Why you should care

Because it’s hard to make hard look easy.

Part of a weeklong series on poems and poets, sounds and sense.

People often ask what a book is about, but how do you answer that question when poetry is involved? For Jeet Thayil, we could say: the city of Bombay, drugs, love, poetry itself. We could add that his latest, Collected Poems, demonstrates the Man Booker–shortlisted author’s fascination with old forms — English sonnets, Italian sestinas, Urdu ghazals — or his own quintuple-dipping into genre (music, journalism, poetry for the page, poetry for performance, novels).

Strip away the mundane attempt to itemize the anatomy of Thayil’s work, step back, consider the whole and what you find is a voice of the now, a voice with enviable sprezzatura. This is a formally trained poet like Keats or Baudelaire who sounds liberated and cool like Ginsberg, who says the “prison” of form is freeing because you know what must come next. Read him, though, and you may never notice the jail bars, only the rhythm.

It doesn’t hurt to mention the awards: Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis (that of Booker fame), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His poetry collection These Errors Are Correct won India’s prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for English — Thayil thought that would be his last book, because it was so good, impossible to top, born of the tumultuous aftermath of his wife’s death. But Thayil mentions other things rather than the successes, like the fact that his poetry books are mostly out of print, except for Collected Poems, or that he is 56 and still lives in a rented house in Delhi, or that he once worked for “the worst newspaper in the cosmos” (the diaspora publication India Abroad) or that his literary success didn’t arrive until he was in his 50s.

Born to a Syrian Christian family — and a famed journalist father — in the south Indian state of Kerala and raised and schooled in the poor northern state of Bihar, Hong Kong, New York and the erstwhile Bombay, Thayil spent two decades as a high-functioning heroin addict. He chalks up his ability to hold down a job to “south Indian parenting” and the ambition it imprints on children; the work “self-funded” his addiction, at the expense of things like food — in New York, sometimes dinner was cereal. Thayil first encountered drugs at 14, beginning with weed and then, after just a couple of encounters with marijuana, smack. He is critical of the damaged-poet cliché: The drugs “threatened not just life, but the life of the art.” Perhaps, he says wryly, one could use “the one tool that has been at the disposal of every writer who’s ever put pen to paper, imagination — you don’t have to be run over by a truck to know what it might feel like. I don’t think there’s ever been a poet addicted to alcohol or drugs who didn’t have a sense of ego, didn’t have a sense of, ‘Oh, the laws of addiction don’t apply to me, because I’m special, I can do this stuff and get away with it, I won’t have to pay this bill.’ ”

With his gray scruff and two subtle ear piercings, Thayil comes across as severe and unapproachable at first, but then he turns warm and reflective, even on topics that he must surely be sick of discussing by this point. When he reads aloud, there is a swagger in his voice; no owl-bespectacled, black-turtlenecked poet here. But we’ll shut up now, because you can listen for yourself: Thayil read six poems from Collected Poems exclusively for OZY, on topics ranging from addiction to the day before Sept. 11 to his mother tongue, Malayalam.

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