Guest Review: Snehal Vadher On A Vital Anthology of Indian Poetry

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry 
edited by Sudeep Sen

This anthology is a welcome addition to a line of anthologies that have been challenging and expanding ideas about Indian English Writing. This trend begins with A. K. Mehrotra’s illustrious The Oxford India Anthology of Twelve Modern Indian Poets, published in 1992, a book that served as a textbook for a generation of poets and helped establish Nizzim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawala and A. K. Ramanujan as the first truly modern Indian poets in their engagement with present realities in and through the medium of English.  

Then in 1994 came Ramanujan’s and Dharwadker’s The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry, opening inner borders and familiarising English readers with poetry written in several of India’s regional languages. More recently, The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil and published in 2006, is noteworthy for bringing together writers from different and distant geographies and cultures whose writing is nonetheless closely knit with India’s languages and cultures.

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, published last year, comes close to the ideology of the Bloodaxe anthology in presenting a wide variety of diasporic writing. Sen spells out this perspective in the Foreword: “The poets who are presented in these pages live in India and the broader Indian diasporas such as the United States and Canada, United Kingdom and Europe, Africa and Asia, Australia and the Pacific. This diversity and multicultural representation allow the poets to have an internal dialogue between themselves and the varied topographical cultural spaces they come from or are influenced by.” 

Like the Bloodoaxe anthology, it also brings together several well-established poets alongside relatively unknown and unpublished ones. Thus one comes across familiar names in the business, like Vijay Seshadri, Ranjit Hoskote, Daljit Nagra and Meena Alexander alongside someone like Desmond Kharmawphlang, a poet and folklorist from Shillong, whose poetry blends an honest voice with sharp imagery, as is evident in a poem like 'Laami – 18 July 2002':

By the light of the bonfire

I sit quietly listening to

the murmur of branches.

Leaves fall like stars from

the sky and pile up on

the mossy floor. You say we

are condemned to witness

this theatre of guilt and I

yield my defence to your

knife-edged clarity. The hours

we have abandoned tumble

like spiralling doom to bury us

in the chill of sculptured night.

Whatever happened to the pact of

the summer sun? Though

embracing, we shiver in the garden

of syllables and groan

in the emptiness of

midnights’ luminescence.

Or someone like Aditi Machado, whose poetry is refreshingly experimental with syntax and meaning, as in 'Learning a Foreign Language', the opening poem of the anthology:

You are attempting to describe your body.

There are empty spaces where skin was, bone, muscle, fat.

You would call them wounds if you had the word.

Absent organs if you were a poet.

‘There was a lover with a great knife. There was thunder.

He came and cut me. Then a count appeared, kissed,

healed me back to speech.’


You’re standing on a rock with fast water about you.

The next rock is a leap too far and has the glint of scalpel.

The wind rushes at you, full-blooded.

All this ravenous water might consume you, leaf.

You’re stuck in vocal paralysis till you’re shot with drugs:

           a new word falling like a log

so you can cross over, learn to say I love you/ have some tea?

These poets may be well-known within their local or even national poetry reading circuits but often tend to get overshadowed by the bigger names. The anthology remedies this scenario by presenting them without any bias of literary reputation, good or bad.

In fact, this trait reflects the outlook Sen has taken with regards to unpublished poetry, which occupies the majority of space in The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry. “Over ninety percent of the eighty-five poets have specially contributed new work for this book,” Sen mentions in the Foreword. He continues, “Carrying new and unpublished work is a major departure from other available anthologies, where some editors of these volumes have shown a tendency to mostly pick work from already published books or from existing older anthologies.” This distinctive feature of the book—one that no doubt assists excellent online magazines and journals in the slow but sure decanonisation of literature—also compounds the book’s selection criterion for unpublished poetry. The editor’s intention to be all-inclusive in his selection processes does not translate into an unbiased picture, as eventually it passes through the filter of an individual’s aesthetic.     

The processes are specified in a Hindustan Times interview with Sen. Here, we read that “Apart from poets from his own generation like Vikram Seth, Jeet Thayil and Jerry Pinto whose work he is familiar with, Sen scoured online magazines, followed up on recommendations from young people whose work he had judged at competitions, and sent out an open letter asking for submissions[1].”

These processes may be considered unorthodox but they do seem to open up a dam of truly interesting procedures to generate material for future anthologies. However, the selection is finally narrowed down to a stream by the criterion of Sen’s own aesthetic preferences and taste[2]. And here, the fact that these works are previously unpublished, that there is a lack of editorial or critical response to these poems, does not come to the rescue. This is not to say that the poetry chosen and presented is “bad in quality.” Given the volume of the book—all of 500 pages—and its wide breadth, it would be impossible to make any such generalising statement.  

Another selection criterion was to include work only by poets born during or after the year 1950, since the book’s publication was projected to coincide with India’s fiftieth year as a Republic. Though this allows Sen to make visible younger and therefore less exposed talent, it also implies a decisive breaking away from tradition. The value and significance of the work of poets like Arun Kolatkar, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla and Adil Jussawala, for example, exceeds the hallowed but hollow status that Indians, especially, are too quick to bestow on anything traditional. While the latter three are still alive and writing, none of them is included in the anthology. Given the fact this decision follows from imposing a criterion based on an arbitrary date—1950—and perhaps reflecting a fondness for numerological niceties we all have, it becomes largely detrimental to the overall selection presented here. In this light, it is perhaps instructive to look at the Bloodaxe anthology, and note the Janus-faced stance it adopts with respect to tradition, including even Ezekiel and Chitre along with contemporary writers like Sridala Swami and Monica Ferrell.

The exclusion of a writer as vital as Kolatkar, for instance, drains the book of the critical and creative dialogue ongoing between his poetry and that written by the present generations represented here. If we turn once again to Jeet Thayil’s selection, we find in it, apart from a valuable extract from Adil Jussawalla’s second book, Missing Person, an excellent short essay by A. K. Mehrotra which explores Kolatkar’s American influences and inverts all conventional notions of “Indianness” in his poetry. But this is just one artery in the network of cross-cultural influences and references that remain unmapped in the anthology and may leave the reader clueless as to the development of contemporary poetry.

Sen chooses to believe this is an advantage over other anthologies that present a clearly outlined framework: “I decided that I want the poems themselves to primarily create their own aesthetic and critical discourse without the aid of someone hand-holding the reader. I believe that eventually only the printed word and its success as a piece of creative text or artifact on the page matter — and no critical jargon, contextualization, footnotes, and explanations are really required.” However tempting this picture looks, it is idealistic and far from the ground reality of literary appreciation.

Critical concerns aside, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry does introduce both the uninitiated and initiated reader of English poetry to a surprisingly wide variety of voices and styles. Between its covers there are many poets to discover and refresh our notions of poetry originating from within and outside India, though somehow still Indian.

There are many poets that will speak out especially to today’s younger generations, which thrive on the rapid cosmolopitanisation and assimilation of foreign cultures into their own native cultures, traits that are visible throughout the poetry presented here.    

[2] "I've been very open about the styles. The only thing that mattered was good writing…” ibid.


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