Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu, was born on
Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu
"A Prince Among Poets"
1915 - 1983
Dr. T. Wignesan, Editor: The Asianists' Asia
Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques,
B. P. 90145, 94004
[first published in the Journal of Eelam Studies,
Prefatory Note: "Apart from the festschrift, Tambimuttu: Bridge between Two Worlds1 and the five-volume Cass edition of Poetry London 2 in which are to be found extracts of Tambimuttu's only collection of poems published in the West 3 and other loose poems and critical pieces and excluding the over forty publications of the Editions Poetry London and Lyrebird Press which though important are extraneous to his image, or output, as a poet and critic, the rest of what he wrote: five short stories, scripts of talks, prefaces, etc., are extremely difficult to come by.
daughter, Shakuntala, does not even possess a copy
each of all his work. Besides, Tambimuttu himself
confesses on page 274 of the festschrift that "a parcel of my most
valuable possessions (correspondence, my collection of unpublished poems,
short stories and other manuscripts... ") was delivered to the offices
of British Eagle Airways in
Any assessment of his literary influence must necessarily weigh in the balance 'Poetry London' against all other reviews and publications, dating from the early thirties. I have neither the time nor the vocation for this sort of exercise which seems to interest the majority of the Tamils or Indians with whom I have had the occasion of bringing up his name. They do not seem to be interested in his writing, only his renown and high connections.
As Tambimuttu was/is a controversial figure, it is quite conceivable that those who loved him, admired him, or benefited from his publishing largesse would claim for him a lion's share in the development of contemporary English poetry, those who were or are indifferent to his achievement may not be bothered to react one way or the other, whereas those who did not quite like him, those who were offended by his over-exuberant nature, or those who were not favoured by his literary and/or Fitzrovian patronage might revel in his being set aside as having had anything to do at all with English literature.
I do not
really think there are many Tamils who have read Tambimuttu,
but then nearly all Ceylonese Tamils would certainly, naturally, wish to bask
in his reflected glory, if this could be deftly brought about and this is the
rub. On this score, I'm not particularly bothered. What I have to say here I
say after due reflection, and even compassion, for a fellow poet and critic.
If I'm able to obtain all his creative writings, I shall try to do another
article, later on. [ See my article on his poetry entitled: “Tambimuttu: Poet, Critic, Editor/Publisher” in Lanka: Studies in Lankan Culture, 6 (
Tambimuttu's life if it were to be written
down in all its minute details would certainly, I would wager, read like a
fairy tale, a tale of a princely charmer with a charmed life, charming charmable and charming people in a charmed kingdom called
"Fitzrovia" which, Tambimuttu, of course,
invented and discovered all in one instant, three days after his arrival in
London, from a faraway Emerald Isle, early in 1938.
All the evidence in the festschrift seems to point in this direction:
his first eleven years in
Enigmatically, none of these questions have been resolved for the ex-colonial, much less even thought of as a priority if you think of the eagerness with which Asians flock around some Commonwealth literature conference in the hope of an aura of metropolitanism (hence authoritative blessing) rubbing off on them. This is why Mulk Raj Anand's remarks in the festschrift interview with Jane Williams are quite incisive though his blockbuster analysis by lumping all kinds of Asians together fails to drive home his point.
“JW: ...when he arrived
MRA: (...) He took no
part, for instance, in the freedom struggle of
Only a few pieces, mainly
"I'm fighting to achieve stillness in myself. Then I shall be able to produce something good. T.S. Eliot says I'm going to be a great poet. I could have cried when he said that. He's so kind. He's like a father to me. Sometimes I suffer dreadfully. You have no idea how I live. Such loneliness. No home, no one to belong to. But I have to go through all this. I have to suffer life so as to understand life. One day perhaps all the people in the world will be chanting my poems. Perhaps one day I shall be a saint." 7
Tambimuttu was better known to some of the
leading European and American writers and painters and sculptors of this
century than certainly to the average Ceylonese or Indian, or even to his own
kinsmen. This is not surprising when we see that he spent practically all his
adult days in
Let us then put together the main events of his life, culled mainly from the dispersed details in the festschrift, a biography of his grandfather8 and other published accounts and letters. But, before we do this, there is one point which more than ever needs to be clarified, and that is, his royal descent. Tambimuttu apparently flaunted this to great advantage in the select artistic milieu in which he hobnobbed with the famous and the rich and in which he was so obviously welcomed as an exotic prince from a faraway kingdom as mysterious and splendorous as Xanadu, which says reams for those who unquestioningly worshipped him and willingly enthroned him as the "Prince of Fitzrovia".
Fitzrovia was the name Tambimuttu gave a "mythical" chain of pubs, nightclubs, apartments, galleries, literary and publishing offices, from what we can gather, all over London where the "subjects" actually drank nothing but bitter beer and led a Bohemian existence, first exemplified by Charles Haddon Redvers Gray who wrote occasional poems, "jottings in a schoolboy script, flagrantly romantic and almost illiterate", according to Tambi.
“I was most surprised to hear that this first-ever English Bohemian I had met, my introduction to Fitzrovia, was also a qualified solicitor who had inherited his father's law practice in the City.” 9
One might quibble about
where this mythical kingdom suddenly raised its Gondwanian
literary masthead: in the late thirties around
For Tambimuttu, the telling error was not due so much to his lack of scholarly rigour as to an act of faith with him, an act of self-purification, or, more precisely, an act of revolt against the colonial Portuguese aggressors who had reduced the last King of Jaffnapatham, Cankili11, to the ultimate humiliation - forced conversion to Catholicism. Tambimuttu may not have been a political activist or a freedom fighter, but, we shall see as we progress along with our analysis of his life, he was an uncompromising rebel, a man who wanted above all his independence not only for his poetic ideal of a "co-axial literature", attested by his refusal to be dictated to in whatever he did (perhaps the reason why he did not, or would not, accept regular salaried employment, the very reason too why he would not continue with PL under Richard March's increasing interference and supervision in 1949).
His was also an intrinsically psychological revolt at a time when his country of origin was becoming independent. Instinctively, he must have seen himself as a victim of the sixteenth century Portuguese and what they stood for even in modern times, and his “princely” nature would not allow for the ultimate humiliation of his ancestors, that Catholic taint in his lineage. Most of the mourners at his funeral were more than surprised to hear the officiating priest refer to Tambi as "Mary James" (he was baptised Meary James), though Anthony Dickins asserts in The London Magazine 11 that he was known to his close friends and family as "Jim". From what I can gather from the signed articles, he never used his Christian names, and later on, suddenly came out with his Tamil patronymic: Thurairajah. He was known to everyone at large as "Tambi", which in Tamil means "little brother" (younger brother).
Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu was born on
And then, there were the
Shaw-Lawrences, his adopted English family, and one
thinks immediately of Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose mother died giving birth to
That there were probably untold number of families with equal claim to the lineage, or that the Jaffna kingdom, a not-too-continental one, which had its origins in the 13th century in the person of Vijaya Kulankaic Cakravartti, was virtually wiped out by the Portuguese following a revolt against King Cankili II, organised by a Christian group of Tamils, in August-September 1618, did not seem to bother Tambi whose father had to work for a living in the government printery at Colombo and whose brother had to sell a gold medal he won in an elocution contest in order merely to see the insides of a university.
According to the
biography of Tambi's grandfather, which takes for
its sources the Yalpana Vaipava Malai and Yalpana Vaipava Kaumuthi, King Pararajasekeram VI had two sons who eventually became
Catholics for different reasons. Prince Paranirupasingham,
son of his second wife, Valliammai, was the heir
apparent, and the anecdote goes like this. Prince “Sankily”,
born to one of the king's concubines, Mangathammal,
accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Kumbakonam
According to other
historians, the Portuguese who were, in the meantime, in the process of
subjugating the southern Sinhalese kingdoms (Kotte,
and converting their monarchs, with the exception of the Kandyan
court which resisted heroically, sent their missionaries to Mannar in the north where they had had some success. The
Tamil kings retaliated in a fashion that drove the Portuguese to engage in
two punitive but abortive attempts to quell the Tamil nation, in 1560 and in
1591. It took a final operation in 1619, with the help of pro-Portuguese
Christian Tamils, to bring Jaffnapatam (
“One of the key factors
in the success of the Portuguese in Jaffnapatam in
1619-21 was the presence of a pro-Portuguese Christian minority at
Very probably Tambi inherited the pride of these Hindu kings who dared stand up against the hated and unconscionable Portuguese.
To continue the Tambimuttu Pillai biography version, Prince Paranirupasingham, a compassionate and cultivated man, was also an adept Ayurvedic physician. The Kandyan monarch's queen was suffering from an acute colic that refused to respond to traditional treatment. So, the Sinhalese king (Jayavira,1511-52 (?)) sought the intervention of Paranirupasingham who set out, without tarrying, on that mission of mercy. In his absence, “Sankily” lost no opportunity in usurping the throne, one of the games princes play in those days for want of something better to do, and, for some reason, which is not clear from the biography, Paranirnpasingham on his return went away to India to become a Catholic. Here the story gets somewhat mixed up for we are told, Paranirupasingham bequeathed his lands, particularly nine districts, to his son, Prince Pararajasingham, who, in turn, distributed them among his seven sons and daughter, as follows:
and Kalliyankadu to Allakanmai
Valla Mudali, who
therefore resided in the palace at Nallur,
Now this is where the Tambimuttus enter. A second daughter of one of their ancestors, Varithamby Arachiyar of Manipay (in the seventeenth century an important cultural centre) married Kulasegara Mudaliyar, the great grandson of King Pararajasekeram (1478-1519), ( a king who consolidated his power from foreign and internal interference) and thus inherited the village of Atchuvely. S. Tambimuttu Pillay who married Anne Gardiner was from this village. This is the Tambimuttu royal connection as far as I am able to make sense of this badly constituted and muddled biography.
The Paulinus Tambimuttu genealogical chart and other semi-historical narratives in the biography do not make the connection, however, between Thidaveerasinka Mudali and Kulasegara Mudaliyar, unless the latter was his son. The chart however connects Tambimuttu's grandmother to Princess Vetavalli's daughter. All this is very interesting, but then, we are confronted with another one of the gaping lapses in this story from the biography.
“In 1619, the Portuguese
All this is very
complicating. Who was the last king of
Sankili Kumara promptly seized power by killing off all the princes of the blood except the legitimate three-year-old heir, and the Portuguese were forced to recognise Sankili as regent as they were being plagued by another formidable Sinhalese rebel, Nikapitiye Bandara, in the south, but when they refused to come to Sankili's aid against a rival backed by a rebellious lot of Christian Tamils, Sankili appealed to the Nayak of Tanjore in India who quelled the rebellion. Sankili then made every effort, including siding with the Dutch, to oust the Portuguese from the island, but somehow, with the aid of local Christian Tamil groups, including nobles, the Portuguese Captain General Constantino de Sa managed to conquer Jaffnapatam in 1619, followed by two major campaigns to wipe out pockets of resistance, and put an end to the kingdom of Jaffnapatam by taking Sankili Kumara prisoner to Colombo. 15
The above analysis has
relevance to our discussion of Tambimuttu since he
himself placed great faith in his brother Paulinus'
research into these matters. Tambi told Fred Lewis
sailed the west coast of
Tambi's father, Henry Tambimuttu,
took his family to
“Whenever he wished to punish a boy, he asked him to hold out a palm and then rapped it with the edge of a foot-rule. I had often been his victim ...(...). He made me feel very uncomfortable with his large, black, moist eyes, his coaxing, insinuating speech and the moist look of his mouth. There was something subterranean and pleading about him which terrified me. I had often felt that he wished to take me aside to have a private conversation and he had time and again suggested a visit to his house which I took pains to avoid or sneak past quickly.”17
Henry then decided to
take his children to
This was also the time
when he felt the first and recurrent tugs away from his Catholic upbringing
and the pursuit of his mystical Hindu self. Tambi
records in "Swami Rock, Raga Rock" 18
early sentiments of this self-discovery, of which the colonial and Catholic
West formed the antithetical tastes and influences to shy away from and/or
equally to be attracted to. He celebrates his search after and fascination
for the legendary Hindu Shiva temple the Portuguese incorporated in their
fortress, a 400-feet high temple that was supposedly built by a Tamil king
“But Swami Rock was more fulvous and fulsome, more exciting. Its bare-chested priests [in contrast to the French Jesuits of his school], wearing the sacred triple thread, chanting into the wind's throat, on top of the high cliff, and showering flowers into the shuddering sea, were echoes from millennia ago when one of the six great linga, or phallus, temples, sacred to India and Lord Shiva, stood on this spot.”19
In school, they were
taught to prepare for examinations set by the
“But in those days, this bit of history [of an ancestor, Pootha Tambi ]was only myth and legend, along with Swami Rock, and it gave me the split personality very early in life which was characteristic of Ceylonese and Indians in colonial times.” 20
In one way or another, this "split personality" condition hounded Tambi almost all his life, the split between his Catholicism and Hinduism, between his Englishness and/or Brown-Sahibness and the Hindu “princeliness”, between his yogic "guru-ness" and the alcoholism and/or drugs, the poet in him versus the intellectual and academic, the cult Bohemian and the craving after the Establishment's recognition, in short, Tambi never quite made the two split ends meet, and this is probably why he would remain a tragic figure in oriental memory.
“Around our house the
mango shoots were pink
Except for the last four stanzas, which is presumably a rationalised extension, the poem projects in graphic detail the feeling of le mal du pays, tenderly reminiscent evocative detail in apt skeins of local colour which reveal how much Tambi needed these earlier formative idyllic years to sustain him through the hectic years as a promoter and publisher of poetry in London and New York, years when he hardly seemed to worry about where the next meal or pint came from. Here, too, are reasons for some to think of him as a naïf, a primitif or the archetype of the noble savage, though these attributes necessarily gave him the élan for penetrating all forms of sophistication later on.
At sixteen, Tambi composed songs, the period in
So, after dropping out of college, Tambi worked for a while at the Ratnapura Kachcheri and later at the Public Works Department in Colombo, and at the age of twenty-three, after having had an English school education (in Trincomalee, he would have been fined "1 cent" every time he spoke Tamil), proud of the fact that he could count among his relatives two famous uncles, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, [Dr. Rama P., the latter’s only surviving son, refutes this lien), the late aesthetician-curator of Indian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Jesuit lexicographer, Gnana Prakasar, a half brother to his father raised and educated by S. Tambimuttu Pillay, he set out on the Kashima Maru, a Japanese liner, armed with no particular skills, diplomas or funds, for London where he arrived in January 1938.
Tambi then began his love affair with
Eliot, according to Safia, thought he was already a great poet in the make.
In this atmosphere of pending doom with Hitler menacing western Europe, here
was a group of nonchalant Bohemian poets holding court in
Tambi could not any more lay claim to
the role of talent hunter or pioneer promoter of poetry in
It is when we compare the
two poets and editors, Tambimuttu and Mottram, that we can truly divine to what extent Tambi was wanting in education and guts, guts to stick at
a job like Mottram has been doing, teaching endless
number of students, over the last forty years, at London University and on
three continents. For Mottram recognition came late
and is still to come from the kind of people who supported Tambimuttu. When
Besides, PL was not the only poetry magazine of the war years. There were others: Life and Letters Today, New Directions, Diogenes, Kingdom Come, Twice n Year, Voices, Partisan Review and so forth, and many of those appearing in the PL were published by the other magazines as well. True, Tambi had a knack of smelling out those who would make a name in the future: Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, David Gascoyne, George Barker, but were not their reputations, like a few others, assured by Tambi's own editing of the Editions Poetry London, the publishing firm he established in September 1947 and which published over forty books?
Yet some others who found
their way into PL or EPL were already established figures like T.S. Eliot or
Walter de la Mare, or those who were gaining more ground at that time:
Herbert Read, Louis MacNiece, Stephen Spender,
Laurence Durrell, etc. And yet others, W.B.Yeats, Henry Treece, Henry
Miller, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Vladimir Nabokov and a few other greats did not need Tambi to make their impact, like Eliot, on his age. I'm
not trying to belittle Tambi nor his really useful
efforts. It goes without saying that he was - even if he was a bit careless
with funds - endowed with exceptional entrepreneurial qualities, and as G.S.
Fraser attests in his “Letter from
Tambi's achievement with the PL and EPL was a remarkable tour de force in the times and circumstances in which it was pulled off. What it may have done to English poetry, whether it gave it the necessary fillip it was supposed to be in dire need of is another story. True, Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot were the first to praise him, but that was at the beginning, and, in any case, how is one to assess the impact of fourteen issues of PL in the wider perspective of a mainstream literature which has for its feeder rivers all the genres that make up the ocean of writing in English?
He did indeed get rather
passionate about unearthing new writing, say, by a G.S. Fraser or a Keith
Douglas, mainly through critical appraisals which demonstrated an innate
talent even in this direction. His castigation of D.J.
If we are to believe Bhavani Torpy, and there is no
reason why we should not, he seems to have finally/practically in the last
days of his pitifully painful post-PL life, found it in the work of Shri Chinmoy, coming as a
Tambi's frantic attempts to learn some
Sanskrit from an Indian lady in
“In Britain, we survived Objective Reporting, The New Apocalypse, The New Romanticism; and at a time, when other editors favored the already established, or declared outright that there were no new writers, we built up the reputation of a whole new generation of poets.(...) Our policy was to throw our weight on the side which would restore a balanced view, and would be the most beneficial to the reception of modern verse. During the `Thirties, for instance, when the witty, the commonsensical and the scientific technological approach to poetry was generally popular, we tried to focus attention on the poetry of Walter de la Mare, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, or George Barker.(...) [Thomas] dared to emphasise the sensuous, the emotional or even the purely incantatory approach to poetry, as in much folk poetry.”26
Right from the start his was a defensive role, a role which petered out with time, until it was time to have his own poetical base, and none was as handy as something he could fantasise upon. Not that he would have wanted it that way. That he was sincere and honest about it all is true, that he was probably barking up the wrong tree may have also been true, at least, in the English context, where poets were in no great need for revelation poetry, such as his own, "For Katharine (Kamala) Bennett and All True Sadhakas" 27 (Bennett was an associate editor of PL-NY and she financially backed the Lyrebird press that Tambi launched in London in the late sixties), and "Gita Saraswati: A Theology for Modern Science, The Creation and Dissolution of Kosmos" 28, both one might say, were last-ditch attempts at shoring up his dismembering literary personality.
The second poem might well be easily explained away by a reading of the relevant chapters in Coomaraswamy's Myths of the Hindus and the Buddhists and Carl Sagan's Cosmos. In any case, these poems helped to substantiate, like Sri Chinmoy's, his ultimate thesis: holophrasis or wholephrasing. He was nevertheless consistent about his convictions. Right from the start, his "letters' in the PL, followed by the "Fourth Letter" in PL-NY, attempted perhaps in less expert ways a certain idea of ancient Hindu poetics (Was it after all due to his reading of his uncle Coomaraswamy?):
“Every man has poetry within him. Poetry is the awareness of the mind to the universe. It embraces everything in the world. Of poetry are born religions, philosophies, the sense of good and evil, the desire to fight diseases and ignorance and the desire to better living conditions for humanity. Poetry is the connection between matter and mind. Poetry is universal.” 29
“Poetic compression of the highest order is only possible within a culture which expresses the total man, and is universally understood.” 30
He cites the epics Mahabharata, and therefore the Bhagavad Gita, and Ramayana, and Kalidasa's play Shakuntala as examples of this achievement. It was obvious he was trying to articulate something of a poetics without being too sure of it. It was something to him vaguely Indian and therefore the most apt examples to clarify his position had to be drawn from Indian literature. In his exposition of the "theory" he did not fail to mention Dante, but then he forgot Faustus or Paradise Lost. His "theory" of holophrasis may have had its roots in something far more concrete.
"It is impossible for me to describe the perfect high that a Hindu temple with its site, its rituals and atmosphere gives me: the total involvement with all one's senses engaged, liberating, exhilarating, like a plate of very hot rice and curry (...) savoured with sweat pricking and flowing from the hair roots and forehead, psychedelic, round flavoured and universalising in its intent and being., all individual flavours and feelings lost in a oneness, the long note in which all the flavours persist in an indescribable but deeply felt unity. The self, ego, lost in the universal flow of hot energy, one hundred per cent energy, through the Yoga of taste. Harmony with one's surroundings: The perfect high." 31
Although Tambi never meant this passage to be an exposition of his "theory", it is nonetheless the best definition in concrete terms of what he wanted to achieve. It is perfectly valid as "revelation" poetry, as valid as the oral Vedic compositions of pre-Christian times, but when we are expected to seek a model in Sri Chinmoy's "The Absolute", a poem given in full in the festschrift, we might as well ask ourselves if, in actual fact, Tambi was seeking the conversion of the colonial master to Hinduism, a sort of belated revenge for the irreparable damage the master had inflicted on him and his forbears, giving us an aperçu of this "split personality" that he avowed all Indians and Ceylonese were subject to: or, was the end product of such humiliation the worsted schizophrenic self itself?
This explains the
inevitable hankering after of the pat on the back from the ex-colonial
master, the inclusion of a handwritten "transcreated"
Rig-Vedic hymn by the perfect Indian Western pet and non-poet, P.LaI, and other verse by similar Indo-Anglian favorites like Nissim Ezekiel, and even Mulk Raj Anand's anti-colonial
dialectics. No one can deny that even today making it in the West with a
Unfortunately, for Tambi, he never had the English public school or Oxbridge training the former have had to excess. In this sense, he remains a precursor, and this fact must be seen in the light of his achievement in the English literary scene and his manque de baggage intellectuel. One may never know though if he could have achieved his "Englishness" to the full, whether he would have rejected his "Indianness". In the event, what is evident is that this other self, this ancestral pride, served him well as a bulwark against self-effondrement. It came physically too, in 1939.
Eliot had to come to his
rescue when Tambi broke down "one evening cut
up his hats with scissors and then went on to destroy all his clothing in the
same manner, burying the shredded garments in his back garden". 32
He was then nursed at Bridge House,
Like most controversial figures, Tambi too was subject to contradictions. His anti-intellectualism, anti-analytical objectivity, found recourse in an erudition that ranged from pronouncements on Eliot and Wordsworth to ripe savourings from Hindu Sanskrit texts. What is still surprising is that this young Ceylonese Tamil, without the necessary literary background, erupted at the age of twenty-three in the veritable English literary metropolis and managed to divert the course of its poetical development.
The Times Literary Supplement review of the Cass edition of the PLs, in 1971, virtually admitted and accused him of it.
Highly endowed as a poet and critic, he nevertheless could not get away with
a certain muddling shyness of expression, as in his autobiographical pieces
and PL letters, which either turned out to be patently literary in a trite
way à la Salman Rushdie
or attempted to be highly philosophical through mystic or mystifying
statements. This is why it is all the more surprising to discover his role in
the forties in
“It is the extent of holophrasis (synthesis) of sense, rhythm, sound and form elements which determines the varying degrees of difference between a line of poetry and a line of prose. The process itself is explained by Thomas in “I, in My Intricate Image" 34 (which is quoted in full)
Again, when he attempts to draw attention to what he called "The New Moderns", those whom he succoured in his magazines and publications (as against "The Moderns" whom Geoffrey Grigson published in New Verse between 1933 and 1939) and their penchant for vitality and spontaneity, he quotes Kathleen Raine's "The Hyacinth" in full and then, we are left to wonder where he draws the line between his wholephrasing poetics and the highly complicatedly codified Indian aesthetic principle of rasa (which he deems as merely "taste" in a quick footnote).
“These "Modem" poets' art is different from the English poet Kathleen Raine's whose line, irrespective of contemporary myths about ‘poetic stature', have that undefinable quality called by the Indians rasa, `the essence of poetry' which is not forced (for which alone they read it instead of tracts on the nature of man and society).” 35
Tambimuttu also used this Natyasastra term to describe the work of his "Fitzrovia guru", Philip O'Conner "whose explosive and poetic images, tinged by what Indians call rasa or poetic taste (literally, taste in the mouth)..." 36, without possibly considering the third sense, given by B.N. Goswamy, as the acute form of bliss or ananda, that sense of beatitude which, for the Indians, was procured by the spirit's intimations of the Ultimate Reality. One wonders too whether he was aware of rasa's nine elaborately codified principles, not to mention those not mentioned by Bharata, or the thirty-three complementary emotional states (vyabhichari bhavas), the eight natural involuntary bodily functions (sattvika) or the nuances of elements added to the rasa corpus by Vishwanatha"s Sahitya Darpana.
In the ultimate analysis, Tambimuttu's poetics must appear somewhat warped, though he seemed to either borrow freely from Indian thought, or mask his "theory" in the Indian philosophy of oneness. He postulated a use of language in poetry that would telescope images and lines in a "nuclear" fusion, a grand synthesis making for a single idea, resonating and forever expanding, in short, it must found a religion itself or, at least, be a page out of an hypothetical Hindu bible, the Vedas, for instance.
“Holophrasis or wholephrasing of sense (and we must bear in mind that the opposite process is also happening) occurs naturally in poetry between specific words, phrases and narrative lines. (...) ... and since it happens (as with the Dylan Thomas poem mentioned above) through the lines, all of them become one idea. As for the opposite process, there are new polarities created and preserved in life-like tension...” 37
His poetics then takes a turn. He wants for it a fusion of several levels of meaning, both "narrative and purely poetic" and to substantiate this point he quotes in full one of his poems, "invocation to Lakshmi", which Norman Nicholson, his first publishing backer, included in The Penguin Anthology of Religious Verse. We may as well quote his own remarks about this aspect of his "theory".
“I cannot think off hand of a poem with several lines of narrative, so I quote an early poem of my own, Telegraphesing (sic) it in wartime London, I was conscious of five locales: a fire-tom street, the beach at Hastings, a London bedroom, a maternity hospital and a South Indian village with cottages, roots, the monsoon, and a temple image of Lakshmi sprung in her beauty from the froth of the ocean holding the thousand petalled kamala (lotus) and later born out of the kamala and as Sita in the Ramayana "by her own will, the mistress of the worlds, in a beautiful field opened up by the plough," Chanchala or Lola, the fickle - the existentialist state, Loka-matha - "mother of the world", Indira and Jaladhi -jha "Ocean-bom" (out of the flux).” 38
This notwithstanding, he has need to found his poetics, on the one hand, by finding support in the work of Pound, Dante, Thomas, Khayyam, Whitman, Kalidasa and other lesser known poets he published in the magazines, and on the other, as in his own, "Gita Saraswati", he chooses to root the image of his poetics in quantum mechanics.
“The images are not `lapidary' [talking of the Rubiyat] but what I have termed ‘expanding' with full resonance in Nature as if they are quanta of energy, integrated, related and in movement in the larger energy, unit of our symbol of the atom or miniature solar system and therefore life-like and vivid...” 39
This is a far cry from his "First Letter" when he was preaching that life and living were simple and that there was actually no need to adopt an intellectual attitude to them.
“Intellectualization removed us further from life. Pure intellectualization is death./Reality in life is simple. Life is simple, living is simple, the roots of thought are simple. It is only intellectualization that is complex.”40
Even if it were easy to criticise Tambi at this distance in time, we must not attempt to seek excuses for him or his views. He had written down all he had to say between the ages of twenty-three and forty-three, and we must not forget that it was as a young man in his early twenties that he championed Dylan Thomas and Keith Douglas, when Eliot thought highly of him. A peripatetic poet who devoted his entire life to poetry (the least of all sins) in the manner of medieval Tamil troubadour bards who made a religion of their servitude to the Muse, which for them was more than a Deity.
Perhaps, the secular Tamil cankam tradition did not seep through to Tambi. He sought through a total synthesis of language, images, tone and feeling, impregnated by love, both sacred and profane, the "interpenetration of matter and spirit" to serve his own attempts at self-realization and self-fulfilment.
And there is nothing wrong or ridiculous about such a quest. His poetics was his religion, the Hindu philosophy of his forefathers that he intuitively comprehended as best he could. He wanted poetry to express the total truth, the Hindu truth ("The flower and fruit of speech is truth."), but at his time, he saw it as a means of revitalising modern or contemporary poetry. Whether he was right or wrong, does not seem to matter, as long as the principal participants in the field followed him with enthusiasm and admiration during the forties. To say now that his influence was deleterious is to say that English poets, and the best of the wartime poets, could be led by the nose by a drunken Ceylonese Tamil with no specially acquired skills. This would be an awful admission. His definition of poetry like any other valid definition may not be objected to on the grounds that he was not of English birth, though one might harbour grave reservations about his idea of what constitutes great poetry. In any case, he has as much a right as anyone to say that:
"Ideally, poetry (a) is a synthesis of all facts and angles of commitment within one word, or more practically, one poem. (b) includes movement and counter-movement of all kinds, including rhythm, tone and ideas, shades and pitch of speech, and process of looking. Poetic clarity thus does not depend on the language of common speech, but on the vividness of the thing said. The most highly charged line is the most poetic and natural in the sense that is (sic) best approximates the condition in `Nature', not as interpretation, but as a sensory equivalent of it. (...) To stress my point by extension to its logical conclusion, the ideal poem should contain, in one word, the stuff of kosmos - the greatest holophrasis possible." 41
It is evident that he had some idea of theoretical physics and certainly knew something about the constitution of the Universe, the "Big Bang" and the "Big Crunch" and quantum mechanics and somehow he tried to make the correspondence between the microcosmic poetical creation and the macrocosmic creation of the Universe, and so, at least, he wrote the unpolished "Gita Saraswati", a fitting embodiment to his poetics, which, for him, must have been, if we are to draw the line somewhere, an act of consummate art. If we do not agree with him, we need not follow him there. It is as valid a poetic achievement as any, where the poet and his poetical credo become an indivisible one. Criticism levelled against him for having repeatedly attacked Geoffrey Grigson, Tambi's favourite punching-bag, or whether he had changed for the worse the course of English poetic development (as if there has to be development for poetry) has got nothing to do with his achievement as a poet and as a "theoretician". He has as much a right to the claim of being a poet and a critic in the English language as any other Commonwealth writer.
His critical piece on
Keith Douglas (PL, 2, 10) and his collection, Out of this War, (I had only read some excerpts when I wrote this
article, but I have since published an article on his poetry: See “Tambimuttu: Poet, Critic, Editor/Publisher” in http://stateless.freehosting.net/TAMBIMUTTU.htm)
amply prove that he was richly endowed to assume the roles of guide, promoter
and publisher of English poets.
There is really no great need to dwell lingeringly on the rest of Tambimuttu's life since the end of the fifties, except to say that the misery and humiliation he so obviously had to undergo might have added to the spiritual depth he craved after. Despite all the accounts of the shambles of his emotional or promiscuous life, he did marry thrice. (I don't see any one blaming the women for having married him!)
The first, Jacqueline
Stanley, a buxom Cockney blonde, separated from Tambi
during the War, and it would seem then that she died of her diabetic
condition. They then lived in
He was by now a national celebrity, but the shine wore off soon enough. His second wife, Safia Tyabjee, a grand-daughter of a former president of the Indian National Congress Party, he met through a round-about introduction from a Ceylonese friend, and after seeing each other daily for a little over a fortnight, they were married on 15 July 1951. Safia, who could pass for his sister, brought to him a measure of security and, doubtless, marital bliss.
From 1953 to 1958, Safia and Tambi lived in a
large rambling apartment at
Tambi was later to admit that the life
he had had with Safia was the happiest period of
his life. Then followed a third marriage with Esta Busi in, probably, 1961, and Tambi's
only child was born to this union in the spring of 1962. She was
characteristically named Shakuntala Safia Tambimuttu. It appears
that this marriage did not endure for long. They separated and perhaps
divorced in the early sixties. They had shared a ground-floor apartment on
From 1961 to 1966, the offices of the PL-NY was situated at
At the trial, a kindly
judge favoured him. Safia showed up sometime
earlier for a six-month stay in
So ended a life, by all
accounts, a heroic life, dedicated to the poetic Muse. Who would have thought
that so many, some sixty in the festschrift, among them Durrell
and Leary, would lament his going, and all of them not even his countrymen?
In spite of some embarrassing situations, Tambi is
remembered as a mentor, a kindred spirit, engaging, spirited, compassionate,
generous to a fault, but above all as the prince from a faraway island in the
Indian Ocean whom they loved for his rags and for his devotedness to one and
all alike. Here indeed
was a prince among poets!
Williams (Ed.), Tambimuttu: Bridge between Two Worlds,
30. J.Williams, Ibid.,p.
38. Ibid, pp.248-249.
39. Ibid, p.250.
40. Tambimuttu, "First Letter", in Poetry
Bibiliography of Writings by Tambimuttu
Tone Patterns, Athchuvely
2. Individual poems published in magazines, anthologies, etc.
Ceylonese Love Songs", in Poetry
London, 1, 2 (
3. Short Stories
Of his five short stories, a few were published by the New Yorker.
4. Autobiographical Writings
"Fitzrovia", in Harpers
& Queen (
Letter" and "Review of George Reavey's
Quixotic Perquisitions, in
Poetry London, 1,1 (
6. Books Co-or-Guest Edited or Translated
with Richard March. T.S. Eliot: A