Indispensable Books of Indian Poetry in English

an inadequate but serviceable list

As Compiled By: Preston Merchant[private]

Only the Soul Knows How to Sing: Selections from Kamala Das

Das stopped writing poetry recently after converting to Islam, though she had been called “the first Hindu woman to write honestly about sexual feelings and love.” Her work is rich, unfettered, and charged with the eroticism that animates much of Hindu iconography. She’s easily India’s best confessional poet.

The Country Without a Post Office, by Agha Shahid Ali

Ali died recently of a brain tumor, struck down as his already admirable work began to mature. The Country maps his romanticist sensibility against the landscape of his native Kashmir and the brutal insurgency that has claimed some 100,00 lives.

Shadow Space, by Jayanta Mahapatra

Mahapatra is India’s best known poet writing in English and one of its elder statesmen. Often imitated, his work is elegant and compassionate, concerned as much with village India as the wider world beyond it.

The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth

Set in California, this novel-in-verse was a favorite of the New Formalist and New Narrative poets when it appeared in 1986. Seth is also an acclaimed prose novelist, whose name regularly comes up in the run-up to the Booker Prize.

Three Mughal Poets: Mir, Sauda, and Mir Hasan, edited by Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell

Three eighteenth century love poets writing in Urdu have been selectively and aptly translated, with highly readable scholarly commentary about their work and the times in which they lived. The eighteenth century was India’s late-medieval period, which saw the catastrophic sacking of Delhi by an invading Persian army-precipitating the decline of a great Mughal empire. The three poets chronicle the end of an age in human terms, rather like Catullus or Dante.

Selected Poems, Rabindranath Tagore (Penguin 20th Century Classics)

Tagore is India’s only Nobel Laureate in literature. Tagore was admired by Pound and Yeats, for his mysticism and nationalist politics during the late years of the British Raj. Tagore wrote a song that was later adopted as India’s national anthem. His verse (1882-1913 in the Penguin volume) has been translated from Bengali and seems very much the product of the Edwardian era, with some Hindu mysticism thrown in-fascinating Orientalism to the early modernists. There are some gems, though, and a compelling humanism.[/private]

About PMerchant

Preston Merchant has worked as a documentary photographer; he is at work on a project on the worldwide Indian diaspora. A preview, and other galleries, are available at his website. His poems, reviews, and translations have appeared in the Antioch Review, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, Tameme, and Verse. He also edited the special feature of Verse on poets from India. He lives in New York City.
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