THE INFLUENCE OF ASIAN POETRY ON WORLD LITERATURE
Unite pens to unite continents!
I extend greetings and good wishes to you all on behalf of our Mongolian writers.
Poetry is a world of insight created by artists which incorporates not only language but also aspects of the environment, history and culture, and ethnicity: it is a powerful and magical sphere of meaning linked to the power of the universe, the power of nature and the power of wisdom.
In 1929, in his article “Heart of Asia”, the world-renowned philosopher, adventurer, painter, writer and scholar of Asia Nicholas Roerich asked “Is the heart of Asia beating?” This great scholar, however, was not only posing this question to himself, for all of us in the continent should understand these words as addressed to ourselves. IHe was looking for the best aspects of our great Asian heritage of understanding, some of which have occasionally been covered up. He also understood that it is beauty which must bring east and west together. Roerich’s work suggests that, through establishing a closer understanding, a closer unity, and a common acceptance, and by bringing about peace throughout the world, we will grow closer to the desire of humankind expressed in the concept of “Shambhala”. The reason for my mentioning this here is that “Shambhala” refers to a place parallel to our world, a place of wisdom-energy, a store of shining, yet hidden, knowledge, and somewhere which is felt in the spirit of poetry and which exists closest to poets.
One poet who was connected in this way with the wisdom of the world was the nineteenth century Mongolian reincarnate lama Danzanravjaa. He discovered this knowledge in the landscape of the Gobi desert, but with his special ability to make a connection with through meditation, he found a site of powerful geological coordinates, and today travelers from far and wide come to this place, which he called Shambhala. I want to say that Shambhala is one secret of a poet’s genius, and an extraordinary example of enlightened realization through poetry.
Poetry, that wisdom which is magically expressed in words, is embodied though an explosion of mental power, after which it is retained throughout time in waves of meaning, and so we are living with the poetic chants from many tens of thousands of years in the past, listening to the heartbeats of ancient humans.
Far away from this idea of ours, I think that the Vedic chants were also understood as being passed from superior wisdom through the enlightened mind.
The famous Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov once exclaimed, “Who came before Homer?” His question was really asking whether previous influences are what inform true genius such as Homer’s. My answer is that they do. Let’s consider Asia. Two thousand years before the Common Era, the Vedic heritage nurtured the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa through its poetry, and so it has come down to us. Five centuries before the Common Era, moreover, the poetic works of the philosopher Confucius constituted the first collections of verse. On the wild steppes, ancient nomadic people sang songs whose tunes were artfully extended, which are today known in Mongolia as “long songs”, and then there were the ancient heroic epics, especially those of the Altai region. All of these came during, or before, the time of Homer.
There are also other special forms of poetry in Asia, of course, such as the Persian rubáiyát, the Kazakh aitis, the Mongolian hos uyanga and “world triads”, the Japanese haiku and tanka, the Arabic ghazal and the Chinese shi.
Asia has given the world of poetry great figures such as the Indian Kalidasa, the Chinese Li Bai and Du Fu, the Persians Firdowsi, Omar Khayyam, the Mongolians Tsogt Taiji and Danzanravjaa, the Japanese Matso Basho and Takuboku Ishikawa, the Sixth Dalai Lama of Tibet, Tsangyang Gyamtso, the Turkmen Magtymguly Pyragy, the Kazakh Abai Kunanbayev, and the Indian Rabindranath Tagore. But we should carefully consider the impact of, and the place held by, Asian poetry during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Its current influence in world literature is very slow, crawling along at the speed of a turtle, and focuses more on the international publishing business than on what is interesting and challenging to readers. One hundred and sixty years ago, a few poems by Omar Khayyam were published in London, in an English translation, and yet considering that this is quite some time ago, this poetry which expresses ideas from a faraway culture and in a faraway language has faced severe difficulties in being translated into other languages, published in anthologies, and studied by scholars from other cultures. Even today, many Asian poets find themselves in the same position, as they seek their place in world literature.
The extraordinarily quick development of today’s technology, of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization, places a deeper focus on the material world and moves away from the valuable aspects of human nature, language, culture and wisdom. Among these aspects, while poetry is invaluable, there are still some languages which are growing weak, and dying out. However, ideologies and “isms” are rendering poetry bluntand we need to seek out new possibilities. At this time, we Asians need to search for a way to reveal the special understanding in their poetic works, and make this understanding known throughout the world.
The difficulties which threaten poetry constitute a new experience for Asian poetry, and we should therefore renew our focus. Notwithstanding our different contexts, religions, and viewpoints, our poetry has the combined power and skill inherent in Asian philosophy. And we can open up the chance to clarify the place of Asia at the confluence of world poetry.
As we scour the great ocean of human civilization for pearls of culture, we in Asia need to reform it according to our own poetry. I have it in mind that, through the determined effort of Asian countries, we can make it possible to gather together and publish translations of the highest quality for what might be called “Anthology of Asian Poetry”. Such a volume could be allied with anthologies of prose and other types of literature. Why should we wait for responses from western scholars?
At the time when Rudyard Kipling was writing “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, Nicholas Roerich declared, “Let the wall between East and West crumble!” We could euphemistically restate Kipling’s words as a plea to retain cultural differences, and understand Roerich’s words as encouraging exchange of eastern and western ideas in the storehouse of poetry. A key factor in supporting and promoting Asian literature is the establishment of an international foundation, and the promotion of excellent works, in the original language and in translation, and this should be the role of government. I am grateful to Kazakhstan for its great efforts to develop and extend international relationships through literature.
Let us set in motion again the waves of poetry which embody the beauty, wisdom and culture of the Asian continent.
At the beginning of my speech, I repeated Nicholas Roerich’s question, “Is the heart of Asia beating?” Yes, it is. Asia’s heart is beating! And this new journey of wisdom to open up Asia will be based on the literature of Asia.
4 September 2019