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Derek Walcott vs Jayanta Mahapatra – A Comparative Study

Both Derek Walcott and Jayanta Mahapatra are contemporaries and accomplished writers in their own right the 20th century has seen, who have carved a niche for themselves in the global literary scene. Though there are dissimilarities in certain life situations, in literary achievements and sensibilities, there are many things in common between them. The focus of this article is an objective study aiming at a comparison with respect to some of the significant characteristics in the literary oeuvres of the two legendary writers of our times.

Early life, Education and Career objective of Walcott and Mahapatra
Sir Derek Alton Walcott was born on January 23, 1930 in Saint Lucia, West Indies. His family is of English, Dutch and African descent, reflecting the complex colonial history of the island that he explores in his poetry. His mother was a teacher, who loved arts and recited poetry. His father, a painter and poet died at the young age of 31. Walcott’s family was part of a minority Methodist community, who felt overshadowed by the dominant Catholic culture of the island established during French colonial rule.

Walcott had shown a talent for painting from childhood. As a young man he was trained as a painter and his painting was later exhibited in New York, in a 2007 exhibition named "The Writer's Brush: Paintings and Drawing by Writers.” In fact for a brief time he hesitated between painting and poetry as his calling, but we can realize that poetry was his calling from his own words:

“My calling as a poet is votive, sacred… it was a cherished vow taken in my young dead father’s name, and my life is to honour that vow.”

He studied at the University College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica and moved to Trinidad in 1953 after graduation, where he became a critic, teacher and journalist. He served as a teacher at Boston University in the United States, and there he founded the Boston Playwrights' Theatre in 1981. Later he served as Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex during the period 2010 to 2013.

Jayanta Mahapatra was born on October 22, 1923 in Cuttack. He belongs to a lower middle-class family. He had his early education in English medium at Stewart school, Cuttack. After his Master's Degree in Physics, he joined as a teacher in 1949 and served in various Government colleges of Odisha, India. He retired from services in 1986 from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack.

While Walcott taught literature and writing at Boston University for more than two decades, Mahapatra is a physicist turned poet who served in various government colleges in Odisha.

Travel, Territory and Native Landscapes of Walcott and Mahapatra
While Walcott was known for his passion for travelling to countries around the world, who split his time between New York, Boston, and St. Lucia, and incorporated the influences of different areas into his pieces of work, Mahapatra has spent almost his entire life in the city of Cuttack. Mahapatra is to Odisha and Odias as Khushwant Singh is to Punjab and its legacy and heritage. “To Orissa, to this land in which my roots lie and lies my past and in which lies my beginning and my end...,” declared the poet in his Award-receiving speech at the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.

Walcott identified as ‘absolutely a Caribbean writer,’ a pioneer, helping to make sense of the legacy of deep colonial damage. In poems such as “The Castawa” (1965) and in the play Pantomime (1978), he uses metaphors of shipwreck and Crusoe to describe the culture and what is required of artists after colonialism and slavery: both the freedom and the challenge to begin again, salvage the best of other cultures and make something new. A representative poem:

‘A Far Cry From Africa’

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.

Corpses are scattered through a paradise.

Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
"Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.

What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.

The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.

Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.

I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

(‘Green Night’: Poems 1948-1960 (1962)

The Time Factor for Walcott and Mahapatra
It is quite obvious that Walcott had an early sense of a vocation as a writer proved by the fact that at the young age of 14, he had published his first poem, a Miltonic, religious poem, in the newspaper “The Voice of St Lucia” and by 19, self-published his first two collections. He was madly in love with English language and was strongly influenced by modernist poets such as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. It is worthwhile to mention here that later he had received TS Eliot Prize for poetry.

Walcott was aware of the ‘time’ factor and he had this to say: “While we sit moping or writing morose poems and novels that glorify a non-existent past, then time passes us by.”

Mahapatra began writing poems rather late in comparison with his contemporaries. According to the poet, in making a poem, it is nostalgia that plays a significant part, as many moments, past and present, build their nets across the words and wait for the outcome. Perhaps the inevitability of ageing is/was the main drive behind his writing. He believes that crisis is the source of the poetry. It is the feeling of the loss of years of his life, coupled with a space of isolation that represented ‘the crisis’ which ultimately goaded him to write. Between one poem and the next, his mind becomes a chaos of reactions.

The essence of time unconsciously becomes the poet’s rationalism. For him the act of writing poems is like being caught in a net of time, he says in one of his recent articles (The Hindu, April 2, 2017). He says that ‘The poem becomes the precise moment of a truth and that moment comes through a procession of events or thoughts that take place in the poet’s mind and that he would like to use time as an avenging god in his poems. At other moments, or in between poems, time is just a frail ghost of an enemy standing in his path and he senses that he could go through it, unscathed. And as he advances both in poetry and in his years, he feels that he is perhaps driving the victim of time ahead of him.

Imagery and Themes in Walcott’s and Mahapatra’s works
Walcott is a poet of love and compassion and admired life. Hence his anger is powerful as revealed in his writings. His representation of communal issues is characteristic of sharpened autobiographical preciseness. A painterly quality of Walcott's imagery is seen right from his earliest work. His imagination draws on his talent as a painter, which is always more than descriptions, deepening into fine metaphors through which he has addressed the central issues of his time and the society. (Edward Baugh.) Religion, particularly the Methodist religion, has influenced his poetry in both substance and style. His themes, as well as the form, often reflect a religious content. Death and bereavement have also been themes in Walcott’s poetry.

Childhood memories occupy a considerable space in Mahapatra’s poetry. Freshness of imagery is the characteristic of his poetry. Images and rhythms of Orissa form the substratum in many of Mahapatra’s poetry. The richness and superiority of his language, the supple and delicate words he employ are the trademark of Mahapatra’s poetry. One can also see a deep sense of isolation and alienation in the poetry of Mahapatra. Silences and shadows haunt us when we read his poems. And it seems it is not possible for him to liberate himself of his own shadow.

Intensity of feeling and passion, the soul of the native soil, strange patterns of ideas with simple words are the common characteristic of Mahapatra’s poetry. Honest feelings and experiences in Mahapatra’s poems come with intense images that add further charm to his creativity. The feel created in his poems and experienced by the readers is genuine. He is sincere in his confessions, bold in expression and does not attempt to hide his real thoughts. Two of his representative poems are given below which substantiates the above:

‘Her Hand’
(Based on the killing of Muslims in Gujarat)

The little girl's hand is made of darkness
How will I hold it?

The streetlamps hang like decapitated heads
Blood opens that terrible door between us

The wide mouth of the country is clamped in pain
while its body writhes on its bed of nails

This little girl has just her raped body
for me to reach her

The weight of my guilt is unable
To overcome my resistance to hug her.


‘At The Rock Edict Of Emperor Asoka, Dhauli Hill, Odisha, 261 B.C.’

Weary is the hand of God
That never reaches this hidden place
Of a land’s lost morals.
High up the hill, one watches
As the moonlight still scours the dry riverbed
For bodies of the dead in the vain sands
Trapped by cries of pain, as the year’s pilgrims
Trudge the tortured valley of the Daya
In the pride of a singular belief.

Today I find it hard to stand the dividing walls
Laid out by those greedy days of battle
And one-eyed men, and the hungry vows of heroism
That shape the nameless crossing of the bridge.
A graveyard without peace is this embroidered
Rock with the fading decrees. Unwanted flowers
Bloom there in perfect silence, white, alive;
Maybe to set free a scent of sadness
I take for an answer to God’s hand
Hanging somewhere outside my handful of air.

(Note: 100,000 of my ancestors were massacred by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka in the Kalinga War, 260-61 BC. Later, Asoka turned to Buddhism and issued a number of decrees advocating non-violence in all spheres of life. Dhauli is on the River Days, 25 kilometers from Cuttack, where I live.)


(From Hesitant Light)

In the words of MK Naik in ‘Two Worlds: The Imagery of Jayanta Mahapatra’ the book of criticism: “An intensive scrutiny of Mahapatra’s imagery reveals that his images are drawn from two worlds viz., the exterior world of phenomenal reality and the surrealistic world and the way these two worlds are related is equally significant. The image is for Mahapatra not merely what Wyndham Lewis called, the primary pigment of poetry; it is almost his characteristic way of reacting to experience, ordering it and recording it” (MK Naik in Indian English Poetry from the beginnings up to 2000, Pencraft International, Delhi-110052, 2009).

Poetic Sensibilities of Walcott and Mahapatra
Methodism and spirituality have played a significant role from the beginning in Walcott’s works. He once commented, “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation.” This proves that he had deep passion towards poetry. Many of his plays address, either directly or indirectly, the liminal status of the West Indies in the post-colonial period. Through poetry he also explores the paradoxes and complexities of this legacy.

Mahapatra’s sensibility is both Indian and modern. His is evidently a Hindu sensibility, natural and powerful. Through many of his poems the readers are often transported to the gloomy world of rejection, dejection, loss, loneliness and despair. Essentially a poet of human relationship which centres on man-woman relationship, his depictions portray not only regional but universal situations.

Influences on Walcott and Mahapatra
Walcott has written fantastic free verses, but has been a believer in the discipline of strict forms in the beginning. Besides the modernist poets such as T S Eliot and Ezra Pound, his writing was influenced by the work of the American poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, as revealed by himself. Mahapatra shared a special bond with A K Ramanujan.

Awards, Accolades and other Recognitions for Walcott and Mahapatra
Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990), which loosely echoes and refers to characters from the Iliad, has been critically praised ‘as Walcott's major literary achievement.’ He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, the second Caribbean writer to receive the honour after Saint-John Perse. The Nobel committee described Walcott's work as ‘a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.’

Walcott's epic book-length poem Omeros was published in 1990 to critical acclaim. Although the main narrative of the poem takes place on the island of St. Lucia, where Walcott was born and raised, it also includes scenes from Brookline, Massachusetts, where he was living and teaching at the time of the poem's composition. “No living poet has written verse more delicately rendered or distinguished than Walcott,” said the poetry critic William Logan.

Though Omeros is the volume of Walcott's that received the most critical praise, Kirsch believes that Midsummer is his best book. Exploring the Caribbean and its history in a colonialist and post-colonialist context, his collection In a Green Night: Poems 1948–1960 (1962) attracted international attention. Walcott is perhaps the most widely acclaimed of the poets who have brought the voice of the Caribbean to the world, says Edward Baugh in his introduction to Selected Poems - Derek Walcott. Besides Nobel Prize, he was the recipient of many other accolades and awards, prominent among them were, TS Eliot Prize, WH Smith Literary Award, Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, Arts Council of Wales International Writers Prize, and many more.

Mohapatra has been honoured with the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book Relationship (Greenfield Review Press, Greenfield, New York 1980), wherein we witness one’s desire to discover his roots. He is the first Indian poet writing in English to receive the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1981. Government of India honoured Mahapatra with Padma Shri award in 2009 for his contribution to literature. He is also the recipient of SAARC Literary Award in 2010, Chicago Poetry Award, among many others. “His international reputation has been compared to that of Wordsworth...” (The Hindu, Sunday, Jan 29, 2006).

Walcott was one of the great poets of the 20th century. He died at his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia, on 17 March 2017 at the age of 87. Mahapatra is one of the major poets of our age, whom the world celebrates as one of the grand old men of Indian English Poetry.

References:

  • Wikipedia
  • MK Naik: Indian English Poetry from the Beginnings up to 2000, Pencraft International, Delhi-110052, 2009).
  • Introduction to Selected poems of Derek Walcott edited by Edward Baugh.
  • “A crisis is the source of poetry” – The Hindu, April 2, 2017 - Article by Jayanta Mahapatra.
  • Hesitant Light, AuthorsPress, New Delhi, 2016.

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