Ezekiel's poems often touch upon language and the writing process. In "A Time to Change," Ezekiel imagines the poet as "a stubborn workman" who must toil over language in order to reach towards "the perfect poem." This "perfect poem" is characterized by "precise communication of a thought" (p 5). In "On Meeting a Pedant," Ezekiel revokes language, which is "cold as print" and "insidious" for the pleasures of the world: "Give me touch of men and give me smell of / Fornication, pregnancy and spices" (p 9).
Another example of the theme of the power and limits of language in Ezekiel's work is "A Word for the Wind," which laments the speaker's inability to find a word for the wind besides the ones which are already assigned to the wind. Ironically, Ezekiel's poem flows exactly like the wind he is describing, and becomes itself a "word" for the wind. Ezekiel does not shy away from enjambment or the manipulation of rhythm as his words twine over the lines of this poem. For example, lines 3-5 evoke the flowing nature of the wind as the thought stretches over three lines: "verses / moving slowly like the wind / over grass" (21).
In his later poems, after his language simplified greatly, Ezekiel expresses being tired of lofty, complicated, and non-direct language: “I am tired / of irony and paradoxes . of the bird in the hand / and the two in the bush / of poetry direct and oblique / of statement plain or symbolic / of doctrine or dogma” (157). Ezekiel’s poetry turns in the later part of his career towards directness and succinctness.
This is perhaps the most challenging and controversial theme that surfaces in the poetry of Nissim Ezekiel. The idea of the “Indianness” of a work manifests time and again in his poetry. The content written by Nissim Ezekiel is very Indian in its social context. Poems like “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.” and “Night of The Scorpion” deal with extensively Indian issues, such as the prestige accorded to the English language, and the role of superstitions. In “Night of the Scorpion,” the speaker recalls an incident from his childhood in which his mother was stung by a scorpion. The poem uses colloquial but musical language to relay the memory, and introduce questions of class difference, collective mythology, religion, and family.
Ezekiel describes India throughout his fifth collection of poetry, The Exact Name. In the first part of “In India,” he provides a collage of images that help to provide a sense of a place: “Always, in the sun’s eye, / Here among the beggars, / Hawkers, pavement sleepers, / Hutment dwellers, slums / Dead souls of men and gods, / Burnt-out mothers, frightened / Virgins, wasted child / And tortured animal, / All in noisy silence” (131). The slight iambic meter of these lines adds a musicality and vibrancy to Ezekiel’s descriptions. It is important to note that Ezekiel’s descriptions of India center on the people rather than the environment, which suggests an intention on Ezekiel’s part to define a place according to its inhabitants.
In “Background, Casually,” Ezekiel relates his life story and ends the poem on a note about India. He writes about the landscape first: “The Indian landscape sears my eyes. / I have become a part of it / To be observed by foreigners” (181). In these lines, Ezekiel views his environment as an outsider even though he is seen as an insider and local. He continues that he has made a vow to stay in India: “I have made my commitments now. / This is one: to stay where I am, / As others choose to give themselves / In some remote and backwards place. / My backwards place is where I am” (181). Even though Ezekiel has complaints about India and considers it a “backwards” place, he knows that he is seen as an Indian poet, part of the landscape. His decision to stay in India communicates a solidarity with his country that he would only feel from the inside. Although he finds the Indian environment unsatisfactory, he accepts it as his own and decides to work so that it may improve.
Often, Ezekiel adopts different voices to satirize the problems that he sees in Indian society. For example, “Ganga,” from Hymns of Darkness, adopts the voice of a middle-class family that boasts about how well they treat their servants: “We pride ourselves / on generosity / to servants” (222). The poem reveals that their ‘generosity’ amounts to little more than old tea, stale bread, and a few coins for her children.
One thing that Ezekiel is remembered for today is the ever-present skeptical and ironical point of view that emerges in his poetry. This skepticism becomes much stronger as his career as a poet progresses, as can be seen by the sheer number of satirical poems from his later books that are included in the collection, including "Ganga" and "Occasion." However, we can see evidence of this famous skepticism early in his career: in Sixty Poems, Ezekiel’s second collection of poetry, Ezekiel writes about the tension between worldly pleasures and religion in a poem called “Scriptures.” In this poem, the speaker notes that it is hard to feel both at “home” among religious texts and also be drawn to earthly pleasures, such as “habits … or women, cash or / praise by princes, indolence or dreams” (50). On the surface, then, this poem might suggest that one has no option but to withdraw from their own “home” in the scriptures because of the world. However, the speaker shows skepticism towards the power of these scriptures themselves. Rather than be the ultimate good, they are merely “homespun parables” full of base and worldly topics, such as “husbandmen and servants, / scattered seeds, foolish virgins, erring sons” (49). In this way, there is no escape from the “homespun” errors of mankind—whether they originate in scripture or in the real world. This results in a loss of the “parable,” a lack of meaning behind all this debasement, and humanity feeling lost and “accused” when at home, whether this is taken to mean the real world or the scriptures.
Ezekiel’s later poems are characterized by an increased skepticism towards religion and what the speaker calls “superstition.” In “After Reading a Prediction,” the speaker reveals: “I am not superstitious. / The Zodiac predicts a new / creative phase of seven years / for Sagittarians” (155). Similarly, the speaker addresses God in “Theological” with complaints: “Your truth / is too momentous for man / and not always useful. / I’ve stripped off a hundred veils / and still there are more / that cover your Creation” (156).
Ezekiel returns to the theme of memory again and again throughout the Collected Poems. In “Remember and Forget,” from Sixty Poems, the speaker addresses himself with memories from his childhood: “Remember now the time of golden bears / and golliwogs, the first wide-eyed questions / In the dark, the mutinies at dawn / And giant hopes in classrooms, playgrounds, parks” (61). However, the speaker’s musings on his childhood quickly turn somber, as he remembers loneliness and sadness from the past: “Remember, as the light grows upon you, / How you grew, with only silence as a friend, / With sudden traps in books and running brooks / And fear in everything” (61). Once the speaker reaches the emotional root of his memories, the authentic reality of how he felt when he was not happy, he urges himself to let it all go: “Remember all and then forget. Let it go. / Only those alive can be reborn” (61). In this way, the process of memory can become a practice through which a person can redefine himself or herself and come back to life. Additionally, memory acts as a cleansing force that allows the speaker to attain self-knowledge and ultimately ascend. This poem, since it does push towards self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, and letting go, is on the more optimistic side of the spectrum when it comes to Ezekiel’s poetry. Usually in his poems, self-knowledge is much less attainable and the pursuit of true self-knowledge only leads to nothingness. Thus, memory becomes a powerful tool through which the speakers in Ezekiel’s poems can access themselves and move on to the next step in their journeys.
The speaker’s relationship with his own memories in “Midmonsoon Madness,” from The Third, augments the tone of stifling tension that seeps from the lines of this poem. The speaker, who feels overwhelmingly stuck in his life, worries that he did not make the right decisions and that everything he once feared in the past has come to pass. He is discontent with his life as it is, but cannot remember his life as it used to be: “It will always rain like this / incessantly upon the past, / and I shall see nothing clearly / except the future stuff of dreams / repeating what has always been” (104). In these lines, memories from the past melt into musings on the future, and each is dominated by the mindless repetition of the everyday. The speaker’s lack of access to his own past, as well as his uncertainty about his current position in life, builds a feeling of stuckness as he suffers through his moment of madness. In this way, memories from the past are almost equated to one’s own access to their own identity, including knowledge of their wants and security in their present.
Poetry itself is a major theme throughout Ezekiel's works. In "Something to Pursue," the speaker wishes for self-knowledge that will cause him to be "definite as morning" (14). For him, this self-knowledge will be inherently tied to poetry: "There is a way / Emerging from the heart of things; / A man may follow it / Through works or poetry, / From works to poetry / Or from poetry to something else" (lines 15-8, p 14). In this way, poetry holds the power to assist in evolution or ascension. It is not an end goal, but rather a process: "The end does not matter, / The way is everything, / And guidance comes" (14).
Ezekiel also calls upon the work of other poems and lauds it throughout his own work. For example, in "For William Carlos Williams," the speaker (who is the poet) extolls Carlos Williams' work. He writes that even though he loves it, he does not wish to write in the same style as Carlos Williams: "I do not want / to write / poetry like yours / but still I / love / the way you do it" (45). This poem shows Ezekiel's love and appreciation for poetry itself, even though it is a passing pleasure that can not be held on to forever: "It comes to me / Beloved poem, / I love it / And then I let it go" (46).
In “Morning Prayer,” from The Unfinished Man, the speaker prays to God for peace as well as the power through language to change whatever may happen into powerful poetry: “Whatever the enigma, / The passion of the blood, / Grant me the metaphor / To make it human good” (122). Thus, uncertainty and passion can be transferred into a “human good” through metaphor and language, or the process of writing poetry.
Poetry is a major theme in “Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher,” in which the speaker compares writing poetry to watching birds or women: “The best poets wait for words. / The hunt is not an exercise of will / But patient love relaxing on a hill” (135). By this point in his career, Ezekiel’s poetry had progressed to the point where an ars poetica or statement of poetics was immediately well-received. Critics speculated that the birds in the poem symbolize the quest for self-knowledge while the women represent muse-like inspiration. Ezekiel brings the natural world—an elusive, sought after, and often fraught landscape in his earlier works—into his writing process, which suggests harmony, ease, and independence away from the urban sphere. The speaker emphasizes, “To watch the rarer birds, you have to go / Along deserted lands and where the rivers flow” (135).
“Poetry Reading,” on the following page, is Ezekiel’s own meditation on himself as if he were on the outside looking in. The audience at this poetry reading is shocked by the intensity of the poet’s words: “Against those demons who can win? / He drank, he drugged himself, he went / With wives and whores galore. In sin / and song he spelt out what they meant” (136). Ezekiel’s project, of describing himself at a reading as if he were in the audience, speaks to an attempt to capture everything about his poems, including the feeling on the stage when they are performed. Additionally, they emphasize that for Ezekiel, the poetry is heavily based in the personal and vulnerable, as the poet on the stage is sharing his own demons for the audience to enjoy.
Religion is a recurring theme throughout Ezekiel's Collected Works. Ezekiel brushes upon many different religions rather than focusing on one. For example, his early poem "History" does not concern itself with any religion in particular but is instead about one's own right to choose: "It all comes back to individual man / And what he chooses; always, somehow / A failure, knowing all he can, / Accepts the mob or worships snake and cow" (p 12). In these lines, "accepting the mob" might refer to the dominant religion of colonial India, Christianity. Those who choose not to accept the mob might turn instead to Hinduism, which Ezekiel refers to as "worship[ing] the snake and cow."
Ezekiel does not take religious truths for granted and instead allows for uncertainty. In "Something to Pursue," the speaker subverts the certainty of Christianity: "Gethsemane, where Christ was sorrowful / Even unto death, is not the final station / . . . / Empty of faith in the comeliness of God, / Empty of faith in the shapeliness of Man" (p 17). In this passage, the speaker describes a state of being "empty of faith" because of both the insufficiency of God's beauty and the overabundance of man's beauty.
Throughout the Collected Works, religious texts are also used as source-texts that are pulled from, repurposed, and re-evaluated. For example, in “Cain,” the speaker refers to Cain as “a murderer” and notes the parts of his story that have been left out of Genesis: “No mention is made of prolonged remorse. He did not, apparently, dwell on his sin” (78). In this way, Ezekiel is able to reckon with both the culture he comes from—that of the Bene-Israel community in India—as well as the messaging that everyone receives from the Hebrew Bible. In order to successfully complete this questioning, Ezekiel must distance himself from the text and restate things as he sees them. In this way, religion is not presented as an eternal truth and is instead presented as something that can be debated or reckoned with through your own intellectual pursuits.
In a similar vein, Ezekiel pushes the boundaries of religion in “Two Nights of Love,” which compares religion to sexuality: “After a night of love I turned to love, / The threshing thighs, the singing breasts, / Exhausted by the act, desiring it again / Within a freedom old as earth / And fresh as God’s name, through all / The centuries of darkened loveliness” (47). Ezekiel also blurs the line between sexuality and religion in “Delighted by Love” from Sixty Poems. In this poem, the lovers' bodies become religious temples in which a sense of total spiritual satisfaction is reached: “By rituals holy in the temple / Where life creates and is created, / All kinships here are consummated, / By thrust of list / When all that burns in breasts or lips is sated” (82).
The difference between the city and nature
The theme of the difference between the city and nature first arises in "Morning Prayer" in the first section of the Collected Works, "A Time to Change." In "Morning Prayer," the speaker calls upon a power that comes from nature—that of "the white wings of morning," which symbolize the passage of time and cyclical newness. These "white wings of morning" are intrinsically tied to the movement of the Earth. The speaker calls upon them and asks them to "shelter" those who live in the city: "men / Sleepless or drugged with dreams / Whose working hours / Drained of power / Flow towards futility" (20). Thus, the speaker calls upon nature to help with an issue that affects a certain collective and bring meaning to their life. The speaker also asks the "white wings of morning" to "Bring . . . city masks / A taste of spring / And clarity" (20). In this way, nature can have a positive effect on the psyche of those who live in the city and don their "city masks." Finally, the power of nature reveals the truth. The speaker hopes the "white wings of morning" will "Unveil, expose, [and] expound" upon the lives of those who live in the city and allow them to "know lucidity" through their relationship with nature.
Sometimes, the power of nature is able to reign in the city with positive results. In “Townlore,” from Sixty Poems, the speaker describes the effect of the rain on the metropolis: “This large sprawling town is able / To cool itself, soothed by the rain” (81). The speaker notes that the rain has hampered the dangerous aspects of the city and brought it back towards the positive characteristics that are associated with nature in Ezekiel’s poetry: “No longer date the metal roads / Menace the wayward vagabond. / The wayside trees expectantly / Have filled the air with green / And hope of love” (81). The speaker savors the harmony between the city and nature, as his environment molds itself around his own pursuit of joy: “The web of tramlines and the routes / Of rushing busses melt into / One unbarricaded road / That leads to you” (81). Even more interestingly, the title of the poem, “Townlore,” suggests that when the city and nature become harmonious the needs of the collective join with or become the needs of the individual, until a perfect balance is achieved. The fact that the city and nature can exist as opposites and still magically coincide within Ezekiel’s poetry shows the elasticity and movement that Ezekiel allows for in his work. He does not see the world as static and instead understands it as shifting between multiple states, as the individual herself shifts through different states of mind.
“Urban,” from The Unfinished Man, develops this theme with a speaker who finds himself lost within a city and yearning for nature: “The hills are always far away / He knows the broken roads, and moves / In circles tracked within his head” (117). The speaker feels stuck among the “broken roads,” doomed to move “in circles,” as he yearns for a natural escape. A couple of lines near the end sum up his suffering: “The city like a passion burns, / He dreams of morning walks, alone, / And floating on a wave of sand” (117). Throughout Ezekiel’s work, there is little peace to be found in the city, and yet, the speaker is doomed to remain because of his social ties: “But still his mind its traffic turns / Away from beach and tree and stone / To kindred clamour close at hand” (117).
The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Questions and Answers
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