Forms and Inspirations

Vikram Seth

The first writing I did – apart from school essays and articles for the school paper – was some poems I wrote when I was unhappily lovestruck at University. They were in very free measures, and, indeed, very free syntax. I had read enough modern poetry by then to convince myself that rhyme and metre were passé, and that, anyway, the fierce and miserable beating of my heart was not to be contained by what Frost, I believe, called, with seeming disparagement, ‘rhymey-dimey stuff’. So, unrhymed and unmetered it all poured out, and since I had no poetic control to replace rhyme and metre, most of it was embarrassingly bad. Luckily I never showed it to anyone at that stage, let alone to its onlie begetter. I was looking through some of my papers in a trunk the other day when I came across these poems, and they made me cringe.

However, among them were a few which for some reason, were not awful. One poem had to do with memories and a dream of trees, and was set in the stanza of Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. Here is the last stanza of my poem:

Last night, when from that pitted roadway
I wandered as I dreamt,
The trees were bent, hostile, entangled,
Weeds massed, and grass unkempt,
The house locked, and the only key inside,
So ingress was denied.

That, as I said, I can still read without wincing. But I will now embarrass myself by quoting a few lines of a poem I wrote at about the same time which is more typical of my undergraduate writing. I do tell myself, in mitigation, that I was only twenty then: but that fact does not console me much. Here is the beginning of ‘Khamsin: A Sequence’:

From the Khamsin of passion
There is no escape –
Only the greying peace of the silent fields
Will ease my heart.
The effort of owing one’s life to others
Strikes at the root of life.
O, loved as you are,
Have you any rights at all?

Well, that is enough of that. I will move from the callow glory of ‘Khamsin: A Sequence’, and the earlier poem about trees, to a general point. When I look at these two samples now, I discover that when I used a tight metrical or rhyme scheme, I could usually save myself from my own worst idiocies. Because I couldn’t shoot forwards without check, I had to think more slowly. I had to work more; I had to understand what it was I meant to say. Because the rhyme scheme made a kind of sense, I felt that my sentences should do the same. And finally, because particular rhyme schemes carried resonances of particular poets, they seemed to demand a certain minimal standard of respect: of accessible diction, clarity of argument, compression, and honesty of feeling. I couldn’t blather all over the page as I found I could and did when I attempted free verse. Pouring my spirit into a cup into which some poet I admired had poured his, I found I was seized with an energy that came from outside myself. My inspiration was heightened; and because I was ashamed to pour bilge into, say, a stanzaic form hallowed by Yeats, so was the control. And at the end of it, there was often a click, a sense of rightness and completion that I never got when I felt that rhythmically I could do entirely as I pleased. As a result, the experience I had hoped to describe had a better chance of being expressed in a memorable manner.

I don’t think I could have convinced myself of this on my own. Admittedly, my high-schooling in India meant that I had read – thanks also to The Albatross Book of Verse left lying around the house – a great deal of Wordsworth and Tennyson and Shakespeare, and – at least in the classroom – not very much of 20th-century verse, and was therefore susceptible to the music and structure of stanzaic poetry despite my own initial rejection of it.

But when I left my undergraduate university in England for the wilder shores of graduate California, I did not expect this particular susceptibility to be reinforced. I thought, in fact, that I might well be cured entirely of my occasional reactionary lapses into artifice. But as it turned out it was in California that I had the great good fortune to meet two poets, two very different poets, who enabled me to come to terms with the way poetic form and poetic inspiration work to search each other out.

One of these poets was Donald Davie, the other Timothy Steele. Let me talk about Donald first. In the middle of my studies in Economics at Stanford University, I was given the chance to spend a year in the Creative Writing Program in the English Department. I was not at all convinced that creative writing could be taught in the classroom, but I felt I could do with a year’s time to think and write. For two afternoons each week I and about ten of my fellow students would gather for two hours in a book-lined lounge overlooking the huge and sunny Stanford quad, and would seat ourselves around a long oval table. Professor Davie would sit at the head, and the student-poet whose work was to be discussed that day would sit at the foot. A selection from the poet’s work – four poems or so – would have been circulated a couple of weeks previously to the others, so that all of us would have had plenty of time to read it and think about it. Donald Davie, with his somewhat intimidating Yorkshire severity, would make a jovial comment or two, and the proceedings would begin.

There were three parts to the session. First, the poet would read his or her poems aloud, and we would discuss the reading simply as a reading, without going too far into the substance of the poems: ‘Why did you pause before that particular word?’ or ‘You don’t seem to wish to emphasise the line endings – is this because you feel that the half-rhymes do that job sufficiently well?’ and so forth. Donald felt that the crucial oral element in poetry required this training in – or understanding of – the art of reading. The poet in the hot seat would respond to these questions. This process took about ten minutes altogether. Then came the second, and by far the longest, stage: for the next hour and a half, we – the other students – would consider the poems before us and the poet would remain entirely silent, no matter how much he or she was tempted to intervene. We, for our part, would pretend he – let me use ‘he’ – had left the room. In fact, we soon forgot about him. We could not turn to him and say: ‘Why did you use an archaic word in line six in an otherwise informal, even slangy, sentence?’ We had to work it out for ourselves. We couldn’t say: ‘How can your “tongues of passion” at the beginning of stanza two grow “weak-kneed” three lines later?’ We had to see whether the image worked for us. We couldn’t even say: ‘What did you want this poem to mean?’ We had lived with these poems for two or three weeks, and if at the end of that period, separately and in conclave, we couldn’t figure it out, the poet would have to draw his own conclusions. Very rarely did he decide that he was so far ahead of his time that ten tolerably intelligent, reasonably generous, fairly diverse fellow poets couldn’t be expected to fathom his profundities. Donald presided gently but incisively, and made sure that in the course of the discussion, everyone – except the poet – voiced his ideas, his interpretations, his preferences, his opinions The poet got the opportunity of being a privileged listener to the sort of conversation he might otherwise never hear in his life, in which his own work was discussed by his peers at some length in a concentrated and considered manner.

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