Author Vikram Seth will release his next work, The Rivered Earth, next month. Last week, he offered a sneak preview of the four sections of poems that make up this book, intended as libretto to English composer Alec Roth's music. Sunday MiD DAY tells you what to expect

The Rivered Earth is a visual book of poetry. This we gleamed from the edifying discussion held last week at the Tata Literature Live! festival at the NCPA, Nariman Point.

Pic/ Santosh Nagwekar

Author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi shared the stage with the Suitable Boy author to discuss Seth's upcoming book -- while it has been released in the UK last week, it will be released in India next month -- and pointed out the aural and visual nature of this collection.

Set as four libretto, or short musical texts, to the music of English composer Alec Roth and written over four years from 2006 to 2009, Seth has looked to various cultures and historical texts for inspiration.

The first, titled Songs in Time of War, has translations of eighth century Chinese poet Du Fu, who wrote personal, autobiographical poetry that drew from his political milieu.

Accompanying these translations are calligraphic works, where Seth, who has studied the Chinese script, inscribes the poems in ink.
Seth talked about the structure of the eight line poem in Chinese poetry -- a form that has been in use for over 1,500 years -- and how Du Fu's poetry remains relevant to readers today. "The pronunciation of the words may have changed, but the form has remained the same," he told Shanghvi.

Two sections of the book were written in 17th century poet George Herbert's house in Salisbury, and indeed, the second libretto Shared Ground, even takes inspiration from  Herbert's poetry. One of Seth's poems takes the shape of a lark, a bird that Herbert had once drawn beside a line of his poem.

Seth uses single syllabled words, six in the first line, five in the second, four in the third and so on, till the middle of the poem contains one word. The successive lines have a word more than the previous. These poems -- six in all -- are sung by a choir.

The third section, called the Traveller, was written to commemorate the 750th year of the Salisbury Cathedral, and Seth draws inspiration from the Hymn to Creation in the Rig Veda, and translates poetry by Surdas and portions of the Bhagvad Gita and Dhammapada, among others.

In the last section called Seven Elements, he writes a poem each on the seven elements. Seth narrated an incident when Roth, unhappy with the poem Fire, asked Seth to rewrite it. While the poet was flabbergasted and didn't know how to "feel differently about an element so soon after having written a poem about it," he took Roth's advise to "go home and get drunk" for inspiration. Right enough, another version did emerge, which Seth narrated on stage with much gusto.