Like any art form, poetry is considered universal. It ranks with music, dance, and fine arts as a form or process of expressing Man’s thoughts and passions. Unlike other art forms, however, poetry — and in fact literature — has a peculiar characteristic. As a medium it uses language, and unlike other mediums — like rocks, paints, beat — language is not universal, it is cultural. Since culture varies according to geography, time, religion, and gender — it is without doubt that there are multitudes of different languages. Thus poetry becomes cultural or non-universal in form, a characteristic that confines the production and reception of poetry to people that understand the form(language, symbolism, idiom etc etc) that poetry use —a relatively small class of people.
Some time ago, our English class read T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”, a long poem in the form of a soliloquy on whether or not the persona should or should not approach a woman he loves, eat a peach, or part his hair. Critiques declared it as the modern Hamlet — a reflection of the consciousness of the Modern Man. They exclaimed that the poem is a concise description of resent ideologies and philosophies. With a lot of difficulty and guidance, we understood and even appreciated the poem, primarily because we are familiar with the “language” that Elliot used. But would a farmer or just abut any individual unfamiliar with the nuances of poetry understand o appreciate it? Maybe, but the most probable scenario is that they would understand the major points of the poem, but t not recognize little details that make the poem great — the fact that it contains excerpts from major English writers and that the images in the poem echoes its sense.
It can also be noted that the allusions present in “Prufrock” are Western in origin. There are cuts from Chaucer, Donne, Shakespeare and about every other canonical English writers. This technique of alluding to the Masters is not present in Prufruck alone. In fact, this is prevalent in the literary works produced in the past four hundred years. Allusion in poetry is not only for aesthetic purposes but also a way of showing respect to someone/something great. That almost all allusions are to Western pieces, imply that literature is indeed or what is considered to be “great” literature are essentially Western.
Consequently the standard for literature became that of the West’s and the habit of Western-oriented poetry is established. It became increasingly more difficult for new and different to be accepted as great or even as poetry/literature. Thus Eastern writers — in order to be great — have to come up to this Western ideals and in the process become Western.
The most common misconception is that poetry/literature is universal because it tackles the Human condition — it is a reflection of Humanity. That even if an idea is stated in a different way, themes behind certain poems transcend culture, time, and therefore language. It is. That the indicission felt by Prufrock is no different from the indecision that Rama felt in Bhagavad Gita. Yes. But would an Indian appreciate the fact that Prufrock’s internal conflict is about hair-parting and eating peach? Would an Englishman understand the Bhagavad Gita if it is written in Hindu or even understand the essentially Asian concern of wheter he should or should etc etc?
The fact is that form and meaning come hand in hand. The form determines the meaning and vice versa. There cannot be one without the other. Thus if a person does not even go beyond understanding what the form expresses, what he sees is just a fragment of the piece of literature, a part of the whole.
Since people are divided into classes of individuals with different colors, occupation, and gender each with their won way of expressing their already varying experiences even of the same events — there can never be one unifying and universal language, form, and therefore nver be any kind of universal literature.