Of all the poets over the last few centuries, Sri Aurobindo presents the most unique challenge to the reader. He is not difficult with contorted meanings like Celan or surrealist like Lorca or complex like TS Eliot. These others can still be fathomed if one spends enough time with them; they can be extremely dense, sometimes cryptic to the max, yet, the challenge is in meaning or import.
But Sri Aurobindo needs a new experience and consciousness to understand. In this, he is akin to the ancient Vedic rishis who composed the Vedas and Upanishads. An entirely new range of discernment and awareness is needed. Sri Aurobindo challenges one’s DNA as it were.
Modern poetry has been extremely severe, almost savage, in its criticism of his poetry, though his prose seems relatively well-placed now. The question is is there anything of value in his poetry and, if there is, does it need to be discovered on terms set by him?
To my mind, Sri Aurobindo is exploring the consciousness inherent in sound, among other things. In his best poems and lines, we see a sound-significance that is transformative. He is a poet of sound and the consciousness of sound. When we read passages in Savitri such as ‘The Adoration of the Divine Mother’ or sonnets such as ‘Nirvana’, we find the spiritual experience clearly described verbally but, on closer attention, the experience is created with the sound of the incantation and the harmonies created by a remarkable choice of words. In this, his aim to catch the Upanishadic element in English verse seems to have been realized.
We also see in his poetry the fusion of abstract with concrete, what to us is barely perceived or perceivable is described clearly by him with precise details. This is confusing and vague to the uninformed mind and creates a reaction in the modern mind. But in his best poems, he has found what we might call ‘the subjective correlative’ to paraphrase Eliot.
It is the misfortune of Indian poetry that Sri Aurobindo’s classicism was a mismatch in the age of Eliot and Pound. A lot of bad verse has been written in imitation of the modernist poets in the 20th century and the achievements made by Sri Aurobindo in verse were seldom realized. His experimentations with form poems and new rhythms in English are quite remarkable and sometimes extremely successful, e.g., ‘The Image’ written in quantitative hexameter or the sapphics in his poem ‘The Descent’.
Fame and fortune of a poet are no reflection of his or her excellence. It is my surmise that Sri Aurobindo’s greatness and achievements as a poet shall be duly recognized by Indian critics and critics around the world once they separate their instinctive dislike of his classicism and read him with a more discerning eye and ear.
We have far lesser poets who are well-known and studied with less than half a dozen good poems to their credit. Sri Aurobindo has many more, not only as a poet but also as a poet-translator of Upanishadic and Vedic shlokas.