Vijay Seshadri, Pulitzer-winning poet and scholar spoke with Jeet Thayil, poet, novelist and recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, and John Wilkinson, poet and Director of University of Chicago’s Program in Creative Writing at the CANTO Poetry Festival 2023, an international multilingual multicultural travelling poetry festival which was held across New Delhi and Kolkata. Excerpts from the conversation:
John Wilkinson (JW): Most people think that you live in Brooklyn, as I assume that you still do. You have been a long time resident of New York. When I think about time, timeliness and crossing time in poetry, the first poem I always think of is Frank O Hara’s “The Day Lady Died”. It’s a poem that presents questions about the time of composition; it talks about clock times, the times of trains and so on. The poem’s own temporality is constructed around anxious distraction followed by extended pauses and resumption of anxious distraction which then ends up with a moment of temporal suspension which is associated both with aesthetic experience (listening to Billie Holiday) and death. Maybe that will be somewhere I could invite you to start talking about your relationship to time in New York in the United States, time in India and how you might feel they differ along with your relationship to New York School poetry because I know you are an admirer of James Schuyler and John Ashbery.
That is a great point to start off. In fact, it’ll allow me to read a poem that is very pertinent.
As a reader of poetry, I grew up sort of during the heydays of the New York School, especially the coterie of Ashbery, the Ashbery before “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” found in “The Double Dream of Spring” and “Rivers and Mountains”. I found when I really came to my own, insofar as I’ve ever come to my own as a poet, that it was through the rejection of not just the hermeneutics but the specific relation to time that defines the New York School. Not necessarily Ashbery because this group of poets is a congerie, it isn’t exactly a school. To call it a school was probably a misprisioning of their actual character and differences.
But, I kind of had that notion of the moment in the immediate like I’m going to go out and have lunch with Leroy Jones and I’m going to come back to my office at the Museum of Modern Art and write a poem about it. It didn’t take me long to recognise that this kind of a poem is as artificial as a snapshot. A snapshot suggests that it captures the moment but there is no such thing as “the moment as it is captured by a snapshot”. Time unfolds in an entirely different way to our visual experience. A photograph which seems the most immediate artefact is actually the most artificial.
I was kind of always playing around with that paradox. But, what I think I learnt from the New York Poets was a certain kind of energy and a certain kind of relationship to the English sentence. I didn’t necessarily buy into their notions of time. But, I did write a poem at one point that was an attempt to write a New York School poem. I’ll read it and then we can talk about it because it is very much connected to the notions of time you were bringing up.
It is called, appropriately, “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 –
one just an envelope, the other long and bulky, difficult to manage –
Both for my neighbour Gus. “You’re never not at home,”
the FedEx Guy said appreciatively.
It’s true, I don’t shave or even wash. I keep the air conditioners whirring.
Though it’s summer
one of the beautiful red-and-conifer-green Bayside Fuel Oil trucks
that bed down in the depot by the canal
was refreshing the subsurface tanks with black draughts
wrung from the rocks, blood of the rock
sucked up from the crevices
The driver looked unconcerned. Leaning slightly on each other
Frank and Louise stepped over his hose and walked by slowly,
on the way to their cardiologist.
Jeet Thayil (JT): As much a New York Poem as it is possible to get. Especially, Frank and Louise. Somehow, it just maybe gives you a sense of downtown New York, the East Village or something.
Yeah, it is very much a Brooklyn poem. It’s also very much a highly contrived poem that seems to be absolutely of the moment. All of those images are disparate, they come from different times but they are sort of fixed in what is, essentially, a snapshot. Essentially, a kind of Frank O’Hara well-I-walked out-and-this-is-what-I-saw-and-I’m-putting-it-down-in-a-poem.
When I was writing the poem I was playing with the notion of immediacy and artificiality. I’m not parodying it because I revere the impulse to sort of understand this flow that we live in. This temporal flow is what’s real and the only thing which is actually real. The ways in which the New York School developed that idea – going back to John Cage and forward to a whole set of considerations that had to do with American society at that time – that we’re just going to free ourselves from all of the historicity that American poetry had gotten tangled up in the ’40s and ’50s and these were ’60s; a time when we were going to do something completely fresh having to do with our immediate experience.
So the poem is really concerned with all of those things but it was written 30 years after the New York School which means there is something inevitably ironic about my relationship to that history and my relationship to that notion of what temporality and poetry is and what it should be.
JT: Could we talk about your beginnings as a poet? You had the most unlikely kind of apprenticeships. You were a fisherman and worked in Oregon. Then, you went to university and I think with the poems from the first book Wild Kingdom and the long poem that won the Bernard Connors Prize, you kind of arrived at the very centre of New York’s poetic milieu. I’m thinking of this today especially because I noticed that you are part of the tribute to Richard Wilbur. So I wonder if you could just talk a bit about those early years and arriving in the world of New York poets.
Through the writing I’m doing now, I’m trying to make clear to myself all of these experiences, and my relationship to poetry and the avant-garde, which has always been vexed.
I mean, I had breakfast at the beginning of the week with Charles Bernstein who lives in my neighbourhood too. I think we look at each other from across some sort of great divide but we enjoy having breakfast together. But we both recognise that all of our allegiances derive from the tremendously revolutionary period in America during which we grew up – the 1960s. Everything having to do with the choices I made in terms of being a writer came from that. I had been an undergraduate before I became a part of the counterculture. I had read then and was committed to a lot of art that was highly progressive in that period.
An example I can give you is the music of Eric Dolphy. I used to listen to Dolphy always. Coltrane was kind of traditional for me in relationship to my early allegiances in jazz. It was during that period that I lived out in Oregon and was a part, not necessarily though as I was a fisherman, of a back to land American movement which was a product of the incredible trauma of the Vietnam years. It is hard to sort of recreate for, for example, my students just how intense that era was and how it forced so many of us to alter paths that we might have taken otherwise.
In the aftermath of that, I came back to New York and saw the ideological conflicts in the literary world and their relationship to the political conflux in the literary world. I just kind of realised that I need a place for myself that was different. Being an Indian, being an immigrant – I mean I came here when Eisenhower was President but I was still an immigrant and I still am. I couldn’t really take on the sort of allegiances and identifications that I would have been able to if I’d been a native born American of that period. Someone like Ashbery, however much I found him interesting as a writer, wasn’t really someone who answered to my experience.
The people I found who were useful to me were…I started reading Auden again. I had been reading Elizabeth Bishop but she became particularly pertinent when I got back to New York because I had to readjust my relationship to the social order. I was comfortable in the counterculture but I was now living in New York society with its hierarchies and obsessive concern with status, the insider ethos, and all those things to which I had an odd relationship.
I think that determined my choices. Auden and Bishop sort of protected me. I’ve mostly written out of that bag ever since. I’ve never really changed. I’ve elaborated, for my own sake, those ideas I got and clung to. I think it’s a kind of default poetry. I’d say, interestingly enough, thinking about Indian poetry in English which you (Jeet Thayil) write, that it is a default aesthetic. You know, it is not a bad thing. Do you know what I mean? Would you agree with that?
JT: I think it is a default aesthetic to write English poetry in India and it has some kind of immediate, I don’t want to say knee-jerk, but it is knee-jerk in a way. Especially, thinking in terms of Auden, Yeats, and the mid-20th century British poets. It’s something that no Indian poet writing in English of a certain age (I’m thinking anyone over the age of 40) was able to ignore. This is because those were really the only books that were available in India for those decades. Those were the poets that you had to write against or write for or write through. I think it is a default really but maybe the writing of poetry is a default, you know. It is a kind of protection and survival strategy.
JW: I’m interested to know about how jazz made a difference. The obvious difference, for me listening to recordings of you reading your poems, from Auden and Bishop is a rhythmic one. It is quite different rhythmically from those poets. And, indeed, reminds me more of Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch”. There is a kind of loping rhythm which is able to accommodate the jagged and the dissonant along the way. But, the loping rhythm continues to be able to tick in almost anything as though you’re able to walk around the open landscape or the temporal landscape and just bring anything into this sense of continuity and flow which is never quite disrupted.
The history of my listening to music is very chaotic. The great thing I got from jazz was the emphasis on vocalisation. The history of jazz is so caught up in that making…the way in which Billie Holiday tried to sound like Lester Young and Young tried to sound like Holiday. There was this constant symbiosis between vocalisation and instrumental music. There is also that sense of speed and movement. That has translated into American poetry in ways that are really interesting. I mean, Schuyler is an example of the way in which speed and variation mingle with each other. I think those aspects of jazz are what I retained long after I stopped really paying attention to jazz. This is because, I think, by the time I got to New York a whole era of jazz was ending and a new era was beginning.
I mean, that was the beginning of jazz at the Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis and jazz as a kind of art form that was now going to be put in a museum. It was subsequently going to represent identity in a more politicised way. The jazz of Cecil Taylor was political but was political of another era. The Cecil Taylor era was ending and Eric Dolphy had already died long ago. Jazz at the Lincoln Center was beginning, but I never kind of pursued jazz as something that I listened to regularly. Because I came back to New York and there were many more musical offerings, so to speak.
I started exploring opera and European music much more deeply because I was in New York. I retained nothing of jazz beyond that kind of inner understanding of vocalisation and its relationship to rhythm and sound. That was really useful but I don’t know if that’s something that mid-century poets like Bishop, Robert Lowell or American Auden as opposed to British Auden were really aware of. I mean, they were latently aware of it but I don’t think they were consciously aware of it in the way that I was. I think the allegiances I obtained from them were, I think, ethical in some way. They had to do with a certain sort of fidelity to the image and also a fidelity to the romantic vocation of the conversational tone. This also connects very much to jazz. Jazz is very much a spoken music.
JT: The idea of the very long line juxtaposed with a very short line where the length of the lines vary so much that it kind of leads your eye down the page in this vertiginous descent. That sense of improvisation that the varying line length brings forth is, now that you mention it, something absolutely to do with jazz. It has something to do with the fact that Lowell or Bishop, I doubt if they listened to jazz much. As a result, those stanzas are so carved in stone and then you rarely see the line-length vary. With Bishop perhaps, but they were certainly much less experimental. Many of your poems have that varying line length. Now, that’s something that you see in American poetry later in the 20th century.
This is the kind of rich discussion that is completely open-ended. Another thing that strongly influenced me, which also connects to the way that jazz actually influences American poetry, is the idea of the poem on the page as a field of energy.
The real issue in 20 th century poetry has to do with the fact of what to do once you’ve lost the determinative effect of a metrical norm. You have to find another principle by which to arrange the poem sonically. Free verse is successful insofar as it has an overall sound design. That overall sound design somehow is reflected in the individual choices that the poet is making line by line with respect to rhythm.
In the classic Olsen poetry page, the classic Pound poetry page or the poetry page of the cantos, you’re thinking about the overall movement of the poem and then you’re working back to what you’re going to do with the lines individually. That becomes very vital in terms of its connection with jazz. But, it also has to do with its connection to the page. If you’re talking about long lines and short lines, I always really loved the ragged edge visually, the ragged right margin. I found that satisfying.
All three of us write poetry. You know, somehow there is this kind of nervous energy that one has as a poet that feels right in the way the lines are falling when they are falling properly. There is a sort of reflection of some deep physiological aspect of the way one’s mind moves, works, and thinks. Then, that has to be organised in relationship to the sound design too. All of these things have to relate to each other somehow.
I always thought these problems were vexed. I think the long and short lines gave me a way of negotiating the poem as it’s going down the page, in relationship to all of these vexed issues of a larger sound design and the arrangement of a page in such a way that it becomes interesting. The general problem, which is always the problem of writing, is what to put down next. What’s the next step you’re going to take because you’re always stepping into a void?
It was serviceable. My kinds of ideas are sort of practical ideas. There is nothing ideological about them. The absence of ideology sort of helped me. Again, I come back to Charles Bernstein. I don’t know if the audience knows him. He is sort of the doyen of American language poetry. He is a poet very much concerned with the nature of abstraction in language. But, he, too, has sort of changed. He is looking back over his work and seeing it in an entirely different way and those sorts of commitments. It’s interesting, I think, in relationship to kind of what you (Jeet Thayil) were saying about Indian poetry and the idea of a default poetry.
The valourisation in the West is of the avant-garde. But, the rear guard might be just as interesting and maybe even more interesting. There is so much that people abandon, which is kind of fascinating. Of course, now we’re in the great age of recycling. We need to recycle everything. We can’t just throw stuff away anymore.
JW: You have also gained, I think, some idea of that from jazz because your poems take existing standards, so to speak, with “Life of Savage” or “My Favourite Things” and then improvise off those and bringing them into the present. Strangely enough, Charles Bernstein’s recent work is increasingly using very popular American soft forms, repurposing them.
Yeah. Going back to jazz, I think the one jazz artist who remains endlessly fruitful for me, and to whom I listen not only for pleasure but for inspiration, is Ella Fitzgerald. She is at the center of the Great American Songbook, right? She is the most “natural” of all 20th century singers. If I were to extend that, the people who really always help me as a poet are, in fact, singers. Not just Ella Fitzgerald but Schwarzkopf or Luba Velich or Peggy Lee or Barbara Cook. These are people who are kind of interpreters of a song tradition that exists. It’s in their interpretations that I find the deepest expression of the individual character of the artist and the thing that I keep looking back towards. The fact that I kind of reference these songs in my poems, there are constant references in the new book, is incidental to the fact that I listen to these people.
I listen to Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee because I need to remind myself constantly what natural vocalisation is. What it is to get the right sound coming of the page – a natural tone, a conversational tone that is nevertheless highly musical. Ella, I think, is the Elizabeth Bishop of jazz. They are very closely related to each other in terms of how they want to sound to the audience. They are crucial in that way.
JT: That is interesting because one of the things that you’re told as a young musician while taking your first steps as an instrumentalist, especially when you’re soloing, is that you have to be a human voice. It’s the vocalist that you’re trying to be as an instrumentalist. So I can absolutely see the connection between a poet and a poet interested in vocalists in particular.
JW: That points to the fact that you’re talking about the voice effect of the poem rather than the poet as a directly unmediated voice. Instead of the speaker being identical with the poet, perhaps what you’re doing is producing a voice or vocalising through the instrument of the poem.
JT: The poetic “I” is often a construct.
Yeah. I mean, this is something that is historical. It goes back to the romantics. But, in each generation, the voice has to be recreated. The “naturalness” and “conversational” quality of the voice has to be rediscovered both in the individual poet and the poetics collectively understood.
The ideological conflicts tend to resolve quite easily in the microscopic world. But in the macroscopic world of poetry, regardless of the ideology of the poet, they are still dealing with this issue of vocalisation. And, whether they know it or not, they are still committed to natural speech. That’s something which is worth a book. I’ve always thought that I’m going to write a book…like what’s the difference between Swinburne and Yeats?
Yeats is so committed to the prose order. He is committed to this prose order because it allows him to seem as if he is speaking naturally and immediately. That constitutes a difference from Swinburne even though they are just 10 or 15 years between them. It’s a radical transformation and it’s retrospective in that he is looking back at the Romantic tradition and saying this is what’s essential about them. Yeats extracts that and it becomes hugely influential. It becomes very influential in American poetry.
If you look at the poets who came to maturity in the 1950s, they are all influenced by Yeats across the board. They won’t consciously celebrate that influence to a great extent because Yeats is politically problematic to them. But, underneath, it is all kind of Yeats and Yeats. It’s this issue that Yeats solved that problem and other people picked it up. Then, that becomes the problem you are always working on when you’re sitting down to write a poem. Whether you’re writing something a language poet would write or what a very traditional confessional poet of this era would write.
JW: Ashbery is closer to Swinburne, I’d have thought.
Yeah, yeah. I think Ashbery is always the most interesting case. He always said that, “my great influence was Auden.” Not Stevens.
JW: The early Auden…
But, then, Ashbery was blowing smoke too.
JT: You never know what to believe. Also, you are absolutely right about how the poets in America in the ’50s are looking to Yeats or working off Yeats. I remember the Berryman line, though I forget which poem, where he refers to Yeats as the “great shade” from which the American poet must emerge.
Yes, it’s interesting.
It’s the 60th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death and Hunter College is having an event in a couple of weeks. I’m going to participate in it. She really seems to be very new and interesting to me. To this moment, in terms of the way the poem is a field of energy or the way in which the individual self-vocalises or the kind of sound she get to come off the page. She is really unusual and I don’t think we’ve quite understood her because of all the mythology and controversies which surround her. I don’t think there has been sufficient appreciation of how great a poet she actually is. She altered the trajectory of poetry in English significantly.
JW: Oddly enough, she indirectly influenced Charles Bernstein. He was very influenced by Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s book The Poetic Artifice which is centered on a re-reading of Sylvia Plath as a kind of structuralist poet trying to rescue her from the maligned grip of Ted Hughes, as she saw it.
Right. That is fascinating. I have to look at that before I do this event. The problem we all face is that we sit down to write and we sound like what we’ve read. Then, somehow we have to get beyond that. She (Sylvia Plath) managed to do this so decisively and completely.
JW: It sounds to me as though one of the things you’ve been talking about from the beginning of the talk is your determination to escape the prison of the contemporary. I’m very struck that most of the students I teach will only read contemporary poetry. They believe it’s the only place in which they can find anything vital. I’m always sort of struggling to say that actually the really radical stuff can still be found in the cannon if you can break it open in certain ways as, indeed, you rediscover poetry in the form of re-found or re-collected poetry. But, if you know only your contemporaries, your writing, at best, is going to be representative of its time and that is no ambition.
JT: I’m going to add one thing to that. I was a student of Vijay’s in the early 2000s at Sarah Lawrence College. We were given these reading lists by various professors, all of whom were poets. Most of these reading lists, in fact, had overlaps. There were poems that were taught by almost everybody. But, Vijay’s reading list was entirely different in that it was to do with classical work. It began with Plato. In fact, I think the first lecture you gave us that semester was a study of Plato and it had almost nothing to do with poetry. But, it set an absolutely kind of classical context within which to read contemporary poetry. That was what I took away from that class.
Yeah. Well, Pound said that all poetry is contemporary.
JT: If you make it new…
Yeah. Literature is news that stays news. I mean, this is true of my students too. They seem to be so flush against the contemporaneous that they are almost pushed out of poetry entirely. This is perhaps because poetry does not seem to have that much centrality in the culture. Certainly not of the order it did when I was their age – a time when American poetry was very exciting and alive. It had a lot of ways in which it was making its presence felt in the culture. I sort of feel like, at this point, there isn’t that kind of energy. Not because poetry is not being written or good poetry is not being written but because things are so diffused. There are so many coteries and so much fragmentation. I don’t quite know why they read what they read. I don’t know where they’re getting their enthusiasm from. I don’t know if I’m showing my age in finding it a bit deplorable. They don’t read Ashbery or someone like Tory Dent who they would’ve read ten years ago. They don’t even know who she is which is sad because she was a really interesting poet of the 1990s. She died and has now disappeared. It’s bewildering. It’s a moment that is bewildering and I think it’s probably going to become even more bewildering.
JT: Who are they reading?
I don’t know. They’re reading Ocean Vuong. They’re reading various poets who, I guess for want of a better word, I would call identitarian. That seems to be the hermeneutic structure by which choices are made. I think everybody is lamenting the death of humanistic study itself. I don’t know if it’s true or not, it may also be overstated. But, one of the assumptions of humanistic study was that there is continuity between the past and the present. That certainly has sort of broken down in the minds of young people. I don’t think college curricula are necessarily trying to reinforce that notion of the continuity. And those of us who kind of believe in history don’t really know how to translate that belief to our students. I mean I keep trying I sort of feel like – well, maybe I should just give them what they want. Instead of impose my ideas on to them. And, at least, help them write good sentences. So, should we keep talking or…?
JT: Would you like to end with a poem?
JW: That’s a good idea.
Since you’re in Delhi, I’ll read “The Long Meadow”.
JT: Oh, yeah. Lovely! Since we’ve been talking about long and short lines.
This is the poem that ends the book The Long Meadow. It’s my mangling of an incident in the Mahabharata.
Near the end of one of the old poems, the son of righteousness,
the source of virtue and civility,
on whose back the kingdom is carried
as on the back of the tortoise the earth is carried,
passes into the next world.
The wood is dark. The wood is dark,
and on the other side of the wood the sea is shallow, warm, endless.
In and around it, there is no threat of life –
so little is the atmosphere charged with possibility that
he might as well be wading through a flooded basement.
He wades for what seems like forever,
and never stops to rest in the shade of the metal raintrees
springing out of the water at fixed intervals.
Time, though endless, is also short,
so he wades on, until he walks out of the sea and into the mountains,
where he burns on the windward slopes and freezes in the valleys.
After unendurable struggles,
he finally arrives at the celestial realm.
The god waits there for him. The god invites him to enter.
But looking through the glowing portal,
he sees on that happy plain not those he thinks wait eagerly for him –
his beloved, his brothers, his companions in war and exile,
all long since dead and gone –
but, sitting pretty and enjoying the gorgeous sunset,
his cousin and bitter enemy, the cause of that war, that exile,
whose arrogance and vicious indolence
plunged the world into grief.
The god informs him that, yes, those he loved have been carried down
the river of fire. Their thirst for justice
offended the cosmic powers, who are jealous of justice.
In their place in the celestial realm, called Alaukika in the ancient texts,
the breaker of faith is now glorified.
He, at least, acted in keeping with his nature.
Who has not felt a little of the despair the son of righteousness now feels,
staring wildly around him?
The god watches, not without compassion and a certain wonder.
This is the final illusion,
the one to which all the others lead.
He has to pierce through it himself, without divine assistance.
He will take a long time about it,
with only his dog to keep him company,
the mongrel dog, celebrated down the millennia,
who has waded with him,
shivered and burned with him,
and never abandoned him to his loneliness.
That dog bears a slight resemblance to my dog,
a skinny, restless, needy, overprotective mutt,
who was rescued from a crack house by Suzanne.
On weekends, and when I can shake free during the week,
I take her to the Long Meadow, in Prospect Park, where dogs
are allowed off the leash in the early morning.
She’s gray-muzzled and old now, but you can’t tell that by the way she runs.