems are intensely personal forms of religious devotion which not only avoid formal creeds, rituals and dogma but frequently criticize such orthodoxy as misguided, superstitious and hypocritical.
So Basavanna’s poem #494 rejects traditional poetic devices for a plain and direct authenticity: “I’ll sing as I love”. Even so, as Ann Skea points out, “he also argues, pleads, demands, questions and berates. He acknowledges that a price must be paid in order that he may be worthy of this union, but he complains that he does not understand why he is treated so badly or know what, exactly, is required of him”. Ramanujan’s Introduction describes the spiritual development of such devotees as moving from devotion, through discipline and knowledge, to enlightenment and ecstasy and, finally, to complete union with the divinity or creative source. In making this ascent, the Indian poet-saints frequently considered themselves as husbands or wives of the god. Ann Skea again: “They dedicated their lives to their god, and became worldly brides or bridegrooms struggling to achieve the spiritual perfection which would allow them to become wholly one with the god. Constantly, they strove for that spiritual union; and worldly unions are seen in their vacanas as unfaithfulness to their spiritual spouse”.
One of these vacana writers was the female poet-saint, Mahadeviyakka who defied social, cultural and gender conventions. For her, especially, ‘marriage’ to Siva meant that any relationship with a human male was adultery. ‘My lord, white as jasmine, is my husband’, she writes (Mahadeviyakka #283). Elsewhere, ‘I cannot take / any man in my arms but my lord’ (Mahadeviyakka #93). In fact, unfaithfulness was a common metaphor in Indian vacanas for the frail individual’s neglect of the divinity for more worldly things. But there are also warnings of the dangers of the commitments involved in becoming the bride or groom of a divine being. If, like a shaman, you have been called and you have accepted that call, there can be no going back. Basavanna gives due warning to those who might not survive: ‘Don’t you take on / this thing called bhakti [devotion]’ (#212). Such are the difficulties of any bridegroom or bride who is utterly devoted to a wife or husband whom he struggles either to please or fully understand. And this, of course, reflects the difficult quest for spiritual enlightenment in a world which makes demands on us and distracts us at every moment.
Ted Hughes began by modelling poems of his own closely on the work of the poet that Ramanujan places first in the collection, the 12th century Indian poet-saint, Basavanna. Early on Hughes adheres closely to the originals but gradually he distances himself, starting to create more original poems, often employing personal materials, and (as I have said) some of these little poems eventually found their way into the final section of Gaudete. The refrain and invocation that Basavanna uses in the majority of his poems is the address to Siva as “lord of the meeting rivers”. The influence of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess is well known on Hughes and he decided to experiment with addressing his own conception of the divinity – a female divinity – at once his muse and the fundamental animating force in the world, as “Lady of the Hill”.
The linguistic directness and simplicity of the vacana lyrics was clearly important to Hughes. They possessed the “swift, living voice of the oral style . . . a bare, point-blank, life-size poetry that hardly exists in English” which Hughes always admired though did not always write himself. This description comes from Hughes’ comments on Isaac Bashevis Singer in the New York Review of Books (1965). The vacana poems also possessed the rhythms of folk song, traditional folk tales and riddles. Their influence seems to have returned him to the kind of spontaneous inspiration and style of address that he used in the oldest poem that he always reprinted, ‘Song’. In that poem (written when Hughes was just 19 years old), after each of the 5 or 6 line stanzas, the poet cries out, “O my lady”. Hughes reported to Ekbert Faas that this poem was written in a “close and natural” style, one that he had used early in his career but had since “neglected”. It is also close to the directness of style of the Crow poems of 1970.
But as in the best poetry, such simplicity of language and tone belies the spiritual intentions of the originals and of Hughes’ experimental vacana poems too. As Ann Skea explains, in his turn, Hughes “becomes the spiritual bridegroom of the Lady of the Hill and struggles to be worthy of that union”. Unlike the original Indian poems, Hughes seems to see his Goddess in every human female and they are seen as testing and challenging the poet to further spiritual growth. In the end, just 18 of these experimental poems were chosen to form the Epilogue to Gaudete as the songs sung by the Reverend Nicholas Lumb on his return from the underworld: a man who had seen things and felt the need to communicate those things: “he saw the notebook again, lying on the table, and he remembered the otter and the strange way it had come up out of the lough because a man had whistled. He opened the notebook and began to decipher the words, he found a pen and clean paper and began to copy out the verses”.
The lark sizzles in my ear
Like a fuse –
A prickling fever
A flush of the swelling earth –
When you touch his grains, who shall stay?
Over the lark’s crested tongue
Under the lark’s crested head
From the core of the blue peace
From the sapphire’s flaw
From the sun’s blinding dust
Perhaps the ‘nakedness’ of the vacana style had some influence on Hughes in the writing of the Moortown poems of 1978, though he was also tempted to return to the more self-protecting use of persona in sequences like Cavebirds (1978) and Adam and the Sacred Nine (1979). Only in the more obscurely published sequences such as Capriccio (1990) and Howls and Whispers (1998), did he again write in this more personal and direct fashion and (as we all now know) he did so once more in the late-published Birthday Letters (1998).