V SUNDARAM |
Sat, 06 Jun, 2009 ,
In these columns yesterday (6-5-2009), I had commented on Ruth Padel’s book ‘The Poem And The Journey, 60 Poems for the Journey Of Life’.
What thrilled and inspired me most was her observation to the effect that telling us what to feel (as packaged toys pre-empt imagination by creating the fantasy rather than letting children fantasise for themselves) is for the tabloids and not for poems. Ruth Padel is right when she says that good poems are not over-explicit. They want you to discover what you feel for yourself. Nor do they simplify. She quotes the modern British novelist and poet Mark Haddon (born 1962), who wrote ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ , to illustrate her point: “If you can pinpoint what you admire in a poem, you’re looking for something shallow. I like poetry when I don’t quite understand why I like it. Poetry isn’t just a question of wrapping something up and giving it to someone else to unwrap. It doesn’t work like that.” A poet’s pleasure is to withhold a little of his meaning just in order to intensify the effect by mystification. In the light of this background Ruth Padel comes to the definitive conclusion which I fully endorse: developing your taste in poetry is part of the overall development of you—your personality, your character. As in living, so in reading. We learn by doing it. Developing our taste in poetry (very much like our taste in food or clothes or people), is part of how we come to be more ourselves.
| Ruth Padel (1946-)|
In 1999, Ruth Padel starting writing a weekly poetry column every Sunday in The Independent. It was a bold and innovative experiment to introduce modern poetry to the many people who felt either fazed or sidelined by it, believing it to be ‘difficult’ or ‘elitist’. What began as a six-week trial programme ran for two and a half years, during which time Padel was flooded with letters, phone calls and e-mails from readers who declared she had completely changed their response to modern poetry and verse. This book is a selection of 52 poems together with the related articles. Padel has suggested 52 ways (presented in her reviews in Independent spread over a period of 52 weeks) of interpreting each poem, from a syntactical point of view and also from close analysis of the text. What makes the book most interesting is that she has provided essential details of each poet’s background, with reference to their other work and explained how the poem under discussion fits into the conceptual framework of her canon? And yet this landmark book is not just a routine study guide. The main objective of Padel is clear. It is to make the glory and grandeur of modern poetry in all its forms easily accessible to all, whatever their intellectual background. As Kevin Saving in a brilliant review has rightly observed: ‘In the challenging essay that prefaces the poems she (Ruth Padel) demystifies poetic style and structure in a lucid explanation of metre, rhyme and rhythm. She revels in unveiling the hidden rhyme patterns in the poems she discusses, and her boundless enthusiasm is infectious...’
Front cover of the book
Ruth Padel is the great-great-great-grand daughter of Charles Darwin (1809-1882). She is also the great-great-great-grand daughter of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). Wedgwood was a craftsman, manufacturer of the delicate pottery which was so much sought after and became world famous. In her book DARWIN A LIFE IN POEMS, Ruth Padel gives an intimate and moving interpretation of the life and work of CHARLES DARWIN. Ruth Padel’s Darwin is a biography in verse, with many of the poems incorporating great chunks of Darwin’s own words. Marginal notes occasionally provide additional background or contextual information, but Darwin’s life is, indeed, largely conveyed through this exquisitely conceived series of poems.
Front cover of the book
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
When Charles Darwin presented his revolutionary Theory of Evolution in his explosive book ‘The Origin Of Species’ in 1859, it was hailed as a liberating cultural force by one group of scientists and reviled by another as a degrading heresy. The conception of a continually developing process of creation did not originate with Darwin. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (535 BC–475 BC), had suggested that all life ‘evolved’, that everything was growing in a constant state of flux. The Roman Poet Lucretius (99 BC-55 BC) had suggested a scientific account of evolution in his far-reaching De Rerum Natura. More than 20 centuries after Heraclitus and a few years before Darwin, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) published his Principles of Psychology (1855), in which he related the doctrine of evolution to various areas of research. But it was Charles Darwin who applied the theory to life itself and presented it as a challenge to a startled world. As a direct descendent of Charles Darwin, Ruth Padel has brought out the great saga of Darwin’s life through her beautiful and telling poems. His distinguished ancestry, his education in Cambridge University, his life long interest in nature and animals, his marriage to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood by whom he had 5 sons and 2 daughters and whose fortune and patience enabled Darwin to carry on his life’s work for more than forty years in spite of severe astigmatism, nausea and long periods of general illness, his five year voyage of the BEAGLE from 1831-1836, release of his first book ‘JOURNAL OF RESEARCHES INTO THE GEOLOGY AND NATURAL HISTORY OF THE VARIOUS COUNTRIES VISITED BY H M S BEAGLE’ in 1839, his happy married life with Emma Wedgwood from 1839, publication of his epoch-making book ‘ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES BY MEANS OF NATURAL SELECTION, OR THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE’ in 1859, his next publication ‘THE VARIATION OF ANIMALS AND PLANTS UNDER DOMESTICATION’ in 1868, ‘THE DESCENT OF MAN’ IN 1871, ‘THE EXPRESSION OF THE EMOTIONS IN MAN AND ANIMALS’ in 1872, ‘THE POWER OF MOVEMENT IN PLANTS’ in 1880, ‘THE FORMATION OF VEGETABLE MOULD THROUGH THE ACTION OF WORMS’ (his last contribution to science in 1881), his views on religion—-all these fascinating facets and aspects of Charles Darwin’s life have been brought out graphically in extraordinary and inspiring verse by Ruth Padel.
Let me give three samples of Ruth Padel’s poems from her book on Darwin. Her poem describing the starting point of Darwin’s inspiration—‘The Confession’—is given below.
I THE CONFESSION
‘At last gleams of light have come.
Contrary to the opinion I started with
I am almost convinced
that species are not (it is like confessing
to a murder) immutable. I think I have found
(here’s presumption!) the simple way
by which species become
adapted to new ends.’
Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, vigourously upheld and virtuously attacked, accomplished not only the separation of biology and religion, but compelled new interpretations of the Universe. Everything underwent a rigourous reappraisal: ethics, economics, and sociology. History itself was rewritten, objectively, dispassionately and freed of supernatural factors. The man conceded even by his enemies to be a gently modest human being, a quiet investigator opposed to violence, proclaimed an idea whose violence still reverberates throughout the world. This great concept has been put in immortal lines of poetry by Ruth Padel.
II MORE FUNNY IDEAS ABOUT GRANDEUR
‘To Emma, in case of my sudden death
I have just finished this sketch
of my species theory. If true, as I believe,
it will be a considerable step
in science. My most solemn request
is that you devote 400 pounds
to its publication.’
‘There is grandeur, if you look
at every organic being
as the lineal successor of some other form,
now buried under thousands of feet of rock.
Or else as a co-descendant, with that buried form,
from some other inhabitant of this world
more ancient still, now lost.
Out of famine, death and struggle for existence,
comes the most exalted end
we ‘re capable of conceiving: creation
of the higher animals!
Our first impulse is to disbelieve —
how could any secondary law
produce organic beings, infinitely numerous,
characterized by most equisite
workmanship and adaptation?
Easier to say, a Creator designed each.
But there is a simple grandeur in this view —
that life, with its power to grow, to reach, feel,
reproduce, diverge, was breathed
into matter in a few forms first
and maybe only one. To say that while this planet
has gone cycling on
according to fixed laws of gravity,
from so simple an origin, through selection
of infinitesimal varieties, endless forms
most beautiful and wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin passed away on 18th April 1882. Let us hear Ruth Padel describing the scene in Darwin’s house after his death. The poem makes a spiritual declaration that Charles Darwin belongs to the ages.
III Let’s leave her in the drawing-room, at the piano. ‘His tenderness
seemed to increase. The last twelve years were happiest of all,
most overflowing with affection.’ She’s looking at rain. At April grass,
‘She lived through her desolation’, the children will say, ‘alone’.
This garden they made together. Its life beyond the glass.
I am aware of my limitations as a critic. I know that great poetry is better understood in the verse of the artist than in the prose of the critic. Ruth Padel’s poetry is great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself or with its subject. Every lover of genuine poetry will be overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of her poetry, by the eternal virginity of her words. To achieve a multi-dimensional effect, Ruth Padel uses a multi-dimensional language. She uses her language concentrating emotion, detail and image in such a manner until she arrives at a certain kind of form of dew-like steel. The best tribute I can pay to her poetical biography of her great ancestor Charles Darwin is this: ‘In the beginning there was the WORD and the WORD was life; in the end there was only the WORD.’
(The writer is a retired IAS officer)
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