New Delhi: Music, calligraphy, conversations and poetry merge in Vikram Seth’s new anthology of poetry, “The Rivered Earth”, an eclectic journey into the heart of rhythmic lyricism that the writer of “The Golden Gate” – a novel in verse – is known for.
The slim anthology, inspired by Seth’s tryst with 17th century celebrated poet George Herbert, was unveiled at Penguin India’s “Spring Fever” Festival in the capital, marks a new chapter in the writer’s life – an empathy with the spiritual and Herbert’s works.
Seth, who bought Herbert’s country home, “The Old Rectory”, in Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, says the fact that he got to live there has created an aspect of sharing with Herbert’s poetry”.
Poetry comes naturally to Seth. “I never thought I would become a novelist,” the writer said.
“The poem (by Herbert) I used as a template is Love 3. When I compare George Herbert’s poetry to those by contemporary poets, there is sincerity (in Herbert’s poetry) and a wonderful way of creating a whole atmosphere,” Seth said.
“The way George Herbert influenced me… I write about it; the answer to that lies in the pages of my book,” the writer-poet told IANS.
The book is divided into four segments – “Songs in Time of War”, “Shared Ground”, “The Traveller” and “The Seven Elements”. Each section comprises an introduction and a libretto – musical text – which has been set to music by noted English composer Alec Roth and violinist Philippe Roth – and calligraphy in Chinese, English, Hindi and Arabic.
Conversations between Seth and the musicians about transposing the texts to music break through the rhymed verses like scenes from a theatre.
The terrain of the poetry spans China, India, Europe.
The anthology is an extension of a project, “Confluences” between Seth and his musician friends at his new home in Wiltshire by the river Nadder.
“Some time ago, when I was between books, I took part in a project that resulted in several remarkable works of music – involving from pen, four very different libretti… It was a collaboration between a writer, a composer and a violinist. It developed over four years with a work produced each year; it took place with the encouragement and within the constraints of three festivals and, indeed, communities; the librettis touched upon three civilisations – Chinese, European and Indian,” Seth said.
“The Songs in the Time of War”, the opening panorama of poems and translations of the Chinese poet, Du Fu, who wrote in the 8th century, looks at imperial China in a series of musings, memories and stories from history narrated by Du Fu sailing on the Yangtze river.
“In my twenties, I had lived in China for two years, studying at Nanjing University doing research in economics and demography in the nearby villages and travelling around the country whenever I got the chance to do so. I grew to love China – in a complex sort of way,” Seth said.
The poems are like narratives with references to folklores, myths, superstition, philosophy, rebellion and war.
In one of his poems, “Grieving for the Young Prince”, Seth tells of an empire, ravaged by war: “Wolves, jackals roam the city. In the wild/The dragon and his court remained exiled/Take care, dear prince, I daren’t speak long with you/But for your sake will pause a breath or two/…I hear the son of heaven has abdicated/And in the north the Khan, it is related…”
A section, “Traveller”, is a personal interpretation of Indian spiritual poetry and a Rig Vedic hymn on creation and the traditional stages of life. It processes lores from ancient Indian language texts in a contemporary poetic canvas.
“I am inspired by Pushkin,” the writer said.
Seth, who is writing a sequel to his novel, “The Suitable Boy”, said “it would be ready soon”.
“But I would like to get acquainted with ‘A Suitable Girl’ (the tentative name of the sequel),” he laughed. “The Rivered Earth” has been published by Penguin-India.