Photo: Dennis Colette
There are not many authors who understand how to unite poetry of more than two millenia, serval cultures and seven languages into one contemporary work of poetry. Vikram Seth is one of the few who succeeded doing it in his new book, The Rivered Earth.
The title says it all: Like a river Virkam Seth takes the reader back through past times of our earth. His book contains four libretti, poems written to be set to music by Alec Roth. They are either translations of poems or poems inspired by 17th century England, ancient China and India. While Seth meanders through the past, he uses his superb skills as polyglot to transfer emotions and ideas from Mandarin, Hindi of Kabir, Pali, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil into the language which he calls his tool: English.
The first libretti revolves around the war ridden, eight century China of the ancient poet Du Fu. The second one reanimates George Herbert’s poetry through Seth’s hands, who is presently living in the house where Herbert died. Thereafter the journey continues through the four stages of Vedic live until the book ends with poems about the elements.
While each libretto varies in content, they do not differ in their essence. Whether it is the longing for old friends, “a lady, matchless in her beauty” and a new spring, the lonesome stay in a the British country side, where one encounters ghosts of time past, or men’s voyage in between “being and not being”, it is the cross-cultural, beautifully melancholic travel of live on earth that unifies each poem.
The title also reflects the style of the book. Although the main part are the libretti, the curves of the book takes the reader from an interview, over the developments of the libretti and the appendant compositions, to short biographical excerpts of Seth’s life. The author even wrote calligraphies in Chinese, English, Brajbhasha (a variant of Hindi) and Arabic.
Although the account on the creations of the libretti is interesting and helps the understanding thereof, the interview between the musicians and Seth seem to be a mere fill-in. It is superfluous, unless one is a connoisseur of classical music and has listened to the actual libretti with its composed music. Maybe the book, with its not more than 100 pages, would have been too short without this digression for an author who contributes one of the longest pieces of fiction to the canon of English literature.
The same issue between the final composition and the mere written form relates to the libretti themselves, too. They are indisputably strong on paper as well, but since they were written for a vocalist certain decisions concerning the rhythm and comprehension were made in favour of the musical performance. And this does not always enhance the independent poem.
Seth often had to defend himself against reproaches of being too traditional and using rhymes over excessively. This might also apply to his new work, which stands in line with his earlier writings such as his first novel, The Golden Gate, which was almost completely written in a 200 year old verse form invented by Alexander Pushkin.
But in Postmodernism everything is allowed: whether being progressively unconventional like an expressionist, or à la Seth, regressive like a renaissance man. No matter how different poetry might be, Seth shows artfully that poetry is in the end like a river, streaming through time, curving here and there, but always heading into the same direction of redemption for the Lyrical I. Or with Heraclitus words: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”