‘Sounding Out’ Tradition: The Formulation of an Experimentalist Poetics in Agyeya’s Preface to the Doosra Saptak
Panel:‘Vernacular’ Theorisations of ‘Literature’ in Modern South Asia
This paper seeks to analyse the notions of poetry, literary tradition, and modernity that Agyeya formulates in his 1949 preface to the Doosra Saptak, the second volume of experimentalist poetry which he edited as part of a larger series. Agyeya’s preface weaves together an eclectic selection of texts without any direct references: we find in his writing, on the one hand, the imprint of Sanskritic sources such as Bhattanayaka and Kalidasa, and on the other, western influences such as Viktor Shklovsky, TS Eliot, and Mikhail Bakhtin. While he cites Kalidasa’s attribution of constant renewal of language to poetry, he also draws on (as well as distorts) T. S. Eliot’s notion of tradition, turning it into something that the poet must spiritually engage with, even to the extent that she “sounds it out, breaks and distorts it, and internalises it.” Agyeya’s argument about the ubiquity of experimentation in poetry establishes both a continuity and a rupture with the Sanskritic literary tradition. This radical conception of literary tradition responds to a literary critical sphere which had subjected Hindi experimentalist poetry to intense criticism, and which insisted on a more obvious continuity with the existing tradition. However, to Agyeya experimentation remains instrumental in making poetry the only linguistic register which could reach out towards coherence in the face of modernity’s fragmentation of language. In this paper I read the preface simultaneously as a radical response to Hindi criticism, and an indicator of the Hindi literary sphere’s struggle with the questions posed to it by modernity.