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The candid camaraderie

Poets have no qualms about praising one another

I wonder why sportsmen shy away from giving praise where due. For instance, it would have warmed our hearts if Saina Nehwal had praised P.V. Sindhu after Rio publicly. Tendulkar could do with a word of praise for Virat Kohli. Sehwag fortunately didn’t miss a minute to congratulate Karun Nair after his triple century.

Novelists can say awful things about novelists. Look at what Virginia Wolf said about James Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.’

Poets, of course, are a decent lot and never refrain from praising each other. Witness Walter Savage Landor on Wordsworth:

Dark limber verses, stuffed with lakeside sedges

And prompt with rotten stakes from rotten hedges.

And Lord Byron says: “Let simple Wordsworth chime his childish verse/ And brother Coleridge lull the babe at nurse.” But the best of Byron was the little known lash for Hobhouse, who I presume is a fictional character, who gets sea-sick:

Hobhouse muttering fearful curses

As the hatchway down he rolls,

Now his breakfast , now his verses

Vomits forth and damns our souls.

Here’s a stanza

on Breganza

Help! A couplet — no, a cup

Of warm water —

What’s the matter —

Zounds! My liver’s coming up.

Not that Byron himself got away lightly. Here’s Swinburne on Byron: “The most affected of sensualists and the most pretentious of profligates.”

Nor did poets spare critics. Says Robert Lowell: “Nature fits all her children with something to do/ He who would write and can’t write, can surely review.” Alexander Pope had, after all, written The Dunciad. Here is what he said to critics in the following touching lines in his poem ‘A Farewell to London’.

Dear, damn’d distracting town,


Thy fools no more I’ll tease;

This year in peace, ye critics, dwell,

Ye harlots, sleep at ease.

Obviously there were lady critics around even then, carping away. My friend, the late Ravi Kathpalia, told me this story about Alexander Pope. It seems the Prince of Wales invited him for dinner. But after the repast the prince started expatiating on poetry. Pope put his head on the table and went to sleep.

I revert momentarily to my previous column about myth. Now three ministers want Rajasthan textbooks to say that Rana Pratap won the battle at Haldighati. So history turns to wish-fulfilling myth.

To poetry. Meena Alexander’s latest poetry volume Atmospheric Embroidery is at hand. Her poetry shows a change, as it should. Later volumes need to be different. The lines are now short and syncopated and the reader is asked to reap whatever he can from the harvest.

There is distinctly an oriental air about some poems, a whiff from the Levant as it were, each couplet like an Urdu or Persian sher, breathing its own air, living its own life, independent of its previous couplet.

A poem may start with snails circling ‘a shed where a child was born./ She bled into straw — /Who can write about this?’ Then follows

We have no words

For what is happening —

Still language endures.

Celan said.

The poem ends with Paul Celan shivering in a night theatre in Bremen.

Images don’t follow each other, the poems turning non-narrative.

The poem ‘Aesthetic Knowledge’ starts with ‘Burn an almond, collect the soot, mix it with butter.’ The next couplet talks about entering a cloud, ‘and things are blotted out, ruins restored.’ (she’s talking of obfuscation here, isn’t she?). This is followed by a couplet:

So landscape becomes us,

Also an interior space bristling with


Then we get ‘tears from the domes’ and ‘memories consume a broken mosque’. We are coming to Ayodhya now and December 6, are we? And then ‘burnt rock ground very fine/ Becomes surma for the eyes, a divine blessing.’ The imagistic logic can’t be faulted from burnt almond to consumed mosque to burnt rock turning to surma.

Rohinton Daruwala from Pune has published a first volume The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu. The first section is almost a meditation in stillness, a zen-like essay on the preparation of tea. Tea is to be ‘brewed long, brewed warm,/ in the civilised patience of pure porcelain,/ poured out like a household blessing.’ The poem ‘Morning Tea Meditation’ ends with the lines:

Sip long and slow at this cup,

Wash yourself over with its contentment,

And learn the wisdom of sitting still.

In another poem ‘Making Tea’ he says, boil the water ‘till it’s warmer than common lust,/ but cooler than a hot temper.’ He goes on to say:

Pour it out into cups

Add sugar sweeter than kindness,

But not as saccharine as indulgence.

The title poem, ‘The Sand Libraries of Timbuktu’ starts with the lines,

What does a book that’s been/ silent

for seven hundred years/ say when

you open it?

Does it mutter half- sentences

in crumbling dusty dialects?

Or do the words burst out

of the page inexplicably like

a spring rising out of desert sand?

And one must revert to Meena Alexander for another poem, ‘Fragment, In Praise of the Book’.

Book with the word of love

In all the languages that flow

through me

Books made of leaves from a

mango tree

Book of rice paper tossed by

monsoon winds

Book of pearls from grandmother’s


Book of bottle glass rinsed by the sea.

The writer is a poet and novelist.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 5:16:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-candid-camaraderie/article17324615.ece

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