follow up to Poetry Trips

(This was a paper I wrote after my presentation on Vijay Nambisan for my Indian Literature Class.) 

The best way to introduce this poet is through this quote from the book launch party of First Infinities where Jeet Thayil, poet, writer and friend of Nambisan’s said - “If you haven’t heard this name before, it’s because unlike some of us, Vijay never learnt to attend the right literature festivals, make the right noises and kiss the right asses.”

Vijay Nambisan is a Malayali who went to IIT Madras and won the first ever All India Poetry Competition award which is organised by the Poetry Society of India and the British Council, in 1988 for his poem Madras Central. 

Nambisan’s philosophy on poetry is explained in his foreword for First Infinities. He sarcastically thanks political parties, businessmen, journalists, artists, sportspersons and Bollywood. He cites them as the reasons as to why there is space for poets like him as people are demanding fresh things, love and peace. He also believes that Salvation is the whole point of writing. This seems especially relatable to anyone who writes or aspires to write. He gives a lot of importance to spontaneity as well. After his first book of poetry, Gemini, which he co-authored with Thayil, was published in 1992, Nambisan felt very disillusioned with poetry. He didn’t want to force himself to write either because that was against his principles. What followed was 20 turbulent years of sorts. He did manage to write some prose, but it was only in 2015 that he finally managed to get out a book on poetry. This was because he returned back to believing once again, that poetry is the only thing that matters. 

The first poem I selected is called Dirge. The context of this poem is that he wrote it when his friends and mentors Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel passed away. The poem is as follows. 


The poets die like flies but I am lying slightly to one side,
Contented in my Spain or Siam, content too to keep my hide.
How well they wrote, those friends now fettered, how the Indo-Anglian tongue
Allowed them to be lovely-lettered, their lives lived when the world was young.
I’ll live and hold my words in, for I am wearied of hypothesis;
And, in place of getting glory, kisses take from my missis.

Then the world shone, by their showing; then publishers seemed to care;
Then calls for cheques of last year’s owing did not fall on empty air.
Then newspapers asked them for pieces; and printed them unchanged; and paid;
But now there are so many wheezes which make the craft a thrifty trade.
In a wilder whirl of weeklies, tabloids titting on page threes,
I will shirk my duty meekly and kisses take from my missis.

They did not care much what the world said: they taught it instead how to speak.
They did not, when a poem pleaded, to meetings go in Mozambique.
But I will stay my poems, spending strength now with a shriller pen
My theme and language both defending, to live fourscore years and ten.
And if it prove my prime is over, if I’ve no chance at wordly bliss
Why I will spurn so false a lover and kisses take from my missis.

This hand once penned those poems: never shall I find so true a friend.
I’ve a thirst for all forever, but the lines come to an end.
So Arun and Dom and Nissim – I will shun their hard-earned grief
And much though I will always miss ’em, in softer shadows find relief.
And when I’m ninety and young writers ask why I wrote no more than this
I will answer, “But, you blighters! I kisses took from my missis.”

This sad-funny poem pays homage to his mentors. It uses wit and humour to great effect. He calls back to the earlier generation of poets and the culture that respected poetry and poets through lines like “then the publishers seemed to care;”, “Then newspapers asked them for pieces; and printed them unchanged; and paid;”, “their lives lived when the world was young.” It is also to be noted that the “the Indo-Anglian tongue” is important because Nambisan belonged to a generation who was constantly questioned for writing in English. He also uses a more traditional form, that of rhyming couplets to reinforce the idea that he was not very fond of new age poets who completely disregarded form. There are some internal rhymes as well, “friends now fettered” and “lovely lettered”. The rhyme doesn’t feel too forced either, he rhymes speak with Mozambique. He also uses the tool of anaphora, the lines “kisses take from my missis” is repeated at the end of each stanza, giving it a humorous twist at all turns. 

The second poem I selected is called Elizabeth Oomanchery and the poem is as follows. 

Elizabeth Oomanchery

Elizabeth Oomanchery
The celebrated poetess
Went to the corner shop
To buy a loaf of bread.
The shopman said, “Excuse me,
“Aren’t you Elizabeth Oomanchery,
“The celebrated poetess?”
So Elizabeth Oomanchery went home.

Elizabeth Oomanchery
Sat at her desk one evening
To write herself a poem.
The poem asked, “Excuse me,
“Aren’t you Elizabeth Oomanchery,
“The celebrated poetess?”
Elizabeth Oomanchery
Said “Yes,”
So the poem went home.”

This poem captures one of Nambisan’s pet peeves of being a celebrity poet. He believes that being a celebrity poet takes away the joy of writing itself. This is a recurring theme in the collection. In the poem The Corporate Poet (which is in fact what he wanted to name the collection), he makes fun of poets who become copywriters for advertising agencies and Bollywood lyricists, but also end up making speeches about the importance of keeping the purity of art and what not. This poem reminds us and himself, to not take poets too seriously as well. Structurally, the poem is symmetrical which is mostly the reason that it gives us the impact it does. It’s a short, sharp, simple, funny yet thought provoking poem. 

Upon reading a bunch of interviews and articles that different people had given and written about him after his death, I found some quotes that I think is representative of the image that I have now built of him. 

“The romantic image of Nambisan as a drunk and reclusive writer - perhaps this idea had meant something to him too, in his younger years.”
“In the early 1990s in Bombay, poetry, or prose for that matter, was not about getting prizes. Or even being recognised in a bookshop or a restaurant. It was a defiant and dangerous personal vocation.”
“For him it was hard to seperate a way of living from a way of writing. To create, he had to destroy. And his own body seemed the closest at hand.”
“The more dismissive he is of his self and his poetry, the more assertive his poetry grows.”
I think that the context and background of the poet is important to read his poems. He was an alcoholic and suffered severely for it. People have spoken about the various dramatic things that has happened in his life because of this. It seemed to be a sort of conscious image building on his part, as the bombay poets, at least in his early years. Even Thayil speaks of this wherein he says that in their twenties they spent more time getting drunk and talking about writing than actually writing. Nambisan also believed that it was not completely possible to separate one’s way of living from his way of writing. It’s quite a romantic notion that to create, you destroy. Finally, I think this comes with most reclusive poets, the more dismissive they seem of themselves and their poetry, the more assertive it becomes.