AK Mehrotra is tipped for one of the most prestigious poetry chairs in the UK. Nisha Susan reports
ARVIND KRISHNA Mehrotra is at home in Allahabad working on a fresh translation of Kabir because, he says, no poet (as opposed to academic) has translated Kabir since Tagore. Mehrotra once said that if poets are struck down by one generation of readers they are sure to bounce back with the next. It is a truth one could apply to Mehrotra as well as Kabir. One of the most brilliant minds of his generation, Mehrotra’s poetry is thankfully coming to new readers in the last few years through the internet, new editions and now through an unexpected nomination.
62-year-old Mehrotra is the surprise nomination in an election for the position of Professor of Poetry in Oxford University. The 300-year old position, considered only second to the Poet Laureate in prestige, has been previously held by (among others) Mathew Arnold, WH Auden and Seamus Heaney. In England, the election, the results of which will be announced in a few days, is being discussed in turf terms. Derek Walcott, the Nobel prize winning octogenarian was ‘hot favourite’ until a campaign reviving old sexual harassment cases made him drop out. Ruth Padel, the second nominee is actively campaigning for the position with promises to establish greater links between science and poetry. It would be satisfying to many in England if she becomes the face of public poetry alongside the first woman Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Padel is now considered the ‘frontrunner’ and even had to deny that she had anything to do with the campaign against Walcott. Mehrotra, ‘the dark horse’, nominated by deeply admiring writers including Amit Chaudhuri, Toby Litt and Tariq Ali, says sardonically, “I am taking my cue from our political parties. Let’s see after May 16.”
These are unusual levels of excitement in the world of poetry. But the position is unusual combining erudition (till 1968 one of the three mandatory public lectures by the Professor of Poetry had to be done in Latin) with some degree of deliberately oddball charm. In 1999 James Fenton for instance made his lecture about fish, woodworm and the restoration of the Bodleian Library roof. Padel, the new hot favourite, is famous for using Greek mythology for her provocative analysis of rock culture.
The position has been previously held by Mathew Arnold and WH Auden
It is a world that Mehrotra would occupy with ease. Mehrotra’s English collections have the sharp, polished lyricism of his contemporaries such as Arun Kolatkar. His work in translation and his critical writing is of a literary era that was at once more leisured and more rigorous. On a whim Mehrotra taught himself Prakrit and translated erotic poetry from the 2nd century AD by the Satavahana king Hala. The results — The Absent Traveller — were electric and modern. His cosmopolitanism is one that allows him to live in Allahabad, wish that the gifted Raipur-based poet Vinod Kumar Shukla was more widely known and dismiss Delhi as a provincial town.
In the context of criticism Mehrotra once said that a work must be placed among both its near and far relatives. Whatever the results of the Oxford election it is time for Mehrotra’s poetry to be introduced to some brand new relatives.