Poems tell darkest secrets

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 1998, 12:00am

You speak English and Cantonese and probably some Mandarin, but which language do you dream in? Which language do you choose to write in? These questions introduce us to confessional poetry, the subject of this week's Poetry On The Air , which can be heard on RTHK's Radio 4 at 10.05 am today and repeated at 6.30 pm tomorrow.

I speak three languages, write in two, dream in one.

These are lines from An Introduction by Kamala Das, an Indian poet who writes in English.

India, like China, is a country with many different languages. As Putonghua unites China so English and Hindi unite India. But it seems some of the poet's friends do not want her to write in English: Don't write in English, they said English is not your mother tongue.

But the poet rejects this: Why not leave me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins, Everyone one of you? Why not let me speak In any language I like. The language I speak becomes mine, its distortions, its queerness All mine, mine alone. It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest, It is as human as I am human.

The poet feels she has a right to choose the language she speaks in, she is proud of her Indian English and she feels that her own style of English is part of who she is, part of her essential identity.

An Introduction is a confessional poem, in it the poet introduces herself in a very direct, open, honest way.

Confessional poetry is full of secrets, often dark secrets, secrets that you might not even tell your best friend.

Yet in confessional poetry the poet is making public some of the most intimate details of his life. When we use the word 'confess' we might think of a criminal confessing his crime, or a Catholic going to confess his sins to a priest.

Why should a poet confess? The answer could be that some poets use their life as their art or turn their life into their art. To some extent all writers pour their lives into their writing, whatever you write comes from your experience.

But often it is disguised, fictionalised, you may invent different characters or turn reality into a tale that is not recognisably your story.

Confessional poets do not use disguise, they hang out their lives on a poem, for all to see.

In the following extract the poet tells of how she was sexually abused.

She does this in a subtle way yet there is no mistaking the horror of what happened to her and the effect it had on her: . . . he drew a youth of 16 into the bedroom and closed the door.

He did not beat me But my sad woman-body felt so beaten . . .

Pitifully. Then . . . I wore a shirt and my brother's trousers, cut my hair short and ignored my womanliness.

She does not say who her abuser was but shows us that the abuser made her try to conceal her femininity by dressing up as a boy. As an Indian woman the poet was subjected to many social pressures to conform to the traditional role of a wife, mother and housewife. We can hear these voices urging her to conform: Dress in saris, be girl Be wife, they said. Be embroiderer, be cook, Be a quarreller with servants. Fit in.

'Fit in', means to conform, but later in the poem we see that the poet does not listen to these voices. Instead she goes off into the world alone, meeting different men and always looking for love: It is I who drink lonely Drinks at 12, midnight, in hotels of strange towns, It is I who laugh, it is I who make love And then feel shame . . .

Despite her rejection of traditional society and the loneliness that this sometimes brings, the poem ends on a positive note. Having found her identity and preserved her humanity she identifies with all people everywhere and celebrates her freedom and individuality: I have no joys which are not yours, no aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.