Samuel Beckett’s English Poetry: Transcending the Roots of Resistance in Language
A Book Review of “Beckett’s English Poetry : Transcending the Roots of Resistance in Language” by Dr A.V. Koshy published by Authorspress Global Publishing Network.
Dr. A.V. Koshy is primarily a research scholar and academician and this book of his is the predecessor of his better known book “Art of Poetry”. Only this time he writes for the mature student of language. Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize winner has many books written on his plays and novels but one on his poetry is not common. One of the reasons could be, as Dr. Koshy points out, the sparse number of poems written by Beckett. Another could be that Beckett’s poems are difficult to decipher without linking it to his life as there are many autobiographical elements in his writing. The link between Beckett’s ‘inner’ life and his poetry is brought out with clarity by Dr. Koshy.
The book begins with a preface which is rather exhaustive. It is essential for the reader to study this before moving on to the remainder as the preface deals with Beckett’s life in short. It talks of his early years, his association with modern French poets like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Valery, his fascination for avant-garde poets like Romains and Apollinaire, and his friendship with James Joyce.
One can trace Beckett’s evolution as a poet here. This preface also gives a summary of the book’s contents.
A brief introduction follows the preface. Dr. Koshy divides this into 2 parts.
1. The Years of Learning and Wandering
2. The Blue Celeste of Poesy.
The Years of Learning stretch from 1929-35 while those written after 1935 fall in the latter category. This brief introduction prepares the reader for what is to follow.
The book then is divided into 3 major parts.
1. The Early Phase: The Years of Learning.
2. The Early Phase : The Years of Wandering.
3. The Mature Phase : The Blue Celeste of Poesy.
It is in these that Dr. Koshy expands into explaining Beckett’s poetry.
There are about 12 poems in English by Beckett during these years of Learning. Of these he himself considered only 3 – Whoroscope, Home Olga and Gnome – to be of merit. The others are often referred to as jettisoned poems, yet contain sparks of Beckett’s brilliance.
In these early poems, one sees Beckett linking the various languages he was proficient in to convey meaning that at times could not be suitably conveyed by English. For instance, ‘Gnome’, a quatrain derives its title from “Greek ‘gignoskein’ which means ‘to know’. The title of the poem alludes to the poem’s literary lineage.” Punctuation is hardly used which leads to diverse meanings as the poem is read and re-read. Thus Dr. Koshy analyses this multi-layered poem along with the others of its ilk in this chapter.
The second part of the book deals with the Years of Wandering. It is during this phase that Beckett’s first collection titled ‘Echo’s Bones’ was published. It has thirteen poems. As Dr. Koshy points out ‘the poems were arranged for effect and not according to the chronology of their composition’. The collection is suitably titled as it is ‘about unrequited love, failure, sorrow, narcissism and metamorphoses”. There is a connecting thread running through the poems. Each poem in this collection beginning from ‘The Vulture’ ‘Eneug I & II‘, ‘Alba’, ‘Dortmunder to Sanies I & II, ‘Serena 1, II & III‘, ‘Malacoda’, ‘Da Tagte Es’ and finally ‘Echo’s Bones’ have been analysed by Dr. Koshy such that the uninitiated reader gets a pretty fair idea of the workings of Beckett’s mind and what he intends to convey through his poems.
Dr. Koshy explains each of these poems in detail. Let me quote what he has to say on one of them.
“The poem ‘Malacoda’, even as it pays a tribute to Dante in its tripartite structure and some of its allusions, is primarily a Beckettian elegy written to commemorate the death of his father in 1933. Malacoda means ‘evil-tail’ in Italian and is one of the grotesque demons in Dante’s Inferno”. Dr. Koshy then goes on to analyse the poem line by line showing the reader the beauty and brilliance of Beckett’s creation.
The third part of Beckett’s writing is the Mature Phase: The Blue Celeste of Poesy. The poems in this phase are Cascando, Dieppe, Ooftish, 4 poems in his novel Watt, Saint- Lo, 6 Poems in his collection ‘Poemes 1947-49’ which was in French and translated to English, poems in his radio play ‘Words and Music’ and then his most famous poems ‘Dread nay’, ‘Something there’, ‘Roundelay’, ‘ Thither’ and ‘Neither’. Each of the afore mentioned poems have been dealt with in detail by Dr. Koshy. ‘Dread nay’ is analysed such that the reader gets a perfect visualization of the poem.
However the icing on the cake or better put would be the dessert is the conclusion of the book titled ‘Conclusion: Transcending the Roots of Resistance in Language’. In this chapter, Dr. Koshy, discusses the techniques used by Beckett during his early and mature phases. According to him “To point these out – with application, in miniscule, may help broaden our understanding of Beckett’s aesthetics regarding poetry and his ability to execute the same. They also illustrate the change that came over his writing, showing that he was not static creatively’.
The techniques used were –
I. Poetic Devices used were Titling, Punctuation, Lineation, Rhyme & the Stanza, Metre & Rhythm, The Image, Allusiveness, Language.
II. Aesthetic Forms and Structures that Beckett employed.
III. The Major Theme of his work.
A universal truth that Dr. Koshy points out in analysing Echo’s Bones is, “the author attempts to eviscerate and control by gaining mastery over his art where he can make his secret about himself and his painful knowledge of life bearable”. That in a nutshell is the reason why any poet writes.
The main thread of Beckett’s poems deals with nothingness and being. To quote Dr. Koshy, ‘The artist cannot represent Nothingness or Being. He can only offer metaphors for them in his medium. In ‘Whoroscope’, Beckett introduces the egg as a symbol. To quote, “What better symbol could there be for Nothingness, becoming and Being than an egg?” It is ‘nothing’ as yet, yet in it ‘being’ is coming into existence”. Another metaphor used is Descartes’ life. “Descartes’ life, every man’s life, is also similarly potent, pregnant with possibility and metaphor in miniature. In the course of the poem the fragile balance or illusion of beauty is exchanged, exposed or destroyed for reality. The egg is destined to become an omelette. The chicken’s life is aborted. The whiteness of the eggshell is shown to be deceptively soothing. Nothing comes from ‘nothing’ and ‘being’ remains unattainable.”
As Dr. Koshy says, ‘throughout the rest of Beckett’s poems “non- expression” weaves in and out as an inadequate metaphor for being and nothingness and an adequate one for the process or flux of ‘becomingness’ or decay’. It helps him transcend the roots of resistance in language to make powerful poems.
To conclude, this book is a must-read for the student of literature wishing to have an in-depth knowledge of Beckett’s poems. For the amateur, it is a study of the master’s work simplified to a level that can be easily understood being dealt with in a language and style that is easy to absorb.
(Pictures used in this article are courtesy images in the public domain in Wikimedia Commons)
More to read
Book Review: ‘A Treatise On Poetry For Beginners’ by Dr. Ampat Koshy
Indian English Literature, Literary Criticism and Theory
How To Enjoy a Poem: Taking the example of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” or “A Dream Deferred .”
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