Twenty different contemporary Bengali women’s voices speak in the one hundred and ninety-seven translated poems in this book. They use a range styles and forms. Some poems are in traditional forms, some are in free verse, and some are prose poems. And of course they speak of different matters. Some of poems are lyrical or descriptive, offering pictures of tress, flowers, landscapes or city scapes.Some express personal feelings or experiences of pleasure or loss,or pain. Some comfort issues of humanity or of social juistics.Others speak specifically of the lives of girls and women, and of these cry out against injustices to women, both now and in the past. And some speak of the power and fascination of words, or of the nature poetry itself, or of what it is like to be poet and of the experience of joy, such as the coming of rain after the dry seasons, “when poetry comes”. This book should interest students of women’s writing as well as lovers of poetry in general.
Marian Maddern (born 1942) studied Bengali at the University of Melbourne. Her M.A thesis (published as Bengali Poetry into English: An impossible Dream?) was on translating, and her Ph.D.thesis involved a comparison between Bengali and English. Her other publications included. I have Seen Bengal’ Face (with S.N.Ray), Sociological Essays of Bankimachandra Chatterjee(with S.N.Mukherjee), and The Poison tree: Three Novellas of Bankimchandra Chatterjee (also with S.N Mukherjee). She lectured on literature and creative writing for some years at a tertiary teachers’ training college. She also teachers music, and writes poetry herself.
Several years ago, while I was working on this book, I was in Calcutta briefly, firstly to visit Professor Sibnarayan Ray, whom it is my great good fortune to have had as a. teacher and also as a friend, and secondly to meet some of the poets who had sent me some of their poems. In connection with the second, I found myself giving a talk on what I was doing. I spoke of the poets whose work I was translating, and of what particularly struck me about their work, and before long, as I paused, a gentleman who had come in a little late and missed the introduction to the talk said something like this: ‘All these poets you are talking about are poetesses— why are you only talking about women poets?’ This question made me aware all over again of why I was working on this book— and also why it took me so long to start on it. It is in its way a common enough story, and the factors involved have been described and analysed now by many women, but perhaps my own individual experience may still be of interest.
As I look back on my encounters and my engagements with poetry— and indeed with literature and with my other cultural contexts— I can see, now, a number of things which I was not at all aware of at the time. Poetry was something I was aware of early in my life, and I can still remember some of my attempts, as a small child, at writing it. My grandmother and my parents (especially my mother, to whom my debt is incalculable) read and sang to me; and once I was at school there were the graded primary school readers, all containing poetry as well as prose. It is interesting to look at these readers and at the poets who appear in them. In the early ones there are quite a number, proportionally, of women poets— mostly represented by rather emotional, sweet or pretty poems. (Their influence can be seen in some of my early efforts, many— not all-of which tended to be concerned with fairies and bluebirds and so on.) But as the level rises, the men poets predominate more and more. Later, in secondary school, there were set anthologies, in which the ratio of women to men poets pretty much followed the one-in-twelve pattern which has been shown by recent writers to be so characteristic of anthologies of English poetry, and in which, again typically, those women poets included tended to be represented by the softer and more emotional examples of their work. (1 am not intending to imply that women— or men!— should not write simple or sweet or emotional poems, or that such poems should not be appreciated : it is the imbalance and exclusion which I regret— I value, for example, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love sonnets, but I would like also to have been told about her political poem and about her impressive novel-length poem Aurora Leigh: what would be thought of an English literature course which in discussion Robert Browning mentioned only his love poems?) And there were period study collections, containing selected poems, by selected individual poets, in which there were no women poets at all. I cannot remember studying a single individual women poet (nor, interestingly, a single individual Australian poet). This pattern continued more or less unchanged into my study of literature at university: a heavy preponderance of men in anthologies and collections, in-depth study of a number of individual men writers, and period studies (for example of Restoration drama) which ignored even major women writers altogether. The poem by Rajlukshmee Debee from which the, title of this anthology is taken asks ‘When poetry comes, by whom can its passage be barred?’ and talks of the internal barriers experienced by the poet, but (and some of the poems in this book deal with this subject too) cultures can also impose their own barriers, can silence or restrict the voices of certain of their own members.
What kind of a difference did this skewed selection make? Do women writers write differently from men writers? If so, is this a matter of style or content or perspective? Is it an innate or a culturally produced difference? These and other such questions have been and continue to be debated with thought-provoking results. What I can say of my own experience is that yes, I do (now) feel the presence of a difference in sensibility and emphasis in women writers in general. (I had an interesting confirmation of this, in fact, during my work on this book: at one stage I found in my files a batch of poems whose author I did not know but which I assumed had been sent to me for the book; as I began to read and translate some of them, however, I found myself thinking more and more strongly that these did not feel like the work of a woman poet— and indeed I found out later that they were not.) I can also say that my formal study of English literature inculcated in me a certain particular, also skewed, style of evaluation while nevertheless presenting this as universal and objective: it did not equip me, as I found when I came to develop course content for my own teaching, to appreciate or even to understand at any depth even those women poets who had been allowed across the selection barrier. I would add to this that it is generally acknowledged that experience can be expected to influence writers and that different groups of people may have different kinds of experience. For example, to be marginalised is an experience which, by and large, women in patriarchal cultures will have more often than their men will. But such experiences are not always recognised as such. At the time, I simply did not realize, or did not notice, the kinds of proportions and selection and bias in what I was taught.
By this time I was also learning Bengali, and beginning to read Bengali poetry. Gradually, with the help and encouragement of my teachers, especially Sibnarayan Ray, 1 began seriously to translate into English some of the poetry we were studying. Eventually a number of my translations, together with others done by and with Professor Sibnarayan Ray and some done by Bengali poets themselves, appeared in the anthology called I Have Seen Bengal Face (1974). And yet, over all the time I was working on and reading these translations, it never once occurred to me that none of these poems were by women.
After the anthology was completed I set translating aside for some years. I had begun teaching literature in a pre-school teacher training college and was putting a lot of time into developing and thinking about the subjects I was teaching— to a predominantly female student body. As I did this, and also began to read some of the important feminist writers of the 1970’s and earlier, and discussed what I was doing and thinking with my (mostly female) colleagues and friends, I began at last to see something of the bias in what I had been taught. And I began to work at redressing this both in my own thinking and in my teaching. Even then, however, I somehow did not connect any of this with the composition of I Have Seen Bengal Face. It was not until, nine years ago now, I was asked to speak about my translation at a well-known Melbourne women’s club, and started to put together some examples, that I first looked at this with new eyes. I found myself thinking that my audience might well be interested in one or two poems by Bengali women poets— that in fact there might be something rather odd about a woman professional addressing a group of other literary minded women on the subject of translating Bengali poetry with not a single woman poet being mentioned. But, as I realized at this point, every single poem I had translated from Bengali so far had been by a man poet. If I wanted to present an example by a woman poet, I would have to set to and translate one. So I did— I looked at several recent issues of Sibnarayan Ray’s periodical Jijnasa, and chose a poem by one of the several women poets represented there, and translated it. I thought it might be interesting to keep this translation until the end of my talk— and, significantly enough, as I presented, in the body of my talk, example after example of poems by men poets, not a single person in the audience commented on this or asked me, ‘Why are you only talking about men poets?’ Nevertheless, when I read them the single translation I had so far done, so recently, from a woman poet, and told them something of my thoughts about this situation, they seemed to take my point very well.
But I could not quite leave it there. Something more, I felt, should be done. As a start, I wrote to Sibnarayan Ray asking about Bengali woman poets in general. And here is an interesting temporal coincidence. I am not now sure in which order things happened, but Professor Ray himself, at about this time, was asked by one of the women poets he knew, ‘Why are there no women poets in I Have Seen Bengal’s Face?’ and was similarly confronting some of the implications of this absence. So with Professor Ray’s invaluable and continuing help and encouragement I undertook what in some sense I feel to be a task of redress : to put together an anthology of translations of Bengali poems all be women poets to compensate a little for the earlier one of poems all by men poets (though the earlier one does not, of course, say that this is what it is— it just talks of poets). And this of course, is the answer to the question asked at my talk in Calcutta, with which I began this introduction.
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