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Stephen Gillis self-avowedly a committed poet, who wishes to convey the message of harmonious co-existence to the strife-torn humanity and soothe its bruised soul. Thus the Angst of alienation in Gill’s poetry acts as a catalyst in catapulting him on his journey in search of a meaningful and spiritually fulfilling existence, says Shweta Saxena in her research paper
ANGST OF ALIENATION IN STEPHEN GILL'S POETRY
By Shweta Saxena
Stephen Gill’s poetry is conspicuous for its message of peace and harmony in the society. Through his poems, Gill affirms his belief that “the malady of religious and racial fanaticism and violence lies in the non-acceptance of the values of tolerance, understanding, and co-existence”1 Besides this, Gill’s poetry contains abiding echoes of an alienated artistic soul. The present paper tries to foreground flashes of existential angst that lie dormant in the poetry of Gill. The angst of alienation, which is felt very often by an artistic soul, can influence a person in two ways—in a negative way it can make him a pessimist and escapist, while acting positively, it can motivate a person to work more vigorously towards making this world a better place. Accordingly, the present paper endeavours to reveal that in Stephen Gill’s poetry the angst of alienation was experienced as a positive force that impelled him to become a committed artist, striving for the cause of betterment of humanity.
Sifting through the pages of Gill’s poetry collections, it is not difficult to find the agony of an isolated soul. This alienation and isolation might have sprung from the fact that Gill witnessed from close quarters the fury of religious fanaticism and the agony of displacement, both physical and mental. C. L. Khatri recommends that
his poetry should be read and evaluated in the light of his past nightmarish experiences in India when communal riots broke out in the wake of partition of India. It made him migrate from India and settle in Canada. But there are also the memories of brutality and tortured childhood that kept haunting him like his own shadow. Purged in the fire of sufferings, the young Stephen evolved into a muse full of compassion and he made it a summum bonum of his life to fight the violence, hatred and enmity and embrace the suffering masses with love and sympathy2
His poetry collection Shrine abounds with the images of a lonely and desolated soul that passionately aspires to break the obdurate mould of racial and communal orthodoxy and liberate humanity from its hold. In the poem titled “Self,” Gill acknowledges himself as “A homeless beggar” who wanders “to catch a glimpse of reality/from different angles/on the pieces of glass”3 Again in the poem “An Immigrant Complains,” Gill voices out the despair of a lonely soul:
His feathers flutter
wounded by sickles of bigotry
in an estranged world
around the isle of loneliness.4
Here Gill sounds very much like the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard, who stands “like a lonely fir tree, egotistically isolated, looking toward something higher, . . throwing no shadow, only the wood dove building its nest in [his] branches”5 Further in the poem “Legacy,” Gill says that he has planted in his yard “the trees/which give the fruits of pain/fear, loneliness/and self-destruction.”6
But the poet does not want his progeny to bear this pain. Hence he wishes to leave “abundant pills” of peace and harmony to relieve his children from the “headache” of animosity. These pills are nothing but his poems that are filled with the profoundest emotion of amity. In order to soothe his disturbed psyche, Gill moves from place to place, but his terrible thoughts refuse to leave his company. In the poem “Tenants in Me,” Gill admits that even after immigrating to a peaceful land, he is unable to forget the horror of inhuman violence in the name of religion that inflicted the place of his birth:
The immigrant in me
talks of the days
when religiosity killed innocents
of different creeds.
Those painful shrieks
hidden in his blood
stagger at night.7
Gill professes in the poem “A New Canadian in Toronto” that even in the city of Toronto he does not find peace, since “the lips of this city/smell like the plastic flowers/and its eyes display/the festivals of the orphans.”8 He feels isolated in the city of Toronto, for “the word friendship/you’ll hardly find in its book. /The cover is attractive though/there is nothing inside to read. /The words are hieroglyphic; /it needs ages to decipher them.”9 The pang that reflects through these lines is the one felt by an immigrant who has lived through and survived against the hostility generated mainly out of the uncosmopolitan profile of his so-called cosmopolitan surroundings. The range of emotions and sentiments experienced by Gill is common to most of the unfairly treated immigrants. The supercilious attitude of the mainstream citizens, hurtful insults and motivated racial assaults cripple them both physically and psychologically and, as a reaction to the feeling of hurt, they take recourse in voicing their protest through the medium of writing10
Gill’s poetry collection Songs Before Shrine vividly conveys the alienation and isolation felt by an artist. In the poem “Birth of Poems” Gill writes:
the birds of their blood
weave purrs and growls
with a single loom.
They are cats
walking in the darkness of solitude11
In another poem “Isle of Art,” the poet paints the picture of an isolated island that provides him peace and comfort, and serves as a retreat “from the life-stifling smoke/from the heartbreak house.”12 Further in the poem “The World of Poetry,” the poet writes:
The world of poetry
is woven with rainbow strings
sorted in the secret caves of desire
the source of that supreme grace
in the womb of solitary hours
during the creative nights of its conception13
However, the desire for peace and solitude, expressed in these lines, seems to be a prerequisite for artistic creation. It should not be seen as one with the kind of social alienation expressed elsewhere in Gill’s poetry.
The recurring voices of alienation suggest a deep rooted existential angst in the psyche of the poet. In the existential philosophy there are two distinguishing “stages of Angst. In the first instance, Angst is the disturbing and ‘uncanny’ mood which summons a person to reflect on his individual existence and its ‘possibilities’. It is this which people are more than ready to pass off as a ‘funny turn’, returning with relief to the ‘tranquillizing’ ways of the ‘they’. But suppose a person ‘faces up’ to his Angst, accepting the truths about his existence which it intimates. Then a number of options appear, including modulation into that resolute, sober and ‘joyful’ Angst to which Heidegger refers.”14 In Gill’s poetry these two successive stages of Angst are clearly discernible. In the poem “Me,” the poet thoughtfully reflects over the possibilities of his own existence and writes, “I want to ask/how I am/Let me find me/my smiles/my own hurts.”15 The poem titled “Self” also contains an enquiry after the true nature of the poet’s existence, wherein he tries to seek his original self by peeping into the mirror of psyche, surveying the landscapes of books, looking into the lakes of strange eyes, swimming across the waters of solitude, roaming in the jungles of thoughts and exploring mirages.16 After coming face to face with the disturbing reality, the poet, however, does not pass it off as a ‘funny turn,’ he rather faces up to it. Since “the kind of nirvana he contemplates comes neither from renouncing the world nor sitting before the idols of gods and chanting their names but in establishing a harmonious social order.”17 The existential Angst positively motivates him to strive for such “forms of thought and existence in which people are ‘at home’ with their world and each other, but not at the cost of ‘losing themselves’”18 Gill’s anxiety is rooted in his desire for making this world a better place, for which he incessantly strives in his poetry. Maryanne Raphael rightly describes his poetry and writes,
his poems are strong and yet tender, mysterious at times; at others, comfortable and comforting, like old slippers to be worn around the house. But he does not allow us to relax for long, for suddenly there is a scorpion of a metaphor ready to shock us into an awareness necessary for our psychological and spiritual growth. Stephen’s poetry penetrates our most private perceptions. No matter how unthreatening and restful it may appear, there is always a surprise to jolt us forward, much like the power of a koan.19
Gill seeks to ward off the ghost of alienation by escaping, very often, in the peaceful world of the dove, which is a recurring image in his poetry. In the poem “To a Dove,” Gill says that “enveloped by my own shadows/I dare to enter your brave world/of rainbow colours/which nourish your flowing life.”20 In another poem “Flight of the Dove,” Gill depicts the world of dove as unblemished from the faults of human beings:
some unknown voice calling her
to be above the confusing cries
of mindless feverishness
and the hounds of alienation
from the houses of infamy
of social upheavals.21
In fact, image of ‘dove’ emerges rather prominently in Gill’s poetry and it is pregnant with some deep meaning and significance. Explaining the symbolic significance of ‘dove’ in different religions and cultures, Gill states:
the name dove is given to a bird in the pigeon family. Doves live throughout the world from deserts to tropical forests. Due to its soft cooing sound and affectionate disposition it is symbolized as the emblem of peace. Among Christians, it is used for God’s love in any manifestation. In Christian art it often symbolizes hope, peace, Holy Spirit and even martyrdom. The dove also signifies the soul as well as gentleness and purity22.
In Gill’s poetry also ‘dove’ carries different connotations at different places. Sometimes it is symbolic of peace, other times of poetic imagination, and at still other it signifies divine grace. The imagery of ‘dove,’ in all its varied manifestations, appears to be suggesting cure for the alienated soul of the poet and encouraging him on the path of attaining a fuller existence.
Another significant aspect of Gill’s poetry is that the alienation of the poet is not a self-inflicted exile; it is due to the circumstances of his being that he finds himself aloof from the general current of humanity. The sense of seclusion naturally gives a melancholic tone to his poetry. In R. K. Singh’s opinion, “the overall atmosphere created in the poems reflecting his sociopolitical awareness is one of gloom and despair with a degree of pronounced melancholia. Disappointment is the keynote of this melancholia, whether with edgy complications of social insecurity or with insoluble problems of political instability.”23 But deep in his heart there is also a desire to assimilate in the mainstream of life. Praising Gill for spreading the message of mutual love and tolerance Rochelle L. Holt writes,
While most are struggling in the Nineties to stress the differences of many cultures, Stephen Gill is professing the opposite, a more complex cognition which the masses have not yet learned in yearning for separate glorification of each race, each colour, each sex, each age. . . . the poet tells us through his work that we are beyond brotherhood and sisterhood as we achieve the forgotten meaning of “neighbourhood,” not isolated and separate but one large melting pot where we all appreciate our uniqueness while affirming our similarities24 .
In the poem “Go Back,” Gill asserts that he considers himself an inseparable part of the country of his migration, that is, Canada:
I came here
carrying the lily of my dreams.
I have offered
the boon of my life
to my new mother
and the warmth of my blood
to the snow25
Gill expresses his full faith in the notion of universal brotherhood and appeals to his detractor that he should give up his parochialism, since “the world has become a village/where no one is an island to self/anymore/anymore.”26 In his poem “My Canada” from the collection Songs Before Shrine, Gill praises Canada for its multicultural ethos:
a serene temple
for every creed
for every breed.
My heart will sing
always for thee
my lips will chant
night and day for thee.
Gill feels that in Canada there are ample opportunities for an artist to work freely. And like Sartre, Gill also perceives his freedom in being a part of the society at large, not in egotistical detachment. In Sartre’s view,
freedom is discovered only in the act, is one with the act; it is the foundation of the connections and interactions which constitute the internal structure of the act; it never is enjoyed but is revealed in and by its products; it is not an inner power of snatching one’s self out of the most urgent situations, for there is no outside or inside for man. But it exists, on the contrary, for engaging one’s self in present action and constructing a future, it is that by which there is born a future which permits understanding and changing the present.28
In Gill’s opinion poets should exercise their creative power to influence the society, he states that the poets are involved with many aspects of life . . . . Lorca and Byron gave their lives for the cause of liberation. Among the written documents, the Vedas, the Bible, and the Koran have a great impact on the minds of people. Lately, Pentagon papers concerning the Vietnam War have changed the thinking of several Americans, and a book titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stow was partly responsible for the liberation of the slaves in the USA. I hope that my writings about peace will cause change in the thinking of my readers.29
Gill’s poetic vision aspires to change the unfortunate condition of the present by envisaging a glorious future full of “unconditional love and global peace through a democratically elected world government.”30
Ultimately, he believes in the life of action, not of renouncement. He is self-avowedly a committed poet, who wishes to convey the message of harmonious co-existence to the strife-torn humanity and soothe its bruised soul. Thus the Angst of alienation in Gill’s poetry acts as a catalyst in catapulting him on his journey in search of a meaningful and spiritually fulfilling existence.
1Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
2Khatri, C. L. Rev. of Shrine by Stephen Gill, Poetcrit (India), January 2000, pages: 103-104:
3Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
4----------------------------Benson: World University Press, 1999
5Jaspers, Karl. “Existenzphilosophie.” Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. Walter
Kaufmann. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1962. 131-205.
6Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
7Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
8Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
9Gill, Stephen. Shrine. Benson: World University Press, 1999
10Singh, R. K. and Mitali De Sarkar. “A Search for Elysium.” The Mawaheb International (Canada)
11 Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. New Delhi: Authorspress, 2007
12Gill, Stephen. -------------------------------------------------------------
13Gill, Stephen. -------------------------------------------------------------
14Cooper, David E. Existentialism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
15Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. New Delhi: Authorspress, 2007
17Chambial, D. C. “Songs for Harmony.” 1999. Poetcrit, India, July 1999, page 94
18Cooper, David E. Existentialism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
19Raphael, Maryanne. “Gill’s Poetry Enriches Our Life.” Bridge-in-Making (India),
Jan.-April 1998, pages 41-45
20Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. New Delhi: Authorspress, 2007
21Gill, Stephen. Shrine, World University, 1999, page 145
22Sarangi, Jaydeep. Interview with Stephen Gill. Pakistan Christian Post. 4th Sep, 2007. Oct 2,
23Singh, R. K. and Mitali De Sarkar. “A Search for Elysium.” The Mawaheb International (Canada)
24Holt, Rochelle L. “A Call for Peace.” 1992. The Pilot (North Carolina, USA), January 20, 1992.
25Gill, Stephen. Songs Before Shrine. New Delhi: Authorspress, 2007
28Grene, Marjorie. Introduction to Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968
29Agarwal, N. K. “Stephen Gill on His Writing and Diaspora.” Asian Tribune. August 13, 2007.
Oct 10, 2007. .
*This paper is to be included in the forthcoming book Discovering Stephen Gill :A Collection
of Papers and Articles, edited by Dr. Nilanshu Agarwal.
Shweta Saxena is a Research Scholar with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
at IIT, Kanpur, India