Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Vivek Sharma
Dear Editor,

The Indian Portfolio (September 2007) presented a good perspective on contemporary Indian poetry. In a nation whose tradition of poets extends thirty centuries, we are faced with a significant neglect of voices and local languages. The intellect and erudition in India are measured by the mastery of English language and literature. Subramanyan's "Situation," translated from the Tamil, which mentions how Pound leads us to Tagore, Eliot to the Upanishads, and Max Muller to ancient texts, is quite representative of the state of affairs. Except for the poets who have become lyricists and pen songs for Bollywood movies, we have neither the recognition nor rewards fit for our bards.

At the same time, since most of us grow up using English as the primary language for our education, we emote and versify in English as easily as in our mother tongue. While novelists like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita and Kiran Desai, and Vikram Chandra are household names, the poets have not yet found an audience. Nissim Ezekiel, Agha Shahid Ali, A.K. Ramanujan, Dom Moraes, Jeet Thayil, and Keki N. Daruwala are poets who have not reached the masses in the way classic poets used to do. Outside India, unfortunately, most people express surprise at our ability to grasp English, and, thinking that English is our second language (our accents don't help), dismiss Indian prosody as second rate or unequal to verses by native English speakers.

I looked at the "Indian Issue" of Poetry from 1959 and noticed Vinda and Amrita Pritam featured there as well. I was somewhat amused by this coincidence. Perhaps it tells us what we already know. Hindi poets like Dinkar, Mahadevi Verma, Bachchan, Nirala, etc., will remain unknown to the West and East alike, unless someone translates their work. Their poems are a delightful mix of the Indian tradition of poetry and myths and the Western poetry movements of the twentieth century. The wealth is there. We just need plunderers to seek it out and show it to the world.

Atlanta, Georgia

Originally Published: November 30, 2007

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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