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:
In England after a period of much libertine abandon in “free verse” there has been for some time a return to metrical forms . . . I have taken, then, this now universal return to tradition in England as my guide-post in eschewing in my selections, even from the work of Indians, in-discipline. As to how much regard Indians have paid to the forms of English poetry may be seen from the preponderance of sonnets they have written. Even where the thought has been un-distinguished, the discipline in expression has been loyally maintained.
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: