Thoughts on Tamil literature and reflections on my poems and tunes.

One former Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee flaunts his poetical skills!

Another former Prime Minister V.P.Singh had his poetry reading session listened to by four other former Prime Ministers! All these happenings had lifted Indian poetry to Olympian heights?

I can’t say!  Indian literature, as it is rightly said, is one but written in many languages.  The Sahitya Akademy was founded to promote Indian literature in the Indian languages.  The first secretary Krishna Kripalani was a Santiniketan and we students at Santiniketan thought of the Akademy as our own.  Prabakar Machwe was then the secretary for a longtime.  As soon as he visited Machwe I attached myself to him and took him around and my friendship with Machwe lasted for almost all his years.  Whenever I visited Delhi Machwe’s home would be my first stop.  Such was ardent identification with the Sahitya Akademy for a long time.  I subscribed to its magazine and bought all its publications.  Even now whenever I find time I visit the regional offices of the Akademy, just to keep in touch with developments.  Now so many writers have gained national and international recognition.

Otherwise, our language literature had not reached the international audience and I doubt the Nobel Prize Committee ever thought of Indian language literature!  As for Tamil literature I am sure even fellow Indian language writers don’t take us seriously.  And yet the jnanpith Award is the only big prize Indian literary establishment takes seriously.  I was present when the prize was first given to the Malayalam poet G.Shankar Kurup at Vigyan Bhavan.

I have been writing poetry since my school days.  My first poem was composed and published in a reputed literary journal at that time, perhaps in the year around 1948 or there about when I was in my ninth class.  Poetry writing continued for some years and when I went up to Oxford, as I now look back, my interest in poetry had only continued even there.

I took myself seriously as a poet at that point of time and I remember joining the Oxford Poetry Club where serious poets, young and old used to come and speak on and recite poems. I particularly remember seeing Stephen Spender, W.H.Auden and Alan Ross of the London Magazine fame.

In Oxford of my time, lots of things happened in English poetry scene. One was Dom Moraes winning the Hawthordon Prize for his first book of poems, A Beginning, when he was barely 17. This created a sensation in literary England. When I met Sir C.M.Bowra at the Warden’s Lodgings at Wadham, where he invited me for tea one evening, I can truly say, quoting John Betjeman for support, “Maurice Bowra’s company taught me far more than all my tutors did”. In my case, Bowra’s youthful enthusiasm for poetry and poets opened my eyes, among other things, to Russian poetry and Boris Pasternak’s powerful images. I became interested in everything in Russian literature.

I read all the poems of Pasternak, available in translations and there were plenty coming out at that time when the poet was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and the controversy that followed over Kruschev’s threat to expel him. As it happened it was at this time also I got to know Pasternak’s sister, Lydia Pasternak who was living in Oxford and the Pasternak sister’s home became for me an introduction into the Russian mind and culture.

I read with interest the recent news from the USA where the long existing Poetry monthly journal founded in 1912 was given a huge funding, 100 million dollars by a lady heiress to a pharmaceutical fortune! So, the Poetry Foundation, as it is now called, becomes the largest literary foundation in the world!

In a recent interview, the editor of the Poetry magazine Mr.Parisi defined what makes good poetry. “That is: would you want to read that poem again? Do you remember a line or a striking phrase or image from it? Would you spend the time with it?”

“Ireland”, says the same editor “seems to be the country for poetry, so much poetry is written and published. American poetry is also vigorous,” though we in India tend to imagine it is English poetry that dominates. No!

Poetry thrives in European languages

I had always been reading lots of poetry in English translations and among the European poets I have particular favorites in each language, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish and others. 

I became acquainted with Russian writers and poets before I actually traveled to Russia on my way home to India.  Tolstoy became a sort of semi-god to me ever since I read him at Oxford.  Even now I go back to Tolstoy occasionally whenever I am seized of some doubts or deeper questions of life.  So my interest in `things’ Russian originates from my Russian experiences.  Such has been my literary tastes and influences.  So, when I quote some English poets readers shouldn’t imagine I am only influenced by the English poets.

In a recent book, Twentieth Century Poetry (Penguin), with nearly 300 poets represented, I find some of the best poetry is written in European languages, French, German, Spanish and Russian. Polish and Russian poets had won more Nobel Prizes for poetry, as Spanish and Italian poets.  Nobel literature prize often is an outcome of world power politics, evoking serious political tensions!  More than the English language, the European languages that are at the centre of world events and conflicts are getting noticed increasingly.

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