POETRY MAGAZINE’S INDIA ISSUE, JULY/AUGUST 2019

Image result for poetry in india

Poetry’s India issue is not an India issue.

In the globalist introduction by editors Kazim Ali and Rajiv Mohabir, we are told countries do not exist; only colonies and far-flung sub-cultures do.

In their introduction to Poetry’s “Global Anglophone Indian Poems,” the editors wish to erase the nation of India:

“Indian” is the wrong word to encompass  and label diasporic subjectivities of South Asians that descend from a system of indenture.

This sounds like something one would hear in the British Foreign Office around 1933.

Narratives flip. History repeats. The optimism of Indian independence from the British in the middle of the 20th century has been replaced by the pessimism of learned, anti-colonialist academics, who hold that there was no “Indian” independence from the “British” after all—because, according to Ali and Mohabir, “There is no such thing as cultural purity—Indian or not.”

A nation—which gathers together differences in a happy embrace—is this possible? It was not, according to the British Empire, whose very rule depended on division, nor is it anything the editors wish to get behind, spending most of the introduction asserting India isn’t real. Because nothing “culturally pure” exists. Which we all know, but…

“Culture” is a term always used broadly, and in terms of connection—and this is the very essence of the word; and this aspect of it shouldn’t inspire fear, unless one wants to get rid of culture altogether. We all admire gardens, and gardens grow, even as they remain gardens. Nations are nations in as much as they have a culture which binds the nation as a nation together, and this is a good thing. The editors, however, see danger:

The notion of a culturally pure India is a dangerous weapon leveraged to maintain social distance, as in some cases it fans anti-Muslim and anti-Black politics.

Is “social distance” civility? What do they mean by this?

And what exactly is “Muslim politics?” And is “Muslim” or “black politics” ever “pure,” and, because of this “purity,” is it, too, “dangerous?”

Or is it only the “culturally pure India” which is “dangerous?”

Division is always good, according to the editors—since the greatest unity India ever achieved was “an India that does not exist today, except for in histories kept by elders: a pre-partition British India, a single landmass owned by white masters.”

God forbid Indians get to rule a “landmass.” Better, according to the editors, that Indians are divided—to the point where they don’t really exist.

For Ali and Mohabir, Indian unity of any kind is either non-existent, white, or bad. India as a Hindu country is something the editors cannot bring themselves to even mention, as this, perhaps to them, is the ultimate horror. They refer to Hindus once—in the first paragraph, as if the religion practiced by a billion Indians, 4 Indians in 5, were a minor anomaly:

On the one hand, “Indian” languages were always transnational, or—in more modern times—global. Regional languages encountered one another, as well as Farsi and Urdu, during Mughal conquests; the concepts of Hindi as a national language and Hindustan as a national space were both developed in response to the perceived foreign influence of the northern empire builders. Crosspollination existed between the Urdu-speaking Mughals and Farsi- and Arabic-speaking cultures, both in spoken and written literatures. Queen Elizabeth I and Emperor Akbar the Great were exchanging letters in Urdu and English through their translators before there was a British East India company.

This is their first paragraph. What does this mean?

I understand protecting minority rights—constitutions and laws cover this; but to forever and preemptively assume the majority is the devil, and to always undermine it on principle isn’t exactly the recipe for a strong and happy nation.

The editors point of view seems to be that anything which has anything to do with “indenture” and “diaspora” is the best thing of all. A kind of strange, unholy, celebration of the results of the British Empire keeps breaking out in the rhetoric of the editors. Are the “white masters” hiding in the wings? In high rises in London? In the editorial offices of Poetry? We hope not.

That British Empire was quite a thing. “Colonies” and the “indentured” and “diaspora” everywhere. Did the British make India? Yes, absolutely, according to Ali and Mohabir—exemplifying the truth that the British “Divide and Rule” Empire still lives, spilling into everything, even the rhetoric which attempts to summarize the topic in a short introduction:

The earliest Indian poetry in English, including those poems by nationalist anti-colonial poets like Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, were poems from the British literary tradition. It would take a new generation of Indian poets, who included the Kala Goda poets Arun Kolatkar, Adil Jussawalla, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and others, to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

Just as the British Empire both made and destroyed India, it continues to erase all sense of what anyone might say—including these editors, Ali and Mahobir—about Indian poetry in English.

The Indian “nationalist anti-colonial” poems were “poems from the British literary tradition.”

Got that?

Indian literary independence was British.

Therefore, Ali and Mohabir say,

It would take a new generation to begin developing a new Indian English aesthetic that drew not only on British influences, but local traditions as well as global ones.

But what is British influence if not “global,” thanks to its global empire? And how could poets like Tagore not have been influenced by “local traditions” back then, writing poems from “the British literary tradition?”

One can see how any attempt to extract “India” from “English” is hopeless. That is, if one ignores the content of poems and puts them into implicitly denigrated categories such as the “British literary tradition,” the only discernible aesthetic gesture made by the editors—whose introduction is otherwise lost in politics. Their aesthetic point begins with a platitude made regarding “tradition” and reasons from that nothing into more nothing. All the editors say is true—if truth is a circle starting at nowhere and ending at no place.

And now we come to the poetry selection.

As one might expect, there is no “British literary tradition” anywhere in sight.

The poems in the “Global Anglophone Indian Poems” issue of July/August Poetry, establish themselves right away as that which could not possibly belong to any tradition at all, except perhaps this one: Poems in English That May As Well Have Been Written in Urdu Since No English Speaker Can Understand Them. This will show those British white devils! And anyone who speaks their language!

The interesting thing about the 42 “Indian” poems in the Poetry Indian issue is that almost all of them sound like they could have been written by Ezra Pound—redolent of that flat, unthinking, anti-Romantic, anti-lyricism which roams the desert looking for an oasis of sweet rhyme intentionally never found, for the journey is to punish such desires.  And in this desert we rarely come across a person who speaks as a real person about some accessible thing that matters in a life really lived. It’s poetry that vaults at once past actual life, and any Romantic ideal of actual life, into some abstract library of learned reference. What we get is not Kishore Kumar as a poem (if only!) but a condescending or ironic reference to Kushore Kumar—in the abstract, attenuated, machine-like speech of the anti-lyrical, footnote, poem.

One of the better poems in the portfolio, by Arundhathi Subramaniam (it actually has a somewhat personable and lyric beauty) happens to contain the Kushore Kumar reference, a footnote gesture less annoying than usual. I also enjoyed the poems by Nabina Das, Rochelle Potkar, Sridala Swami, Jennifer Robertson, Ranjit Hoskote, Mani Rao, and Hoshang Merchant, though in most cases I’ve seen better examples of their work elsewhere. I’ve written about these poets in Scarriet. I compared Swami to Borges, praised Subramaniam as a “lullaby” poet, called Potkar a wonderful discovery, and even placed these poets into this year’s Scarriet Poetry March Madness. But here they are in Poetry. And of course I am happy for them.

Have I soured on the Indian poetry in this special edition of Poetry because I read the introduction first, and that soured me? Or were my expectations too high, thinking the venerable Poetry magazine would offer the best Indian Poetry selection I had ever seen?

Here’s the first poem we meet in the volume. It’s a kind of flickering, black and white, news reel of broken images, half-memories, abstracted references. Modernist to the core. What is it saying? We are not sure, exactly. India was never free, never happy? The ends of lines and the end of the poem, swoon towards their termination in an Eliotic whimper. What we do know is the poem is vaguely complaining, inglorious, and trying its best not to sound poetic (because the Romantics are not allowed).

Freedom (Nabanita Kanungo)

It would try to lisp a dumbness sometimes—
the language of welts rising slowly on the panes,
a cracked blur of riot-torn air,
confused which year it was.
.
The last time it made a sound was when
it crinkled on its way into a bin,
a great plot of justice. I wasn’t born, then;
my father was.
.
It must have been whole once,
for you could still conceive it like a dream,
a gloriously illegitimate thing, though;
until a country was torn out of its heart one day
and you saw its impaled ghost in the moon.
.
My grandfather told me we had slept so long
with a flag over us, we couldn’t run when
machetes poked us awake amidst still-dreaming heads
rolling in the streets like marbles struck in game.
.
There was nowhere to go and we went nowhere,
with its face slumped on our backs
and history books that said what had happened is the past,
.
until sixty years later, a community’s threats betraying
her voice, a poor nun requested me
to leave my month-old job in a convent
where I’d studied since childhood.
.
I keep trying to find its shape in photographs, old letters,
the wind of stories trapped in some cancerous throat, dying …
.
a tattered roof in the stars, a tent flying off
with meanings barely gathered into a heap.

One imagines a Modernist school teacher shaping this poem—and what is ironic about this, of course, is that Modernism was the period when the English were still (cruelly) ruling India. The Greeks, the Romantics, where is their influence? Why is Indian poetry ruled by a style belonging to early 20th century American Anglophiles, like Pound and Eliot? Pessimistic, anti-Romantic Pound and Eliot? Why? Poe fought for American literary independence—and was rejected, even reviled, by the Anglo-American modernist establishment (Eliot hated Poe as much as he hated Shelley).

Look how the first poem in the volume ends: “with meanings barely gathered into a heap.” Why should Indian poets linger in the tidal pools of late British Empire despondency? “Because we have troubles!” Of course you do—but why is the aspiration and promise and identity of the poetry you choose the sour, anti-Romanticsm of your British masters? The ones even British poets like Shelley found objectionable? Indians, what are you thinking?

What is the editorial mission of this Indian Poetry portfolio?

Poems not enjoyed as poetry, but deemed useful as vague, Modernist, teaching-sorts-of-things?

And as much as this may be somewhat useful, and wide-ranging, the editors have somehow managed, even in this case, to present a narrow vision of Indian poetry. Not so much Wall of Sound, as Wall of Pound. Indian poets stuck in a desultory, lost-in-time, Modernism. The editors have put Indian Poetry in a certain container, coloring what it contains. It doesn’t have to be this way. The Indian poets writing in English have access to a long tradition of poetry in English, including every sort of world historical poet translated into English. There’s no reason they must, in such large numbers, wear the stiffness of Anglo/American Modernism.

Trapped in the dullness of this anti-poetry (referencing all sorts of cultural things in a stilted manner) one dutifully marches through the gray maze of this highly learned affectation thinking: is Indian poetry today the attempt to smash the “British Literary Tradition,” in solidarity with a few dead, white, male, American poets, who killed their “British Literary Tradition” with the cudgel of Ezra Pound? (Never mind that the “British Literary Tradition”—whatever shallow idea one has of it—didn’t have to be “killed,” and why with Ezra Pound?)

I have discovered many poems by Indian poets lately, many of them poets in this Poetry issue, as well as many excellent amateurs who by dint of their academic outsider status, would never be selected for a collection like this.

I’m convinced the quality of Indian poems in English today is equal, or greater, to, the quality of poems written in the UK and America.

Yet Indian poets get scant attention.

Unfortunately (and this is nothing against the poets themselves represented here) you would not know this quality exists from Poetry’s India issue—which is a terrible shame.

It’s almost a betrayal.

When I was younger, I naturally thought poetry was everything, and editing was nothing. Now I’m beginning to think the opposite is true. I could name exciting Indian or Indian-background poets I admire, poets who don’t write like Ezra Pound, but write with honesty and vigor, and inhabit a variety of styles in a thrilling, even memorable, manner, and yet one might be moved to go find a poem by these poets and be underwhelmed—since no poet publishes poems of equal quality.

The selection matters.

Every poet—because it is finally the poems, not the poet, which matter—has bad and good poems.

It is important we find and assemble the good ones. Critics and reviewers must judge. This is all they are supposed to do.

Let me name some wonderful poets left out of this selection: Linda Ashok, Anand Thakore, Ravi Shankar, Medha Singh, Daipayan Nair, Kushal Poddar, Sharanya Manivannan, Sarukkhai Chabria, Joie Bose, Menka Shivdasani, Ranjani Murali, Akhil Katyal, Jeet Thayil, Sushmita Gupta, Urvashi Bahuguna, N Ravi Shankar, Abhijit Khandkar, Arun Sagar, Aseem Sundan, Sukrita Kumar, CP Surendran, Nalini Priyadarshni, Divya Guha, Arjun Rajendran, Aishwarya Iyer, Sophia Naz, Meera Nair, Arun Sagar, Tishani Doshi, Huzaifa Pandit, Bsm Murty, Sumana Roy, Aakriti Kuntal.

Sensual, hopeful, colorful, wise, spiritual, romantic, scientific, wry, affectionate. And yes, anti-Modernist. That’s why I love these poets.

It may seem an act of sour grapes to list a few of my favorite poets the editors missed, and there’s a danger an incomplete search of their work will disappoint. The last thing I wish to bring to Poetry’s Indian Poetry party is bitter words and no answers. Even passable Ezra Pound imitators deserve better than that.

 

OH NO, PLEASE HELP US! ANOTHER SCARRIET POETRY HOT ONE HUNDRED

angry-mob

1 Anders Carlson-Wee: Brilliant, empathic poem, “How-To,” published in The Nation—then a mob ends his career.

2 Stephanie Burt: Harvard professor and Nation poetry editor publishes Carlson-Wee—caves to the mob.

3 Carmen Giminez-Smith: Nation co-editor, with Burt, apologizes for “disparaging and ableist language” giving “offense,” “harm,” and “pain” to “several communities.”

4 Grace Schulman: Former Nation poetry editor: “never once did we apologize for publishing a poem.”

5 Patricia Smith: Runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, a slam poet champion, leads Twitter outrage which greets Carlson-Wee’s Nation poem.

6 Ben Mazer: Selected Poems out, discovering unpublished Delmore Schwartz material for Library of America.

7 Rupi Kaur: Milk and Honey, her debut self-published book of viral Instagram ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ verse, has put a young woman from Toronto on top of the poetry popularity heap.

8 Tyler Knott Gregson: NY Times pointed out this Instagram poet’s first collection of poetry was a national bestseller.

9 Christopher Poindexter: This Instagram poet has been compared to Shakespeare by Huffpost. (He’s nothing like Shakespeare.)

10 Nikita Gill: Probably the best of the feminist Instagram poets.

11 Yrsa Daley-Ward: Her Instapoetry memoir, The Terrible, was praised by Katy Waldman in the New Yorker.

12 Marilyn Chin: Her New and Selected (Norton) this October contains her famous poem, “How I Got That Name.”

13 Frank Bidart: Awarded 2018 Pulitzer for his Collected Poems.

14 William Logan: New prose book: Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods. New book of poems, Rift of Light, proves again his formal verse is perhaps the best poetry published today.

15 Kevin Young: New New Yorker poetry editor.

16 Evie Shockley: Was on short list for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

17 David Lehman: Series editor for Best American Poetry since 1988—30 years.

18 Linda Ashok: Poet (Whorelight), songwriter (“Beautiful Scar”) and champion of Indian poetry in English.

19 Derrick Michael Hudson: Who still remembers this “Chinese” BAP poet?

20. Dana Gioia: Guest editor of Lehman’s Best American Poetry 2018.

21 Akhil Katyal: “Is Mumbai still standing by the sea?”

22 Urvashi Bahuguna: “Girl kisses/some other boy. Girl wishes/It was Boy.”

23 Jeet Thayil: “you don’t want to hear her say,/Why, why did you not look after me?”

24 Sridala Swami: Jorge Louis Borges of English Indian poetry.

25 Adil Jussawalla: Born in Mumbai in 1940, another Anglo-Indian poet ignored in the U.S.

26 Rochelle D’Silva:  Indian slam poet who writes in English.

27 Billy Collins: Pajama and Slippers school of poetry. And nothing wrong with that at all.

28 W.S. Merwin: One of the few living major poets born in the 20s (goodbye Ashbery, Hall).

29 Valerie Macon: Quickly relieved of her NC poet laureate duties because of her lack of creds.

30 Mary Angela Douglas: a magical bygone spirit who sweetly found her way onto the Internet.

31 Stephen Cole: Who is this wonderful, prolific lyric poet? The daily Facebook fix.

32 Sophia Naz: “Deviants and dervishes of the river/lie down the length of her”

33 Rochelle Potkar: “But can I run away from the one cell that is the whole Self?”

34 Helen Vendler: No one finally cares what non-poets say about poetry.

35 Huzaifa Pandit: “Bear the drought of good poems a little longer”

36 N Ravi Shankar: “a toy train in a full moon night”

37 Sharon Olds: Like Edna Millay, a somewhat famous outsider, better than the men.

38 Nabina Das: “the familiar ant crawling up”

39 Kaveh Akbar: “the same paradise/where dead lab rats go.”

40 Terrance Hayes: “I love poems more than/money and pussy.”

41 Dan Sociu: Plain-spoken, rapturous voice of Romania

42 Glyn Maxwell: Editor of Derek Walcott’s poems— The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013

43 Arjun Rajendran:  Indian poet in English who writes sassy, seductive poems.

44 A.E. Stallings: With Logan, and a few others, the Formalist torch.

45 Patricia Lockwood: Subsiding from viral into respectability.

46 Marjorie Perloff: An old-fashioned, shaming of NYU professor Avital Ronell in the Nimrod Reitman case.

47 Daipayan Nair: Great love and sex poet of India

48 Shohreh Laici: Proud young voice of restless, poetic Iran

49 Smita Sahay: “You flowed down the blue bus/into a brown puddle/below the yellow lamp post/and hung there”

50 Mary Oliver: An early fan of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she assisted Edna’s sister, Norma, in assembling the great poet’s work.

51 Natasha Trethewey: Former U.S. laureate, her New and Selected favored to win National Book Award this year.

52 Anand Thakore: “a single tusk/White as a quarter-moon in mid-July,/Before the coming of a cloud.”

53 Carl Dennis: Author of the poem, “The God Who Loves You.”

54 Tony Hoagland: Today’s Robert Bly.

55 Meera Nair: “I live in a house/Someone else has loved in”

56 Fanny Howe: “Eons of lily-building/emerged in the one flower.”

57 Rita Dove: Won Pulitzer in 1987. Her The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry (2011) was panned by Vendler and Perloff.

58 Diana Khoi Nguyen: Poet and multimedia artist studying for a PhD in Creative Writing.

59 Matthew Zapruder: Poetry editor of the New York Times magazine since 2016.

60 Jenny Xie: “I pull apart the evening with a fork.”

61 Mary Jo Bang: Chair of the National Book Award judges.

62 Jim Behrle: Hates David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series and “rhyme schemes.”

63 Semeen Ali: “diverting your attention/for a minute/contains my life/my undisclosed life”

64 George Bilgere: Ohio’s slightly more sophisticated Billy Collins.

65 Aishwarya Iyer: “When rain goes where will you find/The breath lost to the coming of love?”

66 Sukrita Kumar: “Flames are messengers/Carrying the known/To the unknown”

67 Sushmita Gupta: “So detached, so solid, so just, so pure. A glory unbeholden, never seen or met before.”

68 Merryn Juliette: “before your body knows the earth”

69 John Cooper Clarke: “The fucking clocks are fucking wrong/The fucking days are fucking long”

70 Justin Phillip Reed: His book (2018) is Indecency.

71 Cathy Park Hong: Her 2014 essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” rules our era. The avant-garde is no longer automatically cool.

72 Carolyn Forche:  “No one finds/ you no one ever finds you.”

73 Zachary Bos: “The sun like a boat drowns.”

74 Bob Dylan: “You could have done better but I don’t mind”

75 Kanye West: The musical guest when SNL open its 44th season September 29th

76 Raquel Salas Rivera: “i shall invoke the shell petrified by shadows”

77 Jennifer Reeser: Indigenous, her new collection, will be available soon.

78 Forrest Gander: Be With from New Directions is his latest book.

79 Arun Sagar: “through glass and rain./Each way out/is worthy, each way leads/to clarity and mist,/and music.”

80 Joanna Valente: “Master said I am too anti-social.”

81 Richard Howard: Like Merwin, an American treasure, born in the 1920s.

82 J.Michael Martinez: Museum of the Americas on 2018 National Book Award longlist.

83 Amber Tamblyn: The actress/poet’s dad does the amazing flips in the movie West Side Story.

84 Paul Rowe: Stunning translation of Cesario Verde’s “O Sentimento dum Ocidental.”

85 Jill Bialosky: Norton editor caught plagiarizing by William Logan

86 Robert Pinsky: Editor of the 25 year anniversary edition of Best American Poetry in 2013.

87 Philip Nikolayev: Poet, linguist, philosopher: One Great Line theory of poetry is recent.

88 Ada Limón: The poet lives in New York, California, and Kentucky.

89 Rae Armantrout: Her poems examine, in her words, “a lot of largely unexamined baggage.”

90 Alex Dimitrov: “I want even the bad things to do over.”

91 Sam Sax: “Prayer for the Mutilated World” in September Poetry.

92 Danielle Georges: “You should be called beacon. You should be called flame.”

93 Stephen Sturgeon: “These errors are correct.”

94 Hieu Minh Nguyen: “Maybe he meant the city beyond the window.”

95 Richard Blanco: presidents, presidents, presidents.

96 Kent Johnson: His magazine Dispatches from the Poetry Wars continues the fight against poetry as commodity/career choice.

97 Parish Tiwari: “between falling rain/and loneliness…/the song/that once was ours”

98 Eliana Vanessa: Rrrrr. Lyric internet poet of the Tooth, Death, Love, Sex and Claw school.

99 Rachel Custer: Best known poem is “How I Am Like Donald Trump”

100 Jos Charles: “wen abeyance/accidentlie”

 

 

 

INDIAN POETS IN ENGLISH—MARCH 2018

Image result for FAIZ IN PAINTING

The seven poets under review this month—the March poets from Linda Ashok’s The Poetry Mail—“read seven Indian poets a month”—comprise our second installment of a brief critical look at contemporary poets from India. Our second ‘look at seven’ proved as enjoyable as the first. So let’s get right to it:

1. Shobhana Kumar
Two collections of poetry published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata.

Kumar uses big themes in a simple, accessible, organized manner.

Her poem, “My Will,” begins with “To you, my daughter, i gift my smile.”  She leaves her “dreams” to her “little one,” to her parents, her “memories,” to her friends, her “warmth,” and finally, “And to you, my love, i leave nothing./Nothing save freedom from everything/That binds you to me.” She is not always original, but when Kumar invades the house of your heart, your house falls down.

In “What Would You Say, Kafka?” the soul is “put on display.” Crowds “look, observe, critique.” The poet commands us to “Weep as commerce whores purity.” The second half of the poem offers no solace, except as it references a famous writer:

Watch, mute.
As every thought is bought
And sold.
Bought and sold.
Until nothing remains
Save
The eagerness of who
The biggest bidder will be.

Kafka, what would you say,
If you were alive today?

 

2. Tishani Doshi
Works in fashion, dance, journalism; a prize-winning fiction writer and poet

“The Immigrant’s Song” gives us plenty of concrete imagery—the poem’s theme is secrecy for the sake of a normal life: “Let us not speak of those days,” “Let us not speak of men stolen from their beds at night,” “Let us not name our old friends,” but the truth arrives metaphorically in the poem’s conclusion:

And you might consider telling them
of the sky and the coffee beans,
the small white houses and dusty streets.
You might set your memory afloat
like a paper boat down a river.
You might pray that the paper
whispers your story to the water,
that the water sings it to the trees,
that the trees howl and howl
it to the leaves. If you keep still
and do not speak, you might hear
your whole life fill the world
until the wind is the only word.
*
“your whole life fill the world/until the wind is the only word” is poetry filled up with poetry.
*
“You might pray” is both commanding and helpless.
*
Helpless poet, strong poetry—this is how a poem by Doshi typically goes.  In the opening stanza of “Lament-I” the poet is full of doubt—“I wonder, how to describe…” but the poetry is wonderful:
*
When I see the houses in this city,
the electric gates and uniformed men
employed to guard the riches of the rich,
the gilded columns and gardens,
the boats on water, I wonder,
how to describe my home to you:
the short, mud walls,
the whispering roof, the veranda
on which my whole family
used to spread sheets and sleep.
*
Nature, struggling humanity, rhetoric urgently thrive in her poems.  “Lament-I” concludes:
*
The monsoon finally arrived the year I left…
I think of returning to that life,
but mostly I try to remember
how the world was once.
I want to open my mouth like my son,
and swallow things whole—
feel water filling all the voids,
until I am shaped back into existence.
*
In “Lament-I,” she speaks in the voice of a father.  Doshi inhabits her poems omnisciently.  One feels she can do anything—except that she inhabits a tragic world.

3. Semeen Ali
She has published many books of poetry and has earned a Ph.D. 

Poets can do one of two things—they can praise or reject.

To reject is the better choice, because praise either looks like groveling, or demands great skill, since praise, by its very nature, aims high.  Modern poetry, which many think began with Baudelaire, rejects the poison of life; in the modern Poetry of Rejection, the poet is a wary fortress, and to protect herself from toxicity and grief, the modern poet hides from flowers, behind flowers, with poems small, obscure, thorny, defensive.

But every trope contains the seed of its opposite. The following poem is representative of her work; Ali is in a reticent, mysterious mood.

You look at me
Questioningly
eyes fixed on my face
a slight change
to be detected and noted
what do u expect?
A blank face
troubles you
Piece of paper flies past you
diverting your attention
for a minute
That one minute
contains my life
my undisclosed life

A great poem. It begins with rejection—why do you scrutinize me—but ends in praise—a life contained in “one minute,” a life “undisclosed;” a mysterious beauty which strangely comes to life.

In an age which is afraid to praise, in a poem which seems to reject, Semeen Ali steps magically into self-praise—the most difficult praise of all. For who can praise themselves without appearing to be a boastful jerk?

When Socrates banned the poets from the Republic, he did so with a caveat—you can stay, poets, if you can praise the deserving gods, and show us with your poetry why you should stay.

The proud poet, immediately struck by the word, “ban,” naturally feels no love for intolerant Socrates and his intolerant Republic, and goes on to write any poetry he wants.

The greatest poets, however, were humble enough to rise to Socrates’ challenge—poets such as Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Shelley, who produced not only praise, but beautiful praise to put it in. These poets live as eternal citizens of the republic of poetry—because they cared not only for poetry, but what the greater society ultimately needs and wants, a peopled society which extends all the way to heaven.

It is not that poets like Dante and Shakespeare are “better people;” nothing like that at all. It is just that the poets who submit to a greater and higher challenge will be greater poets. The “proud poet” who “writes any poetry he wants” emerged triumphantly in the 20th century under the tutelage of Modernist freedoms. In poetry today, praise, humility and obeisance of any kind is no requisite at all. Do we think of Dante or Milton or Shakespeare and Shelley as humble? To be humble was the challenge which they met boldly—this paradox saved them, for the paradoxical is the ticket to everything profound.

Semeen Ali has internalized the Socratic challenge. The praise—self-praise, actually—in her poem, “You look at me” is not gaudy, but marked by the deepest mystical desire it is our pleasure to imagine.

4. Manik Sharma
A journalist from the former summer capital of British India in the Himalayan foothills, Shimla

We have always had a sneaking suspicion that poets who write poems about poems are the most intelligent and the most worth reading. A philosophical self-consciousness always indicates some genius. Sharma’s poetry is manic and full of testosterone. He has a journalist’s eye for detail, the black humor of Hamlet; his poems eat frenzy and privacy—and everything else.  A poem about a poem is never just about a poem; it breaks things open and heals at the same time—a gesture we never could resist.

“The Perennial Poem” is a weary, ironic, powerful joke of a title, and the poem underneath it shows a poet who knows every poetic button to push, from sad paralysis to jumping glory.  Complex, but not too complex.  Action rescuing over-thinking: “In between fears of idleness, poems run away.”  A sibilant saunter reveals a poet easy in his letters—“fears of idleness, poems” ending in “eyes,” the sibilant essence ceasing dramatically with “people” and “look up” and “eternity.”

In between fears of idleness, poems
run away.

Some return with the sunshine
of last letters

while others are left to remember
people’s lives like they would their deaths.

A poem, that finds no respite from
its own becoming,

has to be thrown through the window,
into the streets, where it must

stay lost. But people, being people
still look up. Eternity awaiting in their eyes.

We found a page with three of his poems, all different—a riffing brilliance in all three—and interesting, “Football Player,” “Not Everyone Is Lovely,” and “Beaten To Death With An ATM Card,” and the brief bio telling us that he also enjoys “photography and trekking.”  Well of course he does.  Here’s a poet with so much energy and talent that poets who have doubts about their own ability will read a poet like this and get slightly depressed.  Sharma’s poetry will not get the praise it deserves, but he won’t care; he’ll just throw himself deeper into journalism, photography, trekking. Yeah we are sure.

5. Ananya Chatterjee
Wife, mother, software programmer, poet

We all know about poems about poems, but what of poems about writing poems—or rather, not being able to write poems?  What do we think of these? And what if the author of the ‘not able to write poems poem’ is a busy, working mother, who is married to a writer who does have time to write? The poem will be tragic no matter what, won’t it?

We must let the following poem speak for itself:

When a woman writes
She tosses and turns
words in her head
while marinating deveined
prawns for dinner .
She garnishes the thoughts
gently in her mind
salivating
involuntarily
like a tongue would
with a lump of sugar
too precious to be
absently gulped.

 

She then lays the table
Unloads the washer
Irons the creases
In her daughter’s shirt
She empties the wastebin..
and packs the rucksacks
her children would carry
to school next day.
All this while..
chanting the lines
with voiceless fervour..
anxious to retain
the sudden poem
that’s visited her
on a busy weeknight.
And now she stirs
the moon white froth
in her husband’s coffee,
smoking hot..
He too writes
In his olive walled study
His manuscript, now
a publisher’s delight.
She tiptoes towards
his fragile quietness,
rests the mug
and slips away
A corner of her eyes
has caught him though.
chewing at the near end
of his royal blue Parker.
She hides
the violence
of shudder and thrill
the sight has swiftly
raised in her soul..
Just for a wee second.. though, not more..
For now her youngest
wails again. She walks to the crib..
Lifts the newborn..
A lullaby is hummed
and
the unquiet is calmed.
The woman too..
unknown to herself
is sleeping now..
snoring softly
beside her girl.
The lines in her head..
are sleeping as well
Stanzas fading out..
like morning mist..
When she awakens later
there’s a teardrop nestled
in the shore of her eye..
for the unwritten verse..
For giant thoughts that sunk
in a sea of weeknights.
When a woman writes..
She seldom writes.

What did a poet do to become a poet?  What did a poet do, without our knowledge, to write and publish a poem?  What does a poet conceal from the reader?  What can a royal blue Parker conceal? Is it possible for the truth to be concealed?  What does the poem say?

 

6. Barnali Ray Shukla
Writer and filmmaker

What do poems which manage to sound like action movies, or best-selling novels do for the poetic sensibility? Shouldn’t we be watching this on the big screen? the reader thinks. It makes us wonder—is the genre which resembles another genre better for it, or not?  “Palash and the Padmini,” from Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry II, pictures for us a certain make of car, wrecked and burning.  That’s a movie, right?  Not a poem.

The valley stands bare-shouldered
A hint of mist softens the gnarled carcass
of the Fiat Padmini BRY 1709
and the claiming fire.

The flames leap to the sky
like the blossoms of that tree,
Buteamonosperma
as Palash would have called it,
looking out of the window
bare-shouldered with sinews
like the ash-grey tree

His spoken words in a dead-language
Inflammable punctuated silences
coveted moments so very abundant
in the bliss of our union.

Even without words
Palash lights up the dark.
Flame of the forest
Upright and unyielding, stark.

The ambers now glow
louder than the undone vermilion
of a smudged sunset.

A pair of headlights sweeps the darkness away
The ambulance arrives many hours late
Men in white find a tapering pulse in him
While I hold on to a tiny beating heart, growing inside me.

A surge of pain
now tugs at my womb
The waters break
to douse the fire
and wipe away the salt
from my kohl-tattooed cheeks.

Help now is at arms’ length
in the safety of scalpels
but the bite of the metal
can’t bury the voices.

Someone whispers, a power claimed him
Another calls it … sabotage
A cynic calls it suicide.

Of course, most speak of destiny.
I wait for those fingerprints
On the bloodied sickle that was found
Right next to the Fiat Padmini.

A fast-paced poem with everything!  Action, excitement, sex, visuals, mystery!  Sabotage! Suicide! And the long name of a colorful tree gets its own line! Verse! Prose! Cars!

A story always unfolds, and the action of that unfolding requires a certain amount of heft and plot to give that unfolding a certain amount of delight.

Dancing isn’t running.  Poetry isn’t fiction.  Unless it resembles a ballad, like “Belle Dame Sans Merci.” This is not a ballad.

Never have we reacted to a poem with a set of iron rules like this one.  O Fiat Padmini with fingerprints, on fire! Pardon our iron rules!

 

7. Huzaifa Pandit
From Kashmir, he publishes poems, translations, as well as essays.

Pandit is a politically engaged, scholarly, historically-minded poet, with a delicate ear.  From his poem, “Buhu Sings An Elegy for Kashmir:”

Buhu sings sighra aaween sawal yaar
Call out to your dead lovers a little longer.

The beloved weeps in a hollow tongue
Smear condolences with meaning a little longer.

We know the law, and all the statutes
Let the murderer deceive us a little longer.

Amulets hang from black coffins
Untie half-burnt promises a little longer.

We promise to bare heads in mehshar
Command the last sun to beat down a little longer

Spill scented ink, and bury brocade paper
Bear the drought of good poems a little longer.

Indian poets today, like poets the world over, tend to be a shy bunch—highly educated and humble.

It’s not considered poetic to come out and say what you mean. Rhyming is no longer considered poetic (a little half-rhyming is okay). Don’t use your language like a drum! With every respectable poet getting advanced degrees, a poem first produces a learned topic to immerse itself in, and then the poem, tenuously and slow, begins. The educated sea has swamped the poetic shore.  Every sea bird cry has multiple meanings. The change from Romanticism to Modernism over the last couple of centuries is chiefly the addition of circumspection and a diploma.

Pandit is a wonderful poet—“Bear the drought of good poems a little longer” !!—and the chains of circumspection he wears are not his; they belong to the age.  The repetition of “little longer” is as rousing a refrain as poetry gives these days. We’ll take it.

 

—Scarriet Editors, March 16, 2018

 

 

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