It seems that a rare confluence of stars propelled Vijay Seshadri to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for English Poetry in 2014. The star, however, is Vijay Seshadri himself. The citation by the selection committee “for a compelling collection of poems that examine human consciousness from birth to dementia” is titled 3 Sections.
Seshadri established at least three scholastic records with the award. He is the first Asian American and Indian American to win the honor for English poetry. He is the fifth Indian American to be so recognized. The previous four of Indian origin are: Gobind Behari Lal (1937), Jhumpa Lahiri (2000), Geetha Anand (2003) and Sidharth Mukerjee (2011). As with many among the Indian diaspora Vijay, at age five, arrived with his parents from Bangalore and settled in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s really an incredible thing to get it (the Pulitzer) as a poet,” Seshadri told Desi Talk, a newspaper published in New York. He celebrated his achievement by taking his wife, Suzanne Khuri, to Battersby, an upscale restaurant in Brooklyn. “We rarely go there, but the occasion demanded it,” he said.
He grew up in Columbus where his father taught chemistry at Ohio State University. His undergraduate education started at Oberlin College, Ohio, a four year liberal arts institution and music conservatory. “I started at Oberlin in mathematics—the school in fact has a distinguished science curriculum—and slowly drifted into philosphy.” From there he went on to Columbia University in New York where he graduated with a Master in Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Seshadri thus diverged from the stereotypical Indian American immigrant pathway towards science, engineering or finance.
In between colleges, Seshadri also worked as a lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and as a crewman in a salmon fishing trawler in the choppy waters of the Bering Sea. Both of these called for intense physical labor and may have fleshed out his propensity for introspection and deliberation.
He has been on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, close to New York, since 1998 and currently occupies the Myers Professor in Writing Chair. He teaches 20th century non-fiction writing and has given, inter alia, one special course in rhetoric which nobody else has given there.
Seshadri reads plenty of fiction, but has not written any as yet. In a phone conversation, he revealed that he knows Jhumpa Lahiri, but has not kept up with other Indian or Indian-American writers. He is currently writing his memoir, which is likely to be published next year. Seshadri has a son who just graduated from college and is not considering writing as a profession.
Seshadri claims a three-B association: born in Bangalore, works at Bronxville, and resides at Brooklyn.
The 3 Sections compendium consists of his newest poetic works under 32 different titles, an essay detailing his arduous work with the salmon fishing industry in the Bering Sea and a personal essay, which could variously be described as a day dreamer’s soliloquy, a delirium, comments under inebriation, hallucination or even dementia.
His poetic compositions in the compendium, which earned him the Pulitzer are thought provoking and explorative. Reviewers have characterized his effort as philosophical meditation, rare adventure in consciousness and a self scrutinizing effort. Though, when I asked Seshadri about the philosophy behind the elegant comparison in the first poem of 3 Sections that the “soul is an impossibility that has its uses,” he responded saying that “It’s, of course, poetry, not philosophy.”
The first poem under the title “Imaginary Number,” is as follows:
The mountain that remains when the
universe is destroyed
Is not big and is not small
Big and small are
Comparative categories and to what
Could the mountain that remains when
the universe is destroyed be compared?
Consciousness observes and is appeased
The soul scrambles across the screes,
The soul, like the square root of minus 1
Is an impossibility that has its uses.
There is an elegant mathematical analogy in this short poem and this is my annotation of the lyrics:
When the Universe is destroyed, one mountain still remains. We cannot say whether it is big or small because there is nothing to compare it with. Our consciousness (ability to estimate dimensions, length, width and height), is able to do it but not in empty space. It needs a housing, the Soul. In turn, it evaluates the debris around the mountain. But the Soul is as unreal and illusory as the square root of minus one. Just as the square root can help solve equations, the soul can assist consciousness to size the mountain. They are linked. If the conscious becomes the unconscious as with anesthesia, where is the soul? If consciousness returns, will the Soul reconnect?
A few more excerpts, selected at random from other titles follow, for purposes of comparison.
“Urdu Poems. Momin Khan Momin:”
I don’t know why she still keeps my heart
As useless to her as an unpaired sandal.
“The Dream I didn’t have:
I felt along my length his long riverine
Outside, it was Chicago.
“Yet Another Scandal:”
I opened my offshore accounts to
I turned my wife in.
“Appreciative readers of Seshadri’s poems can recognize his expert assimilation of American poetry from Frost to Lowell, Bishop, and Ashbery, their tutelary spirits resplendently alive in a tradition he himself is significantly shaping with his own alchemical brand of poetic magic,” the New Yorker said in praise of his contributions to the literary cannon.
“Were you surprised at receiving the Pulitzer?” I asked Seshadri. “I knew the book was a good one, and I imagined it would gain some sort of recognition, but the Pulitzer was definitely a happy surprise,” he responded. Let us join in a salute to Pulitzer laureate Vijay Seshadri
P. Mahadevan is a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in Atomic Physics from the University of London, England. His professional work includes basic and applied research and program management for the Dept. of Defense. He taught Physics at the Univ. of Kerala, at Thiruvananthapuram. He does very little now, very slowly.