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The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry

Edited by Sudeep Sen
(HarperCollins India, 2012)

sensudeep_harpercollinsbookofenglishpoetryThe HarperCollins Book of English Poetry is an ambitious collection of works by eighty-five contemporary poets of Indian origin spread across the diaspora. The selected works reflect diverse nuances of verse, ranging from pantoums, sonnets, ghazals, sestinas, haiku variations, Bhartrhari shatakas, prayer chants, hymn forms, prose poetry, mosaic pastiches, and longer versions of lyric narratives.

Editor Sudeep Sen, a renowned poet, has limited the entries in this volume only to poets born in the postcolonial era (post–1950), presumably to avoid names which have been synonymous with the genre of Indian English poetry in the past, such as Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, and Keki Daruwalla.  This collection is indeed replete with several novel and captivating voices, like Anindita Sengupta, Anupama Raju, and Tishani Doshi, to name a few. Over ninety percent of the poems are previously unpublished and secured solely for this collection. One does wonder about the significance of the photograph of a blue, rustic, bolted door on the book’s cover. On closer inspection, the latch hasn’t been shut although the door itself is locked. The image is engimatic, perhaps in harmony with the publisher’s attempt to synchronize this project with the celebration of the sixtieth year of India becoming a republic.

The poems are presented in alphabetical order according to the poets’ names, and the shift between radically different styles is, at times, surprising. On subsequent readings, one tends to appreciate both the diversity and the commonalities in subject matter. The mythological references in several poems are a happy congruence, although not a vertex of this anthology.

Poet Daljit Nagra, in his characteristic bold voice, delights with “Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy–Machine!!!”: “To flesh a poem / You rifle through / Your store of imperial / Word-dying / To blood that hoard / Swotted . . .” 

And Chitra Divakaruni, an acclaimed writer of fiction, enthralls with ekphrastic verse in “The World Tree”: “The tree grows out of my navel. Black / As snakeskin, it slithers upward, away / From my voice. It spreads / Across the entire morning, its leaves / Tongues that drink the light. It has ground / Its heel into my belly.”

Anand Thakore, a Hindustani classical vocalist, keeps close to the original formal style of Urdu in “Ghazal.” Anjum Hasan’s polyphonic verses in “No Solace” transition back and forth from poetic to prosaic form. Bold experimentation is especially evident in Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s rendition of Bhartrhari shatakas (inspired by the sixth-century Sanskrit grammarian and poet) and Amitava Kumar’s long verse narratives. H. Masud Taj, a performance poet based in Ottawa, Canada, constantly works around philosophical and social circumferences of poetry and architecture. An architect by trade, his verses are appealing visually, as in “Flamingo.”

In an era of open-mic poetry nights and self-publishing options, anthologies such as this one constitute a much-needed benchmark of panache. This anthology serves as a conglomeration of assertive, fresh voices, a long way off from the rich inherent, albeit stringent, tradition of Itihasas and Puranas. These are voices to reckon with in a world that is constantly on the move, a world that is merging into a subtler, indistinct identity, even as we speak.

Divya Rajan‘s latest work is forthcoming in Contemporary Indian English Poetry, edited by Dr. Paula Hayes. She has served on the editorial teams of The Furnace Review (poetry), Asian Cha (poetry), and The Best of the Net anthologies (2010 and 2011: nonfiction, 2012: poetry). She lives in Chicago.