Poetry – As a Quest for Inner Meaning


Recently I hosted a poetry event titled ‘Poetry as a quest for inner meaning’ and had to make a brief speech elucidating the basic understanding and principles of Poetry in the context of the title.  While preparing my notes, since the title had philosophical undertones I turned towards my favourite Indian philosopher Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and his brilliant treatise on Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry where he discusses the philosophical dimensions of his poetry.  Here is the textual commentary which was prepared for the final speech.

At the very outset I wish to refer to a conversation I had with one of my friends about the event and he remarked that as our lives get more intertwined or entangled, depends on how you look at it with technology, where technology becomes a dominant force we will turn towards Art, Poetry and Literature and Lo Behold I found this quote from Tagore:

“the vogue of the philosophy which makes man a machine, and interprets civilization in terms of mechanics, will give place to a philosophy of spirit…”

Technology is overpowering and overwhelming our lives today and shaping our interactions with the wider world and even influencing our very essence/Being.  Let’s consider Poetry and its appeal in light of this phenomenon.

Dr. Radhakrishnan starts with the premise that Human Consciousness is the starting point of all ‘philosophic inquiry’ that the contradictions of human life provoke us to engage in, the proverbial quest for truth which combines both SPIRIT and NATURE.  He very beautifully terms us humans as ‘Earth’s child but Heaven’s heir’.  From his Indian philosophical perspective, we live with the contradictions of SELF/NON-SELF, HEART/HEAD, REASON/FAITH or BELIEF in my own words to expand the scope of the notion of Faith and we must strive towards an Union with the ABSOLUTE or the All-encompassing UNIVERSE where these dualities melt away.  Poetry according to Dr. Radhakrishnan is this striving for the Union with the Absolute.

How do we define this quest for inner meaning? I think perhaps Bertrand Russell the eminent philosopher captured it most lucidly: “to abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things.”

But what exactly is this Absolute? Something esoteric? Something abstract?

Well for me as a mere mortal child of this Earth it’s the entire Universe which is present before our senses which is most visibly manifest in the NATURE.  And how does this Absolute reveal or present itself to us through this Nature?? Through its CREATION in the form of a Dance/Leela which in Sanskrit means Play.  Dr. Radhakrishnan terms this Dance or Leela as the Play of the Absolute.

This Dance or Leela is a Dance of Joy for me.  Here I combine the wisdom of Tagore and Dr. Radhakrishnan and my personal understanding or feelings.

This Leela or Dance is most strikingly omnipresent in the onset of monsoon with the thunderstorms and vigorous swaying of trees, pouring of rain, snowfall, sunset, sunrise, morning mist, crashing of the roaring waves on the shores of an ocean or the splendour of a full-moon light.  Nature is a slideshow of the Universe.  According to Dr. Radhakrishnan ‘Poetry is the mode through which the Absolute presents itself to the Mankind’.  I would say in my own words we capture and make sense of this slideshow of Nature through Poetry.  According to Dr. Radhakrishnan, ‘Poetic temper hears the voice of this spirit, crying aloud in nature and only through Nature can the spirit realize itself’.

For me the eye of an artist or a poet should be able to discern this Universal rhythm or Vibrations and can then find expression in music or when through verse form in Poetry. Hence Nature plays a very pivotal role in this search for inner meaning.  In the traditional Classical Indian music Ragas are or compositions are inspired by the moods of Nature during different times of the day, for instance Raga Jogiya Kalingra is for the morning mist during early hours of the dawn.

The second most pivotal channel or mechanism for our own quest for inner meaning is Love.  Here I quote Tagore:

“In love all the contradictions of existence merge themselves and are lost. Only in love are UNITY and DUALITY not at variance”.

At an intuitional level or Inner Self we can love the All-Comprehending Absolute with whom we can commune, we can love, adore and worship.

Now its no surprise that most of the English Romantic Poets like Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth wrote poetry on Nature, who can forget the magic of ‘Daffodils’ as a poem or for that matter Shelley’s famous enchanting ‘Ode to a Skylark’.  Romance, love and nature occurs as a motif in a lot of poetry across cultures and languages.

Now how do you go about creating poetry? For me lots of Reflection, processing of emotions which have been churned through the process of quest for inner meaning, hard-work which Dr. Radhakrishnan calls ‘Strenuous exertion’ and one needs a creative vision translating and then reifying this quest into words or verses and we have poetry.

According to Tagore:

“The creating of beauty is not the work of unbridled imagination.  Passion when it is given its full sway becomes a destructive force like fire gone out of hand.”

I would add unbridled emotions and feelings and we know the dire consequences from what’s happening on the social media.

Is poetry all about emotions and feelings?? Here Tagore provides us the compass:

“Poetry is not a mere matter of feelings or expressions; ideas take on shape by some hidden subtle skill at work within the poet……sensation, feelings, language are only its raw material.”

According to Wordsworth: ‘Poetry is emotion remembered in tranquillity’.

According to Dr. Radhakrishan: ‘True poetry is a blend of emotion and reflection’.

Finally, we must ask the question what must poetry do??

As the poet, philosopher Matthew Arnold mentions, “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.”

According to Dr. Radhakrishnan:

Poetry must charm by its wit

Surprise us by its skill

Thrill us by its richness

Amuse us by its variety

And then

Poetry is a flower to be smelt, a sweet to be tasted’ and finally according to the great German philosopher Hegel ‘drunk in every limb’.

Now Ladies and Gentleman looking around in this oak-panelled comfortable precincts of the Hotel we find a nice bar with delectable spirits and shall we say that this German Professor got it right for the occasion!!

Last but not the least Poetry can never be an exercise in pedantry bound by rules and regulations and according to Dr. Radhakrishnan ‘Poetry must not be taught’.

In conclusion I can’t resist the temptation of citing my favourite poet PB Shelley and his famous lines about poetry:

“He spoke of poetry, and how

Divine it was ———– a light, a love

A spirit which like wind doth blow

As it listeth, to and fro,

A dew rained down from God above:

A power which comes and goes like dream,

And which none can ever trace———–

Heaven’s light on earth —— Truth’s brightest beam.”

Yes indeed ‘Heaven’s light on earth’ and ‘Truth’s brightest beam’   Let it glow!!

Thanks a lot for your attention!!

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.