Thursday, November 04, 2010

Clearing House, Lal

First of all, RIP P.Lal. He died yesterday.

Whether you liked the kind of poetry he published or not, Indian Poetry in English would be a smaller world than it already is without the encouragement he gave poets in their early years.


Anjum Hasan has an essay in Caravan, on the years when Clearing House produced some of the best known books of poetry in English. There's been some discussion on Facebook, but I don't think I will reproduce that here (you had to be there).

Neither will I extract; I think the piece needs to be read in entirety. But some observations:

The idea of classifying poets by their location rather than their poetics is, I'm sure, not unique to IPE; if the poets published by independent, cooperative ventures - among them Clearing House - were 'The Bombay Poets', there were also the Kerala poets - Ayyappa Panikker and K. Satchidananda, who were writing poetry and criticism as well as translating not just Malayalam poetry into English, but other poetries into Malayalam. There has to be other collectives elsewhere, in other parts of the country, but none of them have got as much press as the 'Bombay Poets'.

What, then, of poet-publishers such as P.Lal and Jayanta Mahapatra? Mahapatra* was published by Clearing House, though of course he wasn't a 'Bombay Poet' (which leads me to think that - unlike the 'Kerala moderns', to use Hasan's phrase -  the appellation was an accident rather than by design). Mahapatra was published by University presses abroad and by the Chandrabhaga Trust and has always been on the edges of any 'collective' or group of poets.

P.Lal's contributions, on the other hand, have always been elided over as being not worthy enough of attention. The primary schism having occurred between Lal and Ezekiel way back in the dawn of post-Independence, modern IPE (I will write more about this soon), the charge of publishing poetry indiscriminately stuck. 

Hasan mentions Lal thus in her essay: "Saleem Peeradina’s anthology of Indian English poetry first appeared as a special edition of Quest in 1972 and was considered a critical response to P Lal’s massive and apparently less discerning Modern Indian Poetry in English which had been published three years previously."

If there is a difference between a bunch of poets publishing their own work and the work of their friends, and one man publishing any poet who had gone to the trouble of putting a manuscript together, surely it isn't one of superior discernment? Lal, after all, published many of the poets we consider major today: A.K.Ramanujam, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Gieve Patel, Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander and many, many others. On the other hand, other small presses have published poets who have disappeared without a trace, or are just plain unreadable.

Whatever the stated or unstated reasons are for sidelining P.Lal, I think a history of IPE would be incomplete if we did not examine his contribution to it. RIP.

*I thought it odd (and telling) how Hasan, throughout her essay, referred to poets by their first names. I might do it on my blog, while referring to poets who are, often, also friends; but I wouldn't do it in an essay being published in a less informal space. Thoughts about this? (After all, so many definitions about publications, criticism and accessibility are changing in this discussion, so - perhaps - why not this as well?)


JP said...

I think first names have their places, and essays in public venues are not one of them.

Space Bar said...

JP: I agree. I saw the same thing, incidentally, in HS Bal's latest piece in Open about the Radia tapes - he called the journos by their first names.