Literary Review

‘One has to be true to the mood that comes’

Vikram Seth. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   | Photo Credit: MEETA AHLAWAT

In Vikram Seth’s Summer Requiem, the poet is “forever waking in a lost country”. Written over a period of two decades, these poems straddle various geographies, examining the relentless “gather and scatter” of modern life. Under the weight of shifting seasons, the glut of memory and many sleepless nights, the poet guides us to parks at dawn and lonely hills, to arrive at moments of great stillness and peace. Solitary in his pursuits, but spirited along by the ghosts of Du Fu, Dylan Thomas, Leopardi and his beloved Pushkin, Seth steers us from despair to delight, asserting again and again why poetry is his first calling.

Excerpts from the conversation:

There’s a sense of twilight pervading this book, an autumnal feeling of being on the cusp of seasons, of the day, of life itself. What is it about this twilight space that fascinates you as a poet?

I hadn’t really thought about it, but I suppose dawn and dusk are the sort of crepuscular states where it’s neither this nor that, where you’re losing either the night or losing the day. And I suppose the same is true of autumn where you’re losing the summer to the winter.

I think these states lead to a kind of meditative questioning and questing. And also, perhaps a sense of loss comes into it, or sorrow, because you’re losing the daylight or you’re losing the summer, depending on whether it’s the end of the day or the end of the season.

That’s where the word requiem comes in because it’s the death of summer.

Are people surprised by the melancholy of your poetry? In real life you’re one of the most charming people I know. I mean you could charm a tapeworm. Do you think poetry is inherently melancholic?

Not necessarily. One has to be true to the mood that comes to one. Many earlier poems I’ve written, including All You Who Sleep Tonight, come from a dark or lonely space and they speak to people.

I think even if one is reluctant to put them out, sometimes one finds that those poems that are drawn from the deepest vortex of trouble are the ones that speak best to other people. Not to mention other tapeworms.

Why do birds mean so much to you?

Actually, when I was younger I was more interested in numbers rather than words.

Not words, birds!

Oh birds! I happened to be on a radio programme in England when this book was first published and one of the other people on the show had written this wonderful book about cuckoos — about the way they fooled other birds into taking care of their eggs and hatch their offspring. And he said to me, ‘There are a lot of birds in your book’. And indeed, there are. There are hoopoes and jackdaws and magpies, and all sorts of other birds flying about here and there. Skuas. Gulls. I don’t know. I suppose I must like birds.

Do you remember getting interested in them at a certain point?

I don’t remember getting interested in them. But of course, the great work of Salim Ali, The Book of Indian Birds — one of the great scholarly books on ornithology of our or any continent, and of our or any time — is something I’ve dipped into now and again. But I used to be much more interested in plants, and it rather surprises me that I seem to have an affinity for birds. By the way, you do know that there’s a strongly attested theory that birds developed from the dinosaurs, all these song birds like blackbirds and nightingales and mockingbirds are in some way related to the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors — those rather unsavoury creatures that roamed the earth once and flew the skies.

You’ve referred to yourself as an opportunistic migratory bird. In your poems we move through several countries — with the contrail on one page and the Brainfever bird on the next. How exactly does being in a particular place affect your writing?

One of the poems I wrote ( Red Rock) was about sitting on a beach on Boxing Day in Australia. Of course, it being the Southern Hemisphere, it was very hot, scorching, etc. etc., and this expert on birds said, ‘Well, how could you possibly have a skua on Boxing Day?’ And towards the end of the poem he realised I was talking about Australia, and it began to make sense to him. Now how one’s mood differs from geography to geography, or from time of day to time of day, or from time of year to time of year… I think you hit upon it when you said that dawn and dusk were when something seems to work more fertilely. Beyond that I’m not sure I’d be able to put my finger on it, and also I’m not sure it would be productive to do so because the more you examine the processes of your production, the more conscious you become of it, and I’m not certain that that’s a good way of proceeding for a writer.

There’s a lot of walking in your poems. Why do you think so many poets have been fond of walking? Is there a connection?

Well, walking sets up a certain rhythm and also when you walk — the pace at which you’re doing it — whether you’re ambling or dawdling or flâneuring the city, that enables you to take in impressions at a certain assimilable pace. But if you’re running or in a car, or worse, if you’re flying, then you’re not able to absorb properly because things are just flashing by too fast. The other thing is that walking sets up a certain rhythm that goes quite well with the idea of poetry because poetry has its intrinsic beats and rhythms. Even with music, quite often with movement in Western music, it may not be presto or adagio, but andante. Literally, andante, at walking pace. What’s intrinsic to human locomotion is the same for any kind of rhythmic inspiration whether it’s poetic or musical.

There’s a real study of solitude in these poems. Has being a writer been detrimental to your social life?

If you’re in the grip of inspiration then you do become enclosed in that world. I think it would have been very difficult for me to have had a lover or a long-term companion when I was writing A Suitable Boy. I was so completely obsessed with my world and my characters that I really wouldn’t have time beyond that. If I was writing a novel, then perhaps it would have had an effect on my social or personal life. But as far as poetry is concerned, I think it’s a little different. There’s an intensity to the writing of poetry, but it’s not as if it’s a 24-hour occupation.

There’s also a tussle between attachment and forsaking attachment in the poems. You come to peace with it, but there’s a definite wistfulness. Is there a spiritual bent to this tussle, or is it an occupational hazard?

I can’t speak for the entire profession, but for myself, yes. I may have been wistful regardless of my profession. I might have been a wistful businessman. That’s a good title for a short story! I don’t really know. It’s a tough question to answer. I’m not in love with the idea of unhappiness or of solitude; I don’t have a romantic attachment to it, but at times when I am alone or lonely, and I feel a poem coming on, I don’t feel that I need to be flippant about it or to undercut the basic emotion. I think there’s no point in being a poet if that’s what you do.

Is it a different feeling to have a book of poetry published as opposed to a novel?

It is a different sort of creature, clearly. A novel is typically written as something consistent from beginning to end, whereas a book of poems is a strange animal. It’s a bit scattershot. You don’t know when you’ve got the poems, in which order you’re going to place them — whether there has to be some kind of arc or curve to it. Certainly there should be some sort of logic to it. Also there’s the reception of the book of poems. Not many people read poetry, compared to novels. And when you’re imagining a reader — I think with a novel they might discuss the characters with their friends, or how they think it’s going to turn out, or whether they agree with the ending. But with poems, you imagine a typical reader in a room by himself or herself, picking up a poem and waiting for the poem to speak to them. I imagine it a much less social process. When you’re putting a book of poems in the world you’re actually giving an intimate gift. And you’re sharing a gift that came to you, because the poem came to you through whatever one might think — the muse or inspiration.

You’re a famously private person but you’ve spoken out on certain political issues — Section 377 — and more recently, you called the Sahitya Akademi “mealy-mouthed”…

It’s about religious intolerance. When Babri Masjid was broken down, I spoke out very strongly about that. I’ve also spoken about events outside India. But it’s true, I’m not known as an activist. With Section 377, I found that there weren’t many well-known people in India speaking out about it, and people needed that.

Has your relationship with politics changed or is it just that the present situation in India makes it impossible to stay out of the fray?

It’s not just me as a writer, but as a citizen. When something concerns me then I should vote or speak out, or at least try to convince people in my circle about things. I think we’re going through tough times in this regard, in that people are trying to split one Indian up from another and trying to make us hate each other. That seems like something so alien to the idea of India, or for that matter, of Hinduism, that I feel in any forum that I happen to be speaking on, I can’t avoid a subject like that.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 6:38:05 AM |

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