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Irony in the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel.

One cannot squarely concede to what Charles I. Glicksberg observes in his study of the ironic vision in modern literature. He believes that the writer "will allow no illusions, however consolatory, to stand in his way of apprehending and interpreting reality that is infinitely complex, ambiguous, enigmatic, if not unknowable; he will not indulge in the vice of pathos nor in the weakness of sentimental pity. . . . He has no exalted notion of his mission as an artist; the creative function, too, is exposed to ironic devaluation; his work is a scheme, a way of spinning out of the tedious threads of time, a means, one among many, of enduring the gratuitous burden of existence."(1) Perhaps Glicksberg provides us with a very bleak picture of the artist and his mission today.

The writer/poet may be attracted toward the ironic mode because of a failure to comprehend pure tragedy and pure comedy. Irony becomes a positive mode insofar as it mediates between the serious and the ludicrous, between the tragic and the comic. The writer comprehends reality in a larger perspective. He makes attempts to present things as they are. He does not risk sentimental moralizing. His task is to uphold the gap between the apparent and the real, between the ideal and the trivial. The motive behind such exploratory exposition may be redemptive, but the act of revealing the gap is unaided by any such logic. The ironist is a realist or a metarealist at the core. Wayne C. Booth writes:

Before the eighteenth century, irony was one rhetorical device among many, the least important of the rhetorical tropes. By the end of the Romantic period, it had become a grand Hegelian concept, with its own essence and necessities; or a synonym for romanticism; or even an essential attribute of God. And in our century it became a distinguishing mark of all literature, or at least of all good literature.(2)

The writer/poet chooses the ironic mode not because he has lost his faith in the existence of a meaningful world, or even because he is subservient to the values governing the self within or the world without, but rather because he intends, even if ironically, to achieve a certain objectivity by way of transcending his own self. Northrop Frye observes:

When we try to isolate the ironic as such, we find that it seems to be simply the attitude of the poet as such, a dispassionate construction of a literary form with all assertive elements, implied or expressed, eliminated. Irony, as a mode, is born of the low mimetic; it takes life exactly as it finds it. But the ironist fables without moralizing and has no object but his subject. Irony is naturally a sophisticated mode.(3)

Thomas Hanna defines irony as "the consciousness of existing in terms of a contradiction, and this contradiction is precisely the awareness, on one hand, of being a finite creature compelled by and subject to the demands of the world and, on the other hand, of being a free responsible being who can never be compelled or subjected by any external force. The irony is that one is a contradiction, one exists dialectically."(4)

This paper makes an attempt to study the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel, the father and lawgiver of the new poetry in English in India, to suggest that irony remains at the center of his creative process.

Ezekiel (b. 1921) is at ease with the ironic mode as it intensifies his understanding of reality and enables him to achieve a degree of objectivity. His poetry, from A Time to Change (1951) to his most recent books, makes use of the ironic mode consciously. In an interview the poet makes this clear: "I have never written tragedy - my normal preference is for comedy, serious emotions and ideas, with irony. I don't write to entertain, but if I do, I am not displeased."(5)

From the early stage of his creative career Ezekiel began to use this sophisticated mode. In "Double Horror" the poet tries to present the inherent contradictions in him as a city dweller. The city has its own instruments of corrupting the individual. "The crowd," "newspapers," "cinemas," "radio features," "speeches," "the jungle growth of greed" - all continually reduce the poet to something less than human. He is determined to take revenge on the world. At the same time, however, he is conscious of his own limitations as a human being. The irony becomes clear when, in spite of his own limitations, the poet voices his determination: "Corrupted by the world I must infect the world / With my corruption. This double honor holds me / Like a nightmare from which I cannot wake" (CP, 8).(6)

The poet's strong determination to "infect" the world sounds ludicrous. He intends to make everyone realize the undeniable contradiction that rests at the core of our existence. The insurmountable ego of the lyric "I" mellows down in the course of the poem. Despite the infectious nature of urban life, despite its odd clamor and movement, the poet endears it, acknowledges his allegiance to it. He accepts Bombay as his home, the abode of his dream, becoming and reality. He realizes that a poet or writer cannot grow, cannot have visions of his own if he fails to establish a relationship with the place he inhabits. Ezekiel, in spite of his Jewish origin, relates himself to India and its squalor, as represented by Bombay.

I have made my commitments now. This is one: to stay where I am, As others choose to give themselves In some remote and backward place. My backward place is where I am. (CP, 181)

In "Egotist's Prayers" Ezekiel makes his commitment to Bombay explicit: "Confiscate my passport, Lord. / I don't want to go abroad. / Let me find my song / Where I belong" (213).

In "Edinburgh Interludes" the same note of allegiance to the city makes Ezekiel a Bombay-bound pilgrim. During his stay in Edinburgh he could not rid himself of a sense of insecurity and unrelatedness. He was constantly reminded of Bombay.

I have not come to Edinburgh to remember Bombay mangoes, but I remember them. even as I look at the monument to Sir Walter Scott, or stroll along in the Hermitage of Braid. Perhaps it is not the mangoes that my eyes and tongue long for, but Bombay as the fruit on which I have lived, winning and losing my little life. (293)

What matters for Ezekiel is the act of living. He cannot leave this island, although it is "Unsuitable for song as well as sense / the island flowers into slums / and skyscrapers, reflecting / precisely the growth of my mind. / I am here to find my way in it" (182).

Irony in Ezekiel is often directed toward his own self with a view to achieving a desired perfection. His irony exerts a therapeutic effect. In "The Worm" the poet suggests how irony can serve as an instrument that can bring about perfection. At the beginning of the poem the lyric persona is full of praise for the worm, lauding its "astounding strength," its "inner eye," and its "straight movement." Toward the middle of the poem, however, because of his own egotism, the speaker crushes the worm and kills it. Ezekiel aptly depicts the incongruity hidden in the persona:

It's dead. Pretty worm, where's your strength? The God who made you wiser than The cunning subtleties within my brain Shall know by this the anger of man. Only in anger can I emulate The worm's directness. I've killed the worm. (10)

In "At the Hotel" Ezekiel exposes the real intention of the visitors, who come to the hotel not to drink but to view the Cuban dancer: "On the spot she came and shook her breasts / all over us and dropped / The thin transparent skirt she wore. / Was it not this for which we came?" (112). The poet does not hesitate to expose the hidden intentions of the hotel-goers. Gieve Patel rightly mentions in the introduction to Ezekiel's Collected Poems 1952-1988: "Many of the encounters described were clearly brief. The poems admit these were clearly exploitative, and there is some self-condemnation expressed for this. But by far the largest number move out of the area of guilt, into wonder and redemption"(7) (xxiv).

Ezekiel is perhaps the most finished poet as an ironist in his 1960 collection The Unfinished Man. In "Urban" the poet tries to depict the peculiar contradictions with which a city-dweller lives. One who resides in the city is in love with the hills, rivers, dawns, and dusks; but to his misery, he has no time to enjoy them. He spends his lifetime in a routine and remains contented with the urban squalor: "But still his mind its traffic turns / Away from beach and tree and stone / To kindred clamour close at hand" (117). Ezekiel's dig is directed at human weaknesses and limitations. He brings his protagonists to an awareness of such follies with a view toward apprising them of the availability of a higher-level value system which could contribute to the desired perfection. Self-analysis and self-criticism remain central to Ezekiel's creative art as an ironist.

"Enterprise" is conspicuously comical. Ezekiel's choice of title for a poem is the surest way of making readers feel the pinch of irony. In the gap between the beginning and the end of the poem lies irony: the beginning harping on the purpose, quite sanctimonious and dignified; the end reflecting the utter purposelessness of the journey. The seriousness and the sense of purity and sincerity with which the journey began are lost in the end, as the poet's intention is to expose the spiritual vacancy of the city-dwellers. These so-called pilgrims in "Enterprise" do not understand the spiritual significance of the thunder. At the end of an enterprise, one is rewarded with a rare sense of delight, one feels elevated; but here in this poem the enterprise ends in purposelessness, and all the participants wear a "darkened face." Irony reaches climax when the meaninglessness of the enterprise is revealed: "When finally we reached the place / we hardly knew why we were there" (CP, 118).

In "Event," "Marriage," and "Case Study" Ezekiel's main device is irony, which predictably shows the poet's willingness to achieve objectivity, on the one hand, and his desire to bring to the surface "the reflections of the cheated mind" (123) on the other. The lady in "Event" declares her choice for the poet. She presents to him a book that she has hardly read. She talks about films, hoping that he will appreciate all she does. The poet, on the other hand, expresses his disgust over the lady, who lives in daydreams. For lovers, marriage is bliss, a certitude that guarantees an enduring relationship. In "Marriage," however, what is intensely being felt is the suffering. Ezekiel's irony in this poem comes full circle when he ruefully states, "Then suddenly the mark of Cain / Began to show in her and me" (124).

In "Case Study" irony is operative in a lower key. The lyric persona here is a typical failure in all areas of his life: in love, in marriage, in his profession. This is partly due to his inability to assert himself, and partly due to his psychic weakness. The irony becomes biting when the poet consoles him with such suggestions as "The pattern will remain unless you break / It with a sudden jerk" (124). A suggestion to a weak person seems to work very forcefully on him. This is how Ezekiel makes his characters realize and feel their inner dichotomies and deficiencies.

In "Night of the Scorpion," a much-discussed poem, Ezekiel uses irony in a very subtle manner. The poet's mother is stung by a scorpion, and a crowd of peasants come to the poet's house after hearing the news. The superstitious villagers believe that the scorpion's poison in the mother's blood will purify it, but the mother is writhing in pain. The priest in his own way tries to control the poison by uttering some hymns. The poet's father, who is skeptical, scientific, and objective, begins treating his wife with herbs, medicines, and paraffin. Both methods, the traditional and the modern, fail to cure the mother. Still, the poison's effect ultimately subsides, and the mother is heard to declare only: "Thank God, the scorpion picked on me / and spared my children" (131). Ezekiel not only harps on the futile modes of treatment that are attempted, but also tries to maintain the neutrality of a reporter. He depicts the mother's painful plight, but nowhere does he sentimentalize the issue. This neutral voice makes the irony felt. As William Walsh rightly maintains:

[The attempted remedies] suggest too the ingenuous simplicity of the peasants' beliefs as well as their spontaneous human goodwill. At the same time the choric they said, they said, they said, implies something of the ancient, sophisticated ritual of the chanting - as against the primitive quality of its content - just as it points up the ironic detachment of the poet.(8)

Ezekiel is skeptical about the pseudoreligious sentimentalism of the people of India and the gurus they follow. His understanding of India's sociocultural ethos is in itself expository of his commitment to the Indian subcontinent as a poet. This is how he tries to transform "the outsider" in him to an instinctive insider. The poem "Guru" is satirical in tone and presentation. The eponymous so-called guru lived a very ignoble life. He was unkind toward the poor, discourteous toward his male disciples, but meticulous in examining the accounts of the hermitage. Living in luxury, he became very fat. He never exercised any restraint on his senses, yet he was worshipped as a guru. Ezekiel's intriguing interrogation makes the irony clear: "If saints are like this, / What hope is there for us?" (191).

In "Entertainment" one notices the tacit juxtaposition of satire and humor. Monkey shows are very common on the streets of any Indian city, particularly in Bombay. People gather round, and children, coolies, women of low caste, workers, some office-goers - all are entertained by the performances. What is disturbing, however, is that the monkeys remain sad and hungry. There is no end to their misery, even if through them their masters earn a lot. When the show is over and the time for payment comes, the crowd slowly dissipates, some paying but a pittance for the entertainment they have been given. Ezekiel's observation is accurate and striking:

Only the monkeys are sad, and suddenly the baby begins to cry. Anticipating time for payment, the crowd dissolves. Some in shame, part with the smallest coin they have. The show moves on. (194)

In poems like "How the English lesson ended," "Ganga," "Tone Poem," "Poster Poems," and "The Egotist's Prayers" Ezekiel shows the sophisticated manner with which he handles irony. The sophistication lies not merely in his willingness to show the gap between appearance and reality, but also in his celebration of things as they are. What is remarkable in these poems is Ezekiel's neutrality in his attitude toward the surrounding reality. Irony becomes a mode of perceiving reality. William Walsh observes:

The modesty and objectivity of its attitude, the neutrality of the medium, the restraint of self, provide the context in which the ordinary can reveal itself to be what it is, a tissue of the mysterious. To catch the ordinary in this way requires not an exercise of will, not forcing the pace, but waiting for the words to come, trusting the slow movement, letting things be and happen.(9)

This is precisely what an ironist attempts to do with his art.

In "Visitor" the poet examines his superstitions and its futility. The crow caws thrice, and the poet in his rooms becomes sure of the arrival of a visitor, for that is the traditional belief. He contemplates on the visitor and imagines who this could possibly be: "An angel in disguise, perhaps, / Or else temptation in unlikely shape / To test my promises, ruin my sleep" (138). Unfortunately, the visitor has actually come to the poet just to "kill time" and to gossip about things generally. The poet's lofty expectations are totally deflated. The fatuity of his misbelief is realized.

I see how wrong I was Not to foresee precisely this Outside the miracles of mind, The figure in the carpet blazing, Ebb-flow of sex and the seasons, The ordinariness of most events. (138)

In "Songs of Nandu Bhende" Ezekiel attempts a deliberate dig at urban-based families, and more particularly at the husband-wife relationship. These poems are short, precise, bristling with strong narrative, evoking humor. In one, the poet limns the pitiable plight of the husband: "I come in the evening / and my wife shouts at me" (241). The wife appears to be ruthless and rude to her husband, and she assails him with infinite questions.

Did you post that letter? Did you make that telephone call? Did you pay that bill? What do you do all day?

Did you bank that cheque? Did you buy those tickets? Did you ask if cheese is in stock or not? What did you do all day? (241)

Juxtaposition of the dialogues between the imposing wife and the meek husband creates a humorous effect. Through such interesting ways of handling language Ezekiel tries to show the subtlety of his ironic mode. The unlucky husband has no other choice but to accept reality: "It's good for my soul / to be shouted at. / Shout at me, woman! / What else are wives for?" (242).

In "Family" Ezekiel exposes the spiritual vacancy of the members of a particular family. Since the members are city-bred, they all have developed a craze to be sick. All of them suffer from psychic diseases, and all want to be cured immediately. Ezekiel catalogues the diseases of the various family members and the institutions where they might seek a cure:

Time is ripe for Saibaba Time is ripe for Muktananda. Let father go to Rajneesh Ashram, Let mother go to Gita classes. What we need is meditation Need to find our roots, Sir. All of us are sick, Sir. (243)

Here the poet does two things simultaneously: he brings to the surface the shortcomings both of the individuals and of the society and the culture. What makes these situational poems significant is Ezekiel's use of Indian English. The conversational ease with which the poems are written serves obviously as an indicator of the poet's understanding of the society of which he himself is an inseparable part. He allows things to happen and be in his poems as they appear in society. Both the Indian English and the poet's stance make one feel the sophistication of Ezekiel's irony.

The use of irony in Ezekiel's verse has undergone a sea change. In the early poetry it was an instrument that sifted appearance from reality, fact from fiction, but in the later poetry it becomes a mode of perceiving reality, both within and without. Such a transformation or shift could be termed merely stylistic, had there been no change in the poet's attitude toward life and the creative medium. The poet who had been complaining of the world's corruption in his early verse is seen as having accepted good and evil with equanimity. He is seen creating his happiness, his sense of joy, even in a hell or in darkness. He is seen praying for the godly and the ungodly, for light and for darkness, for he has realized that both constitute the coin of life. In the absence of one, the other becomes meaningless, loses its relevance: "The darkness has its secrets / which light does not know. / It's a kind of perfection / while every light / distorts the truth" (223); or "How can I breathe freely if/thou breakest the teeth of/the ungodly? / Salvation belongeth unto the / Lord. It is not through / one or other Church. / Thy blessing is upon / all the people of earth" (254).

The agnostic, the skeptic in Ezekiel is no more to be found. He is a changed man and artist. Perhaps art has brought about this change, for Ezekiel never looked at poetry differently from the way he looked at life. We find in Ezekiel a profoundly religious personality, trying to seek an order both in life and in poetry. He believes that there exists a deep continuity between life and poetry: "It's the why / the how, the what, the flow / From which a poem comes, / In which the savage and the singular, / The gentle, familiar, / Are all dissolved" (13). Irony, therefore, is responsible for the refinement of Ezekiel's poetic idiom and vision. It gives him the freedom to accept the good and the evil with equal temper and attitude. It strengthens the ties between the creative act and life. It marks growth for the poet. It reaffirms his faith in mortality. It allows him to shape a vision that comprehends reality in all its unknowable immensity.

Berhampur University, Orissa

1 Charles I. Glicksberg, The Ironic Vision in Modern Literature, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1969, p. 9.

2 Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974, p. ix.

3 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1967, pp. 40-41.

4 Thomas Hanna, The Lyrical Existentialists, New York, Atheneum, 1962, p. 282.

5 Nissim Ezekiel, "Interview," Indian Literary Review, 1:10 (1989), pp. 2-8.

6 Nissim Ezekiel, Collected Poems 1952-1988, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989. Subsequently abbreviated as CP where needed for clarity.

7 Gieve Patel, "Introduction," in Ezekiel's Collected Poems, p. xxiv.

8 William Walsh, Indian Literature in English, London, Longman, 1990, p. 133.

9 William Walsh, "Two Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel and R. Parthasarathy," Literary Criterion, Winter 1974, p. 5.

NIRANJAN MOHANTY is Head of the Department of English at Berhampur University in Berhampur, Orissa, India, and editor of the biannual journal Poetry. A poet in English and Oriya and a translator from Oriya and Bengali into English, he is the author of three verse collections: Silencing the Words (1977), Oh, This Bloody Game/(1988), and Prayers to Lord Jagamnatha (1994).
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Author:Mohanty, Niranjan
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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