“I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all.”— Michelangelo
Capitals are considered the highest achievement of human civilisation in terms of art, literature and architecture. Countries are sometimes addressed by their capitals. India is referred to as New Delhi, Russia as Moscow, and the United States as Washington DC.
Generally each country has one national capital; however there are a few countries which have more than one capital. For example, South Africa has three capitals while Bolivia has two. Some countries such as Monaco or Vatican are synonymous with their capitals. Other countries do not have a capital at all – for instance, Nauru does not have a capital city. Certain cities are also known as world capitals. For example, London and New York often compete for the title of the world capital.
The word capital is derived from Latin Capitalis meaning “of the head”, hence “capital, chief, first”. Capitals are seats of political and often financial power and thus provide patronage to the finest art and culture including poetry. No wonder architect Daniel Libeskind says, “Cities are the greatest creations of humanity.”
Our planet is divided into more than 193 sovereign nation-states, each with their own power-centres located in their capital cities. In contemporary times, the flow of ideas, people and goods among these capitals is greater than smaller cities or towns. Thus, capitals are at the forefront of making a truly cosmopolitan global society.
After travelling to many countries and to their capitals as a poet and as a diplomat I feel that capitals are tied together by a common thread despite their seeming differences on the surface. As Italo Calvino, the author of The Invisible Cities has put it so beautifully – “Travelling, you realise that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.”
Each day a legion of diplomats, parliamentarians and officials travel to these capitals to carry out the affairs of the state. Scores of businessmen, tourists, students, journalists and workers travel for business, sightseeing, visiting friends and relatives, education, reporting and employment. A large number of travel writers and photographers visit all corners of our planet and publish their travelogues and photographs. They are all consciously or unconsciously helping the world to come together, creating a close-knit community of global citizens aware of the exquisite beauty and diversity of our planet.
Cities have always fascinated me. I grew up in Nalanda, Bihar before moving to New Delhi for higher studies. I studied Geography at the Kirorimal College, Delhi University and later at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. After joining the Indian Foreign Service, I worked in New Delhi, Moscow, St Petersburg and Kathmandu before moving to Brasilia. As part of my work, I often visit the capitals of different countries at very short notice. I look for poems on places I visit before setting out as I want to experience that place through poetry – as I believe poems have the ability to render a deep and intimate experience of a place.
As a frequent traveller I often felt the need of a poetry atlas but I could not find one.
So I decided to create one for my reading pleasure. I set out on an impossible journey of finding a poem on each capital city of the world. These lines from the play Hassan by James Elroy Flecker, one of many distinguished world poets who worked for the consular service, inspired me.
“Caliph Haroun Al Raschid: Ah, if there shall ever arise a nation whose people have forgotten poetry or whose poets have forgotten the people, though they send their ships round Taprobane and their armies across the hills of Hindustan, though their city be greater than Babylon of old, though they mine a league into earth or mount to the stars on wings – what of them?
Hassan: “They will be a dark patch upon the world.”
I wanted to light my own candle in the darkness. The journey looked arduous. I did not know many poets outside my own country. I asked for help from those whom I knew, thinking they would know poets from every country. I was surprised to find out that even the most well-connected poets, in their sixties, did not know poets from two-thirds of the world.
I was at a loss. A poetry anthology on the capital cities looked impossible. Unfazed, I kept trying. The hope of meeting poets whom I had never known, reading their poems and possibly meeting them someday gave me strength. The internet provided me means to connect with them.
Poetry Parnassus, curated by Simon Armitage alongside the London Olympics in 2012, came as the only close parallel to this ambitious anthology. An anthology titled World Record was published on the occasion, containing works of the poets who participated in the Parnassus. A BBC report of that time informs us that the organisers of the Poetry Parnassus in London had difficulties in finding poets from Monaco and a host of other countries. A public call went to twenty-three countries to send their poets to represent them in the Poetry Parnassus. I also could not find poems on a number of capitals despite my best efforts.
I learned that poets from Europe and America were well connected to each other compared to the poets from Africa and Asia. I faced difficulties in finding poets from countries where Arabic, Spanish, French and Portuguese are spoken. It was difficult to find a good translator who could translate their works into English.
As JD McClatchy quotes Aristotle in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry – “The basis of all poetry is metaphor. Nothing can be freshly or truly seen in itself until it is seen first as something else. It is this image-making impulse that unifies world poetry, and gives it its spiritual force.” This anthology tries to bring out the distinct images and individual experiences of the capital cities through poetry.
I learned things from these poems about the capitals of our planet that I could not learn reading travel guides.
The beauty of language, images, metaphors used to describe the capitals is extraordinary. These poems are wonderfully original expressions of poets inviting us to see our capital cities through their eyes.
Editing this anthology, which covers almost the entire planet, took me more than two years. Scottish Poetry Library, Australian Poetry and Theatre without Borders helped me in this endeavour by spreading the word. I faced inherent challenges involved in undertaking such a daunting task; foremost of these was overcoming the language barrier.
Poets who write in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and Arabic found it difficult to contribute. As a result I have not been able to cover every capital city. I could not get fine poems on some capitals despite my best efforts. I received many poems which were not quite worthy for this anthology and hence rejected them.
The anthology is ready now, and I remember these words of Tony Robbins – “The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.” It has been a tremendous experience to get to know poets from more than 160 countries, to read their poems and see the world in a refreshing way through their words.
Sadly, Mark Strand left us before the completion of this anthology. When I wrote to him requesting contribution on Oslo, he replied instantly in October 2014 with his words – ‘Go right ahead.’ He left us in November 2014. Inara Cedrins, who contributed her poems on Beijing and Cairo to this anthology, also left us before its completion.
I would like to end with these words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery – “In this century, as in others, our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing people together.” I hope this anthology will enrich us by bridging the communication gap, by connecting the poets of Africa, Asia-Pacific and America and Europe. I hope it will intensify creative exchanges leading to the birth of a true global community of poets and poetry lovers.
It is our interconnectedness that enriches us.
Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction” to Capitals: An Anthology of Poetry, edited by Abhay K, Bloomsbury.