June 28, 2020
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The Unkempt Gardener

Uneven but powerful; an anthology that lacks a critical editor

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The Unkempt Gardener
The Tree Of Tongues
By E.V.Ramakrishnan
Indian Institute of Advance Studies,Simla Rs.350
SEVERAL years ago I wrote to a Gujarati poet-critic about some Gujarati stories I wanted to look at. I specified that I wanted to look at the earlier rather than the later work of the writer concerned. I was amazed to get a furious letter in reply. Who was I to express a preference? What did I know etc.

Pardon me for living. And, as discussions of Indian writing continue to wallow in a mass of irrationality, pardon me for being less than enthusiastic about E.V. Ramakrishnan's anthology of poets in Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi, The Tree of Tongues.

One of the problems is the lack of adequate information. It is not enough to describe even well-known names as "prominent" or "eminent". The reader must be told exactly what this eminence consists of, and if the eminence ever had off days when he did not produce particularly good work. We need to be told what the editor thinks of as a 'good poem' in specific terms so that we understand his choice and omissions. It is not enough to express a preference for marginalised voices against the "inaccessibility" of high modernism or the "sloppiness" of romanticism. Even marginalised voices must work as poetry.

What one tends to look for in any poetry, translated or otherwise (and much of the poetry of the world comes to us through translations) is words, images, insights which make one feel one is experiencing the world afresh. Or experiencing the stoniness of the stone, as Shklovsky put it. There's always a problem with translations, but so much translated poetry reads well that that is not the basic problem. Even in the anthology under review, the poems which have something going for them are translations as much as the weaker material that has been included. What one is looking for really is a more rigorously critical anthology.

Some of Arun Kolatkar's Marathi poems have been included. Old Newspapers, for instance creates a sense of fear and menace just as some of his poems in English do. Crabs for instance.
Beware of the old newspapers stacked
on that little three-legged stool over there.
Don't disturb them.
I know it for a fact
that snakes have spawned in between those sheets.
Don't even look in that direction.
It's not because of the breeze
that their corners are fluttering."

Dilip Chitre, the only other poet who writes both in Marathi and English seems to me to be equally garrulous and imprecise in both laugnages. It's surprising that he seems to have learned nothing from Tukaram whose work he has translated. With their deft use of the colloquial, their economy and precision, and, if that is what one is looking for, their revolutionary attitudes, many bhakti poets create a standard that still makes their work leap off the page, almost and invariably more modern than many modern writers.

Garrulousness, in fact, is one of the major problems with many of the long poems in this selection. The Pumpkin by Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan (Malayalam) is one of the few that sustains its energy through striking images: "Somebody said/the axis of this earth/has mouldered away/and is termite-infested."

Kedarnath Singh's Cranes in the Drought is both precise and moving.
"They had come from distant lands, searching for water
They were bound for distant
lands, searching for water
So they raised their necks
For once they looked back
There is no telling
What there was in the look
Pity or enmity..."

In some cases, the poets included could have been represented by better work. K. Satchidanandan' Genesis, about a grandmother who was insane, is not included and it is one of his stronger poems; unsentimental but poignant.

In brief, The Tree of Tongues could have done with an editor with a better eye for a good poem and greater critical acumen.
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