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This Morning: A poetry Pulitzer for Bangalore-born Vijay Seshadri
Chidanand Rajghatta,TNN | Apr 15, 2014 The Times of India
Vijay Seshadri, the Bangalore-born (born c. 1954) poet moved with his parents to America at age five, and grew up in Thurber's hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Perhaps it was his teenage need to outgrow his Indian roots (he lists Crazy Legs Hirsch, a book about the legendary NFL half back, as an early favorite), but at 18 he hitchhiked to the San Francisco Bay Area, worked as a bicycle messenger, started a floor-finishing business that got wiped out, and then moved north to Newport, Oregon, where he variously worked as a logger, trucker, and a commercial fisherman while trying to write a novel.
The moment of epiphany came to him one stormy day in the Bering Sea, he said in an interview years later. "It was dangerous work in a small boat on the ocean ... a masculine environment, set apart from the rest of the world," he recalled. "The waves were cresting at 40 feet. It was gusting up to 90 knots. I went up to the bridge and looked at the chaos. I thought, 'I am an Indian; what am I doing here?' I had a vision of life in nature, a very American idea, and I had attempted to live this vision. But it was a borrowed vision. It was not mine."
So he abandoned the surly seas and headed east to New York City, enrolling at Columbia University's fine arts program in 1982 and taking more seriously to poetry ("Out of defeat as much as out of anything else I came back to poetry," he said.)
He published his first poem in 1985 in Threepenny Review, and although he never finished his doctorate in the Middle Eastern program (an effort that included learning Urdu and Persian, and field work in Lahore, Pakistan), he had developed enough traction in NYC thanks among others to his mentor, the poet Richard Howard, a long-time poetry editor of Paris Review and himself a Pulitzer prize winner for poetry.
He landed a job as a copy editor at New Yorker, and published his first book of poems in 1996.
"With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs," the celebrated American wit, author, and poet James Thurber once said. Evidently, no such maladies afflict Vijay Seshadri
He continues to write firmly and felicitously at sixty, and on a fine spring evening in April 2014, the Pulitzer prize committee recognized his newest collection "3 sections" with the award, describing it as a "compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness, from birth to dementia, in a voice that is by turns witty and grave, compassionate and remorseless."
Significant American poet
It was his poem Disappearances, published in New Yorker Back Page weeks after 9/11 that really crested his reputation as a poet. "Where was it one first heard of the truth?" the poem begins, going on to speak about "a day like any other day, like 'yesterday or centuries before'."
For many readers, the evocative lines ("The wheels of the upside-down tricycle are spinning. The swings are empty but swinging. And the shadow is still there, and there is the object that made it riding the proximate atmosphere oblong and illustrious above the dispeopled bedroom community, venting the memories of those it took, their corrosive human element.) seemed to allude to 9/11.
"The poem made me more well-known than I had ever been," Seshadri acknowledged in an interview to the Indian poet Jeet Thayil in Poets and Writers magazine sometime later, explaining that New Yorker editors used it deliberately in that manner because they understood that the poem moves toward a historical cataclysm and then moves beyond it. "The only thing that bothers me is that people would think I would write in response to 9/11. I mean, I don't think I could have written a poem in response to 9/11 to save my life. I was just too shocked," Seshadri said.
Such cataclysms imprinted in poetry is distant from the rather mundane life Seshadri leads in Brooklyn, where he has lived with his wife Suzanne Khuri, a theater artiste, for nearly 25 years. Asked recently by a local blog for a defining Brooklyn experience, he recalled a man named Sam, "who is long gone, and who was always out in front of his house in the morning when we were new to the neighborhood, would say to me, invariably, 'Have a good day in town,' when he saw me walking to the subway to go to Manhattan. I always loved hearing that from him."
Such acclaim is not new to the former New Yorker magazine staffer who now teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at liberal Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY. Winner of the Guggenheim prize in 2004 and the James Laughlin Award in 2003 from the Academy of American Poets, he has been a significant voice in American poetry for nearly two decades.
In fact, the New Yorker, his literary alma mater so to say (and also home of many Thurber masterpieces) itself lavished praise on his work, calling him "a son of Frost by way of Ashbery," and saying "both the high-frequency channels of consciousness and the jazz of spoken language are audible in these poems."
New Yorker should know. After all, it was in this Harold Ross lair (frequent home to such literary giants as John Updike, Philip Roth, EB White etc, besides the great Thurber himself) that Seshadri cut his teeth. After an isolated childhood in Columbus, where his father taught chemistry at Ohio State University while the lonely child buried himself in books, Seshadri went on to study math and philosophy at Oberlin College, even as he began his first foray into poetry, inspired by reading an eclectic range of books, including comics and trashy novels.
He is that kind of poet, making poetry, he told NPR this morning, "out of the commonplace, a phrase that sounds clean, uncluttered, and suggests a whole complicated experience." This one is from a poem called "This Morning."
First I had three
apocalyptic visions, each more terrible than the last.
The graves open, and the sea rises to kill us all.
Then the doorbell rang, and I went downstairs and signed for two packages—