Man of Letters

The unlikely correspondence between Srinivas Rayaprol and William Carlos Williams

30 August 2018
COURTESY THE SRINIVAS RAYAPROL LITERARY TRUST

BORN WITHIN A FEW YEARS OF EACH OTHER, Nissim Ezekiel (1924–2004), Srinivas Rayaprol (1925–1998), AK Ramanujan (1929–1993), and Arun Kolatkar (1931–2004) were the first generation of Indian poets in English to recognise that the times had been a-changin’ and the trade winds blowing over a newly independent India now brought with them clouds from the United States. As late as 1947, the year India became independent, those clouds were not even a speck on the horizon. One perspective on the poetry scene as it then existed comes from This Strange Adventure: An Anthology of Poems in English by Indians, 1828–1946. The title is revealing. Though Indians had by then been writing poetry in English for more than a hundred years, it was still considered a slightly out of the way thing to do, not because it was poetry but because it was in English. Why it was an adventure of the romantic kind is explained by the editor, Fredoon Kabraji, who began his introductory essay by saying: “Oh this beautiful language of yours! So wayward with its nuances, idioms, participles, prepositions, moods and tenses of verbs – mistress so hard to please!” But it was not just a question of “this beautiful language;” it was also of form:

Though there is no necessary connection between political independence and cultural independence, someone like Kabraji, a long-time London resident, would have expected that, when it came to Indian poets in English, the sonneteers’ ties to the English literary tradition would continue, perhaps become stronger, leading to yet more sonnets, “the discipline in expression . . . loyally maintained.” Expectedly, the opposite happened.

In Sixty Poems, published in 1953, Nissim Ezekiel dedicated a poem to William Carlos Williams, in which he declared he would carve out his own path as an Indian poet: “I do not want/ to write/ poetry like yours/ but still I/ love/ the way you do it.” The iambic beat, with a trochee thrown in for good measure, “conforming to the excellencies of classroom English,” as Williams would have said, is unmissable. The thing to notice, however, is that Ezekiel acknowledged Williams’ presence on the poetic landscape when the poet-pediatrician from Rutherford, New Jersey, was just beginning to be known outside the United States.

Around the same time that Sixty Poems came out, Arun Kolatkar, shuttling between Kolhapur, Bombay and Poona, was discovering English poetry, but in the notebook where he wrote his Dylan Thomas-inspired poems he also jotted down some American phrases, “(No use) spittin’ against the wind,” “high heeled good time” and “cotton pickin’ shame.” AK Ramanujan, who arrived in the United States in 1959 on a Fulbright, in the title poem of his first collection The Striders, wrote about a New England water insect and in the same poem, which minus the legs even looks a bit like a water insect, made a passing reference to Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

on a landslide of lights

and drowns eye

deep

into its tiny strip

of sky.

One can immediately see that the lines have an ancestry different from any poem that Kabraji would have chosen, not that Kabraji would have come across anything like it in the poets available to him.

Just as certain animals are said to sense earthquakes before they happen, the first person to sense the change as he scanned the poetic skies was a young man in his teens, living not in the great metropolitan cities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta but in what he called “a remote town” in central India—Srinivas Rayaprol. His education, he said in the afterword to his first collection published in 1968, Bones and Distances, had been “strictly British.” “Eliot and Auden and Woolf and Isherwood and MacNeice were the great Gods of English literature.” He had heard of a few Americans—Whitman, Hemingway, Steinbeck—but, along with an assortment of Europeans, he lumped them together in the category “foreigners.”

I was not free, not white, not twenty-one when I landed one very cold January morning at Idlewild.

It is difficult to know in what sense Rayaprol felt “not free,” but he was certainly “not twenty-one” when he landed at Idlewild that cold January morning in 1948. He was 22 years old and he was headed for Stanford. The following year he wrote his first “long overdue” letter to “Dear Dr Williams.” Unlike Ezekiel’s cautious lines (“I do not want/ to write/ poetry like yours/ but . . .”), Rayaprol could hardly conceal his delight and enthusiasm as he quoted, in that first letter, the opening of one of Williams’ best-known poems, “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital,” calling it “a thing of startling beauty.” He then came straight to his reason for writing to him: “I am a student of engineering, and Indian, and 21. I am terribly confused because I want to write poetry and when I return to India within the next year I’ll have to make a choice.” Williams had been able to ride two horses at the same time. “You are not only a good poet but perhaps an excellent doctor.” Would Rayaprol be able to do the same, be both good poet and excellent engineer? There was one more thing that Rayaprol wanted to share with Williams:

Williams’ reply came promptly, telling the young poet as it was: “The solution is without solution except writing. If you write well you have the solution in your hands, if you write poorly that’s an end to it.” Referring to Winters, he said, “I disagree with him top and bottom as heartily as you seem to. His very intelligence seems to unseat him. It is not at all necessary for you to follow him.” He offered Rayaprol the encouragement he had sought: “You are on the right track. Have courage and keep an eye to windward. Someone has got to find the new way. It may be you.” By the end of the letter he was looking forward to continuing the correspondence with this unknown Indian: “Write again if you want to.”

The game was on.

The lonely road taken by Rayaprol in 1949 diverged sharply from the one that the poets in Kabraji’s anthology were rushing along. His choice of Williams as mentor over Yvor Winters was unusual for the time, not just for an Indian poet but for any poet then writing in English. One of Thom Gunn’s reasons for coming to Stanford—he came at roughly the same age that Rayaprol did—was precisely to do what Rayaprol did not want to, which is study with Winters. Gunn, through Winters, would later get to know Williams’ work and be influenced by it, and his verse would get freer, though he would also continue to write in traditional poetic forms. But in 1954, when he arrived at Stanford, albeit as one of the fellows in creative writing and not as an engineering student, it was Winters and heroic couplets that he was thinking about:

Much power in each, most in the balanced two:

Ferocity existing in the fence

Built by an exercised intelligence.

(“To Yvor Winters, 1955”)

If for a moment we were to step aside from the bold prints that characterise histories of national literatures, we’d see certain overlapping patterns that otherwise get lost in the primary colours. One such pattern forms around Yvor Winters; another around Dylan Thomas. Talking about the hugely successful first reading tour Thomas gave in the United States, on 24 May 1950 Williams wrote to Rayaprol disparaging American audiences:

Three years after the 67-year-old Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey wrote to Rayaprol saying American poems were different from Welsh–English ones (he’d been saying similar things for a long time), the same thought was expressed no less emphatically if in slightly more personal fashion by the 21-year-old Arun Kolatkar in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Thinking more about himself than about Indian poetry, Kolatkar wrote on 4 December 1953 to his future wife Darshan Chhabda:

By this time you must have heard that most relieving news. “Metaphor-Mining-Company-Unlimited”, Dylan Thomas, is dead.

IN A LETTER TO WILLIAMS on 16 October 1953 from Hyderabad, the “remote town” that he had come back to after three years in the United States, Rayaprol saw his future had turned out as he had foreseen:

He left the question hanging for he knew the answer. It would torment him till the end.

“Aw shucks Bill, I kinda miss you, sometimes,” Rayaprol would write to Williams a year later. His wife was expecting their first child and had gone for her confinement to her father’s, “as custom demands it here”; he felt lonely and missed his old friend, “I wish I had more like you over here.” Then, as now, provincial India had little to offer: “There are lots of young writers here with talent and eager enough but there are no meeting grounds, no nightclubs, no literary centres where they can get together to compare their minds.”

William Carlos Williams at home, November 1954.
LISA LARSEN / THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES

If you live in the provinces and are a dreamer, you tend to dream big. Rayaprol wanted to provide young writers with a platform where they could appear alongside Williams, Henry Miller, GV Desani, Buddhadeva Bose, WH Auden, even Ezra Loomis Pound. The idea of starting a magazine had been with him since his Stanford days, when he was filled with an idealism that comes out of being twenty-something and living away from the homeland:

The magazine was called East and West and ran for five issues, between 1956 and 1959. Sadly, it remains as obscure as the town it came out from then was. With less justification, Rayaprol himself fell into obscurity. In “An American Journal,” which appeared in the Spring 1956 issue of East and West, he had written: “I share with Kafka nothing more than the loneliness of the writer who has to pursue another occupation through the major period of his life.”

Three years before he died, in the preface to Selected Poems of 1995, he repeated what he had so often said in the past: “I have realised indeed rather painfully that I am no longer the genius that I thought I was. But now that there is such a spate of Indian English writing, and handsome books of poetry are coming out every year, I no longer am part of the scene.” He is part of the scene by not being part of it. As he put it in “Dogs in the Rain,” in a line that you would expect to read only in someone like Samuel Beckett, “And you have succeeded in achieving failure.”

Facsimiles of letters of 1953 and 1956 from Rayaprol to Williams. The two continued their correspondence after Rayaprol’s return to Hyderabad.
ALL LETTERS COURTESY YALE COLLECTION OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY

Just as Rayaprol was prescient about so many things in his life, he seemed to have also known that his lasting contribution would not so much be the poems he wanted to write but his letters to Williams. Spontaneous, troubled, witty, nostalgic and alive in every sentence, they had more than once won Williams’ praise. “I admired it but not as much as I like your prose,” he said of a poem that Rayaprol had sent him. Perhaps emboldened by the compliment, Rayaprol in his letter of 16 May 1954 suggested that Williams collect the letters in a book. “Tell me Bill, would you, could you, please, edit my letters to you, which are with you, for publication. Do you think people would be interested in reading them? Do you think they make the grade all right? I am interested in getting them in Botteghe Oscure or New World Writing published by the New American Library of World Literature or in the New Directions Annuals. ” He had even thought of a title: Letters to an American Poet. Wiliams politely turned down the suggestion. “I would gladly help you to assemble your letters for publication but, if I have any letters of yours, I wouldn’t know where to find them among my papers.”

The letters will soon be available in print, and it is time that the poems too emerged from their long neglect. More than a handful of them are as carefully engineered as anything in Indian poetry. “Apartment house” is from a late sequence called “Portraits of America”:

three great

big windows

at ten o’clock

my room

is dark

You can do

nothing

about such things

If the sun rises

in the east

three big windows

in the west

are of no help at all at

ten in the morning

AK Ramanujan once called himself the hyphen in Indo-American. To stay with the metaphor, we might call Rayaprol its en-dash, Rayaprol–Williams.

This essay forms the foreword to Why Should I Write a Poem Now: The Letters of Srinivas Rayaprol and William Carlos Williams, 1949-1958, edited by Graziano Krätli, Copyright © 2018. Forthcoming University of New Mexico Press, December 2018. It will also appear in Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Translating the Indian Past & Other Literary Histories, to be published by Permanent Black later this year.

ARVIND KRISHNA MEHROTRA  lives in Dehradun. His most recent book is Partial Recall: Essays on Literature and Literary History (2012), and his Collected Poems 1969-2014 is forthcoming from Penguin Modern Classics later this year.

Keywords: AK Ramanujan Indian Literature American literature
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