Kerim Friedman sent me a link to Ruth E. Kott’s “Language duel” (The University of Chicago Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2010), about Yigal Bronner, “the first scholar to seriously study Sanskrit puns and bitextual poems”:

Called slesa, the literary device was used by Sanskrit poets from the sixth century to as late as the 20th. The same text can be read multiple ways simultaneously. Different from an allegory, Bronner writes in Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration (Columbia University Press, 2010), slesa “typically involves a metamorphosis of the entire utterance—nouns, verbs, and prepositions—in a way that creates a new sentence with a new vocabulary.” Slesa can inhabit a word, a phrase, a sentence, or an entire piece. A word like naksatra, Bronner cites as an example in his introduction, which means “planet,” can also be read as two separate words: the “negative particle na and the word ksatra (warrior).” In commentaries printed alongside a slesa poem, single verses are usually discussed as two separate ones….
In Extreme Poetry, Bronner traces slesa’s evolution from its first-known use by sixth-century poet Subandhu. A century later slesa was part of most narrative poems, “often occupying entire sections or chapters and typically appearing at the centermost plot juncture,” Bronner writes. By the early eighth century, poets were merging the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Structural and plot parallels lent the two tales to slesa. When the male protagonists, the Mahabharata’s Arjuna and the Ramayana’s Rama, attract nonhuman females, both men spurn the women; Arjuna refuses and humiliates the “dancing-girl from heaven” Urvaśī, and Rama physically harms demoness Surpanakha. When the two epics were fused, poets came to embrace a new aesthetic ideal, Bronner writes, in which “telling a single story was no longer the highest goal for a work of narrative art.”
The use of slesa continued, with fluctuating popularity, until colonial times, when it “gradually came to be seen as the epitome of everything that was decadent and distasteful about South Asian culture.” The bias against “the clever manipulation of language in literature,” says Bronner, has its roots in the Romantic movement, which valued simple, unembellished literature. Since then, Sanskritists haven’t touched the subject. “Few living scholars have actually read a bitextual poem,” Bronner writes, “and no modern scholar has seriously analyzed one.”

The piece ends with an intriguing comparison:

Poets who use slesa, says Bronner, aren’t trying to be vague or abstract. Comparing a slesa poem to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, he notes a difference between “creating ambivalence and creating two or more very clear readings that are not at all meant to be ambivalent.” Although Sanskrit poets played with language, they didn’t try to confuse or misdirect readers: “The idea is, ‘We want you to read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and maybe a third meaning at the same time,’” Bronner says, “‘but we want you to get exactly where you want to go.’”

Fascinating stuff—thanks, Kerim! (My old Sanskrit professor would be unhappy with me if I did not point this out, so: technically, slesa should be śleṣa—the two s’s are quite different phonemes.)


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    “Latin me that, my Trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into our eryan” seems apposite here.

  2. Here are two English-language poems that are loyalist when read one way and treasonable when read the other: an anonymous Jacobite’s and a United Irishman’s. Far from the same thing, but with a slightly similar feel. (Imagine, when you read the second one, that the second stanza is printed to the right of the first.)

  3. Pushkin has wonderfully frivolous “В глуши, измучась жизнью постной …” with Russian vs. Church-Slavonic wordplay.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    This sort of extended punning is also characteristic of classical Japanese poetry – called kakekotoba 掛詞 “pivot words”

  5. Kári Tulinius says

    That is indeed fascinating! I wish there was an extended example of how this works in the link.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    @Kari T:
    I presume you meant LH’s post rather than my comment, but if you’d like a Japanese example there is this, by Ono no Komachi, famous Heian poetess and famously cruel beauty:
    Hana no iro wa
    Utsurinikeri na
    Itazura ni
    Waga mi yo ni furu
    Nagame seshi ma ni
    The first three lines mean something like “The colour of the flower has passed away in vain” (a pretty standard Buddhist trope, in which “colour” is also a standard reference to good looks, beauty etc); “waga mi” is “my body”; “yo ni” is either “in the world” or “at night”; “furu” is either “fall (of rain)” or “pass (of life)”; “nagame” is either “deep thought” or “long drawn out rain”; “seshi ma ni” is “in the interval of doing …”
    So the poem simultaneously means
    “The colour of the flowers has gone while I am in the everlasting, pointless rain at night”
    “The colour of the flowers has gone while I muse deeply about my body’s aging pointlessly in this world”
    I can’t find a good link, unfortunately. It’s a very well known poem because it’s one of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

  7. Is this all a really elevated use of crash blossoms?

  8. @v uwe, these immortal lines “Я не парю — сижу орлом … ” made me realize that I know by heart one classic example of Russian whitespace-play (where Voinovich’s Captn. Milyaga discovers fecal matters in verses, too).

  9. каку вижу, каку слышу

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    I fear to invoke the wrath of Language Log by *ever* complaining about the use of a passive-voice construction, but I was somewhat puzzled by “gradually came to be seen as the epitome of everything that was decadent and distasteful about South Asian culture.” Came to be seen by whom? Outsider Sanskritists, or whichever subset of the local literati continued to write verse in Sanskrit (and/or other Indic languages) without that feature, or both?

  11. Kári Tulinius says

    David Eddyshaw: I presume you meant LH’s post rather than my comment, but if you’d like a Japanese example there is this, by Ono no Komachi, famous Heian poetess and famously cruel beauty
    Well, I meant in the link that languagehat posted. I’m curious as to how śleṣa works, in terms of the mechanics of sanskrit language and poetry.
    J. W. Brewer: Came to be seen by whom?
    I understood that it referred to the general opinion of scholars and poets. These kind of opinion shifts are hard to trace. For instance, the stock of authors can rise or fall without any particular reason that’s easy to find. Yet at the same time, it’s easy to say that, for instance, Edward Arlington Robinson was beloved in his lifetime and for a decade or two after his death, but he is mostly forgotten today and held in low esteem by those who know about him. Tracing how that happened is much harder. My B.A. thesis was about Cummings and I explored how he was received in his lifetime and how he’s gone up and down in scholarly esteem, but it’s still remarkably hard to figure out the whys and hows. In an academic essay the passive voice is anathema, but in a short article like the one above, it’s necessary to use the passive voice to describe a shift in critical opinion that everyone knows happened, but nobody is quite sure how or why.

  12. Not quite on point, but interesting:
    Vers holorimes : dans un distique, les vers se prononcent de la même manière. Exemples :
    Gal, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime
    Galamment de l’arène à la tour Magne, à Nîmes.
    (Marc Monnier ; Attribué à Victor Hugo dans Lexique des termes littéraires, sous la dir. de M. Jarrety)
    Dans ces meubles laqués, rideaux et dais moroses,
    Danse, aime, bleu laquais, ris d’oser des mots roses (…)
    (Attribué à Théodore de Banville, cité dans Grand Robert de la langue française)
    Lire la suite.

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