manu_thmbManohar  Shetty




(‘Sunday Deccan Herald’, Bangalore, January 25, 2009)

MANOHAR SHETTY dwells at length on the beleaguered English language poets of India and finds a telling and eloquent resonance…and resilience.


THE BOOKS page editor of a weekly newsmagazine from Delhi believes that poetry is something to dabble in to overcome writer’s block, something ‘do-able’ to recharge a writer’s inspiration for the apparently more arduous task of writing a novel. At best, it is a kind of net practice before the final, decisive Test match. A famous Indian novelist in English has remarked that a novel is a work of ‘immense labour’, unlike a poem or a painting which can be ‘produced overnight’. On the comical side, Nissim Ezekiel has recounted the story of how once a part of his poem was reproduced in a weekly magazine with the line at the end: ‘To be continued next week’. On the train to Go where I live, I once met an English Lit graduate student from England who had never heard of Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney. I know a former professor of English literature who has taught at some of the best colleges in the country and abroad who routinely trumpets the hackneyed and sentimental work of an antiquated regional poet

Apart from that weekly editor plagued by constraints of space, all these individuals are well-read, sophisticated, possibly civilized; they also share some misconceptions on contemporary poetry. The disdain of the books page editor translates into miniscule 200-word reviews of poetry, may be twice or thrice a year, buried at the bottom of her allotted space. A novel can of course be a work of ‘immense labour’ (though P G Wodehouse, Georges Simenon, Alexander McCall Smith—and Chetan Bhagat—may disagree). Unfortunately, in the case of this famous novelist, the labour often shows in page after page of research failing to blend into the fiction. It is ‘laboured’ work indeed. Much to his readers’ dismay, he obviously does not believe in the poet’s words: ‘Art lies in concealing art’. He would also not believe that a poem can often take more than a year to take its final shape. Can a painting be done overnight? Perhaps at gun-point, though the finishing touches may take another month. The British student found poetry too ‘difficult ‘and had dropped it from her options. Some poetry can be ‘difficult’ but that barrier can be overcome with a little patience and concentration – and the rewards can be overwhelming. In any case, is poetry more difficult than James Joyce or George Eliot? Her ignorance of her own country’s former Poet Laureate and a Nobel Prize winner doesn’t speak much for a well-rounded literary education. The retired professor’s championing of the poetaster brings into question her standards on judging the quality of poetry. She may well believe, like some other old academics in the field, that poetry ends with T S Eliot or even earlier. But the message she sends out on what constitutes good poetry is misleading and is inadvertently disparaging of practitioners of hard-edged, precise, deeply felt modern poetry

These responses sum up the general attitude towards English language poetry in India: excruciatingly patronizing, inferior to the novel, a ‘time-pass’ hobby to be browsed through again ‘next week’, and only the old and the venerable are worth knowing. But poetry invariably has answers to all these in the form of poetry itself. Here are some lines on the critic from ‘Pipling’ by Theodore Roethke: ‘…He heaps few honors on a living head, / He loves himself, and the illustrious dead; / He pipes, he squeaks, he quivers through his nose,–/ Some cannot praise him: I am one of those.’ For a more cutting indictment of the attitude towards poetry, readers may turn to a poem called ‘What the Chairman Told Tom’ by Basil Bunting.

When it comes to publishing, the attitude amplifies into supreme indifference or an avuncular pat on the bum for the bum who haste temerity to write poems and actually wants to publish them. Apart from the sadly defunct Ravi Dayal Publisher and an honourable mention or two to Viking and Penguin India, most publishers treat poetry like a contagious disease. Even if they reluctantly agree to publish, for the poet another journey, full of lurking dangers, has just begun. After five or six years of immense labour that has produced about 35 to 40 usable poems, what will the book eventually look like? Will there be equal space between the stanzas? Will the couplets end up as quatrains? Will printing errors alter the very meaning of a poem? Will the polished free verse plummet into a disastrous free-fall? The fears are invariably well founded. A recent anthology published by the National Book Trust has as many as twenty errors – and errors in the punctuation, that artful weapon of poetry, were not even counted. Another poet complained that his publishers had left out the entire title of a poem. Yet another poet found that his carefully wrought five-line stanzas had been cannoned into a jagged six-line configuration followed by a verse in eleven lines. His beautifully crafted couplets had been mangled into two chunks of prose-like paragraphs. The cavalier cruelty left him numbed and speechless for days.

My own experience with Oxford University Press, New Delhi has left me quite incredulous. My book ‘Domestic Creatures’ (1994) was the last individual collection of poems published by them in India before the august institution banned the publication of all such individual collections worldwide. About two years after the publication, just before the book was remaindered, I was offered copies at a 70 percent discount (I bought 25 and have only one left now-‘bound’ for posterity!). About a year later I received a royalty statement. There was no princely sum involved, only a notice that I owed Rs. 17 (or some such piffling amount) to OUP. I was puzzled at first, but it finally dawned on me that the sales of my book were so meagre that the company had been unable to recover the paltry advance they had paid me–they had fallen Rs. 17 short. I received these reminders regularly for a few years and my admiration for their dunning and accounting skills grew, only dimming a little when I realized that the postage cost more than the amount I owed them. Happily, the letters have stopped and my bad debts presumably written off.

If it is any consolation to rising young poets, the older, established poets still have a problem finding a suitable and caring publisher. A salutary journey has been that of Jayanta Mahapatra whose twenty books of poetry and translations have helter-skeltered through some fifteen different publishers. Even a poet of the stature of Keki N. Daruwalla has hop-scotched through six different publishers for his ten books of poetry. For many poets the times have come full circle, to a return to the small press which flourished in the mid-seventies and early eighties, especially in Mumbai, the foundry of English language poetry in India. Such presses have some inherent advantages: the poet can play a hands-on role with the cover, the typeface, the binding and above all in the elimination of printing errors and ensuring the right ‘look’ of the poem. It is not surprising that the best produced poetry books have emerged from these small presses. Leading the way has been Clearing House, the totemic press inspired by Adil Jussawalla in the mid-seventies. But there have been others like ‘Pras Prakashan’ which has brought out stunning editions of the late Arun Kolatkar’s books, ‘Newground’,and of late ‘Yeti Books’, ‘Aark Arts’ and ‘Harbour Line’. Ever since Arvind Krishna Mehrotra brought out stencilled editions of books under his ‘Ezra-Fakir Editions’ in the mid-sixties, these presses blossom every now and then like orchids, keeping the flag of poetry waving at full mast. Distribution may be a problem, but with a maximum print run of a thousand copies, it is not an insurmountable one. Many of the copies will be sold by word of mouth. Some will be sent out for review -with the prayer that the book does not fall in the hands of a vindictive or ignorant reviewer. Some will go to libraries, a few to fellow poet friends. In fact, it is surprising how soon one runs out of copies.

The literary magazine scenario is grimmer. There are virtually no such credible journals now which feature poetry prominently. ‘Opinion Literary Quarterly’, ‘Quest’, ‘New Quest’, ‘Vagartha’, ‘Tenor’ ‘Kavya Bharati’ and ‘Kavi- India’ fought short but valiant battles to stay alive as did the ‘The Bombay Literary Review’. ‘Chandrabhaga’ from Cuttack survived longer than most, but compared to the West the Indian poet lives in an airless bunker. In the UK alone there are over a hundred journals devoted exclusively to the propagation of poetry and in the United States the number is well over five hundred. Some of them even pay the poet – not a fortune but about 30 Pounds a poem or a few dollars. Most offer a year’s free subscription. More importantly, many of these journals are funded by the affiliated University or by generous grants from arts councils. These journals are in no danger of perishing like mayflies. Several of these journals also hold periodical poetry competitions with some decent prize money on offer.

Working in various magazines and Sunday papers, I discovered that more people in India write poetry – or what they assume to be poetry – than actually read it. It is a lopsided and ill-informed scenario. Given the straitened conditions they work in, the achievements and the sheer resilience of the genuine English language poet in India have been remarkable. I have less of an affinity with those working out of American universities and in the flourishing milieu of literary Britain. Proximity to publishing outlets and a plethora of peers do make a difference. It is plainly delusional to believe that editors there are keeping tabs on poetry produced here. Dom Moraes has long been forgotten and very few have even heard of Nissim Ezekiel. Editors of poetry journals have enough on their plates with accepted poems often kept in cold storage for over a year before they gain the sanctity of print.

With prose, of course, it’s a different story with hawkeyed literary agents and sundry publicists scouting the land for the next big talent, the next big bank balance. The great disparity between the reception to prose and to poetry is only widening. It can be depressing, but in my dark moments I occasionally write light verse. Here is one called ‘Vertical’: ‘Prose is horizontal/Poetry vertical. / They get the fat advances. /we take our slim chances.’


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