Poet of Honour: Vidyan Ravinthiran

Poet of Honour is a series of Ars Notoria and Word Masala Foundation’s celebration of some of the best contemporary poets who have become iconic and a major inspiration.

One of the most esteemed literary critics, but a poet at heart, Vidyan has reached one of the most coveted seats in literature as an Associate Professor of English Literature at Harvard. This achievement is more remarkable because Harvard had been notoriously accused of consistently rating Asian-American applicants lower. Recently, I was listening to the Poetry Foundation podcast featuring Vidyan and Vahni Capildeo, two extraordinary poets of English literature. To listen to them together was an intellectual feast. So, I am glad he joins our roll call of Poet of Honour. Vidyan’s poems have a strong sense of identity quest embedded in their narrative. They are where heritage, intellect, wit, Britishness, and search for being serious while placing us in the opposite world takes us on a journey of surprise and enlightenment. The meaning of the title of his collection, Grun-tu-molani, means “man wants to live”. He intellectually and emotionally shows us how. Yes, politics, violence, moral questions also stun us as in this poem. Just don’t run away, get consumed in his other poems and check out their belly!

-Yogesh Patel MBE

A Poem by Vidyan Ravinthiran

A new poem for Ars Notoria, based on an ancient Tamil folk tale. The original version is recorded in The Maze of Fantasy in Tamil Folktales by Gabriella Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi.

Your demon’s basic

dilemma’s this
—as well as feeling all they hear
is either poison or their own

original thought,
otherness is something
they’ll never get their heads around;

since they wish to eat people,
it must be—given half a chance—
those same people would eat them . . .

Leaving for home,
a goatherd told his scarecrow
to watch out and not just for thieves

but tigers and demons too:
with emphasis, he said
not puli and muni but pulikili and munikini

—tigerish tigers and demonic demons!
One of each,
creeping in the shade toward their prey,

heard this and were terrified
by word of a beast
like them in every way but raised to a new power;

the tiger ran off and the demon
disguised himself as one of the goats.
Which was fooling nobody, least of all

—on the scene to sacrifice to Durgā—
Able-Talker and the Strong-Armed One.
The latter seized the demon-goat,

the former took one look, said, “thambi, something’s wrong.
This thing’s iffy: cut its throat!”
Hearing this, the demon fled the pair

back to his lair
where the gibing of his pals around the fire
got his blood up, and before

you could say, “the events of Black July, 1983”,
his mob were out for an eye for an eye,
beating, flames in hand, at Able-Talker’s door.

Which stayed locked tight. But through it
floated the loud, theatrical
voices of that smart bluffer and his wife:

“What became of those three demons
in the larder?”—“Your little boy
snacked on them before he went to bed!”

If a child ate three of their kind,
the parents would devour thousands! So the mob fled,
leaving that Tamil home unlooted and unburned.

<strong>Vidyan</strong> <strong>Ravinthiran</strong>
Vidyan Ravinthiran

The child of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants, Vidyan Ravinthiran grew up in a mixed area of Leeds (in the North of England), studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and is now an Associate Professor of English Literature at Harvard. He’s the author of two books of verse. Grun-tu-molani (Bloodaxe, 2014) was shortlisted for several first collection awards, with individual poems appearing in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Financial Times. The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (2019) won a Northern Writers Award, was a PBS Recommendation, and was shortlisted for the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes.

Vidyan’s first monograph, Elizabeth Bishop’s Prosaic (Bucknell UP, 2015) won both the University English Prize and the Warren-Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Criticism; his next, on Spontaneity and Form in Modern Prose, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He has put together editions of Indian poets (with Shash Trevett and Seni Seneviratne, he’s currently editing an anthology of Sri Lankan poetry) and has published a range of both scholarly and journalistic articles.

To read poets honoured previously here is roll call; please click on the name.

George Szirtes

Steven O’Brien

Nick Makoha

Fiona Sampson

Mimi Khalvati

Vijay Seshadri

Pascale Petit

Imtiaz Dharker

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