August 27, 2007 at 2:23 pm 12 comments

Sujata Bhatt

i.m. A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993)


Of course, you would smile
if you knew that I’ve decided
to insert fate
telepathy and unconscious ‘second sight’
at the core of this poem.

Let fate be an elephant who needs water,
walking along the x-axis
and let telepathy be a young scorpion:
fast, hungry, scurrying down
the y-axis – we do not know,
perhaps we’ll never know if they meet.
Only the monkey called second sight knows
and he won’t tell us unless
we pass a certain test, unravel
a certain trick.

But how shall I explain
that day I dropped everything
that needed to be done,
turned instead to your books
started re-reading them
one after the other in a great rush
stayed up most of the night
alert, nostalgic,
I hunted out my favourite lines
not knowing that all the time
you lay in hospital.
Not knowing why
I had this sudden craving
for your words.

You were still in Chicago,
I in Bremen, and the Ganga still flows
dirty and oblivious.

Forgive me if I call it fate
or some form of telepathy.
But very soon the phone rang
at an odd hour with the news
of your death –
while your books were still strewn
around me so full of book-marks,

they bulged
some like paper flowers
some like paper birds
trying to open petals, wings –
little fans of magic
with their own dreams
refusing to fit back
into the tight slots on the shelf.

While we’re doing poems by one poet in memory of another, we might as well run this one.

I have mixed feelings about this poem. I’m not particularly fond of the opening, and I think the ‘Ganga still flows’ bit is unnecessary, but I love the way it ends, and I love the way Bhatt connects the need to remember the poet’s work, the need to tag every stunning poem, every glorious phrase, with the need to remember the poet.

This is the first Sujata Bhatt poem we’re running on this site (it comes from her 1995 collection The Stinking Rose – possibly the only poetry collection ever to feature a whole cycle of poems on garlic) and it’s about time. I was thinking the other day about who I would say was the finest ‘Indian’ poet writing in English today [1] (though that term is so hard to define) and while I haven’t made up my mind yet, I have to say that at this point Bhatt would be my pick. Her poems are authentic, surprising, intelligent without being too clever, and combine a fine sense of humor with glimpses of superb lyricism. What more can one ask?



[1] A reverie brought on by partly by a discussion over on Space Bar’s blog about the case for a Poet Laureate of India, and partly by the new issue of Poetry (not online yet), which features a section on Indian poetry compiled by R Parthasarthy. Who would you say was the finest Indian poet writing in English today?


Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Sujata Bhatt.

So Long? Stevens Ganga

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Space Bar  |  August 28, 2007 at 7:31 am

    Who would you say was the finest Indian poet writing in English today?

    Such a difficult question. A few good poems earn one a disproportionately large reputation. I would have said Kolatkar. Moraes. I could say Jayanta Mahapatra, Amit Chaudhuri, Mamang Dai, Sampurna Chattarji. But I really don’t know.

    Check out this place: http://www.openspaceindia.org/poets_speak.htm

  • 2. Falstaff  |  August 28, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Space Bar: I would have said Kolatkar too. Frankly, if Kolatkar were alive this wouldn’t be a question worth asking.

    I must admit I’ve never cared for Moraes much. His really early work feels dated and derivative and his later work seems to consist of the ramblings of a silly old man obsessed with women’s breasts. He wrote a handful of genuinely good poems somewhere in between, but that isn’t enough.

    Mahapatra, yes – he was actually the other person I was considering. Amit Chaudhuri is nice, but not particularly great. And what little I’ve read of Mamang Dai leaves me entirely cold. Sampurna Chattarji seems promising, given the stuff on openspace, but a handful of poems and one book is too early to be eligible.

  • 3. Cheshire Cat  |  August 28, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Ten years ago, it would have been Mahapatra…

  • 4. Equivocal  |  August 29, 2007 at 11:09 am


    I dunno man, I beg to differ about Sujata Bhatt! You say you have “mixed feelings” about this poem, and in fact, in truth, I have similar mixed feelings about every single Bhatt poem I’ve read; granted, I’ve only read two whole collections, perhaps the wrong ones, and a few anthology pieces. In this poem,for instance, apart from the typical flabbiness of diction [how does O’Hara make such looseness of line work? Oh, but he does!] there’s what seems like a grammatical issue (tense disagreement?) early on in the second line, and the animal metaphors plotted on x and y axes are indeed what seems to me a dire attempt at cleverness that fails (“perhaps we’ll never know if they meet”). I like the ending, as you do, but, when placed next to pretty much all of her work, it also suffers, for me, from a certain preciousness of tone (affectedly plain, but precious nonetheless) and an unshakeable *cuteness*. Indeed, Bhatt may not be a very clever or (for me) very intelligent poet (on the question of how to objectively distinguish cleverness from intelligence, or cleverness from playfulness or visible technique, or why cleverness is such an evil in your book, you’ll perhaps elucidate with examples) but those are not requirements for good poetry; the problem, in the end, is the cuteness.

    To see clearly where Bhatt stands it seems like it would be enough to plot the distance between her work and Ramanujan’s (I’m trying to think of the appropriate animals here, but it’s hard and I was never very good with graphs).

    On the question of the imaginary English poet laureate– I’m not particularly in favour of canonisation, but I find it interesting how *Imtiaz Dharker* so often gets left out of these discussions, almost as if she were inhabiting some parallel universe. And yet she has four strong collections, drawing together both rhetoric and narrative, with hardly a false or dishonest note in them anywhere– and none of the easy sentimentality or sari-wearing styles I tend to associate with Bhatt.

  • 5. Equivocal  |  August 29, 2007 at 11:17 am

    And– I agree with you about the early Moraes, it’s somewhat “out of touch” (even in its time, I think it was) but I’d say that either you’re impishly misrepresenting those last poems or perhaps you should maybe give them another try. There’s a new and uncaring rawness and directness there and there’s certainly a lot more there than breasts, there is illness and a life’s accounting and (for instance) one truly devastating, disturbing sonnet to his mother.

  • 6. Falstaff  |  August 29, 2007 at 11:58 am

    Cat: I don’t know. 10 years ago I would still have picked Kolatkar. Or Shahid. Actually, I’d say Mahapatra’s chances have gone up with both of them dead.

    Equivocal: Hmmm…I’m not sure that I’ve ever been that troubled by the ‘cuteness’. My problem with Bhatt has always been the inconsistency within each poem that you mention – it’s hard to find a Bhatt poem that doesn’t have at least a few lines that don’t work. (Like the starting for this one). What I like about her is that in a fair number of her poems those shoddy lines are balanced against an idea or an image that is (to me) genuinely surprising and interesting. of course, those may be the very lines you find ‘cute’.

    The truth is I’m not particularly interested in canonization either – that bit is mostly just to generate debate. Making comparisons across poets is frankly just silly. I do think Bhatt is one of the more interesting ‘Indian’ poets around, and I’ll read any new collection of hers that comes out, which is not something I can say for a lot of people.

    Re: Dharker, I agree she ought to be in the running in this hypothetical race of ours, though personally I find her a little predictable. I haven’t read her latest collection, but I’ve read the three before that, and I honestly can’t tell one from the other. And some of her more programmatic ‘message’ poems get on my nerves. I quite like her when she’s not trying so desperately hard to be socially relevant, though.

    As for Moraes – I am exaggerating, obviously, but I did find them all tediously one-note. They’re a distinct improvement on his early work, mostly because of the rawness, and every now and then there’s a lovely poem (I think I remember the one you’re talking about, and wasn’t there also another, longer poem to his wife on togetherness or something), but I can’t say I thought much of them as poems of “illness and a life’s accounting” – frankly, the bulk of them struck me as sentimental and cheesy. And I was genuinely annoyed by the recurring and (to my mind) completely unnecessary motif of breasts. On the whole, my sense was that you could cut out maybe 80% of the poems he wrote in his late period without losing anything of value. Of course, the fact that I read the last three books of the collected poems in one go may have something to do with this. I think the kindest thing one could do with Moraes is to produce a new edition of selected poems, about a 100 pages long, showcasing his best work. I think that would be a stunning book.

    I suspect much of this in the end comes down to differences in taste. I love O’Hara in short doses, for example, but I’ve been plugging my way through his Collected Works recently (all 500+ pages of it) and I have to say that those clever little loose lines are starting to weary me.

  • 7. Equivocal  |  August 29, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    Ah yes– I’ve been at the O’ Hara collected (I believe there’s only one collected, which means we’re reading the same one?) over the past year or so as well– and I too find it frustrating and hard to read on various levels, almost entirely because of its shitty, inscrutable organisation and editing such that there’s nowhere to pause, nowhere to get a grip, no way to skim through all the forgettable ones he just whipped out at parties for fear of missing a gem. It’s not that there are bad poems (and anyway surely “competency” alone is a poor and limited way of judging and relating to poetry) but there’s a lot of ho-hum ones that Frank (if you and he will permit me) himself would probably not have wanted to last beyond their immediate purpose. But the same time, if we look only at the popular O Haras that everyone knows and loves, we miss out on his incredible range. And I always distrust selected poems, never mind anthologies, since so many calculations and an imperfect selector goes into the selecting. There has to somehow be a way to organise the poems as to let the reader find a way in, and pause every now and then.

    Is this similar to what you say is the problem with Moraes? As you say, there are many forgettable poems even in the late period, but what becomes meaningful to me is the thrust, the movement and turn of the whole, the way it starts to open up finally, one could even say too late. What is also meaningful is that there are, eventually that small dainty single handful of important poems which is as much as any poet, even a major poet (tho, admittedly, I can’t quite bring myself completely to call Moraes a great poet– problem may even be proximity) can aspire to in her or his lifetime.

    Of course Moraes also had another problem peculiar especially to Indian English poets, which is a near-complete isolation born of a lack of honest and / or informed criticism in the public sphere as well as a lack of a community composed of equals and not chamchas or opportunistic cannibals as well as a lack of friends who know poetry well and are honest and not back-patters *and* are willing to read a manuscript or book closely and fairly… Perhaps if he had had these things in his last years, even Moraes’ last collection of poems would look very different.

  • 8. Falstaff  |  August 29, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Equivocal: I agree. That’s exactly how I felt about the O’Hara. I just felt drowned in the whole thing. in general, I like collected poems – precisely because I like to know what I’m missing out on, but in O’Hara’s case I think scrapping a lot of the party pieces would help. I find myself looking fondly and wistfully at my edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems.

    I think you’re right about the Moraes – I have to say I didn’t feel the ‘thrust and movement’ of the whole as much, though it was nice to see him breaking out of the derivativeness of some of his early work. I guess my overall feeling is regret that he didn’t get more criticism / push back. Too much of those last books feels like he could jot down practically anything and it would get published without question – the whole thing just feels lazy. There’s a whole stack of poems in there that are just tedious, and a bunch of others that have glimpses of promise but that really haven’t been pushed far enough.

    I don’t know about the small handful of important poems bit being all though. The other thing I’ve been reading (along with the O’Hara) is the new Valles’ translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Works, and while there are certainly individual poems that stand out for me, there probably aren’t more than 10% of the poems that I don’t like. Everything else is very, very good. It’s another 500+ page book, but it’s a delight to read through and through (despite the reservations I’ve heard about the quality of the translation – which I’m really not competent to comment on). Now that’s who I would call a great poet.

  • 9. Space Bar  |  August 29, 2007 at 2:35 pm

    Oh wow. That’s a lot of stuf fhappening here in the one day I’ve been away. Will read and ansorb.

    Equivocal, nice to see work hasn’t entirely chewed you up.

  • 10. Equivocal  |  August 30, 2007 at 5:28 am

    Ah, Space– it’s not work that’s chewing me up at the moment, but viral hepatitis of the brands HAV and HEV both together, aka jaundice– tan taran ta; which means I sleep through much of the day like a newborn, get tired rather easily, am under severe house arrest, and am eating boiled vegetables.

    To the moderators, incl. Falstaff– hope it’s ok to make these long utterly irrelevant comments here? Anyway, I’ll hold my peace after defending my loves.

    And to Falstaff in particular, you cheeky chap, I think you know quite well that you’re being deeply unfair. I haven’t seen the Herbert Collected, but I’m guessing that it is for the most part organised around collections that Herbert carefully assembled over the course of 50-odd years, with maybe some carefully arranged, selected and salvaged “uncollected poems” here and there. At any rate, a life granted enough time to make itself legible. The Frank on the other hand, as you know, is the output of a much more truncated life, the greater bulk of which were scraps of paper lying around in his apartment or somewhere else, or poems included in letters to friends and so on. Including only the collections he published during his lifetime would, of course, not be any good– some of his very best and now famous poems were among those scraps found after his death. Perhaps if F had lived to 70 we would have a more coherent and sorted oeuvre, who can say.

    I wouldn’t dispute Herbert’s greatness. Though I’ve known him through his slimmer previous collections in English, I always found them so deep and fearless and witty, frequently quite pleasurably clever as well; in fact both Mr. Cogito and his real-life alter-ego had been close to my heart for many years before I even began to like Frank, urged on by convincing friends, some five years ago. And the question is not whether or not Frank is a great or major poet either. His immense majorousness goes without saying, not only because his best lyrics are still so goddamn fresh today but also because of his immense and central influence; he is after all one of those key sources of light from which emanate what we know as contemporary world poetry, an influence even on (as they say) poets as vastly different from him as JH Prynne; the avant-garde and the mainstreamers alike fight for his soul; he is clutched bosom-close by young Turks in Mexico city; he is chuckled over by uptight Englishmen; he is championed by war-weary Bosnian poets; young poets from Ghana whose grandfathers Frank once read now read him, I mean, come on, even go-go girls in Frankfurt go gaga for Frank– ANYWAY, the question is not whether or not he is a great poet, and the question is hardly over percentages of his total output that could be considered “very good”, the question is: how to read his collected works, given that he did not assemble and cull them for us. And as I think about it, this is a problem that goes even deeper than Donald Allen’s monstrous jumble-sale of an edition. It has to do with the very approach, since everything in F’s work speaks away from the notion of each poem as a perfected jewel studding a collection, the sum total of collections adding up to the grand and imposing monument of a lifetime; instead, poetry is a continuous process, “a way of happening, a mouth” actually (to take a quote out of context) a method, a provisional strategy of living, of linking up and holding together a community in constant flux. To say that many of those poems were written to address an immediate purpose, is not to reduce their value, even though that value may often be alien to us (me included), years later, who have been taught to read a collected poems in a certain way, worshipping the monuments, calculating percentages. The question is, how do we read this debris half a century later, how do we organise it and learn from it?

    Please excuse the verbal diarrhea. An aside on Moraes: I don’t think the problem was that “everything he wrote would be published”– in a way it was exactly the opposite, that (for instance) during the mid-late 90s, which was one of the dark periods for Indian English poetry, it was almost certainly hard even for him to get published. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling Penguin (who have no poetry editors) just sat evasively on his ms for a long time, Carcanet only did a slim selected with an emphasis on the early work, and it was Yeti (ah where are they now) who did “Typed With One Finger”, which had enough proofing errors to make you wonder if it had been typeset with one finger.

  • 11. Falstaff  |  August 30, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Equivocal: Ouch! Jaundice is terrible. Get well soon.

    And of course long comments are welcome – they’re not irrelevant, and even if they were, that’s practically the point of the whole exercise isn’t it?

    And yes, I realize that it isn’t fair to compare the Collected Poems of Herbert and O’Hara. And I wasn’t for a moment suggesting that O’Hara is not a great poet. I’m just saying that (as you are) that the O’Hara Collected Works as it stands today is really hard to get through. And that to me the solution is not that we somehow teach ourselves to engage with this – simply because I don’t see how that can be done. Admittedly some structuring could improve things, but at the end of the day there are still going to be a whole bunch of poems that would be alien to most readers, and whatever the notional value of those poems, they’re still going to make the Collected Poems a demanding and sporadic read. Which is why I do think that O’Hara would be better served if someone would put together a decent selected poems that we could enjoy and engage with. Obviously there’s going to be some loss in doing that, but I’d say it would be worth it. And I’d dare say if O’Hara had lived he might have wanted it that way.

    The Herbert comparison was more in relation to Moraes than to O’Hara. O’Hara’s poems may have been cobbled together from scraps, but Moraes aren’t. If you publish a book and a significant proportion of poems in it are trite and poorly finished, then that’s a problem – not because of how the ‘percentages’ work out, but simply because as someone reading the collection I get dulled and wearied and impatient with all the tedious stuff, and the overall impact of the book is lower (at least for me).

    Ironically, I think the ‘anything will get published’ and ‘nothing will get published’ conditions may be equivalent. The point is how critical you’re being of yourself, how hard you’re pushing yourself to make the poem better and what’s the quality of feedback you’re getting. If you’re working in an environment where there’s no certainty of your getting published at all, and you have no reason to trust the judgment of the publishers or believe that writing better poems will increase the chances of your getting published, I can see how that could make you sloppy. I’m just speculating, of course. All I know is that those last collections had a lot of poems that I consider deadwood, and it didn’t seem like anyone took a long, hard look at what was getting published and asked themselves whether it deserved to be.

    Also, to be fair, I’m probably being more negative about Moraes than I actually feel. It’s not so much that I think he’s a bad poet as that I think he’s overrated. I suspect part of this is just a reaction to my sense that, relative to other Indian poets writing in English, the praise Moraes gets is disproportionate to his talent. I realize that’s unfair to Moraes, but that’s just how it is.

  • 12. Equivocal  |  August 30, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Thanks a lot for this, Falstaff. I think I agree with what you’ve said absolutely. Amen! Now back to sleep.


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