Kamala Das A Confessional Poet: A Quest for Identity/Self
- - Elangbam Hemanta Singh, Department of English, Ideal Girls College, Manipur University, Manipur.
Abstract: Confession is not at all a new genre in literature. As it is the disclosure of some sort, a writer reveals private or clinical matters about herself or himself of art. As a matter of fact, confessional poetry has a very long tradition that begins from the poets like Sappho and Catullus to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Confessions (1764-70) based on religious confessions in the lineage of St. Augustine's Confessions (C. 400 AD) establishing the impression on the history of literature for the psychological outlets of personal feelings. In fact the term “Confessional Poetry” comes from “Confessional Properly” first coined by M.L. Rosenthal in reviewing Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959).
Confessional poetry is a type of narrative and lyric verse dealing with the facts and intimate mental and physical experiences of the poet's own life against the demand for “impersonality” by T.S. Eliot and the New Critics. In such poetry, the self is a primary concern which is treated with utmost frankness and lack of restraint, written in ordinary speech and using open forms. In addition, there are no barriers between the reader and the poet, or barriers of subject matters. It is important at this point what Robert Phillips rightly observes: “Confessional art whether poetry or not, is a means of killing the beasts which are within us, those dreadful dragons of dreams and experiences that must be hunted down concerned and exposed in order to be destroyed (2)”. Interestingly, the most intimate aspect of life, areas of experience, which one would instinctively keep from public sight, are openly expressed, and not presented as a mere history in poetry. However, the first person singular 'I' of confessional poetry is not the factual 'I' of the poet, but a projection of the poet's being into another person. It is because to achieve a degree of objectivity and the self is used as a poetic symbol to establish the identity/self. What Sylvia Plath, Adrienn Rich, Judith Wright, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton, Phyllis Webb, Margaret Avison, Rosemary Sullivan and Susan Griffins are doing in British, American, Canadian and Australian poetry was begun by Kamala Das, A.K. Ramanujan, R. Parthasarathi, Nissim Ezekiel, etc., in Indian English poetry. These women writer's gesture of defiance and self-assertion snowballed into a movement first and later on a genre.
A group of poets who have become known as Confessional has also engendered much debate. Some writers of a previous generation, for example Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, W.D. Snodgrass, Delmore Schwartz, and Randall Jarrell, are those who were clearly tangential and went on to do different kind of works of various poets such as Maxine Kumin, Alan Dugan, and James Merrill. Other poets, such as Amiri Baraka, Carolyn Kizer and Adrienne Rich, are still labelled Confessional despite more direct associations with other schools / movements. However, it is generally agreed that the core of the movement begins within and among certain works from the late 1950s to the late 1960s.
Kamala Das has mostly been assessed as a writer in this genre of confessional poetry. Among the modern Indian poets writing in English today, she has been ranked with such poetesses of dissatisfaction and discontent as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, though the comparison is seen by many as undeserving. As a matter of fact, the creative outlets of Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das seem very much similar with opinion and subject matters and also at the same time appear dissimilar to cause of affliction in a different social set up. Though they remain separate in different cultural and social background, their struggle for feminine longings is very much common. So, they strongly display the autobiographical elements in their poetry. For example, Kamala Das remembers her grandmother's house for the deep love and understanding she received there. In “My Grandmother's House”,she expresses her deep nostalgia, “There is a house now far away where once / I received love”. Similarly, Sylvia Plath shows deep affection for her grandmother in “Point Shirley”, “She collusion of mulish elements and / She wore her broom straws to the hub”. As Kamala Das exploits the technique of confession in her poetry in order to explore self, confirming the reality of the inner world while interacting with male chauvinism, she feels isolated and sometimes remains doubtful, obsessed and discontented with the corporal encounters.
There are essentially two sides to Kamala Das’s poetry. One is that which is extraordinary centred around her own self, probing the malaise and morbidity that seem to clamp on her poetic vision. In the poem, “An Introduction” she expresses her self-assertive statement attacking on conventionalism, advocating the rights of women and introducing herself as an Indian of a very brown complexion, born in Malabar having the ability to speak three languages:
I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in\
Two, dream in one(4-6).
Self is the crucial point of her poems. Her quest for freedom of expression and selfidentity refers to the “Spiritual Odyssey” (22) as R.S. Pathak suggests. The following lines reflect:
Why not leave Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you?
Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? (An Introduction : 7-10).
Though she does not get the love she longs for but instead of it, she faces exploitation and humiliation in sex encounter with her husband:
When I asked for love, not knowing what else to ask
For, he drew a youth of sixteen into the
Bedroom and closed the door.
He did not beat me
But my sad woman badly felt so beaten.
The weight of my breasts and womb crushed me.
I Shrank Pitifully (25-31).
The other side is a compelling expression of personal experiences and a forceful subjective voice. However, this voice is so strong that it extends beyond the personal world of anguished feelings and assumes wider significance. In this context, one can find such tastes and expectations in her poetry like, “The Sunshine Cat”, “The Old Playhouse”, etc. In her poem “An Introduction”, Kamala Das revolts against the set of rules meant for women breaking the conventional womanhood, compelling her to become a traditional feminine role “Dress in sarees, be girl, / Be wife… Be Amy, or be Kamala. Or better/ Still, be Madhavikutty”(33-39). On the hand, she searches for her own identity, wishing to be autonomous in decisions. In the following lines, she speaks herself in the strong voices :
I wore a shirt and my
Cut my hair short and ignored /
My womanliness (31-33).
I am sinner,
I am saint,
I am the beloved and the
I have no joys which are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours.
I too call myself I (56-59)
Apart from this, Kamala Das poetry embodies agonies or women emerging from the state of subjugation and bondage and speaks about the emancipation of women in a male-dominated society, and seeking to establish their identity and/ or the self that mark in her poems like “A Relationship”, “Summer in Calcutta”, “Marine Drive”, etc. In the poem “Afterwards”, she expresses the secret hope and fear of womanhood:
Son of my womb,
Ugly in loneliness.
You walk the world's bleary eye
Like a grit-your cleverness
Shall not be your doom
As ours was. (1-6)
In this context, C.R. Nambiar shares his observation about the essence of Kamala Das poetry, “She becomes a feminist writer by making her women conscious and providing them wings to rise and flutter… The essence of her poems is struggle about her own self and… is a cry for freedom” (122). Along with this, her poetry shows a landmark in her female journey from victimization to consciousness. Searching for the self / the identity as the crucial point of her poems, Kamala Das says: “One's real world is not what is outside him. It is the immeasurable world inside him that is real. Only the one, who has decided to travel inward, will realize his route has no end” (109). Her poems such as “The Freaks”, “My Grandmother's House”, “A Hot Noon in Malabar”, “The Old Playhouse”, “The Conflagration”, etc. reflect her journey of the self towards the ultimate. She, however, cannot escape from the inner world that makes her the dilemma of personality.
In “The Looking Glass” Kamala Das explores her quest for personal relationship wishing to develop with the lover through sex. Frankly speaking, she searches her self-identity in the male-hegemonic view or the man-dominant society. It is shocked to learn that the primary duty of a woman is to satisfy the male ego by praising his masculinity and at the same time accepting her own feminine weakness to play as a puppet whose only aim is to gratify male lust: “Stand nude before the glass with him/So that he sees himself the stronger one”.
Then, Kamala Das asks the woman to surrender her beauty to the superior male, “Gift him all, /Give him what makes you woman, the scent of … and all your /Endless female hungers”. She also shares a pain of humiliation and frustration, “Oh yes, getting /Aman to love in easy, but living / Without him afterwards I have to be faced”. So, she feels sad with her dream of searching the self through love in this male supremacy. In this context, it is fair to say that she is on the path of love, meets the lover and enjoys pleasure through relation with eyes shut to relieve her but as soon as she opens her eyes she finds her lover missing. She, therefore, calls her husband the “ruthless one, clumsy with noise and movement”. In the scheme of man, a woman cannot raise herself above the conventional image that deadens her persona reflecting in “The Old Playhouse”:
You called me wife,
I was taught to break saccharine into your tea and
To offer at the right moment the vitamins…
I ate the magic loaf and
Because a dwarf.
I lost my will and reason (12-16).
The love and affection that Kamala Das received from her father and grandmother remain an ideal that she searches the whole of her life in others while exploring her identity / self, not for body but is shocked and disillusioned. In the poem “The Looking Glass”, Kamala Das says, “… drew me to him Rudely / With a lover's haste, an armful / Of splinters, …/ I went to him for half an hour /As pure women, pure misery / Fragile glass, breaking / Crumbling… In connection to the these lines, K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, the noted scholar of Indian writing in English, briefly sums up about Kamala Das and her poetry and prose in his book: “Kamala Das finally appears to be a poet of decadence […] a victim of the inadequacies of her life, failing even to gain control over her art (712).”
Despite such an interpretation comes from the eminent scholar, it is saved to say that her poetry is rather essentially a poetry of protest, of defiance and of emphatic assertion, all other moods ranging from weak feminine sense of helplessness and submission, to a restless search for happiness and shelter are different expressions of this basic Promethean spirit which is desire to break the rusted shackles and have its voice heard. This voice is expressed in the following lines:
As the convict studies
His prison's geography
I study the trappings
Of your body, dear love,
For I must someday find
An escape from it snare. (“Prisoner”)
And, then, wailing into light
He came, so fair, a streak of light thrust
Into the faded light (“Jaisurya”)
…Ask me, everybody ask me
What he sees in me, ask me why he is called a lion,
A libertine, ask me the flavour of his
Mouth, ask me why his hand sways like a hooded snake
Before it clasps my pubis.
Ask me why like
A great tree, felled, he slumps against my breasts.
And sleeps, ask me why life is short and love is (“The Stone Age”)
Kamala Das' search for ideal lover remains incomplete. Finally, she worships her ideal Krishna. In the poem “Radha”, she deeply expresses her inner feelings:
O Krishna, I am melting
Nothing remains but
Along with an idea of melting, from the material to the spiritual is the path that the female persona shows while exploring the Self / Identity through love. Now, she, finally, merges herself into the Supreme-Self of Ghanshyam. In the poem “Ghanashyam”, she expresses this act of being oneness with Ghanashyam, the supreme:
You have like a
Koel built your nest in the arbour of my heart.
My life, until now a sleeping jungle is at last astir with music (1-3)
Kamala Das' poetry presents Indian woman in a way that has outraged the usual male sense of decency and decorum. As she inaugurates a new age for women poets, she constitutes a total rejection of the conventional styles of poetic expression of the dominant culture or the male-oriented universe. Her poetry is the acknowledgement and celebration of the beauty and courage of being a woman, not celebrating unbridled sensuality, but projecting the stereotype of a wronged woman and at once asserting the need to establish her voice and identity. Finally, she is successful in her venture of searching the ultimate self and the identity through the art of confession.
Before concluding my paper, it is pertinent to remember what Kamala Das says in her book called My Story: “Poetry is not a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of the personality … I could not escape from personality…”(109). Only one can say that her inner world has not remained her personal domain, it has acquired profound symbolic significance for all bruised and battered womankind.
Das, Kamala,1989. My Story. New Delhi : Sterling Publishers, 109. 1984.
Collected Poems. Trivandrum: Kamala Das. 1979.
The Old Playhouse and Other Poems. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1979. 1991.
The Best of Kamala Das. Kerala: Bodhi Publishing House, 1991.
Iyengar, K.R.S.,1985.Indian Writing in English. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers,
Nambiar, C.R.2000 “The Quiddity of Kamala Das”Modern Indian Poetry in English:Critical Studies,(ed.) Nila Shah and Promod K. Nayar, New Delhi : Creative Books, , 122.
Pathak, R.S., 2003. “Quest For Identity in Indian English Poetry”. Indian English Literature: Marginalised Voice. (ed.) Avadhesh K. Singh, New Delhi: Creative Books, 22.
Phillips, Robert, 1973.The Confessional Poets. Carbondele and Edwarelsville : Souther Illionis University Press, 1973.