Department of English, Suri Vidyasagar College, Birbhum, West Bengal, India
Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry
T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1974: 20)
Among the present practicing Indian English poets, Kiriti Sengupta occupies a unique position so far as the treatment of theme and technique are concerned. He is not only a poet but also translator, editor, and columnist, and his works have got room in both national and international arena of literary publications and literary critical study. His major works include anthologies such as Reflections on Salvation, The Earthen Flute, A Freshman’s Welcome, Healing Waters Floating Lamps, The Reverse Tree, My Dazzling Bards, My Glass of Wine, The Reciting Pens, and The Unheard I, translation Poem Continuous Reincarnated Expressions by Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, and co-edited anthologies such as Scaling Heights, Jora Sanko– The Joined Bridge, Epitaphs, Sankarak, and Selfhood. The list given here indicates the breadth and width of the creative world encompassed by Sengupta who attempts to conduct his poetic journey, as evident especially in his poems, not only to explore the mystery-enfolded (non-)human world but also to go beyond that. His poems exhibit the sensitive and sincere poetic self (un)consciously grappling with the layers of conflict predominantly prevalent in the present day world through the path of reason, emotion, memory and myth. In the present study, we will restrict ourselves to the study of only the prose poems included in Reflections on Salvation (2016). While writing the ‘Publisher’s Note’ in the edited volume Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta, Dustin Pickering (2017: 10) aptly sums up the poetic spirit of Kiriti Sengupta:
The Poet of Virtue is one whose valor makes us face our truth, and reminds us of how special and good our world can be. We take it for granted in the rush of exchanges, the pursuit of oil and money being as strong as the pursuit of gold in Columbus’s day. But the pursuit of words? The exchange of ideas? The love and spirit of who we really are, who we intend to be? Those things seem lost. Where did they go? Nowhere, they have simply been cast aside. They still hang over us as angels in the sky.
The present paper attempts to unearth the possible intensive interpretations of and interrelation and interconnection between/among those prose poems of Sengupta with help the techniques and insights of the interdisciplinary theoretical construct deconstructive stylistics. It will, it is hoped, show how a novel approach to the study of the aesthetic aspects of literary pieces, here prose poems, can lead a reader to understand and appreciate those pieces on a broader spectrum. We will try to show that the linguistic elements have been used by the artist for the purpose of not only achieving stylistically well-structured work of art but also of simultaneously differing and deferring the meaning of the text as a whole and its components in particular.
For the convenience of our better understanding, we will briefly deal with the theory of deconstructive stylistics in the next section. Followed by that, a detailed analysis of the prose poems from the perspective of deconstructive stylistics will be attempted and shown that the stylistic markers and devices used to give aesthetically sound structure of the poems are also utilized for the postponement or deferment of signification.
During the last century, the emergence of structural linguistics and transformational generative linguistics and subsequent exploration of its applications in different branches and domains of knowledge ushered in a dynamic and progressive change in approach to literary criticism. Structuralist poetics which mainly gave birth to stylistics regards a text as a symmetrical and unified one having a centre to control the whole. As a reaction against the subjective and personal criticism, one among the host of the schools of criticism Stylistics which crosses the boundaries of two academic fields: linguistics and literary criticism. It is based on the premise that literary discourse is expressed through the specialized use of language and so linguistic means to analyze a literary text can be used to comprehend the message of the writer. Stylistics is the scientific study of the style or creatively used language pattern of a literary piece using the knowledge of linguistics. Literary discourse consisting of embellished and foregrounded use of language and content is a deviation from the ordinary language which is direct and denotative. According to David Lodge, stylistics aims to develop a “more precise, inclusive, and objective methods of describing style than the impressionistic generalizations of traditional criticism” (Lodge 1967:52). Stylistics studies the particular linguistic tools utilized by a writer in a given context to produce a text having aesthetic appeal. It objectively exploits the empirical and explicit methods of linguistics to analyze the phonological, morphological, syntactical and lexical peculiarities and deviations as traced in a text (see for further detail Thornborrow and Wareing 1998:4).
On the contrary, poststructuralist or deconstructionist Jacques Derrida’s paper entitled “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”, presented at the John Hopkins University in 1966, questions the fundamentals of Structuralist’s paradigm about the underlying recurrent patterns and rules which they claim to provide stability and final signification to a text. Derrida initiates his discussion from Saussure’s concept of the relationship between signifier and signified. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, linguistic signs consist of a signifier and a signified and the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary and conventional. The Western Metaphysics regards the relationship between signifier and signified as absolute and permanent. According to it, signifieds are permanently associated with signifier as they are the words of God (Logos). Derrida challenges the logo-centric notion of finality and metaphysical signification and regards meanings in a constant state of flux as they are context dependent and are used in relation to other signs in a syntagmatic relationship. According to Derrida signifiers achieve their significations through their opposition with the other signifiers. Further, meanings are deferred endlessly as a context refers to another context and in this way defers the assignment of a fixed meaning. Derrida coined the term ‘defferance’ to include both ‘differ’ and ‘defer’. Derrida believes that like signifiers, signification of a text too is indeterminate and deferred endlessly due to presence of contradictions, paradoxes, metaphors, allusions and references. Derrida regards a text as a differential network consisting of a free play or warring forces of signification. In a text meanings assigned through difference are also deferred or postponed. The process of reading i.e., textuality constituting the text is undecided, infinite and open. Derrida opines in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, Writing and Difference”:
The centre had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play …….in the absence of a centre or origin, everything became discourse – provided we can agree on this word – that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely. (Rice and Waugh 1992: 151-152).
A deconstructionist believes that a writer is never able to express what he intends to express through his writings and therefore, he always leaves a trace to be filled in by an interpreter or a critic. A critic takes the words of a writer as a trace and engages himself in an endless pursuit of exploring the intended meaning of the writer. However, even a critic is never able to grasp the real meaning of a text. Deconstruction explores the dynamic nature of linguistic signs and investigates the plurality and multiplicity of their interpretation and repetition of signs in different contexts assigns them different connotations. Even the contextual meaning is not fixed and even a context yields a new context leading to towards instability. Since language is figural and rhetorical, no final interpretation is possible.
Deconstructive stylistics is a dynamic interdisciplinary critical study of a literary text with the help of insights drawn from stylistics and deconstruction. Deconstructive stylistics, according to Mishra 2011:
explores how some formal stylistic markers such as approximants, interrogatives, negatives, indefinites, adversatives and alternants, perform deconstructive functions of postponement, indeterminacy, open-endedness, opposition, cancellation, tentativeness and speculation.
To put it in other words, it a synthetic approach to combine the basic tenets and techniques of both the disciplines in order to have a better and comprehensive understanding of text. It aims at investigating how certain formal stylistic markers or devices that organize a text as a whole structurally as well as semantically are simultaneously responsible for the deferment or postponement of the signification of a text. In this connection, Misra (2011b) argues:
Deconstructive Stylistics looks at exploring the inventory of deconstructive stylistic markers used in a text. This would assist in impersonal, deconstructive and readerly interpretation of a text.
This section is based mainly on Mishra (2011a, 2011b) and Mishra and Bardhan (2011). In the next section of the paper, the tenets of ‘Deconstructive Stylistics’ have been applied to Kiriti Sengupta’s prose poem anthology Reflections on Salvation in order to examine whether formal stylistic markers in the poems lead to polysemy, open-endedness of arguments and signification or beyond.
Deconstructive Stylistic Reading of Reflections on Salvation
Sengupta’s Reflections on Salvation (henceforth ROS) is a collection of eighteen prose poems, prefixed by a “Foreword” by Casey Dorman, an introductory article titled “Have You Secured a Happy Afterlife?” by the poet himself, and “Publisher’s Note” by Dustin Pickering and suffixed by Epilogue consisting of a “Postscript” by Alan W. Jankowski, and finally, poet’s interview held by Dustin. RoS evidently reflects the amount of semantic as well as aesthetic load attached with the poems born out of the poet’s reflective reading of religious text, The Geeta (also considered to be the world’s third greatest literary text), deep and vast knowledge coupled with experience. The poet’s mind as a synthesizing agent, in the Eliotian sense, has amalgamated and assimilates all the conflicting ideas centering round the concept of salvation or moksha aspired to achieve. Being aware of the complexity of this mystery-laden concept nurtured, interpreted and mystified within the narrower ambit down the ages, Sengupta has ventured to poetically explore this concept on the ground of and in relation to modern thoughts associated with it. In his prefatory note to the book Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta titled “Breaking Barriers the Kiriti Sengupta Way” Prof. Sunil Sharma (2017: 18) states the following on ROS:
Difficult to get in such an apocalyptic world of videogames; violence and volatility; hyper-reality; surrealism and a simulated-reality manufactured for a media obsessed viewers thirsting for more. Salvations are accessible through serious art. Kiriti as an artist attempts such an alternative pathway that provides inner illumination and healing — and subtle transformations by a blend of reflection, poetry, prose and meditation by renewed syntax and words. It is a holistic experience — reading Kiriti.
This suggests that meaning of a text, be it religiously serious one or the other, is not static and denotative but on the other hand, it is dynamic and connotative, divergent and convergent, so far as the interaction and interrelation between the linguistic and extra-linguistic constituents contributing it are concerned.
Notice that RoS begins with the poem “Saffron” and ends with “Salvation,” and in between them there are other sixteen poems dealing with conflicting and associative ideas/concepts relating to salvation. The poem “Saffron” consisting of four stanzas talks about the traditional use of saffron-colored cloth by the priest for worship, idea of sannyas or renunciation connected with this color and finally the doubt about the need of renunciation identified with monk for salvation. See, the poem contains four interrogative sentences (two in the first stanza and two in the fourth):
Why do we commission a priest to worship the household gods? Aren’t we cursed badly by ourselves? How does one become a monk? Is it by renouncing the fruits of actions one undertakes?
We find that the first and third sentences are Wh-question and the second and fourth are polarity type ones. Thus these interrogatives generate the doubts and dilemma in the understanding of the need for chanting of commissioned-priest, observation of related rituals including wearing saffron attire, sacrifice, etc., for one’s salvation. The verb ‘wonder’ and adverb ‘perhaps’ in the first stanza set the tone of indeterminacy lurking inherently at some layers of mind of the poetic persona. This is evident in the complex sentential pattern of the following quote:
It is all in my mind that has been grossly tuned to accept and refuse the effects of the colors they carry within.
The frequently alternative use of first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ conveys a conscious desire for the identification of individual with the rest of the society and this becomes successful in the fourth stanza where the subjects of each and every expressions are third personal pronouns such as ‘one,’ ‘it,’ and ‘they.’ Negating the self the poetic persona seems to pose the role of an omniscient observer burdened with the notion dealt with in the text. The prepositional phrases (PPs) ‘with saffron’ and ‘with renunciation’ functioning as complements are in the Topic positions of both the consecutive independent clauses: “with saffron comes sannyas or renunciation, and with renunciation arrives attachment.” (Third stanza) focusing the integral cause-effect relationship among the actions and ideas. The realization seems to be firm as very much conveyed through the use of verbless clauses containing only parallel NPs (NP-PP)
Attachment with the world,
attachment with domesticity,
But this firmness gets dissolved as the speaker utters with open-ended tone, “or may be the gods,” and “they are considered superior to the saints!”
The sense of dilemma continues in the second poem “Mango” which deals with expectation-based action followed by enjoyment or achievement of renunciation symbolized by the eating of mango. The poet here attempts to link the gospel of great legendary saint Sri Ramakrishna and that of The Bible in order to delve out the true meaning of renunciation from the perspective of mundane existence full of attempts “as we sow a layer of seeds in the earth.” The idea of the achievement of renunciation remains an enigma as reflected in the reference to The Bible. The apparently casual way of communicating the very common day-to-day event gradually gains deeper and subtle layers of meaning as the reference of Sri Ramakrishna, The Bible, and Jesus, the use of two consecutive interrogatives in the beginning of second stanza and counter reference to fertilizer and the poet’s own clinic are made.
The value and importance of attachment with the earthly existence have been reemphasized and reasserted in the two stanza poem “Payment.” In it the poet directly addresses and persuade the reader to realize the ‘value of attachment’ as traced from the use of ‘your’ and ‘your’ in all the lines except the first one (aphoristic one). Notice that the use of present tense and past tense respectively in the last two polarity type interrogative sentences of the concluding stanza:
Does wisdom urge to neglect your loved ones? Did it not ask you to love your neighbor?
asserts the very presence of man-to-man and man-to-nature attachment not only in the present time but also from the past. Moreover, these interrogatives as formal stylistic markers in a subtle poetic manner widen, broaden and simultaneously create an open-ended message relating the central idea.
The poem “Conduct” which is a continuation of the previous ones excellently represents the need for conduct, not code for the reaching the gods or spirituality. It is a poem of balance between assertion and non-assertion as conveyed by the use of modals ‘can’ and ‘might’ and adverb ‘probably’ in the second and third stanza. However, the expression “Divinity might be found in conduct, but not in the codes” containing the tentativity and politeness loaded modal ‘might’ and passivized verbal group helps the speaker to convey his conviction in what he tries to .
The poem “Stagecraft” reminds us once again of the great Shakespearean dictum “All the world’s a stage,” and the earthly existence is replete with performances or actions, successes and failures and all these together lead an individual to salvation. The interrogative structure “What if…” has been used to end the second stanza and begin the third one:
What if you have no audience? What if you are not applauded?
These sentences inevitably suggest that the reader is free to decide, and thus, the message gets deferred. The very need for proper use of an individual’s sensory organs for the achieving salvation has been poetically conveyed through the beautiful use of emphasizer “only” followed by three Prepositional Phrases (here preposition by or through followed by NP):
“…only by action, and (only) through your sensory gateways.” (last part of the third stanza)
“…only through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or skin.” (last part of the fourth stanza).
Thus the poem gives us the way to salvation that needs to be understood or perceived and achieved individually and thereby generates innumerable multidirectional meaning of the text.
The poems “Third Molar,” “Attachment,” “Cow,” “Fire,” “Meditation,” “Return,” “Bondage,” and “Instinct” included the present volume uphold several personal and impersonal experiences as encountered in daily life, which adds multiple layers of live meaning(s) to our human existence. These transform the finite/narrow idea of salvation to the infinite one in which the idea of attachment, action, detachment, renunciation, sacrifice and other commonly related human notions are boiled annihilated and assimilated. In this context, one glaring example of deepening the message undercurrent in the poems of RoS can be traced in the concluding expression of the poem “Meditation”: “Who has been advocating detachment down the ages, by the way?” In it, see, the informal casual intimate expression ‘by the way’ has been tagged with formal interrogative.
The message undercurrent in RoS becomes more enigmatic in the piece titled “Paradise” which questions the doctrine propagated by philosopher Bhobapagla. The work carried out on earth is of the supreme value for getting heavenly bliss. The very semi-formal question “is Roma headed for heaven because of duty or because of beauty?” born out of the heart of hearts aptly uphold the poetic persona’s concern. By putting ‘because of duty’ first and then ‘because of duty’ preceded by optionally loaded alternant conjunction ‘or,’ the focus on the importance of duty has been artistically communicated.
The very deeply touched issue relating to the desire of a childless couple and its link with that of detachment have been projected poetically in another poem “Detachment” in RoS. In it these issues appear to (un)consciously haunt the poet and force him to relook at the oft-quoted advice of The Geeta:
Act, but forget! karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana/ mā karma-phala-hetur bhūr mā te saṅgo ‘stvakarmaṇi [You have a right to perform your duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.].[The Geeta Chapter 2, Verse 47] (Page 14)
The concluding stanza of the poem puts a great doubt towards this advice. See that the use of adversative conjunction ‘But’ at the beginning of the stanza linguistically counters what has been stated earlier. Again, this stanza consists of three sentences: the first one is complex and interrogative, the second one, compound and affirmative and the third one, single-word simple and exclamatory.
But, did I consider how would a childless couple react to it? Situations change, but scriptures remain the same. Mundane!
With the exclamatory (verbless) sentence “Mundane!” the poem apparently ends but this sentence generates innumerable layers of suggestions left to and for the reader to perceive. Thus, the meaning of the message gradually gains several dimensions due to the artistic use and power of association and dissociation of linguistic and extra-/non-linguistic elements used.
RoS ends, as mentioned earlier, with “Salvation” which is truly a poetic attempt of exploring the relevance of Verse 66 of Chapter 18 of The Geeta. It begins with very pertinent question implying answer: “Does one receive the gods?” The poet’s conscious and rigorous effort is conveyed by the use of modal ‘can’ before a state verb ‘hear’ in the expression:
I can hear as someone murmurs, “God is one and amorphous.”
It is evident from the above quoted expression that the inner voice and prophetic vision of the poet have got identified and the murmur becomes eloquent the moment that gets identified with the pronouncement of The Geeta (Verse 66 of Chapter 18):
See, it is the God who claims: “sarva- dharmān parityajya/ mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja… [Abandon all religions and take refuge in me…].
Then the prophetic self of the poet proceeds to another level of understanding as he relates life with breathing and asserts through a very precise colloquial statement:
No gods, but the breath that builds a home for our life and death.
See here the relative clause ‘that builds a home for our life and death’ occurs to explain the head NP ‘the breath’ but the sentence remains incomplete as the both the head NPs ‘No gods’ and ‘the breath’ are not followed by predicate phrase. It is probably due to the fact that the poetic self is charged with rationality-based spirituality blended with emotion and intellect as clearly traced in the concluding stanza:
They say, God dwells within; it is then the mortal exploration of the resort where salvation is largely seen!
Thus, the attempt to tangibly capture and inwardly perceive the idea called salvation remains an enigma as its resort is physical human entity, here called ‘the mortal exploration of the resort.’ The NP ‘the mortal exploration of the resort’ having very simple NP—PP structure is loaded with symbolic signification relating to the soul-body relationship for ocular realization of salvation. However, the journey of the poet in tracing the real meaning and concrete sensuous feeling attached with salvation does not end with the eighteenth poem “Salvation,” it remains, and will go on as the horizon of understanding and feeling such a complex and person-specific notion gets widened with change of time and space. The very frequent as well as alternate use of first person pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ in almost all the eighteen poems has made this venture too personal but at the same time informal. However, the personal feelings or realizations get dissolved with impersonal ones as the references to religious scriptures, common people referred to as ‘they,’ other persons have been poetically utilized. Ultimately, the line between the personal identity and impersonal identities gets blurred as realization of salvation remains untouched, but indescribably felt at some supra-terrestrial level, not religiously colored one.
The superb artistic uses of different formal stylistic markers including interrogatives, adversatives, alternants, indefinites, etc., and other (extra-)linguistic devices, as shown above, have created the scope for the multiplicity of signification relating to the centrally haunting issue of all the poems included in RoS i.e. SALVATION. This is so commonly discussed and debated notion but through the poetic attempt we have been able to trace the deconstructive elements of inconclusiveness, undecidability, tentativeness, postponement, multiplicity, uncertainty and approximation present in the poems in RoS. Hence, Sunil Sharma (2017: 258) has rightly pointed:
Reflections on Salvation is a verbal probe into the perplexing duality of the past/present; the dynamics of heritage/contemporaneity; sacred/sacrilege; tradition/modernity; word/meaning; signifier/signified; construct/ constructed and de-constructed for another re- construction in an endless play.
Through the book of “random” thoughts, Kiriti undertakes and destabilizes the very act of hermeneutics and sets up the democratic right of the well-informed reader to assert their right and autonomy of their objective reading of a pluralistic text.
In the present study we have attempted to explore the means of applying the literary critical approach deconstructive stylistics to the analytical understanding of Kiriti Sengupta’s RoS. It has been shown that this approach, as discussed above, aims at evolving a mechanism to project how the stylistic markers or devices employed by the artist in a literary work of art are instrumental to the deferment and postponement of meaning of that work. The present analysis of the poems of a present time scholar-poet is an attempt to exhibit how the theoretical insights of deconstructive stylistics provide us a better, rather comprehensive mechanism to understand the aesthetic aspects of a verbal artifact and allow us to go beyond barrier of that understanding along the path of changing and evolving our experience-influenced-perception.
Bardhan, S. K. Deconstructive Stylistics and the Teaching of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.Language Forum Vol. 39, No 1-2. pp.. 76-86. 2013.
Board of Editors. Burdwan University Anthology of Poems. Burdwan: The University of Burdwan. 2007.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”. In Modern Literary theory: A Reader. Edited by Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. London: Edward Arnold. 1966.
Eliot, T.S. Three Essays. Calcutta: Oxford University Press. 1974.
Evans, Robert C. “Literary Contexts in Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’” Literary Contexts in Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (2006): 1. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. (downloaded from the website: www.jbhs.ccs.k12.nc.us/…/sample_literary_analysis_essay_written_b. on 18.07.12..)
Jain, M. Selected Poems and a Critical reading of the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. Bombay: OUP. 1992.
Lodge, David. Language of Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1967.
Misra, Prasant. ‘Towars Deconstructive Stylistics: A Study of the Deconstructive Functions of Some Formal Markers in English’. Language Forum Vol. 37, No 1. pp.. 25-37. 2011a/
——– ‘A Deconstructive stylistic reading of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn’.3L; Language,Linguistics and Literature,The Southeast Asian Journal of English Language Studies. 7 (2). pp. 49-58. 2011b. (downloaded from website of the journal: http://www.ukm.my/ppbl/3L/3LCurrentIssues.html on 18.07.12).
Misra, P. and Bardhan, S. K. ‘Stylistics of Deferment in Frost’ Poetry’. Paper presented in 39th All India Conference Dravidian Linguists organized by DLA, ISDL, PLA, Department of Distance Education, Punjabi University.2011.
Sengupta, Kiriti. Reflections on Salvation. Texas: Transcendent Zero Press. 2016.
Sharma, Sunil. ‘Redefining the canon — Radical art and craft of Kiriti Sengupta: Brief meditation on his book of prose poems: Reflections on Salvation’. In Sharma, Sunil and Pickering, Dustin (Eds.). Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta. Texas: Transcendent Zero Press. 2017.
Sharma, Sunil and Pickering, Dustin (Eds.). Appraisals: Kiriti Sengupta. Texas: Transcendent Zero Press. 2017.
Thornborrow, J. & Wareing, S. Patterns in Language: An Introduction to Language and Literary Style. London: Routledge. 1998.