Vikram Seth: Poetry Of An Exile

Books mentioned in this review:

The Humble Administrator’s Garden (Carcanet, 1985)
All You Who Sleep Tonight (Knopf, 1990)
Beastly Tales (Viking, 1991)
The Golden Gate (Random House, 1986)

As Reviewed By: Devesh Patel

I want a poet, an uncommon want–and the poet wants form, something the uncommon critic will hopefully understand. And maybe Vikram Seth is such a poet. Though he has written poetry for at least two decades, he was unknown to me until the behemoth novel A Suitable Boy weighed in on the literary circuit and bookshelves. I could not acquire all of his poetry books (it seems two decades is now the time limit for books to be out of print…out of date, out of mind), though I was able to find these four. His other works, none of which are reviewed here but which might be worth a look, include more poetry, the novel, a libretto, and travelogues.

But who is this Vikram Seth anyhow? And what a funny name for an English poet. A post-colonial, no doubt. Is his poetry about India? Will there be Odes to the British Raj? Will we be given a feast of epigrams on Mountbatten? Happily, Seth has no such agenda. The biographical sketches included in the books yield some clues about him: Economics and Philosophy at Oxford; travels through China; Stanford, Masters pending (for 10 years!). He is basically a well-educated, cosmopolitan man. The only conclusion one draws about his choice of becoming a writer is that of a possible rebellion against wealthy parents.[private]

But upon reading him one decides he actually likes poetry and, inheritance or not, practices the art with a reverence for tradition rarely found in contemporary poets, as if writing well mattered . Just as the previous subjects of the Crown have finally come into their own, simultaneously informed by, yet disjointed from, the English literary tradition, one wonders what Mr. Seth’s Anglo-Indian poetry will try to accomplish.

I admire Seth not because he has an interesting, poetic mind (well liked, but rarely understood), but a mind interested in poetry. Most modern poetry, at least to me, has become a difficult proposition, where the novelty of the novice leads to nothing more. It is refreshing when a poet actually recognizes and admires his literary precursors.

As Cicero said, “To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain ever a child.” Seth is no child. He is an anachronism in a poetic arena known for its strangely in-bred and solipsistic characteristics. For one thing his poetry rhymes and uses older forms, demonstrating an impressive reading and poetic vocabulary. For another, there is no confessional neuroses. This makes it particularly difficult to characterize his verse. There is no breaking of the new wood or carving it, but I noticed quite a bit of sanding and polishing of the old (oak?). Indeed the depth of the veneer he has applied is mesmerizing. As to what shape his woodwork takes, it is hard to say, because it resembles the best productions of the English tradition technically, but curiously augments them with the experiences of a self-styled exile. This gives his poems a strange tone, as if they were a dialogue of the self, with the self missing.

The Humble Administrator’s Garden

This is a collection perfectly suited for reading in the lengthening shade of a hot summer day, or those quiet, still hours prior to midnight. With a mixture of muted and terse tones, Seth mingles memory and nostalgia with agreeable detail. These qualities make the poems primarily visual and reflective. Nature is omnipresent and, as such, an arboreal theme even marks the division of the collection: Wutong , Neem and Live-Oak, respectively about China, India, and California.

I found the Chinese evocations in Wutong engaging. The title sonnet, for example, deftly portrays how ridiculous the “humble administrator” is in his garden acquired by “dubious means”. And how comic he seems for liking his garden so much, while not being humble at all. It starts out rather musically:

A plump gold carp nudges a lily pad
And shakes the raindrops off like mercury.

From there a luscious description of the garden is only interrupted by the administrator’s petty thoughts, and a petty action ending the sonnet with a rhyming thrust:

He leans against a willow with a dish
And throws a dumpling to a passing fish.

Also, “From a Traveler” and “A Little Distance” are ruminative and deal interestingly with the subject of relationships. The first is a return letter and speaks nostalgically of a relation between two people hat is past but never completed. The other describes an uneasy contentment with the way things are as they sunbathe semi-naked in a “secluded valley,” acting friendly, companionable. And how, if they become intimate once again, it would have an unwanted long-term consequence: “To be chaste, how frustrating for minutes, How uncomplicated for days.” Both are characterized by a traveler’s evasion of relationships and the finality of settling down. The detached involvement he enjoys complements the observational poems.

“Research in Jiangsu Province” is a curious catalog of Chinese life, statistically rendered in contrast to life itself. All the more powerful because the poem is a tape-recorded interview. Questions and answers are used in odd but inventive ways. This method provides intense passages full of emotion. Mundane questions counterpoint telling answers:

Forty square metres. Sixteen cents.
To save us from the elements.
Miscarriage. Pickle with rice-gruel
Three times a week Rice-Straw for fuel.

Miscarriage next to pickle leaves such a repugnant feeling in the mind that the poem’s matter-of-fact rendition becomes forceful. Even more interesting is that the miscarriage is in response to a specific question:

“I see you have two sons. Would you
Prefer to have a daughter too?”

One wonders if the miscarriage was a purposeful act. The chilling conclusion leaves us wondering:

And Mrs. Gao herself whose voice
Is captive on my tape may choose
Some time when tapes and forms are far
To talk about the Japanese War.

May mention how her family fled,
And starved, and bartered her for bread,
And stroke her grandson’s head and say
Such things could not occur today.

Chinese, perhaps, has no character for feminism. In any case, the last stanza is nicely understated. I especially like fled rhymed with bread and its fertile meanings. The stroking of the grandson’s hair touchingly counterpoints the personal horrors of war. It is one of Seth’s richer poems, and one where his economic background directly contributes to the form.

In the Neem section, “The Comfortable Classes at Work and Play” amusingly describes well-to-do Indian family life, including changing education standards, corruption in politics, and generation gaps (grandma complains that she is “ignored, unloved”–so typical an elderly response in India, one wonders if there is not a handbook for this sort of thing). A young student’s scholastic-romantic pretensions are humorously mocked in a couplet whose sentiment, though cliché, seems universal:

His girl-friend is feminist, and he is feminist
When his girl-friend was anarchist, he was anarchist.

If anything the poem shows, paraphrasing Forster’s judgment, that India is no mystery, only muddle. In comparison, Live-Oak is the weakest section of the three. Perhaps it is because the familiarity of California saps the wonder and intrigue from the poems. They have the nature quality of the Wutong section, but the tone is frolicsome and the details are less poignant.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

If I were to recommend a collection as an entrance to Seth’s work it would probably be All You Who Sleep Tonight. It represents the bulk of his poetic forms from translations to epigrams. His themes range from the thoughtful to the humorous. Many of Seth’s previous themes of remembering, detachment, observation, and exile coalesce here.

The first section of poems, aptly titled “Romantic Residues,” are written at a distance where coping with ended relationships has become, what amounts to, a recalled gesture. Incidents center around incidental, sentimental things, such as a house or a stroll or a suitcase. This excess baggage, as it were, usually invokes the past for the narrator in condensed snapshots. But there are a few which speak with witty romanticism about present affairs:

Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
You’re twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
No Need for wit, just talk vacuities, and I’ll
Reciprocate in kind or laugh at you instead.

The world is too opaque, distressing, and profound.
This twenty minutes’ rendezvous will make my day.
To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.

I swear that I would hear puppies playfully panting, if it were not for the poem’s implied sarcasm and those anything-but-romantic words grackles and beady. But oh, to be young again, when contemporary romanticism was at least as exuberantly silly as a lot of the original, hokey models. Maybe “Sit” is not on a par with the over-quoted “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day” but in a time when Starbucks is considered a place of intellectual revival any semi-critical tone seems a bard-send.

Later in the collection comes one of the more profound meditations. “A Doctor’s Journal Entry for August 6, 1945,” with its reporting style monologue reminded me of Hemingway’s teletype creations. Here, however, it is mixed with shock, shame, and an agonizing silence regarding that infamous day where the brief flash and thundering explosion of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima changed everyone’s world view. Here are, through the eyes of a witness, the mute reactions of a people stripped naked, demeaned and rendered inanimate:

I saw the shadowy forms of people, some
Were ghosts, some scarecrows, all were wordless, dumb–
Arms stretched straight out, shoulder to dangling hand;
It took some time for me to understand
The friction on their burns caused so much pain
They feared to chafe flesh against flesh again.

It is a haunting image and I wish Mr. Seth would include more such insights in the bulk of his poems. As I read his poetry, I notice myself squinting for such lapidary prizes, often over-valuing some with my over-effort, probably even mistaking cubic zirconia for Grade A gems. I do not deny Mr. Seth is a talented and learned rhymer, but I grow weary in my search for that hidden treasure. Oh well. The dig continues and even if the gems are not genuine, the skillful craftsman’s settings and filigree have a degree of worth.

This is certainly true for the pithy, humorous, and poignant quatrains of “Pendulum”, which depict a mother’s awareness of life’s seesawing, as her child swings back and forth upon a swing. Or the virtues of an exotic fruit lovingly illustrated in “Pomegranate”:

The most impassioned of all trees,
The home of three intensities;
Gnarled trunk, dark concentrated leaf,
And flowers that burn in love and grief.

There are others, more or less witty, quatrains which will give delight. Little epiphanies are scattered through out. And the closing title poem sums up the exile’s joy in sharing his lucubratory poems with those who are also in exile.

Beastly Tales

What can one say about Beastly Tales except that it is an enjoyable collection retelling ten tales in rhyming couplets. These tales would be equally satisfying to both children and adults, and a famous Indian cartoonist, Ravi Shankar, provides some lovely illustrations. Mrs. Crocodile is drawn as a zaftig, scaly monstrosity with the expression of a nagging, vain, cuckolding wife. A bass-like frog holding a lute and the vampish hare are also well drawn. My particular favorite tales of the collection are “The Crocodile and the Monkey”, “The Rat and the Ox”, and the always wonderful “Hare and the Tortoise” allegory.

In the first, a wife’s needs displace a friend’s. A good monkey may be hard to find, but Kuroop the crocodile has no choice but to satisfy his wife’s prandial passion by acquiring the mango-rich heart of the monkey. Only a foolish monkey would be so kind as to give a lowly crocodile the freshest mangoes from the trees. Kuroop the crocodile falsely convinces the monkey to attend their home across the river for a dinner. While the monkey rides upon his back, Kuroop generously offers him a choice as to the manner of death.

‘Wait’ the monkey said, I’m thinking.
Death by drowning, death by slaughter
–Death by land or death by water–

But the monkey is not so easily duped by trickery. By cleverly stating that he never carries his precious heart with him and has left it in the trees on the shore from which they came, the monkey is saved. And upon his return he crowns Kuroop with rotten mangoes hurled from the trees.

“The Rat and the Ox” tells of the consequences and the repairing of the Chinese Zodiac, which has gone slightly off its usual course. The rat’s cunning is impressive. Even though the Ox was to be put first in the Zodiac, by various manipulation the rat convinces the Ox the first place belongs to the rat. The poor Ox never had a chance. It is a simple tale richly told.

The “Hare and the Tortoise”, however, is my favorite. Though Teddy Tortoise wins the race, the delicate hare gets all the prizes and accolades for her beauty (including book and movie rights). Even Pericles, who seemed to win athletic contests–even when he lost–by force of personality and will would prove a feeble competitor matched against this beautous hare. Regardless, Beastly Tales is a good allegorical collection which has playful lessons.

The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate, simply put, is a verse narrative about San Francisco written in rhyming sonnets. This is a bold project considering that poetry today mostly consists of free verse. And I must admit, the incredible volume of rhymes (over 7,000 lines) is astounding. This metrical feat alone makes the novel interesting reading. As to their quality, I suppose it is mostly a matter of taste (or so I am told), but I believe they are generally good. We are given the key to what prompted Seth to attempt a verse novel in a comical authorial intrusion at the beginning of chapter five and, also, we learn about his poetic concerns. Mr. Seth, having enjoyed Charles Johnston’s translation of Pushkin’s masterpiece, Eugene Onegin (“like champagne / Its effervescence stirs my brain.”), uses the complex and flexible iambic tetrameter structure that marks Pushkin’s composition. An interesting choice considering, as Seth admits, that the “once noble” meter “capers before the proud pentameter, Tyrant of English.” Seth’s meter appears to be more syllabic than accentual, but the scheme matches Pushkin’s down to the masculine and feminine rhymes. There are a few other similarities of subject matter if not treatment– perhaps a good thing considering that the Byronic influence filtered by one of the great Russian writers has no place in a novel about San Francisco, circa 1980. After all, St. Petersburg is not Silicon Valley, and aristocratic country life is not quite what one expects in a San Francisco vineyard. And what would poor Eugene be without his Russian landscape?

The action might be labeled a slice-of-life gone amorously awry. The pivot character is John, whose acquaintances fill out the clique, I assume, of San Francisco types. His conservatism, it seems, fits well with his job as a computer programmer, working on nuclear projects, though not with any of his friends. Liberals, homosexuals, bisexuals, and anything that remotely concerns thinking eventually prick him. Liz Dorati, the love interest, is a lawyer who eloquently protests against Lungless Labs and nuclear bombs and has an “anti-nuclear cat”, Charlemagne, who is inordinately territorial, and who vehemently dislikes John.

Bisexual Phil is John’s alienated, witty, long-time friend who is also a liberal and has an affair with the guilt-ridden homosexual Ed, Liz’s brother. Of course this does not work out and Phil ends up dating and eventually marrying Liz, who has, needless to say, given up on John. A queasy plot-turn considering they marry out of friendship, instead of love (there has to be more possibilities than an ex-lover’s sister). I always imagined that passionate love destroying friendship was accepted, if not noble. One always hears about love conquering all, but friendship? Poor John should not be upset, as he is, but mystified. Instead, even his shock is only cursorily investigated. (Of course, I agree with the new experts who say you should marry your best friend for happiness but, doing them one better, I would not marry at all.) Did I mention Phil has a son of his own from a previous marriage? This may not be incestuous stuff, but the plot sure allows for a great deal of exploration that I wish was developed more.

And then there is Janet Hayawaka as the delightful, if goofy, sculptor/punk drummer who intermittently appears as John’s confidante/ex-lover and would-be present/future love interest (so many tags, so little mind). The only person John can really seem to get along with is Janet Hayawaka. But by the time he figures this out the situation will, not to give away too much, have changed. And then there are others in more or less smaller roles.

In this manner, Seth portrays San Francisco in its manifold charm the way Pushkin does for Russia. The breadth of life is exhibited from its most trivial aspects to its more contemporary, disputed moral standards. Friendship, love, work, play, sexuality, the nuclear age, single-parent child rearing, death, and the city are just some of the topics included. And then there are the wonderful light touches of scrabble and chess, symphonies and art critics, particularly deft party scenes and personal resolution through personal dating ads. Such daubs like the bumper stickers and billboard slogans seen while driving down a freeway are artfully and engagingly rendered in verse. I can find no fault in this panorama and I very much like the variety. But as to their proper sequence and proportion, in terms of a novel, I am not sure how effective Mr. Seth is.

There is a governing pen, but no accompanying governing voice. What is possibly needed is stronger characterization or, at least, the narrator should be a character in the novel to provide a focus that is not, though I liked it, simply an authorial intrusion. As it is the characters, for all their dimensions, seem flat. Even if one accepts that the characters have definite viewpoints, they are not really genuine or provocative. Their dialogue as repartee is wonderful, but they add nothing to my interest for the characters. The witty lines could be said by anyone and I would still find them enjoyable. One wants more at stake. Everything is too tidy and even-handed and indistinguishable.

And convincing is the key word here. One wonders how such an interesting set of events can have characters rendered without hue in such a sterile manner. One remains unconvinced by their opinions or reactions because they have no gravity (in both senses). Where one expects wry commentary or satire, one gets only a polysyllabic glut, as if the surface resists any meaningful insight. The characters seems detached (detachable?) from the plot turns, giving one the uneasy feeling of inhabiting, at once, a collective psyche (I wonder whose it could be?) without sympathy for a single character. (Good for Seth, but bad for the characters.) Perhaps the California sun has erased all nuance and shading–the facial grimace, the wrinkled brow of judgment, the brute marks of experience. But my guess is that the exilic quality in which Seth’s poetry is immersed does not suit the rigors of a traditional verse novel, which, metaphorically, must attach the aesthetic ear to actual characters. Since I think his intent was not merely to play with form, and admitting his talent for language, I am confused as to why this did not occur to him. After all, detachment works well when observing, but proves absolutely anemic if used to delineate characters in a longer form.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. This could be a very accurate portrait of the diverse San Franciscans and I just find them dull–thoughts and all. On the other hand, though imaginative works do not have to be accurate, they should be compelling. But I do believe that the work vacillates between wanting to be short verse and long novel. Seth is too playful and silly, knowing that his verse can carry the tune even when his story cannot. Between the two, form is compromised and one can only admire verse or novel. Not too bad considering Seth has probably doubled his readership–even if he lost his audience.

Still, I must say, I enjoyed the works I could get my hands on. If anything ties his work together, it is the rootless, detached quality of the teller. In his observations, there is a charged distance which draws the reader in just enough to feel unconnected. In my mind I picture those mirrored boxes which reconstruct an object, hovering above it with stunning reality, but cannot be touched. I tend to like this method for particular qualities of sensation and poise. I only wish there was a little less of the exile’s lacquer view of life and more of the sculpting which Seth is entirely capable of.[/private]

About Devesh Patel

Devesh Patel is currently writing a novel and lives in Chicago. 
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