Poetry from the early classical Tamil (c. 100 BC-AD 250) is among the finest in Indian, as well as world literature. In this volume, award-winning poet and translator, A.K Ramanujan ha selected, from the Eight Anthologies and Ten Long Poems, by a 'fraternity or academy' of poets known as the Cankam. Most amazingly, poems about the difficulties of love (in union, separation, or infidelity), and poems about kings, death and destruction; war and reconstruction, are as fresh and relevant as when they were composed two millennia ago. Ramanujan is a meticulous translator who is faithful to the original poems: he keeps close to the structure of the poems while clothing them with the texture of modem English. In Poems of Love and War, poem speaks to poem with lyricism and drama, and Ramanujan's essay (Afterword) on poetry of the Cankam period is an invaluable tool in studying the Tamil world-view and its relation to poetry and poetics. This edition has a new preface by Molly A. Daniels-Ramanujan.
A. K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), acclaimed poet and translator, was William E.
Colvin Professor at the University of Chicago, and taught at various other institutions for forty years. He was awarded a Padma Shri in 1976 and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1983. He was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990 and won a posthumous prize from the Sahitya Akademi for poetry in English. He wrote in Kannada three books of poetry and a novella. He also wrote Folktales from India and The Flowering Tree. He translated classical and medieval poetry (Speaking of Shiva, Poems of Love and War. Hymns for the Drowning), as well as fiction (Samskara, Haldi Meenu).
A great translator has the gift of two languages, as well as a third language, the language of the heart. He must also have an intimate knowledge of the known poetry of the world; he must develop quadruple lenses, two for the life lived in the moment, and two for the life of another time, and another place; he must allow the work to transform his own self. His devotion to his work might make him stumble on earth, and be might not be spared ignominy; he must learn to rise above loss and gain. Having been to the paradise of poetry, how could he possibly bear to walk on earth?
A translator has to be a poet in training. He must find mentors growing on every bush. In 1961, Ramanujan attended Samuel Yellen's poetry writing workshop. One assignment required rhymed couplets, but then Yellen would say, 'Now throw out the rhymes.' In case a rhyme refused to budge, it could be buried discreetly within the line. It was important to start by thinking in verse with end-words, as William Blake did, but it was equally important to be listening to one's own spoken voice. With the exception of Robert Frost, modern poets found English to be notoriously deficient in rhymes; they compensated by opening their ears to the music of spoken English, mostly iambic.
The manner in which Ramanujan, the poet, was transformed during the twenty-two years of daily work on the world's greatest anthologies of love and war (100 BC to 250 AD), and some of the greatest mystical poems from medieval Tamil (900 AD) and medieval Kannada (1,200 AD) cannot easily be described here. It can only be suggested.
Not unlike cats, poetry has nine lives in the life of a translator. Ramanujan's most important apprenticeship began in 1962 when he started translating the love poems from two thousand years ago. His writing self responded as to a clarion to the sage instructions in Tolkapiyum, a grammar of rhetoric, written by Tolkappiyar (second century AD). The Cankam (academy) became his alma mater. As he worked on into middle age, the Poems of Love and War, from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil, renewed him many times. Ramanujan has described how he came to receive this gift from his ancestors.
The translations gave Ramanujan a key to his own creativity. He was not pursuing art for art's sake, but for his own life's sake, especially as he was far from home, and in a colder, lonelier land. Thus, the most profound shaping influences of his literary career (in the order of their completion) are to be seen in: 1) love poems from the classical Tamil Anthology (The Interior Landscape, 1967); 2) medieval Kannada metaphysical poems by four Virasaiva saints (Speaking of Siva, 1973); 3) Tamil medieval metaphysical poems by Nammalvar (Hymns for the Drowning, 1981); and 4) the present volume from the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil (Poems of Love and War, 1985). As stated above, his work on this last volume stretched over two decades.
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