Erosion of poetry in Nepali politicsThe most alarming aspect of politicians’ use of language is the production of lies.
The full title of this paper should be—'Erosion of the poetic element in the Nepali political imaginaire'. The reasons are the following. Recently, one student of Nepali arts reminded me of a paper that I had presented at a seminar on ‘Art and politics: art for federalism’ organised by the UNDP and Kathmandu University at Nagargot from May 11-13, 2013. In retrospect, I should mention that a prominent painter and teacher named Sujan Chitrakar of the Faculty of Arts at KU was behind this effort of making his students and colleagues sensitive to the question of art playing a role in politics.
The student wants to work in the area evoked by the title of my paper, ’Art and political imaginaire in the context of federal life’ in Nepal. I will dwell on the subject in a proper paper or discussions with the student sometime, but what struck me in his query is—has the poetic sensibility or the element of imagination reached the nadir of Nepali political imagination in the present times? In other words, is the Nepali political imagination devoid of any creative and inspiring thoughts? Suspicions abound for the following reasons.
Political discourses or discussions, especially in transitional times, naturally tend to be evocative, which means poetic. Though the promises they make may sound unrealistic, they carefully architect a language that gives the impression of creative and forward-looking ideas. That is essential for political dynamism. The promises of reaching the moon, climbing over Mt Everest, disseminating the Buddha's messages of peace and joy all over the world, totally ameliorating the condition of the poor people of Nepal and also of the region and so on could be examples of some such poetic thoughts. Knowing well that such poetic promises are not realistic, the very use of the language, the sheer evocation of good imagination would at least make people feel that there is space for creative imagination in life. Though it is well known that poetry may not make things happen, it makes people reaffirm the conviction in life, love and cooperation notwithstanding the differences in opinions, particularly of political nature. Such is the nature of the tacit understanding.
There is one example that students and critics of literature love to reiterate. An English poet WH Auden wrote a great poem entitled ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, a British poet of Irish origin when he died in January 1939. That was a difficult time in Europe because the Second World War was raging and people's hopes for peace and prosperity were being dashed. Addressing Yeats' lifelong political activism for the freedom of Ireland Auden wrote: the madness of your Ireland is the same, nothing has changed despite the great poems that you wrote about it ‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its making…/ it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth’. Though 'Poetry makes nothing happen' it exists there as a reality; it still shows that people's propensity to think creatively is always there, and we can start from that.
In Nepal, there are examples of politicians and rulers writing poetry. No matter what the quality of their poetry is, they have accepted poetry as a way of showing something unique about their imagination. Monarchs and some of their spouses have written poetry and songs. Politicians have written something in the name of poems and songs. That is fine insofar as that shows their respect for good language and creative imagination. I do take it as an example of their attempts to invent something in the language.
As such, nobody expects or has expected the political leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Narendra Modi, Victor Orban, Emmanuel Macron—though he is said to have written fantasy fiction—Sher Bahadur Deuba and the current communist leaders of Nepal, to write poetry. My only problem is with the Nepali politicians' use of language churned out for the consumption of the masses who are visibly tired of listening to them. The warring camps of the communist parties go to any length in using vituperative language against each other. The most alarming aspect of their use of language is the production of lies, and their persistent quest for the alternate language in politics. I consider that aspect as the most damaging one.
Where does poetry come here then? My argument is that it is difficult to find any creative element in their political rhetoric. In their reckless use of language, and the invention of rhetoric you find something more serious. They are perhaps losing any sense of creative political imagination. American poet Wallace Stevens in a lecture given in 1941 entitled ‘The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words’ sees ‘imagination and reality’ as the ‘two near-pseudonyms for poetry and politics’. Though I find this category difficult to accept hook line and sinker, I would nevertheless find one merit in that, which is, those who are dealing with politics should work with imagination, and allow themselves to be shaped by humanist and decent use of language in whatever condition do they make use of that.
In Nepal, I share a frustration with the general public who are simply tired of listening to the bland, fake and loosely architected rhetoric of people from the prime minister and the opposition and faction leaders, to the bureaucrats and business leaders who are entering the ruling party in droves to set their business houses in order. The dearth of creative and honest use of language is a very tantalising factor. I am trying to evoke, though it is widely absent, the poetic use of language.
But as an optimist academic and a life-long teacher, I have invited the student to work in the creative direction of this problem. Those who are working in the field of poetry and art should find out what creative imagination can do in life. Poets should not be content with producing texts that do not say anything. Writers should show the bankruptcy of the political rhetoric that is devoid of good intention, and explain how creative meaning and a desire to say something decent and meaningful should replace the culture of producing false and reckless rhetoric to affect the day-to-day life of the people in this society.
We still remember how poetry had played a powerful role in the first people's uprising for the restoration of democracy in 1990. That was definitely part of the political uprising, and that was creative. It is that very spirit that is in short supply today. Though I do not have space to explain that, I would like to end by repeating that erosion of poetry in Nepali politics is metonymically the erosion of good values in the political karma that is getting the better of us in Nepal today.