Poetry as Mantra


When a poet addresses himself to the expression of the highest spiritual truth, what Aldous Huxley called ‘expressing the inexpressible’, he must necessarily face the paradox inherent in such an undertaking. In other words, he knows that what he is trying to articulate is beyond the scope of language, and yet the attempt must be made, the demand will not be denied. For nothing else, ultimately, is worth expressing.

Knowing that what he has to say might be better communicated by music, or, even more directly, in the profound silence of meditation, he has to find a mode which can do justice to the intensity of his vision.

Sri Chinmoy, the Indian poet and mystic, has evolved such a mode, and he has done so, moreover, in English, a language less fluid, less musical, than his native Bengali.

As an Indian writing in English, he is heir, as it were, to two separate traditions. There are affinities, for example, with Herbert and Blake, with Hopkins and Whitman. Yet there are respects in which he has gone beyond any of these, and for a fuller understanding of his achievement it is necessary to look at the Indian background to his writing.

There are two Sanskrit terms which are particularly important in understanding his poetry — mantra and sutra.

Many in the West will be familiar with the idea of mantra in relation to the practice of meditation. A mantra is in its simplest form a syllable or set of syllables, chanted aloud as an aid to meditation. There is an awareness here of the power of the word as incantation, invocation. Poetry described as mantric actually invokes the qualities it describes.

Nolini Kanta Gupta, a contemporary Indian poet and philosopher, has written, ‘The highest form and the most perfect perfection of poetry lie in the mantra’. In mantric poetry, he suggests, ‘speech is not the dress or outer garb of an experience, but the realization of an inner delight’.

He quotes as examples the writings of the great rishis , the seer-poets of India, who composed the Vedas , the Upanishads , the Gita. (It is interesting that Eliot chose to end The Waste Land with a mantric invocation of peace — Shantih Shantih Shantih — quoted from the Upanishads, clearly recognizing the power and resonance of these ancient modes.)

The word sutra may be less familiar to Western readers. Literally it means thread, and it is used to describe series of terse, aphoristic utterances, perhaps the best known being the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These offer instruction in the path of Yoga, and are tight, densely packed, designed to be memorized and recited aloud, gradually unfolding their truth.

Many of Sri Chinmoy’s short poems are also instructional, their apparent simplicity revealing more and more profound depth on each re-reading. They display a haiku-like compactness, a tremendous density and compression of language.

He has, in fact, forged his own language, his own vocabulary, imbued familiar words with a new life, an energy and vitality. His style is unique, instantly recognizable.

It is a style at once lyrical and abstract — there are few things in his poems, and those that do appear are surcharged with meaning: they are archetypes, images that function as symbols — bird, boat, tree, flower, flame.

He is above all a poet of the inner landscape, and he never forgets that the poem is ‘a finger pointing at the moon’, an invitation to the silence beyond the words.

It is a poetry which, for all its simplicity, can be difficult, demanding, though not in the usual sense of these terms, where the demand is on the intellect, struggling to unravel something obscure. Rather what is demanded here is a qualitative leap of consciousness; the read has to come up to the level of the poems. There has to be an active participation. The understanding has to be experiential. ‘A poem should not mean/but be’ wrote Archibald McLeish. And a poem exists, has its being, not flat on the page, but in its total effect.

Some years ago Scottish poet Tom McGrath was reading one of Sri Chinmoy’s poems to another writer, using the poems, as it happens, to illustrate the impossibility of expressing in English what he regarded as a peculiarly Indian sensibility. Tom thought the particular poem was in some way ‘old-fashioned’ in its rhythm, in its diction. But somehow he realized he was not making his point. What happened as he read the poem, he describes as follows — ‘The words sprang from my lips and sounded in the room with an authority that was awe-inspiring. It became clear that we were listening to a voice speaking from the absolute pinnacle of human experience, and speaking directly from it. By the time we reached the closing lines, we were both dumbfounded. Not only had we heard a great poem, but we both felt we had been in the presence of a consciousness the nature of which filled us with the deepest humility and reverence. Thereafter, I had a new respect for Sri Chinmoy’s poetry. . . .’

The poem in question was The Absolute, which is included in this volume. It is one of the poems in which Sri Chinmoy is most clearly working in what I have called the ‘mantric’ mode.

And the tone of authority is unmistakable. To put it quite simply, he knows. He does not have to argue his case, he just states it. This can be a disconcerting experience for the reader unused to such certainty of tone. I am reminded of Christopher Isherwood’s description of the language spoken by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita — ”like a University lecture delivered by God’!

From what I have said, it will be clear that the poems are intended to be read aloud. (To hear Sri Chinmoy recite them is a moving and uplifting experience.) He has, in fact, set many of his poems to music, enhancing them, adding another dimension. He is fond of quoting his great compatriot Tagore –

“To the birds you gave songs, the birds gave you
songs in return.
You gave me only a voice, yet asked for more,
and I sing.’

It is this more that he pours out into these poems, songs, mantras, and it speaks directly to what Yeats called ‘the deep heart’s core’. Their simplicity is often deceptive, like water so clear it belies its depth. It is a simplicity that is hard won, the ultimate resolution of all complexity.

In contemporary literature he is, I believe, unique. There is nothing really to compare with his achievement, because there is no one writing from the same level of inner accomplishment, the same perspective.

If I have tried to ‘place’ Sri Chinmoy’s writing, it is not with the intention of limiting it, of consigning it to a category. In fact I think he has created his own space, his own category, beyond the ebb and flow of literary fashion.

I hope that this will be the first of many collections, making his poetry available to a wider public.

By: Alan Spence

Alan Spence has published collections of poetry and short stories, plays for stage and television, and is working on a novel. He is a former Writer-in-Residence at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.


Alan Spence at the BBC  – This is an article by Alan Spence on meditation.