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Wit As a Tool of Poetic Communication
A Comparative Study of I.K. Sharma and Maha Nand Sharma.
The paper discusses the concept of ‘wit’ as developed through the past few centuries. It takes into consideration both the Western and the Indian Poetics to reach a consensus on how ‘wit’ works in poetry. The fact cannot be denied that ‘wit’ has been one of the most prominent tools of Poetic Communication since the earlier times. Poets like Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Crashaw used wit as a style. The metaphysical poets’ wit is characterised by ingenuity in metaphor, pun, and paradoxical conceit. Authors such as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Oscar Wilde perfected use of wit with intellectual understanding and sharp and cutting wisdom.
Although one finds the features of wit mentioned in Sanskrit Poetics, it does not lay down any particular theory concerning ‘wit’. On the other hand, the Western critics find ‘wit’ as intellectual power of all types which is worthy of specialised study, and therefore they proposed different definitions of ‘wit’ from time to time.
The present paper discusses the poems of two recent Indian English Poets, Maha Nand Sharma and I.K.Sharma, in the light of the common understanding of the concept of ‘wit’. The paper discusses such features of ‘wit’ as common sense, quick reasoning, word play (without being funny), amusing expression, and insightful remarks that show the poet’s power of the mind and seeks to establish it as the most prominent tool of poetic communication. It is ‘wit’ that creates irony; and the interplay of wit and irony produces satire, sarcasm, or even humour. In fact the two poets use ‘wit’ as a thin disguise for communicating their more poignant feelings with striking expression.
Though ‘wit’ is often thought to be synonymous with sense of humour, it is a technical term of some exactness. It is more than just a mastery of language. With the aid of wit and intellect, a poet crosses over the barriers of language, and thus, creates a suitable vehicle to communicate his intense feelings that are hardly devoid of ethical undercurrents. From time to time, the concept of ‘wit’ and ‘humour’ has undergone a great change. More often it is found that wit and humour are discussed or treated on the same level, as both seem complimentary to each other even as it is hard to draw a boundary, which could clearly distinguish them from each other.
Wit is derived from an old English word ‘witan’, meaning ‘to know’; hence comes the definition of wit as primarily a matter of sense and understanding. In comparison with humour, wit is an intellectual display of cleverness and quickness of perfection, while humour is less obviously mental in its approach to the weaknesses, foibles, absurd ideas, and actions of people. Wit is wholly dependent upon apt phrasing, whereas humour rises from situations and incidents and does not rely only on the sharpness or felicity of expression. Wit plays with words, develops startling contrasts, and appears often in epigrams and paradoxes. Samuel Johnson states that the original meaning of wit is “the powers of mind; the mental faculties; the intellect.” 1 The longest citation that Johnson offers for wit comes from Locke: “wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance, or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures in the fancy.” 2
Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms explains wit as “acute perception and cleverly appropriate expression of ideas providing amusement and pleasure.” 3 Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language closes its entry on wit with a moralizing paragraph: “wit formerly meant genius, and now denotes the power of seizing on some thought or occurrence, and by a sudden turn, presenting it under aspects wholly new and unexpected–apparently natural and admissible, if not perfectly just, and bearing on the subject, or the parties concerned, with a laughable keenness and force…. The pleasure we find in wit arises from the ingenuity of the turn, the sudden surprise it brings, and the aptness of its application to the case, in the new and ludicrous relations thus flashed upon the view.” 4
Originally, ‘wit’ signified ‘wisdom’; and a man of wit was a wise man. In the Elizabethan age, a man of pregnant wit, or of great wit, was a man of vast judgement. In the reign of James I, ‘wit’ was used to signify the intellectual faculties or mental powers collectively. In the time of Cowley, it came to signify a superior understanding, and more particularly a quick and brilliant reason. By Dryden’s time, it was used as nearly synonymous with talent or ability. According to Locke, it consists in quickness of fancy or imagination. Pope defined ‘wit’ to be a quick conception and an easy delivery; according to which a man of wit is a man of brilliant fancy; a man of genius. We use, ‘wit’ to designate a peculiar faculty of the mind, connected with the more comprehensive faculty of the imagination; and also the effect produced by this faculty, which consists in the display of remote resemblances between dissimilar objects, or an unexpected combination of remote resemblances. ‘Wit’ excites in the mind an agreeable surprise; and it arises not from anything marvellous in the subject, but from the imagery employed, or the strange assemblage of related ideas. Poets display ‘wit’ either by debasing things pompous or seemingly grave; or, by aggrandizing things little and frivolous; or, by setting ordinary objects in a particular and uncommon point of view, by means not only remote, but also apparently contrary.
Babette Deutsch in his “Poetry Handbook” explains ‘wit’ in a better way. It unfolds from an assumption that the discourse of poetry and discourses about poetry are not interchangeable with vocabularies pertaining to other literary genres and modes. On wit, Deutsch is historically grounded, succinct, and distinct, there is no cross references here to humour, fancy, imagination, or anything else. He describes wit as, the “faculty that makes for metaphor by the perception of likeness in unlike things.”5
To Dryden, ‘wit’ is synonymous with imagination, a term that was to have a far narrower meaning in the eighteenth century, with its emphasis on reason and common sense. Tentatively, but illuminatingly, Eliot defines the wit of certain seventeenth-century poets as “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.” 6
When one talks of wit, intellect, humour, irony, satire, sarcasm, and other aspects of poetic communication, or even general communication, one cannot ignore the rasa theory. Rasa is the ultimate criterion of literariness according to which ‘wit’ is in action from the generation of an idea in the poet’s mind to the evolution of poetic emotion in the readers. The effectiveness with which a poet nurtures his abstract idea into a concrete presentation displays the wit of the poet. All the western philosophies related to wit from the ancient time to the contemporary age deal with the same in one way or the other.
The Vakrokti theory, another very important theory of Indian Poetics, propounded by Kuntaka (10th – 11th century), states that vakrokti is the underlying principle of all figures of speech. Vakrokti lies in the strikingness of expression. This strikingness of expression distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature and is the result of unusual poetic activity. Thus, one finds vakrokti linked with poetic imagination on the one hand, and aesthetic delight of the reader, on the other. A notable point is that strikingness of expression merely does not constitute vakrokti; the aesthetic enjoyment derived from perusal of a composition is also equally important. Thus, one finds the wide domain of vakrokti encompassing both linguistic and extra-linguistic features of a composition. The linguistic category includes phonetic, lexical, grammatical, and sentential deviations whereas the extra linguistic category includes the variations in the context or entire composition.7 Therefore, in a way one finds vakrokti closer to and associated with the western critics’ concept of wit.
The theory of auchitya (propriety), 8 propounded by Ksemendra (11th Century), has a closer affinity with the modern concept of wit. According to this theory, the propriety or the impropriety of something is determined by the context and not by a set of rules. Something that is proper at one place becomes improper at another. Thus, in all the parts of a composition, from phoneme to entire work, the rule of propriety is to be strictly observed. The figures of speech, if improperly used, may lead to distortion and disfigurements. Similarly, the contemporary or the modern concept of wit uses the depiction of incongruities, but even the incongruities are selected in an appropriate manner, abiding by the theory of auchitya.
The poems of Maha Nand Sharma and I.K.Sharma, are rich in the usage of wit. Wit helps them achieve wonderful intensity, complexity, and resonance, either via depiction of imagery, tone, rhythm, setting, exposure of culture and society, dialogue, or form. Both of them create unfamiliar connections between words and ideas in a manner often surprising and amusing. The unique feature that one finds in their poetry is that the surprise is not always stunning, nor is the humour hilarious.
To get a better understanding of the poetic wit used by the two poets, the conventional descriptions of ‘wit’ may be extended, refreshed, and qualified. Their poetic wit is distinguished by brevity, eloquence, and surprise. It favours incongruous congruity and fosters pleasurable psychological effects in its sense of ‘amusement’. It also plays a role in the formulation, transmission, and conservation of their cultural wisdom.
Now let us view a few poems of Maha Nand Sharma and I.K.Sharma in terms of their unique style, which uses ‘wit’ for poetic communication.
First “The Telling Silence” by Maha Nand Sharma:
Though speaking not one word, the girl
With radiant smiles beamed.
Her playful eyes, her lustrous curls
With a thrilling life teemed.
She, with her telling silence, was
A poem of loveliness.
To me, her silence lent, alas!,
A poet’s restlessness. 9
The speaker introduces a girl who did not speak a word to him but made him restless by her gestures. The ‘speech’ mentioned in the first stanza of the poem is made by the girl’s bodily gestures, i.e., her ‘radiant smiles’, ‘playful eyes’, and ‘lustrous curls’ make up “a thrilling life”. The use of the phrases such as ‘radiant smiles’, ‘playful eyes’, and ‘lustrous curls’ display poetic wit. These phrases can be clubbed under the ‘shringara rasa’ of Indian Poetics. The shringara rasa evokes the feeling of love in the heart of the reader. In the second stanza of the poem, the poet displays wit with the use of the very communicative ‘telling silence’ juxtaposed with the “poet’s restlessness.” The humorously or (even ironically) loaded “a poem of loveliness” provides a subtle and witty contrast to “a poet’s restlessness.” The entire poem turns out to be an image of wit.
In the poem “To a Professor Guide,” Maha Nand Sharma infuses wit in the first two lines of the poem where he uses killing of ‘blooming roses’ and clearing of ‘paper roses’ with a deep connotation. He reflects on the prevailing academic corruption in universities in the name of research intellectual pursuit:
How many blooming roses have you killed?
How many paper roses have you passed
As genuine ones? How many hearts you chilled
with academic thefts so mean, so crass? 10
the ‘blooming roses’ is used for genuine research thesis which were produced after a strenuous research work. The poet draws a fine parallelism between a blooming rose and a thesis produced after sheer hard work on the basis that as a blooming rose is destined to spread its fragrance, an authentic research work would definitely spread knowledge all around. Similarly, in the second line of the stanza, the poet uses ‘paper roses’ for the unauthentic research dissertations or thesis’ which do not have anything to contribute to the academic world. One also finds a display of witty irony in the use of the phrase ‘hearts you chilled’; ‘chilled’ denoting the great shock or surprise caused by plagiarism.
One again finds in the third stanza of the poem a reflection on corrupt intentions/ practices of academicians:
How many lovely fish by you were netted
With baits of Ph.D. and high degrees?
How many pampered dogs you instigated
To bite your shining ‘friends’ with jealous glee? 11
The use of the phrase ‘lovely fish’ is connotative and it also suggests multiple meaning in the same given context. The phrase ‘lovely fish’ appears a translation, or equivalent of the regional idiomatic expression of the poet’s mother tongue to mean ‘research students’ trapped in their net. The phrase denotes the number of people whom the professors have exploited physically, mentally, and economically on the account of awarding them high research degrees. As the poet uses the word ‘lovely’ to modify the word ‘fish’, the phrase may also connote to the female research scholars who were selected by the corrupt professors for making their time pleasurable. Again, the use of the phrase ‘baits of Ph.D.’ in the second line of the stanza also reflects wit. The use of the word ‘bait’ highlights the corrupt intentions of the professors as ‘bait’ is a tool used for clever enticement of any prey. The stanza displays a witty humour when the poet suggests that the Ph.D.’s and other high degrees are used as a bait by the senior faculties of the universities to lure the students, to make profit through corrupt means. In the third line of the stanza too, ‘pampered dogs,’ is used to connote the closely associated pupils, or academicians who criticise the other persons only for the sake of pleasing their master. In the last line of the stanza, the use of the word ‘shining’ to modify ‘friends’ is witty. Here, the word ‘shining’ connotes ‘gaining fame and popularity,’ and the word ‘friends’ connotes the arch rivals or colleagues. One finds that the wit reflected in the stanza is responsible for the evolution of humour as well as gentle satire, with a moral intent.
In the poem “Encashment,” the poet talks about the attitude of people in our time. He uses wit remarkably well to create humour in the poem. The poet is also successful in creating a gentle satire by mocking at materialistic attitude of the people around. In the first stanza, he deals with ‘encashment’ of leave at the end of one’s service, “We did not use our leave; therefore / We’ll get our leave encashed.” 12 Ironically, in the similar vein, playing on the word ‘encash,’ he makes the clerks (babus) display their intention of getting their ‘fairness’ also encashed by means of a reward for their labour of calculating ‘fairly’ the leaves. In the second stanza, the poet projects a political leader encashing his image through his followers’, “money-grabbing rash.” In the third stanza,
The freedom-fighters say, “We will
Our struggle get encashed,”
While nation, bleeding fast, is chilled
To penury sin-enmeshed. 13
the freedom fighters want to encash their struggle for the sake of the motherland by demanding pension (or such reward) as freedom fighters. They are blind to the tough situation in which the country is enmeshed. The last line of the stanza, ‘To penury sin-enmeshed’ is very witty as the poet depicts that the country has lost all its riches due to the materialistic and corrupt attitude of leaders, bureaucrats, government employees, and others. The phrase ‘sin-enmeshed’ is a loaded expression, which suggests that the politicians have created all sorts of complications by their sins. It is these sins that have caused penury to the country. The poet is so disappointed that he says:
When invaluable traits of soul
Are bartered for such trash,
Why not this greedy nation whole
May grope in the dark and crash? 14
In the poem “To My Old Self”, Maha Nand Sharma draws a similarity between the griefs and hopes of an old person with the variegated hues of a fine mosaic:
O! fret not, fool, your griefs and hopes which prod
Are variegated hues of a fine mosaic 15
His fool smacks of Shakespearean fool, who may be self-depreciating but is intelligent. The poet draws a parallelism between a mosaic and life to suggest that life is a whole with multitude of shades; hope and grief being one of them. Such a display of pregnant thoughts with rich imagery is thoughtful, and thus witty.
In sum, it can be confidently stated that Maha Nand Sharma’s poetic communication is characterised with humour, irony, and satire. The use of wit is such that it juxtaposes dissimilar ideas for some lively purpose, either assimilation or contrast, generally of both. The style in which Maha Nand Sharma uses wit affirms that juxtapositions of culturally ordered dissimilarities ought to cause nothing of more consequence than a moment of amusement. He overcomes the conventional, staid, and simplistic definition of wit. He uses wit not only as a verbal joust but as a strategy for interpreting the complexities of the world. Through the medium of wit, Maha Nand Sharma integrates thinking about the seriousness, the worries, and challenges of life. It can be inferred that Maha Nand Sharma displays the use of wit more through his ideas and for the purpose moulds the language accordingly.
An analysis of a few poems by I.K.Sharma would bring to forefront the different ways in which two different poets use the same tool for the same purpose, i.e., poetic communication. I.K.Sharma as a poet is a very subtle user of wit. He displays wit more at the level of language than at the depiction of incongruous situations and complexities of life.
The poem “If I Die Tonight” by I.K.Sharma is a very lively example of depiction of wit in creating a situation that is amusing, and the depiction is a result of ‘poetic imagination’. In the poem, the persona thinks of and narrates the incidents that would follow his immediate death. One finds that wit is injected into the poem by the subject of one’s response to someone dead:
If I die tonight
messages ‘ll come from far and wide
unearthing virtues not smelt so far
will pile high to the sky above.
Faces folded in grief
will drift into the widow’d house
where my body lie cold an’ bare,
and join me in my last journey
-- a procession of specks to the eternal house-
lead me to its final end.
Once pyre on fire, the work is done,
subjects scatter on surrounding sands,
matter living burns with matter dead,
upkicking flames mock glorious trends.
The runaway rise in prices, petrol,
grade running, permit, control,
all hike high with hungry flames
to oracle, miracle, poll debacle.
Oh, that’s over,
let’s honour the dead:
give him the sweet parting kiss-
fuel his last fainting fire.
All memories of sweet days so cheaply dusted!
Splinters beyond translation
then ply on the walking lips:
‘he was a good soul’,
‘invoked poor poetry’, ‘is no more’,
(let’s rush to our lowing hearts’
‘waiting for tea at four o’clock.)
‘He had wit’, ‘wasn’t a bore’,
‘help his family’, ‘pray for his soul’. 16
In the poem, the poet presents the kind of conversation people indulge in while attending the last rites of a dead body. The persona in the first stanza mocks the attitude of people who have a tendency of praising or heaping laurels on a person who has died immediately. The phrase ‘unearthing virtues not smelt so far’ infuses wit in the stanza and the succeeding line, ‘will pile high to the sky above’, evokes humour. The use of the words ‘unearthing’ and ‘smelt’ reflects wit in the given phrase. The persona wants to suggest that no one gives credit to the qualities of a person when he is alive, but they praise him to the sky high, once he is dead. The people around go to such an extent that they bestow the dead person even with those qualities which he never possessed.
The second line of the next stanza displays wit. The use of the word ‘drift’ for human movement conveys that the people participating in the funeral procession have no personal interest in doing so. They have only gathered there to get their presence counted. In the same line, the use of the phrase ‘widow’d house’ for the house in which the persona used to live, also reflects wit. The phrase ‘widow’d house’ conveys the deep attachment or association between the persona and his house. The word ‘widow’d’ itself suggests the bonding to be as close as that between a husband and wife. After the death of the persona, the house would lack the care and attention that was bestowed on her, and therefore her condition would be similar to that of a widow. In the fifth line of the stanza, the poet uses the word ‘specks’ for all the people moving towards the cremation ground. The use of the word ‘specks’ reflects wit, as the word literally means ‘pieces of dust’ and in the poem, it has a connotation that human beings rise from dust and their final abode is dust. Again in the same line, the use of the phrase ‘eternal house’ for a cremation ground suggests that a person’s permanent house is not in this world but in the world beyond this.
The first line of the third stanza with the rhyming words ‘pyre’ and ‘fire’, which indicates a very close association between them, again reflects wit. The persona narrates that once the pyre is surrendered to fire, the people gathered around whose faces were folded with grief, start discussing all the worldly affairs among themselves. The use of the phrase, ‘subjects scatter on surrounding sands’, to show or mark the beginning of talks is remarkably witty. In the third line of the stanza, ‘matter living burns with matter dead’, the poet creates a pun on the word ‘burn’. The word ‘burn’ has two different meanings for ‘matter living’ and ‘matter dead’; it connotes ‘giving birth to’ for matters living, i.e., the worldly affairs; whereas, ‘ending the last remains’ for the matters dead, i.e., no more a worldly thing. Again, the last line of the stanza sparkles with wit as it has a deep connotational meaning which suggests that when human being are alive, they secrete a number of desires, urges, dreams, and ambitions which keep on shooting up from time to time. There is no point at which a person feels content and satisfied with his achievements, and stops striving for more. The parallelism drawn between the shooting desires and upkicking flames is remarkably witty. The sentence also connotes that whatever may be the achievements of a person; he is destined to end his journey on a funeral pyre where the upkicking flames would sing the saga of his achievements.
The word ‘Oh’ at the beginning of the first line of the fifth stanza displays wit, as it indicates that the people around were so engrossed in their talks and gossips that they even did not care to pay any attention to the burning pyre. They realise it at once that the dead body has burnt. This attitude of the people is both casual and ironical. The fourth line, ‘fuel his last fainting fire,’ also reflects wit as it is mentioned as a sort of parting kiss for the dead.
Then again in the phrase, ‘ply on the walking lips,’ the use of the word ‘walking’ as a modifier to ‘lips’ infuses wit into the stanza as it suggests that the opinions uttered by the mourners are only made for the sake of formality to maintain the decorum of the occasion, and it does not represent any emotion.
In the poem “The Leader,” the poet displays a subtle use of wit in the first two lines of the poem, and again in the last line of the poem:
He gave them a loud call
like a cock in a lane
announced on the air:
dawn is not far-off.
The early risers followed him
stumbled, and found:
he walks with his back towards them
hides the rising sun. 17
The use of simile in the second line to draw a comparison between a political leader (human-being) and a cock (bird) because of their call displays wit. As a ‘cock’ is the first creature, which announces the morning, a political leader takes pride in addressing a congregation and assures that he is a special being who is destined to bring all good things to their lives. In the second stanza, the wit emerges from the depiction of the situation itself in which lies an incongruity between what is expected by the general masses, and what the actuality is. The followers blindly follow their leader expecting that he is leading them on the right path and would help them in achieving their goals. But, the fact is in total juxtaposition with the expectations of the people. In actuality, the leader is misleading the people to attain his personal base motives. Such a depiction arouses pity in the heart of the reader for the followers and anger for the leader.
One may finally conclude that the poems of I.K.Sharma sparkle with wit and the style of using wit varies from one poem to the other. He uses wit more at the level of language, i.e., in the word play, than in the depiction of ideas and thoughts. The selection and the placement of the words evoke wit and humour in his poems and the context plays a helping role. The use of wit in his poetry resembles the style in which the poets of the 18th century used wit. The use of wit is so subtle that it makes the poems deceptive.
When one makes a comparative study between Maha Nand Sharma and I.K.Sharma on the basis of the use of wit in their poetry, one finds that both the poets overthrow the impositions laid down by the conventional descriptions of poetic wit. A thorough examination and analysis of their poems confirms that wit can also be displayed in poetry through other mediums and not only via the subtleness of expression. The poetic wit displayed by both the poets achieves wonderful chroma, complexity, and sonority in the depiction of thoughts, imagery, tone, rhythm, setting, dialogue, and exposure of culture and society. The fact cannot be denied that each poem of the two poets, no matter how obliquely, communicates an idea or argument. Maha Nand Sharma uses wit to develop and depict his thoughts and ideas, evoke images, inform and instruct, generate satire, and develop the whole context of the poem. On the other hand, I.K.Sharma uses wit only as a tool to create amusement, through the generation of humour, irony, or surprise.
Finally, it may be concluded that the two poets have their own individual style, which is unique in itself, with use of wit as a tool to communicate meaningfully. It is the exercise of the poetic wit that allows the poets to create the extraordinary. They use language in such a way that it overcomes the inadequacy of language to communicate their experiences, and even poignant feelings. Both the poets infuse language with ‘wit’ to make it a perfect vehicle for poetic communication.
1. Michelson, Bruce. Literary Wit. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000, p.8.
2. Ibid, p.9.
3. quoted in Bruce, p.11.
4. quoted in Bruce, p.14.
5. quoted in Bruce, p.11.
6. quoted in Bruce, p.11.
7. Kushwaha, M.S. “Indian Poetics: An Overview.” The Critical Endeavour, Vol.9, Dec.2003, pp.26-33.
9. Sharma, Maha Nand. Scattered Leaves. Meerut: Ashutosh Prakashan, 1991, p.3.
10. Sharma, Maha Nand. Gushing Streams. Meerut: Mrs.Krishna Sharma, 1996, p.25.
12. Sharma, Maha Nand. Gushing Streams. Meerut: Mrs.Krishna Sharma, 1996, p.9.
15. Ibid, p.12.
16. Sharma, I.K. The Shifting Sand-Dunes. Jaipur: Jaipur Publishing House, 1976, p.17.
17. Ibid, p.10.
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