July 3, 2010
My first encounter with Indian poetry was Tagore's Fireflies. I was reminded of Japanese haiku, and didn't go much further until one summer in Laguna, years later, I took a private class on the Bhagavad-Gita with one of the local yoga teachers, Florence Bercut. She adhered closely to Sivananda's (?) instruction and was steeped in Vedanta.
The course was a revelation to me. I recalled Firefliesand prowled used bookstores for a long time before I found Gitanjali and Poems of Kabir in Denver. Then I learned that Robert Bly had done some translations of Kabir, what he calls "versions." I acquired some anthologies of Indian literature and started reading. Again and again I returned to Kabir and the other bhakti poets: Mirabai, Nanak, Surdas, in much the same way I come back to Rumi and Rilke, Traherne and Hopkins. And here I need to point out that I can read only the last pair in their original language. For the rest, I must rely on the skill and insight of the translators, their poetic aesthetic and knowledge of the path.
Rilke and Rumi are available in numerous versions: academic, scholarly transliterations, stiff imitations, liberal interpretations and "channeled originals." Thus far, I haven't found a satisfactory text that is faithful to both the poetic language of the poet and the ecstatic consciousness represented in the poem's content. A tall order, I know, yet Coleman Barks does it often with Rumi, Mitchell and Poulin sometimes with Rilke.
I've been reading Bly & Hirshfield's versions of Mirabai and Kabir (Beacon Press), and also In Praise of Krishna (trans. Dimock & Levertov). These praise songs and poems from the Bengali celebrate the Divine Incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Krishna and his lila (play) with the gopis (cowherds) of Vrindaban. There is a rhythm in the language and vitality in the imagery that I completely miss in Tagore's translations.
There was a recent article in the New Yorker magazine about Tagore. One of the observations the author of the article offers is that Tagore tended to tone down his own verse for his English readers. It seems likely he did the same to Kabir.