Essay: Poetry for every day of the year, for all seasons
As we celebrated 200 years of Indian poetry in English last year, and a much longer tradition of poetry in translation — it isn’t surprising that it has been raining anthologies.
A decade-old, gargantuan poetry project by Gulzar comes to fruition with the mammoth anthology, A Poem A Day, containing, across languages, the best known names in Indian poetry. This marvellously produced, handsome, leather-bound, boxed edition, is rich and diverse — featuring 365 “memorable” poems, one for each day of the year. The book, spanning the last 70 years of writing in India — since India’s Independence in 1947 — contains the works of 279 poets in 34 Indian languages, across nearly 1000 pages. The text appears bilingually — in English original (or in English translation from other tongues), and in Hindustani — the latter translated entirely by Gulzar. This vast selection covers diverse regions from “north, south, west and east of India, as well as the north-east, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan.”
Unsurprisingly, the bigger languages (English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, etc.) dominate the volume — but the inclusion of some of the smaller, often neglected languages (Aadi, A.Chik, Bhutanese, Dogri, Ladakhi, Tibetan, Khasi, Kokborok, Konkani, Kunkana, Sambhalpuri, Sinhala, etc.) make this book unique. It opens with a powerful and visceral poem Nectar by Haldar Nag in the Kosli/Sambhalpuri language -- a clarion call for positivity in these grim times, imploring with folkloric wisdom :
“Let the seven seas / across the world / yield only nectar. // … // Let the nectar flow down / from within the noble act / of human goodness.”
Another poem translated from a little known language, Kokborok, is Shefali Debrarma’s Lamination that covers her STSC identity card, alluding to the larger notions of what identity and surveillance means, implies or impedes.
Poets, varied and mutlifarious: Jibanananda Das, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Subodh Sarkar, Joy Goswami, Nirmalendu Goon, Syed Shamsul Haq, Padma Sachdev, Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra, A K Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, Vikram Seth, Dilip Chitre and many others, are happily housed within the spine of a single book. Gulzar’s own lines: “A few of my belongings / are still in your possession” provide a hint, that these 365 poems will remain in the readers’ possession as his legacy.
The entire enterprise is an incredible feat of sustained translation — a polyphonic volume threaded and seamlessly stitched together by Gulzar’s signature voice, one that does not overshadow the original poem, instead it highlights their depth and beauty, employing the parallel music and cadence of the Hindustani tongue. A Poem a Day is any littérateur’s dream, a true collector’s item.
Singing in the Dark brings together the response of the finest poets from India and around the world to the current Covid crisis and the lockdown. Echoing Bertolt Brecht’s Motto and Thomas Nashe’s A Litany in Time of Plague, the 100+ poets here “reflect upon a crisis that has dramatically altered our lives, and laid bare our vulnerabilities. The poems capture all its dimensions: the trauma of solitude, the unexpected transformation in the expression of interpersonal relationships, the even sharper visibility of the class divide, the marvellous revival of nature and the profound realization of the transience of human existence. The moods vary from quiet contemplation and choking anguish to suppressed rage and cautious celebration in an anthology that serves as an aesthetic archive of a strange era in human history.”
In the book, H Perez Grandes’s ironic poem Zoom — “My zoom, my animal, my geography” — plays upon the current human-non human dichotomy. The American poet laureate, Joy Harjo’s I Give You Back is an anthem, a plea to the ancestors to bring back the better world, a song of forgiveness, a cry to invoke peace, harmony and love — “I release you // … // But come here, fear / I am alive and you are so afraid / of dying.” George Szirtes’ excellent sequence of five tightly-wrought sonnets, invoke powerfully the subjects of ‘Smallpox’, ‘Black Death’, ‘Cholera’, ‘Spanish Flu’ and ‘Covid 19’ where “we are in quarantine, our ears / sharpened to the footsteps stalking us.” The older and younger generation of Indian poets are well represented here. There are fine poems by Keki Daruwalla, Manohar Shetty, Ashok Vajpeyi, Mangalesh Dabral, Anamika, Savita Singh, Srijato, Ravi Shankar, Arundhati Subramaniam, Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Sarabjeet Garcha, Maaz Bin Bilal, Amlanjyoti Goswami, to name only a few. In Plague Thoughts Enter The Next Phase, Vijay Seshadri, in a powerful matter-of-fact way, remarks, “‘I just don’t want to talk about it’ // OK OK let’s not // … // Run run, says the plague // … // [as] Graphs charts little and big dots across the world”. The poems in this urgent anthology act as a moving and important testament for our current times.
Open your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change, edited by Vinita Agrawal, interrogates our “relationships with the natural world.” Some of the standout poems for me are by Ruth Padel, Alvin Pang, Alex Josephy, Michael Rothenberg, Ranjit Hoskote (who also writes the foreword, In Lieu of a Manifesto), Jayanta Mahapatra, Adil Jussawalla (“Tell me, botched larva, / how long back did we stop in our tracks, / preferring to muck air, feasting to tending?” from Climate change), Keki Daruwalla (“the ice thinned, turned emaciated / and torrents poured through the cracks” in Iceberg at Abu Dhabi), Rohan Chhetri, Usha Akella, Neeti Singh, Ayaz Rasool Nazaki to name a few; In the prose section, Indira Chandrasekhar stood out for her stylish writing. The texts present snapshots of the devastating forces that are hurting our planet, “exploring the issue in different ways — physical, spiritual or emotional through their own unique cultural lens.”
Two fine, uplifting and wonderfully curated anthologies celebrate light, hope, love and desire: Shimmer Spring and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. Both these books are a beauty to hold and read. The first one is a handsomely produced, square, full-colour, artbook format (edited by Kiriti Sengupta, paintings by Pintu Biswas and designed by Bitan Chakraborty), exploring “the writers’ perception of light — how they intuit its source and proclaim their realizations.” It features nearly 40 writers from India, UK and USA, covering both poetry and prose. Alan Britt in An Ode to a Poem says, “just when I thought I was / doomed, language begins / falling like leaves / from the ceiling / of my despair.” Ultimately, as the editor points out, it is “radiance [that] liberates us from the [current] murkiness … it’s the shimmer that sustains lucency.”
Edited by Abhay K, the Bloomsbury anthology gathers Indian love poetry in multiple languages over three millennia, including poets like Kalidasa, Mirabai, Bhartrhari, Jayadeva, Surdas, Bihari, Bhavabhuti, Vidyapati, Bilhana, leading up to the current times. Classical poets rub shoulders with contemporary ones — Arundhati Subramaniam (“I’m learning, love, / still learning / that there’s more to desire / than this tribal shudder / in the loins.” from Black Oestrus); and Tabish Khair’s ironic Almost Sonnet: “At one instant it seemed to be within my grasp: / Your love was a jewel I could reach out and feel. / … // In all the mud of language that turns doors to walls / And makes the best of truths, despite us, false.”
Sahitya Akademi put out two anthologies of Indian Poetry in English in 2020 — The Lie of the Land which attempts an alternative mapping of the poetry terrain by including hitherto neglected voices in addition to the well-established writers, and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians containing nearly 70 young poets. Spread over 250 pages, the latter anthology acts as Volume 2 to The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (by Indians) that I’d edited in 2012, that contained 85 poets. In the introduction, I had “provocatively assert[ed] that the best English poetry written by Indians in the contemporary national and international arena is perhaps as good or superior to Indian fiction in English as a whole” — a statement validated by the excellent new poetry anthologies that have come out this year
The Nobel Prize for Literature for 2020 was awarded to a poet, Louis Glück. So in spite of a bleak year, there has been a vibrant celebration of poetry — in a Brechtian way: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
Sudeep Sen [www.sudeepsen.org] is the editor of The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry and Modern English Poetry by Younger Indians (Sahitya Akademi).