Every once in a while, there comes a writer who makes a staggering contribution in a hitherto little-known genre and places his stamp upon it to such a degree that his works become a major point of reference for all others. The very parameters by which we define that mode of writing are enlarged and the genre itself is imbued with new weight and significance.
In English literature, a seismic shift of this nature has been building in response to the poetic aphorisms of Sri Chinmoy. I believe the time has now arrived when critics must examine his contribution, adjust their terminology if necessary and accept his immense oeuvre as one of the greatest creative outpourings in literary history.
The challenge of reviewing Sri Chinmoy’s aphorisms depends on the way in which we resolve the question of the poet’s role. That Sri Chinmoy is a poet in the inmost depths of his being is at once manifest. The simple eloquence of his diction, his gift for forging nouns into compounds, the stark beauty of his images and his ability to distil spiritual experiences and complex concepts into phrases that seem to glide effortlessly into our memory all reveal his innate poetic genius.
Yet he is also a philosopher, a sage, someone who, having searched for wisdom, now embodies it on some level which we may not fully understand. We are comfortable with writers who share their struggles and joys with us in equal measure, whose words are filtered through the lens of experiences that are highly personal, even when they are projected onto fictional characters. What we find in the writings of Sri Chinmoy, however, is a universal perspective, a voice that is public, not private. He does not confide in us; he addresses us – and his words act as signposts, reminders, clarifications, assurances and, above all, inspirations.
A writer who combines poetry with the highest wisdom has been called a ‘seer-poet’ by Shelley. He referred to them as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ In Walt Whitman’s Preface to ‘Leaves of Grass’, he concurs. ‘[The poet] is a seer,’ he writes. If the term has been used reservedly since the time of the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, it is due perhaps more to the lack of writers to whom it can be applied than to any other reason.
Arthur Rimbaud recognised the difficulty of fulfilling the ideal of a seer-poet when he stated, ‘I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer.’ He viewed this twofold quest as being of prime importance for a poet. ‘The first study of the man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul….’
The concept of the seer-poet is not a new one, especially in the East where the ancient sages expressed their visions and revelations in the inspired language of poetry. In the sacred Vedas and Upanishads of India, for example, we find universal truths expressed in slokas that have resonated down the centuries.
To the seer-poet, the experience of the Divine does not occur on an abstract level. It is direct and vivid. The urgency of his expression, therefore, comes from his wish to convey this experience as clearly, concisely and concretely as possible. It is not, as some might imagine, an urge to explain or analyse that experience in philosophic terms.
Lengthy descriptive passages, complexity, scene, shade and atmosphere are seen by the seer-poet as peripheral and non-essential. If he omits them, it is not because he is less of a poet, but because he feels that they would not enhance his poem. Rather they would diminish the largeness of his vision. In striving to approximate his realisations in words, the seer-poet tends to pare away the specifics of time and place.
It is for this reason that the natural choice of seer-poets over the centuries has been the aphorism (also known as the maxim, saying, adage, pensee or apothegm). It seems paradoxical that those who seek to express the truth in all its vastness should choose this, the most condensed of all literary genres, as their vehicle. And yet the aphorism, in the hands of a seer-poet, becomes a universe in miniature.
True, aphorisms are interspersed throughout the works of many prose writers and dramatists. Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Churchill, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde and others may lay fair claim to the term. Again, there are poets, such as Blake, Keats and Emily Dickinson, who have incorporated the aphorism into their verse and compelled us to recognise its intrinsic poetic qualities.
Sri Chinmoy has gone even further in this direction. He isolates the aphorism from any surrounding narrative, commentary or lyricism, sets it out on the page as a poem and infuses it with a rich poetic texture. As a result, his aphorisms have a pristine power, undiluted by anything superfluous or extraneous.
The word ‘aphorism’ exists with very little variation in most of the European languages – Italian, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Czech, Slovak, Swedish, Finnish and so forth. It derives from the Greek root ‘aphorismos’, meaning ‘to define’. In the natural world, an horizon marks the boundaries of what we can see. Similarly, the aphorism – which comes from the same root – encompasses within its boundaries, and defines, what the poet ‘sees’ inwardly.
By virtue of its brevity, the aphorism is complete unto itself. By virtue of its wisdom, it is universal. By virtue of its authority, it has the air of being the final word. By virtue of its resonance, it is mantric. And in the poetry of Sri Chinmoy, the sheer accumulation of so many thousands of aphorisms, and the subtle interweaving of themes which occurs as a result, create what can only be described as a spiritual epic of vast and enduring significance.