Monday, May 21, 2012

Versions of Kabir

     When Charles showed me the poems I was shocked by the erotic energy, and had to look again at some of my attitudes and ideas about love, sex and language. So, when I looked again at Tagore and Bly, I had to wonder what Kabir would say to each of them about their renderings:

Here's Tagore:
     Within this earthen vessel are bowers and groves,
           and within it is the Creator:
     Within this vessel are the seven oceans and the
           unnumbered stars.
     The touchstone and the jewel-appraiser are within;
     And within this vessel the Eternal soundeth, and
           the spring wells up.
     Kabir says: "Listen to me, my Friend! My beloved
           Lord is within."

And now Robert Bly:
     Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains,
         and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
     All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.
     The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who judges jewels.
     And the music from the strings no one touches, and the source
         of all water.
     If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
     Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.

     Both versions have given me a lot of pleasure. I appreciate Tagore's genteel language with its implicit affection for the western canon. He is presenting a vernacular Indian poet of the masses to an audience of European upper class intellectuals and theologians. He probably felt constrained to use language that would not discomfort his readers.
     Robert Bly's approach fifty years later has the advantage of being able to use contemporary vernacular. Bly's readers in the 60's and 70's were acquainted with non-European
arts and  philosophies and not likely to be put off by language less exalted than Edwardian English. Bly argues that Kabir and Mirabai used everyday language, common situations and familiar examples to instruct their listeners and convey the message. The message hasn't changed, Bly reminds us, but the metaphors and idioms may seem obscure to us, 500 years later. Still, he says he strives for accuracy. Kabir's lyrics were learned by heart and later written down in several languages. Tagore worked with Bengali translations, and Bly reworked Tagore's work.
     So, accounting for the differences in language and style, reflecting a developing sophistication among western readers, I find a satisfying sense of harmony and agreement in the content of the two versions. I think Kabir's essential teaching survives, despite some questions I have in understanding particular images Bly and Tagore chose to employ.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Ken:

    My I strongly recommend the Linda Hess versions? She's working from a different textual tradition, that of the Kabir Panth, and she's far more direct in her language. Sample:

    It's a heavy confusion.
    Veda, Koran, holiness, hell --
    who's man? who's woman?
    A clay pot shot with air and sperm.
    When the pot falls apart, what do you call it?
    Numskull! You've missed the point.