Master of the lean poem

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Seven poetry collections over a span of 35 years might not seem too many, but what elicits surprise, no matter how mild, is that four of them were published in the past seven years. A readerly intimacy with the poems in Manohar Shetty’s Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems is bound to assure you that the poet not only does not mind mildness, but revels –even excels – in it. After his third book of poems, Domestic Creatures (1994), he took a literary pause that lasted 16 years, during which time he “never slept, / Only passed out and woke up”, while never cringing “From that same old taunt: / ‘Yeh sala Manu ban gaya bewda’”. Addiction and poetry do not necessarily make great sleeping partners, yet their occasional camaraderie might lead to interesting outcomes in the arena of creativity. If alcohol did any damage to Shetty’s poetry, it doesn’t show. In fact, his post-hiatus fecundity confirms that the poet not only emerged whole and hale from the deep dark pit notorious for ending the careers of scores of artists, but also preserved the integrity, purity and vigour essential for writing elegant poems,

Those unsigned hard won
Stanzas in longhand given
Away as keepsakes,
As prayers, bookmarks,
Or anniversary cards;
A bequest with no return
Address—a piece of paper
Folded close to the heart.

Those in possession of his words would do well to copy some down on a sheet of paper, fold it and slip it into their shirt pockets, for the pull of a Shetty poem is such that it demands many celebratory re-readings. On the other hand, he doesn’t mind if his precious missives to the world, smugly lost in its collective distractions, go missing. No matter what happens, “He would be game to the last”, exhorting the interested reader/listener to “not be taken in by the rows / Of books touching the ceiling”, but to “Listen instead / To the scratch of words / On the page, any page, white / Or ochre with age”. In India, the relationship between ochre and age goes back to ancient times. The colour is still sacred to many, although in the past two decades or so, it has acquired connotations that are far from savoury. It seems unlikely that Shetty had this sense of the word in mind, but then, what’s poetry without its share of accidental implications?

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