Vijay Seshadri: My life in books
The Indian-American poet, who won the Pulitzer Prize last month, talks literary heroes
“When I was three, and living in Bangalore, I burnt myself while jumping over a brazier of coals in the kitchen courtyard of my grandfather’s house. They treated the burns, put me to bed, and read the Ramayana to me. I still remember the story, and some of the episodes are vivid. The pain, the confinement under the mosquito net draped over the bed, the sense of isolation, and that fabulous world.
The book that got me writing poetry was probably the Macmillan paperback edition of Yeats’ poems, which was assigned to me in an introductory poetry class in college when I was 16. The others were Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg, Body Rags by Galway Kinnell, Myths & Texts by Gary Snyder, The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright, and several William Carlos Williams volumes.
I return to books on poetry hundreds of times. Anything by Elizabeth Bishop, The Double Dream of Spring and Houseboat Days by John Ashbery, and Mark Strand’s books. There are dozens of others as well. I’m constantly reading prose, but I usually come back to Jane Austen once a year, and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce every few years. I’ve read all of Marcel Proust three times in my life, and parts of it, six or seven times.
VS Naipaul was a tremendous influence on my prose, controversial though he was when I encountered him in the early 1980s, and he remains a major influence to this date. I write a much more baroque sentence than he does, but he attuned my ear to prose at its deepest level, and made me aware of prose in the way I was aware of poetry. He is one of the greatest stylists of the English language, and one of the great formalists in any literary medium.”
Vijay Seshadri is the first Indian-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2014). His collection is titled 3 Sections (Graywolf Press)