The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel

The Poems of Nissim Ezekiel Study Guide

Nissim Ezekiel's collected poems were first anthologized in 1992 by Oxford India Paperbacks. Since then, Oxford University Press has published three impressions and two editions of the anthology. The second edition, published in 2007, contains a preface by Leela Gandhi and an introduction by John Thieme. The collection contains all of Ezekiel's major published work from 1952 to 1988. The anthology includes every work that Ezekiel has published in those years, including the collections A Time to Change (1952), Sixty Poems (1953), The Third (1958), The Unfinished Man (1960), The Exact Name (1965), Hymns in Darkness (1976), and Latter-Day Psalms (1982). The Collected Poems also include poems from stretches of time in which Ezekiel did not publish his poetry in specific collections: Poems (1965-1974), Poems Written in 1974, and Poems (1983-1988).

When read from cover to cover, the Collected Poems show Ezekiel's evolution as a poet from the ages of 28 to 62. Ezekiel's early work is very concerned with form and contains strict rhyme and meter schemes. Additionally, they are all written in "proper" English and place themselves within a Western literary tradition. As Ezekiel aged, his focus shifted towards his home country, India, and his poems become much more local and specific. Additionally, about halfway through his career, Ezekiel made the choice to move away from using strict poetic form in his poetry. As the form loosened in his poems, so did the register. Ezekiel's free verse flows with ease and confidence in his later work.

It is natural that Ezekiel's poetry should change over the course of his very long career, which spanned four decades in this anthology. It is interesting, however, how many of Ezekiel's themes stay the same. Young or old, Ezekiel's poetics are fascinated with bodies and nakedness, particularly the bodies of beautiful women. Additionally, his poems across his career juggle dualities and paradoxes. Norman Ross E. makes this point in "Nissim Ezekiel's Vision of Life and Death": "All of Ezekiel's work is concerned with the dichotomy of human processes: Word and Silence; Love and Sex; Urban and Rural; and most especially, Life and Death."

The emotional effect of Ezekiel's poems heightens when there is a contradiction. This is particularly evident when it comes to the types of voices and registers that he chooses to employ, particularly later in his career. As the middle-class subjects of his poems go about their privileged and happy lives, they interact with servants and the poor in a variety of ways. Their response to the poor people's existence, from boastful generosity to rueful kindness, contrasts with the kinds of things they say about them behind closed doors. Ezekiel offers a look through those doors, despite the fact that he too comes from a privileged background.

Additionally, many scholars see Ezekiel as a poet that is deeply immersed in particular attention to place, especially when it comes to the city. Each of his poems is endowed with the characteristics of where it is set. Those poems that turn towards descriptions of the speaker's surroundings are often the most beautiful. As Vinay Lal notes in "A No Mean Poet of the Mean" that Ezekiel is "a poet of the city" who "has stridden the streets of Bombay, and reveled in the sensuous and inimitable pleasures of the companionship of women."

Because Ezekiel was already a well-known poet by the time he was a senior citizen, the Collected Poems were highly anticipated when they were first published. The sheer number of re-prints and editing that it has enjoyed over the years speaks to its popularity as an anthology.