On “From the window”
Vidyan Ravinthiran

You’re not always aware what’s going on in your own poems.

            The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here is a book of nearly a hundred sonnets for my wife, the writer Jenny Holden, and I perform only a fraction of those at readings. Which means I began to forget some of my own poems. They seem almost to have been written by someone else––a stranger.

            Reading this poem, I feel “rebuffed” by it myself, though “brushed off” goes too far. I remember the occasion for it, but even an anecdotal poem is not a record of an occasion but an event in its own right, an event whose distance from its author isn’t a constant.

            My work for the Ledbury Critics programme has helped me realize that poets of colour are often reviewed in a reductive way. Sometimes there’s an overly biographical rather than technical focus. Covering my first book, Grun-tu-molani, a reviewer said I’d failed to “self-actualize.” People self-actualize, not books: it felt weirdly personal. Perhaps they felt as a white reader “rebuffed” by my book. In turn, I felt “brushed off” by their review.

            But sometimes a reviewer, a reader, can reveal to a poet things in their work put there without their knowledge. In fact this is how it must be: I don’t think a poem should ever become wholly alert to itself; or as Elizabeth Bishop said, the “unconscious spots” should be left in.

            Daniel Hardisty, an editor at this magazine, pointed out that, in my book borrowing its title from a Philip Larkin poem, this sonnet contains a further memory of Larkin (rather than a conscious allusion). In “The Importance of Elsewhere”––a curious title in its own right, for a poet who announced his loathing of “abroad” and fixated on the end of Empire––Larkin’s self-loathing, woman-fearing, racist Englishness reconsiders its postures and options during his stint in Ireland:

    Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
    Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
    Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
    Once that was recognised, we were in touch


    Living in England has no such excuse:
    These are my customs and establishments
    It would be much more serious to refuse.
    Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

        I’m not the sort of reader who feels Larkin’s bigotry and insularity can be hygienically separated from his poems. Nor do I feel that, because of his views, we shouldn’t read him. His poems expose the fault-lines in a psychology that isn’t only personal but national, and still relevant. And, though I’d never want to meet him, he wrote formally brilliant poems we should go on reading as long as poems are read and studied.

        But what Danny showed me was that Larkin, a grumpy racist, had shown me a way of conceiving of my own racial difference.

            A reviewer can also––an often more fecund thing than delivering judgements––direct us to poems we’d otherwise pass over. Something special happens when an intelligent reviewer quotes a poem: we read it differently; it’s almost like being recommended a book by a friend. I was fortunate semi-recently to be reviewed by Rishi Dastidar, whose focus on this sonnet was unusual. He observes that the poem’s also about––moving away from politics, and into the home––“the brittle insecurities that underpin most relationships.” That feels right. I wonder if we ever break free of such insecurities, or if––precisely because we love and care for certain people so much––there’s always something imperilled about our deepest dealings with those we can’t live without. And maybe for those misunderstood or turned invisible in a wider culture for reasons of race (but reading this, you may feel it applies to you for other reasons, and I welcome that association, and would like to hear your thoughts) it becomes especially important to feel understood and seen in our personal relationships. Which asks a lot, sometimes too much––speaking for myself––of our spouses, partners, friends.

            I do remember the instance this poem describes: I was off work sick, feeling useless, disempowered––seeing from the window my wife return from her own unpleasant job, and the frustration and fatigue in her face. Did I have the energy and generosity and strength in me, to support my wife as she deserved?

            I also remember realizing, much later, when exactly this poem came together, with the discovery of “inopportune.” Yes, I thought, I now know how that list of adjectives should run. And from that single change to the draft, a number of tiny ameliorations followed. The Indian-American poet-scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggests it’s incorrect to consider the writing of poetry as a matter of hot-headed inspiration followed by clear-eyed editing. In fact, he says, an edit can be inspired: creativeness saturates the process. Strangeness begins to make sense: the poet isn’t alone with the white page, others are there too; those we love, have been shaped by, the other writers who’ve inspired us. 

Vidyan Ravinthiran’s poem “From the window” is taken from the collection The Million-petalled Flower of Being Here.

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