Vikram Seth on love, loss and poetry


Vikram Seth on love, loss and poetry

In Vikram Seth’s hands, even something as mainstream as heartbreak is elevated

By Deepanjana Pal  October 26th, 2015

Does heartbreak become more artistic, more literary and just generally less eyeroll-inducing when a prize-winning, internationally acclaimed author suffers it? In a number of the poems in Vikram Seth’s new volume of poetry, Summer Requiem, Seth pines like Bella when she’s been separated from Edward in The Twilight Saga

I love you more than I can say. 
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.

I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I’m sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?

Summer Requiem is Seth’s first published volume of poetry in 25 years, and as these few lines indicate, a fault line of heartbreak runs through the collection. “To write poetry is an emotional act,” says Seth, who admits that many of the poems come “from a dark place”. 

Darkness has been Seth’s word in many an interview, to describe his split with French violinist Philippe Honoré. Earlier this year, when Summer Requiem’s British edition was published, Seth described his break-up as “a loss of love” and said that one of its effects was the writer’s block that delayed his forthcoming novel, A Suitable Girl. 

This sequel to Seth’s much-loved A Suitable Boy (1993) has been the topic of literary gossip despite still being a work in progress. First, Seth got a spectacular advance of reportedly more than a million pounds for the novel. Then, when he failed to meet his deadline, his publisher demanded Seth return the advance. Some frantic negotiations followed and he changed publishers. A Suitable Girl is expected to come out next year. Beyond revealing that it’s set in the present, all Seth is willing to utter on the subject of the book are “the sounds of silence.” It has, quite evidently, been a challenging work in more ways than one. 

However, while he may have struggled with prose, there was clearly very little walling in Seth’s verse. “Writing poetry is one way of working through the pain, and the sting sometimes lessens at the end,” he says. “At other times, it becomes stronger. But at least one has something to show for it.” 

Love has rivered much of Seth’s writing over the years, particularly his poetry. In the past when he’s written about pining for one who is out of reach, or of his hesitation to cross from friendship into romance, the emotions actually do have a lot in common with those felt by the Bellas of this world. From his very first book of poetry (Mappings, 1980) till now, Seth’s poems about love are marked by an intensity and helplessness, with the poet sharing some of the romantic heroines’
and heroes’ flair for the dramatic. The difference, of course, lies in Seth’s artistry and his ability to write lines that resonate, instead of ringing as tinnily as pop fiction. At his best, Seth can establish a sense of intimacy between his reader and himself with just a fragment. Take, for example, these lines from ‘Across’, one of the poems from All You Who Sleep Tonight:

May what my pen this peaceless day
Writes on this page not reach your view

Till its deferred print lets you say
It speaks to someone else than you.

All You Who Sleep Tonight was published in 1990, but people still come up to Seth and recite the title poem, telling him how his words have made them feel less alone. For Seth, poetry’s ability to create lingering connections makes it more special than novels. He says, “Perhaps the greatest satisfaction lies in meeting people who remember fragments and rattle them out because they’ve meant something to them and have remained cherished over years.” 

Often, the first person appears as a poetic device to quickly forge a sense of confidence between the poem and reader. In Seth’s poems, unless he establishes quite clearly that he is channelling another character, the “I” refers to him. It’s not a performance. On one hand, he runs the risk of feeling all the more savaged if the poems are ridiculed or dismissed. On the other, it’s Seth laying himself bare to his reader, veiled only by verse. 

Reading Seth may give you a feeling of knowing him intimately, but Seth in person can surprise you. At 63, he hums with energy, listening closely to everything said to him, even if it is something fairly mundane like, “My name isn’t Cheryl.” He speaks passionately and eruditely, casually skipping stones over an eclectic range of references and including topics as disconnected as Kabir’s doha and 16th-century courtly French poetry. He’ll read a poem full of rich allusions to myth and tragedy, and then move blithely on to a hilarious accent that is Rastafarian by way of China and recite, “Fa-yaah/ O fayah-fayah-fayaah/ Dizayaah/ Hot hot hot/ I’m burning a lot with dizayaah.”

This mischief and boundless energy make Seth seem ageless. He seems to constantly be doing something new. Seth has learnt calligraphy, is an artist, plays the cello and the flute, and is fluent in at least seven languages. (“One must keep oneself occupied.”) He is also an accomplished translator. A couple of years ago, he decided to translate Tulsidas’ Hanuman Chalisa into English. “English doesn’t have as many feminine rhymes, so the metre of Tulsidas is difficult to replicate, because it’s almost too tight,” he says, while talking about the musicality of the verse. He hasn’t published his translation yet. “Maybe I’ll give it to Bhaskar in A Suitable Girl,” he muses. “He’s in his sixties, he’s got that mathematician background; it could be his project.”

A lot of Seth’s vibrancy has to do with the way he launches himself into the things he cares about, too. When the Supreme Court criminalised homosexuality in 2013, Seth spoke emphatically against the decision. He wrote a poem criticising the verdict, which he distributed across his network of friends and journalists. He also appeared on the cover of India Today, posing as a criminal having his mugshot taken. It wasn’t the first time Seth had spoken out for his beliefs, but this was perhaps the most controversy he had generated in years. Openly bisexual, Seth came out years ago to those who cared to see it in his first book of poetry, which had love poems that were quite evidently addressed to men.  

Even a cursory glance at Seth’s bibliography explains why he cares so deeply about the freedom to be with whoever one’s heart desires. He is a teller of love stories, many of which have been drawn from real life. An Equal Music (1999), for instance, was inspired by Honoré and in the novel’s epigraph (the first letters of each line spell Honoré’s name), Seth wrote,

I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration.
     

Many of the poems in Summer Requiem were written after Seth and Honoré’s relationship ended. This is the darkness to which he refers when talking about the book and there is still a sadness in his voice when he recollects how the book came to be. “When I wrote the poems, because I would write poems under the pressure of an emotional or other circumstance, I’d never collected them,” says Seth. “I just let them lie around here. More often than not, they’d be shared with those for whom they’d been written.” When those who were privy to his poems told Seth it was unfair to not share these works with the world, he collected them into Summer Requiem.  

The volume may not showcase Seth at the height of his poetic prowess, but it is an example of the unaffected honesty that characterises his writing as well as his wry humour. The shortest poem in the book is titled ‘Prayer for My Novel’. Just imagine how his publishers — lying in wait for A Suitable Girl — felt reading that one.

The other thread that shimmers through Summer Requiem is a sense of anxiety about writing. Doubts and writer’s block hover over stanza after stanza. There are poems that unexpectedly reach out to one another’s darknesses, across the book’s gutter. While Seth prays on one hand for the novel he’s writing to be finished by “whatever force outside me moves my hand”, the facing page is filled with the whispers of the spirits — characters and ideas from A Suitable Girl, perhaps? — who say to him, 

Live you must, for we must too
And we have no home but you.

So Seth, with his demons, his darknesses and his rhyme schemes, binds his broken heart into a slim volume of poems on whose cover a sunset bruises the sky with colour. And then, pen in hand, he continues. 

Summer Requiem (Aleph Book Company) is out now. Vikram Seth will be conversing with Germaine Greer during the opening ceremony of TATA Lit Live! between 2 and 3 pm on October 29, at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai. He will also be reading from his book between 6.30 and 7.30 pm at Tata Theatre, NCPA. Tatalitlive.in

Does heartbreak become more artistic, more literary and just generally less eyeroll-inducing when a prize-winning, internationally acclaimed author suffers it? In a number of the poems in Vikram Seth’s new volume of poetry, Summer Requiem, Seth pines like Bella when she’s been separated from Edward in The Twilight Saga

I love you more than I can say. 
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.

I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I’m sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?

Summer Requiem is Seth’s first published volume of poetry in 25 years, and as these few lines indicate, a fault line of heartbreak runs through the collection. “To write poetry is an emotional act,” says Seth, who admits that many of the poems come “from a dark place”. 

Darkness has been Seth’s word in many an interview, to describe his split with French violinist Philippe Honoré. Earlier this year, when Summer Requiem’s British edition was published, Seth described his break-up as “a loss of love” and said that one of its effects was the writer’s block that delayed his forthcoming novel, A Suitable Girl. 

This sequel to Seth’s much-loved A Suitable Boy (1993) has been the topic of literary gossip despite still being a work in progress. First, Seth got a spectacular advance of reportedly more than a million pounds for the novel. Then, when he failed to meet his deadline, his publisher demanded Seth return the advance. Some frantic negotiations followed and he changed publishers. A Suitable Girl is expected to come out next year. Beyond revealing that it’s set in the present, all Seth is willing to utter on the subject of the book are “the sounds of silence.” It has, quite evidently, been a challenging work in more ways than one. 

However, while he may have struggled with prose, there was clearly very little walling in Seth’s verse. “Writing poetry is one way of working through the pain, and the sting sometimes lessens at the end,” he says. “At other times, it becomes stronger. But at least one has something to show for it.” 

Love has rivered much of Seth’s writing over the years, particularly his poetry. In the past when he’s written about pining for one who is out of reach, or of his hesitation to cross from friendship into romance, the emotions actually do have a lot in common with those felt by the Bellas of this world. From his very first book of poetry (Mappings, 1980) till now, Seth’s poems about love are marked by an intensity and helplessness, with the poet sharing some of the romantic heroines’
and heroes’ flair for the dramatic. The difference, of course, lies in Seth’s artistry and his ability to write lines that resonate, instead of ringing as tinnily as pop fiction. At his best, Seth can establish a sense of intimacy between his reader and himself with just a fragment. Take, for example, these lines from ‘Across’, one of the poems from All You Who Sleep Tonight:

May what my pen this peaceless day
Writes on this page not reach your view

Till its deferred print lets you say
It speaks to someone else than you.

All You Who Sleep Tonight was published in 1990, but people still come up to Seth and recite the title poem, telling him how his words have made them feel less alone. For Seth, poetry’s ability to create lingering connections makes it more special than novels. He says, “Perhaps the greatest satisfaction lies in meeting people who remember fragments and rattle them out because they’ve meant something to them and have remained cherished over years.” 

Often, the first person appears as a poetic device to quickly forge a sense of confidence between the poem and reader. In Seth’s poems, unless he establishes quite clearly that he is channelling another character, the “I” refers to him. It’s not a performance. On one hand, he runs the risk of feeling all the more savaged if the poems are ridiculed or dismissed. On the other, it’s Seth laying himself bare to his reader, veiled only by verse. 

Reading Seth may give you a feeling of knowing him intimately, but Seth in person can surprise you. At 63, he hums with energy, listening closely to everything said to him, even if it is something fairly mundane like, “My name isn’t Cheryl.” He speaks passionately and eruditely, casually skipping stones over an eclectic range of references and including topics as disconnected as Kabir’s doha and 16th-century courtly French poetry. He’ll read a poem full of rich allusions to myth and tragedy, and then move blithely on to a hilarious accent that is Rastafarian by way of China and recite, “Fa-yaah/ O fayah-fayah-fayaah/ Dizayaah/ Hot hot hot/ I’m burning a lot with dizayaah.”

This mischief and boundless energy make Seth seem ageless. He seems to constantly be doing something new. Seth has learnt calligraphy, is an artist, plays the cello and the flute, and is fluent in at least seven languages. (“One must keep oneself occupied.”) He is also an accomplished translator. A couple of years ago, he decided to translate Tulsidas’ Hanuman Chalisa into English. “English doesn’t have as many feminine rhymes, so the metre of Tulsidas is difficult to replicate, because it’s almost too tight,” he says, while talking about the musicality of the verse. He hasn’t published his translation yet. “Maybe I’ll give it to Bhaskar in A Suitable Girl,” he muses. “He’s in his sixties, he’s got that mathematician background; it could be his project.”

A lot of Seth’s vibrancy has to do with the way he launches himself into the things he cares about, too. When the Supreme Court criminalised homosexuality in 2013, Seth spoke emphatically against the decision. He wrote a poem criticising the verdict, which he distributed across his network of friends and journalists. He also appeared on the cover of India Today, posing as a criminal having his mugshot taken. It wasn’t the first time Seth had spoken out for his beliefs, but this was perhaps the most controversy he had generated in years. Openly bisexual, Seth came out years ago to those who cared to see it in his first book of poetry, which had love poems that were quite evidently addressed to men.  

Even a cursory glance at Seth’s bibliography explains why he cares so deeply about the freedom to be with whoever one’s heart desires. He is a teller of love stories, many of which have been drawn from real life. An Equal Music (1999), for instance, was inspired by Honoré and in the novel’s epigraph (the first letters of each line spell Honoré’s name), Seth wrote,

I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration.
     

Many of the poems in Summer Requiem were written after Seth and Honoré’s relationship ended. This is the darkness to which he refers when talking about the book and there is still a sadness in his voice when he recollects how the book came to be. “When I wrote the poems, because I would write poems under the pressure of an emotional or other circumstance, I’d never collected them,” says Seth. “I just let them lie around here. More often than not, they’d be shared with those for whom they’d been written.” When those who were privy to his poems told Seth it was unfair to not share these works with the world, he collected them into Summer Requiem.  

The volume may not showcase Seth at the height of his poetic prowess, but it is an example of the unaffected honesty that characterises his writing as well as his wry humour. The shortest poem in the book is titled ‘Prayer for My Novel’. Just imagine how his publishers — lying in wait for A Suitable Girl — felt reading that one.

The other thread that shimmers through Summer Requiem is a sense of anxiety about writing. Doubts and writer’s block hover over stanza after stanza. There are poems that unexpectedly reach out to one another’s darknesses, across the book’s gutter. While Seth prays on one hand for the novel he’s writing to be finished by “whatever force outside me moves my hand”, the facing page is filled with the whispers of the spirits — characters and ideas from A Suitable Girl, perhaps? — who say to him, 

Live you must, for we must too
And we have no home but you.

So Seth, with his demons, his darknesses and his rhyme schemes, binds his broken heart into a slim volume of poems on whose cover a sunset bruises the sky with colour. And then, pen in hand, he continues. 

Summer Requiem (Aleph Book Company) is out now. Vikram Seth will be conversing with Germaine Greer during the opening ceremony of TATA Lit Live! between 2 and 3 pm on October 29, at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai. He will also be reading from his book between 6.30 and 7.30 pm at Tata Theatre, NCPA. Tatalitlive.in