‘If you want to look at Modi in a historical context, you would say, ‘Well, you can trace him all the way back to the Tulsi Ramayana,’ says Vijay Seshadri
Tunku Varadarajan | 01 Nov, 2019
VIJAY SESHADRI, 65, is a poet and professor. He lives in an unflashy street in a part of Brooklyn that was once modest and Italian but is now not, being instead quite emphatically gentrified. He teaches narrative writing and rhetoric at Sarah Lawrence College and won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2014. On August 1st this year, he was appointed Poetry Editor of The Paris Review, one of America’s more vaunted literary publications. (Previous poetry editors have included Donald Hall and Charles Simic.) Over a bottle of red wine drunk in his kitchen, he tells me that his role at The Paris Review is grandfatherly.
“The editor is 35. I’m the old guy they like to keep around because it’s very young and really lively.” He also tells me of an idea he has up his sleeve—that he will soon publish new translations of the Urdu poet Sanaullah Sani Dar, who worked for All India Radio and died in 1949 and wrote under the pen-name Meeraji. (Seshadri, who studied Urdu and Persian in college, uses the word ‘takhallus’, pronounced impeccably.)
Seshadri first came to national attention in America when The New Yorker published his poem ‘The Disappearances’ in its issue of October 8th, 2001—less than a month after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He had written the poem before the attacks, in memory of the day in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot. Born in Bangalore, he was a nine-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, at the time of the assassination. (His family had moved to the US in 1959, when Eisenhower was President.) The poetry editor of The New Yorker had bought the poem for “a few hundred dollars” but had not yet run it. So lucid was its evocation of civic tragedy and paralysis that the magazine used it to mark 9/11, giving it a showcase on its back page. ‘Hush, children!’ the poem says, ‘Don’t you understand history is being made./ You do, and you still do. Made and made again.’
Yours was the poem, Vijay, that all of literary America read in a time of anguish. How did it come to be that there was this incredibly appropriate work for the moment that was already written and readymade?
I wrote ‘The Disappearances’ that July, in 2001, and sent it to Alice Quinn, who was the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. It had been prompted by the fact that during the Kennedy assassination, we lived in housing for junior faculty at Ohio State University, where my father taught. I was friends with the children of people across the hall. In the summer of 2001, I’d been told that the mother of those children had cancer, and that was the trigger. It brought me back to that moment in 1963, and I remembered what she said when all the news channels were covering Kennedy and we were just playing. We were kids, right? Nine, 10 years old. We were throwing a football around and my friend’s mother said, “Hush. Children. Don’t you understand that history is being made?” Those were her actual words, and I retained those words all those years.
The words remained imprinted?
How can you forget something like that? She said it with such gravity and emphasis. When I heard she had cancer I went back to that time and used the memories to fashion that poem. From the perspective of a child, the personal and the political tend to blend with each other in these amazing ways. I sent it to The New Yorker and they bought it that July.
The poem just happened to be in the magazine’s ‘larder’ on 9/11.
Yes, and 9/11 was an event that was comparable to the Kennedy assassination. Anybody who had lived through both would recognise this immediately, and Alice Quinn certainly did.
In re-reading the poem, I couldn’t fail to see the eerie truth that some of those lines written with the Kennedy assassination in mind could just as easily have worked had you sat down to write them after the ghastliness of 9/11.
Sure, sure. People wrote to me or they called me and said, ‘Did you just write that?’ I had to tell them, “No, I didn’t just write that.”
So, it was poetical serendipity, of a kind…
I don’t know. I don’t know what it was, and it’s not in my nature to name my God, so I wouldn’t describe it. It’s something that is still a little uncanny to me.
I would say I am an American poet. I write American poetry. My father lived here from the mid-1950s on, but he was always an Indian, and he was always an Indian from a very small, over-determined south
You won’t name your God. But are you religious?
No. I was raised by a scientist. My father was a chemist. I mean, I was raised by people who had achieved a purity that went beyond religion.
But you have Indian scientists perform puja before they send their rocket to the moon.
Sure, but that’s ritual, right? Ritual and religion have an intricate and complicated relationship to each other, but one is not the other. If I were religious, I would probably embrace something that is essentially pantheism, but has strong Christian elements to it. Because I’ve grown up in a Christian context for so long, it’s so natural to me to frame narrative in that way. But there is no religion that actually is like that.
Is there a connection between your teaching and your poetry?
I teach rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, and all of the different kinds of literature I teach—whether it’s the nonfiction essay or poetry or even journalism—have persuasion as their fundamental quality. The simple idea of persuasion in a political speech, say, is to get the audience to believe in the ideas that you believe. I don’t think that’s the kind of persuasion that occurs in a poem. The persuasion of a poem is a little more ambiguous than that, and the way I describe it to my students is to tell them that a poem is a verbal artefact in which the ratio of implicit meaning to explicit meaning is high. In the great, great poems, the ratio of implicit to explicit meaning is very, very high, and tends to approach infinity.
Can you give me an example?
Well, take the end of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The way the meanings come together there are not paraphrasable, but the implicit meaning is so great, because you’ve gone through this incredible drama of thinking about mortality and immortality. The meaning just hangs there in the air, which is what it tends to do in literature. By contrast, journalism has an obligation to make the ratio of explicit meaning to implicit meaning one-to-one. In poetry, you have to let the implicit meaning float out.
Would you say, then, that an explicit poem is an inferior poem?
No. I would not say that. I just wrote the introduction and did the selection for The Essential TS Eliot, which HarperCollins is bringing out in the spring. I happen to mention Rudyard Kipling in it and I deplored Eliot’s partiality for Kipling’s poems like ‘Recessional’, where the ‘lesser breeds without the Law’ make their appearance. Eliot had made his own selection of Kipling’s verse, with a long introductory essay, and Faber & Faber published it in 1941. It was a controversial essay, because that was a time when not many people in the literary world of London were defending Kipling.
Do you hate Kipling?
Kipling is a poet where the ratio of implicit to explicit meaning is almost one-to-one. And there was always a controversy, independent of his politics, about whether his verse was just verse or poetry. I think Eliot makes a credible claim that it was poetry, even though we know exactly what Kipling means when we read ‘Recessional’ and ‘Danny Deever’. But there are other elements to poetry than the ratio of explicit to implicit meaning and he certainly possesses all of those—although you can paraphrase Kipling.
Isn’t that the case with all popular poets? Is there a popular poet whom you cannot paraphrase?
Robert Frost. Unlike Kipling, you can’t really paraphrase Frost because there is a vast cloud of implicit meanings that surrounds his poems. Kipling isn’t like that—unconnected to any antipathy I feel toward his politics and all of those complexities that involve an Indian reading Kipling.
So you do hate Kipling’s politics…
Well, yeah. The imperialism was appalling. And if you look at his very clearly delineated and particular antagonism towards Bengalis, you can see it’s because Bengal is where the independence movement started. And the Bengali Babu was a figure of caricature in Kipling. But there’s always a problem with Kipling because the work is so good. From the point of view of literature, it is really tremendous. So, you’re always dealing with that contradiction about him. I take great offence from those Kipling stories where he has a political axe to grind; but then there are others that are just beautiful, like ‘Without Benefit of Clergy’, which is about a relationship between a British man and an Indian woman. And you ask yourself, ‘Oh my God, what do I do with a figure that complex, with those elements of vitality to him?’
Naipaul is a classic liberal. And I think he represents the anguish of liberalism when it’s related to an actual perception of how the world is developing and changing. I think he was remarkably firm in that liberalism where it’s very, very hard to be firm
Are there other writers who torment you?
Yes, VS Naipaul. I feel a particular anguish about Naipaul, who I think is a very, very great writer. I read an interview where Naipaul suggested, in the way that Naipaul suggests these things, that he was better than Flaubert. And when I read the interview I was thinking, “Yeah, he is better than Flaubert.” But he’s problematic.
Naipaul is a classic liberal. And I think he represents the anguish of liberalism when it’s related to an actual perception of how the world is developing and changing. I think he was remarkably firm in that liberalism where it’s very, very hard to be firm. So, he has some qualities of John Stuart Mill and he carries that forward in a very, very interesting way. But I always found him painful to read. And I think a lot of people who come from the places he’s ruthlessly analysed, like India, like Africa, like the Caribbean, feel that intense discomfort. You read his India: A Wounded Civilization and you feel like this is a powerful indictment—only it’s wrong. But the literary power and its scope and its conviction are so great that you don’t quite know what to do. And so, you’re just caught in a very uncomfortable place.
If you had to take the works of one poet out of your house before it burnt down, who would it be?
That’s easy. And politically there are no problems. I would take [the American poet] Elizabeth Bishop.
Because she’s the perfect poet and she’s inexhaustible. You can read her and read her and read her. Actually, I’d want two. I’d probably want Sylvia Plath as well and that’s a slim volume. I’d grab those two.
Tell me a bit more about your love of Bishop.
She published 99 poems and each of them is perfect, each flawless. All of them have behind them a tremendous sort of synthesis, which is not at all apparent in the poem itself. Another way you could define poetry is that it takes the noise of the world and transforms it into silence, and her poems do that. They’re exquisite in that way. At certain points, they reach the ultimate level of metaphysical understanding that human beings are capable of—in, say, ‘In the Waiting Room’, which is a light poem of hers, or ‘At the Fishhouses’. I always teach ‘In the Waiting Room’ and I say to my students, “Well, this is the best poem that has ever been written simply because it is the best poem that could possibly be written.”
The best poem… ever?
Ever. I would even include Dante. He arrives at these moments, but he is sprawling. She arrives at the simple metaphysical purity of the human condition with economy. It’s not a long poem. It’s a narrative poem that goes very, very quickly, and it must be about 60 lines.
And Sylvia Plath?
Sylvia Plath has a certain kind of power that’s inexhaustible. The perfection of Bishop is classical. The perfection of Plath, if there were a perfection to Plath, would be romantic, that she managed a sort of stability in an embrace of emotions that are very, very unstable.
How much of you is Indian?
I would say I am an American poet. I write American poetry. My father lived here from the mid-1950s on, but he was always an Indian, and he was always an Indian from a very small, over-determined south Indian community—Tamil-speaking Vaishnavites who lived in Bangalore. He was a physical chemist. After I was born, he came to the University of Oregon to get his PhD because I think my birth—I was his first child—triggered something in him. He wanted to go out into that big world of science. He got his doctorate and came back to India to get my mother and me over. She was highly educated for that generation of Indian women. She got a Master’s in botany.
Was there a lot of India in your childhood, or did your family immerse itself in America?
They didn’t, no. They just lived inside themselves and they carried a lot of the Indian culture. So we would have all these feasts of the south Indian Vaishnavite calendar. My mother had grown up cooking special meals for each of those feasts, for Sankranti and Shivratri and Ram Navami, for Deepavali. They didn’t give me any metaphysics or nationalism, or any of those things, but I immediately fell into the rhythm of those feasts, and that was India for me.
Is there any India in your poetry?
There is. How could there not be? There’s a story I’ve told before. After I published my first book in 1996, an organisation called the Network of Young Indian Professionals invited me and Shashi Tharoor to give a reading. The audience was in its late 20s, early 30s, but like all immigrant groups they felt they had to have some sort of identity-making element to their activity. We read and there was a Q&A afterwards in which this young woman, a journalist, got up and said very challengingly to me, “There’s nothing about India in your book.” And I said, “India functions in my work the way God functions in Flaubert’s universe. It is everywhere present, but nowhere apparent.”
Did that shut her up?
Yeah, it shut her up.
In one of your poems, ‘The Long Meadow’, India isn’t just a suffusing presence. You write about Yudhishthira’s journey to heaven, accompanied by a dog, and draw India out more explicitly than in your other poems.
You know, Tunku, there’s something for me that’s psychologically a little defeating for people to say, as they have many times, ‘Oh, he is writing about India.’ Because, in fact, that moment for Yudhishthira is one of the great moments in world literature. The profound meaning of the Mahabharata is not in the Bhagavad Gita, which everyone knows and exoticises, but in that moment of reckoning. A writer from whatever part of the world would leap upon a moment like that with glad cries of joy, if they only had access to it. They would see what I see.
Elizabeth Bishop is the perfect poet, and she’s inexhaustible. She published 99 poems and each of them is perfect, each flawless. All of them have behind them a tremendous sort of synthesis, which is not at all apparent in the poem itself
What would they see?
They would see the kind of Shakespearean moment that this is, of Yudhishthira’s realisation that everything is reversed in some way and that he has to understand that he’s without any cosmic guidance. It’s one of the most exquisite moments of pure humanity. I was lucky enough to be Indian so I knew about that moment. I could turn it into a poem. I wasn’t affirming my identity. I was saying, “Man, what a great moment. I got to make a poem out of this”—out of the devastation Yudhishthira feels when he says to Indra, ‘I’d rather stay with my dog than enter into your heaven.’
When did you first think you were a poet?
By the time I was 14 I’d secretly wanted to be a writer. My parents wanted me to be a mathematician or, at worst, a doctor. They couldn’t imagine anything else. I went to Oberlin College when I was 16. I’d been skipped a couple of grades in high school in Pittsburgh, where we’d moved to, and it was the worst thing for me. I was a very maladjusted kid socially, two years younger than everybody else. And racially isolated.
Tell me about the racial isolation.
I was in a total White environment and I was small, brown and bespectacled. I had no extracurricular activities at all. I didn’t have any friends. Nobody wanted to befriend me. I didn’t want to befriend anyone. I was very set in my weird ways. I asked my father years later, “Why did you push me forward like that and not hold me back?” Because I was obviously so poorly adjusted to the world I was living in. And he said, “Well, we thought you’d have your PhD by the time you were 24.” For my father, you weren’t a human being unless you had a PhD. My parents had no clue about the world that they dropped me into. This was America in the 1960s. When I got to college in 1970 I totally fell into the counterculture.
Were there any girlfriends in school?
Oh my God, are you kidding? There was no girl at that time who would in any way, shape or form go out with the little Indian kid. Come on. This is America in 1969. The suburbs. You can’t imagine, nobody can imagine. The world has changed so radically. So I went and I became a part of the counterculture and through that I discovered all sorts of things, including poetry.
How did you break it to your parents that you weren’t going to be a scientist?
I didn’t. I just sidled my way out. It was very traumatic for all of us. There’s a section in my second book, The Long Meadow, where I talk about that period and I describe myself using an image from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was a liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass. The counterculture formed these cracks in that glass and I oozed my way out. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. They knew I was terribly unhappy and it broke their hearts, but they had no solutions for my unhappiness because they had no understanding of the society that they’d put me in.
So you and your parents were poles apart.
My father and mother were profound people. They were a part of that great but incredibly serious generation of Indian independence. They had imbued that initial postcolonial impulse. But I was in this wonderland of America and there was a tremendous fissure between us that no one was responsible for.
Your parents are dead. What did they think of your poetry?
I don’t know if they ever understood it. I mean, they read it and they thought about it, but they didn’t know how to approach it, because even though they were literary, they were literary in an entirely different cultural context. The great thing that happened, though, was that they saw me win the Pulitzer. They saw me on PBS News Hour!
Indian parents live to see their children elevated and lauded in society, don’t they?
Yes, of course. But interestingly enough, which I think has to do with the ironies of life, they had reconciled themselves to my not getting accolades in the world. They didn’t quite understand what a literary career was. My sister, for her part, became a social worker. They were just very concerned about our happiness, the way American parents are concerned about their children’s happiness rather than their getting accolades. So the accolades were a surprise.
I sense that you worry about modern India. What keeps you awake at night about the country you were born in all those many years ago?
I think about the health of Indian civilisation. That’s not a grandiose word to use, because we are a civilisation, and a tremendous civilisation. I feel like that’s one of the things that has to be resolved. And poetry is in the business of the creation of not only the individual self, but also the collective self. So, what is the ‘Indian self’? It can never really be resolved.
Is Narendra Modi remaking the ‘Indian self’?
If you want to look at Modi in a historical context, you would say, “Well, you can trace him all the way back to the Tulsi Ramayana.” Right? That, in some sense, is a kind of attempt at the restoration of a Hindu identity in north India, by establishing a kind of national epic, in the way that the Valmiki Ramayana is not a national epic. Because they had no idea of nationhood with which to deal in Valmiki’s time. They had no challenge to their own identity in the way that the era of Tulsidas did. And those are the narratives you can actually construct about India. Modi is the end product of that, right? — the end-product of Tulsidas. I just wish he wouldn’t take the stage with Donald Trump. I mean, the sad thing about Modi is that he’s taking his models not from Indian history, as he should, but from strongmen in other countries.
(This interview has been edited and compressed for clarity and brevity)