SETH, VIKRAM (1952- ) In Vikram Seths work the elegant formalism typical of Victorian poetry is combined with a contemporary concern for post-colonialism, the only constant being Seths willingness to experiment with form. From meticulously rhymed sonnets set in modern-day San Francisco to free verse translations of ancient Chinese poets (see prosody and free verse), Seth has proved elusive and inventive in his approach to poetry By and large, he is allied with new formalism, in the tradition of a poet such as Robert Graves, though his diverse creative output— novels, memoirs, children's books—makes him difficult to classify.
Born in Calcutta, India, Seth graduated from oxford University (B.A., 1975), then went on to study economics at Stanford, during which time he was also a Stegner fellow in Creative Writing (1977-78). Much of his first book of poems, Mappings (1980), comes from this period and includes translations of Chinese, German, and Hindi poets, plus a sense of how Seth felt as a cultural mongrel. The representative poem "Diwali" (1979) is his call to exile, to those "Who are not home at home / And are abroad abroad." After finishing his first book, Seth moved to China to study classical Chinese poetry at Nanjing University. He then hitchhiked home to New Delhi via Tibet, a trip chronicled in the memoir From Heaven Lake (1983). Travel also helped gestate Seths next collection of poems, The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), which are cleverly organized around plants and places. Seths subsequent effort, Golden Gate (1986), confounded genre, as it was billed as a novel, but it is actually an epic poem in the mold of the romantic Lord Byron: a series of 690 rhyming tetrameter sonnets that spins a satirical romance between two San Francisco "yuppies." Seths next book of poems All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990) delves into darker material, such as the experience of a Nazi concentration camp commandant and a doctor in Hiroshima the day the bomb dropped (see long and serial poetry). Seth has received a number of awards and honors including, in 2001, the Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Much of Seth's poetry possesses a graceful, if antiquated craftsmanship. Golden Gate is based on Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833). The critic Ruth
Morse writes, "allusion is at the heart of Seth's style, if not his voice" (140). The poem "Cant" (1990) engages this notion, which begins: "In Cant's resilient, venerable lies / There's something for the artists to take heart." Seth's themes, handled with a formalists eye and a rhetoricians gloves, include travel, family, heritage, and music. From the sonnets in Mappings to the translations of Mirza Ghalib's ghazals in A Suitable Boy (1994), Seth shows considerable range.
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