Worth it for the love poems
It’s good to see that good poets still elect to go to Writers Workshop, 50 years after P. Lal began to do his yeoman work and in an age when most of his ideals are flouted by publishers chasing the dollar. Hoshang Merchant has been with WW since 1989, but many who started their careers there (Vikram Seth for one) have not stayed. Yes, WW’s style perhaps comes uncomfortably close to vanity publishing; but ‘vanity’ today is better applicable to commercial, mainstream publishing, catering to the egos of the author, agent, publisher and critic.
I know Hoshang a little and have always admired his courage in coming out of the closet long before that was a cachet, or indeed acceptable. He calls himself “India’s first openly gay poet”, accurately as far as I know. He is also an internationally known Queer Theorist, and a respected academic. Best of all — to me — he is outspoken beyond the point of foolishness, and there’s no need to look for hidden agendas in his work.
Indeed, the only thing I have against him is his fondness for Ezra Pound. Some of Pound’s short lyrics are exquisite (“Sing me of love and idleness”) but ever since I got over the early daze of The Wasteland I have deplored his influence on the English poetic ethos…. This is a collection of Hoshang’s first four books, 1989-96. Of the nearly 200 poems here, only six are Cantos — though I fear Volume II will have more. As with Pound, the short, focussed lyrics here strike home far more often than the many-referenced, hydra-headed, affinity-eluding opera.
Though titled Hyderabad Quartet, presumably because he’s lived and taught in that city all these years, Hoshang’s poems range over India (homing in often on Bombay) and the world, and more than a few are translated from or inspired by Persian, Urdu, European and Hindi poets. His themes are equally wide-ranging. He may be set off by Tiananmen, or Palestine; by a news report; by Amonkar’s song or Sarukkai’s dance; and most poignantly, by a young man with hope in his eyes. Indeed, the great unifying theme is nothing less than Hoshang’s need to write, to make into words a sight, a sound, a sensation.
It works — for me — when he only writes one poem at a time. It’s when he Cantosises (to coin a word) that he palls. I suppose a Canticleer counts himself successful if one in 10 of his allusions is understood. That wouldn’t do for me. Eliot justified the complexity of modern poetry (and art) with the complexity of modern life. After 30 years of writing poetry, I’ve concluded that’s the cheaper option. The average human is beset by so many strangenesses and conflicts that we can only solace him with simplicity. Of course, it depends on point of view: Is poetry a mirror, or a remedy?
For Hoshang himself, it is a need; but is his work only a mirror? The most coherent collection among these four is ‘Hotel Golkonda’ (1992), set in one locale, with one hero, a waiter named Srinivas. The poet weaves his thoughts and fancies deftly around these two, and produces a set of as fine love poems as I’d wish to read. If I begin to quote now I cannot make an end, and to present a couple of lines is like giving you the punch line of a haiku — which Hoshang’s poems often resemble in their wisdom and quirkiness, sans the pretension so many modern imitators cannot but display.
Another hero I could wish there was more of is Yusuf, of ‘Yusuf in Memphis’ (1991) — that is, Joseph in Egypt. He wanders through Bombay and West Asia, mourning for himself and others without any bathos. In fact, it seems to me chiefly the cultural death that Yusuf/Hoshang mourns, whether in Jerusalem or India, without any cant or editorialising: a difficult thing to do. “I will forget all economies if only you will/ light upon me again in the marketplace” is a really fine ending to a love poem, and has driven me to quote it despite all.
I do not like Cantos, but there are surely those who do. The same bravery or foolhardiness that marks Hoshang’s public persona is evident here: He must be the only significant writer anywhere acknowledging a debt to Pound. But this volume is worth it for the love poems alone, and I anticipate Volume II with pleasurable excitement.
Hyderabad Quartet: Collected Works Vol I; Hoshang Merchant, Writers Workshop, Rs.350.