WASHINGTON, December 11, 2012 — Ravi Shankar is a philanthropist of the heart.
Here’s what I mean: Yes, he’s published highly praised poetry beginning with his first book Instrumentality. Here’s a line I love from the poem “Exile” “If, as Simone Weil writes, to be rooted/ is the most important and least recognized need/ of the human soul, behold: I am an epiphyte.”
Then came Thirty Stills. In this seamless collection, like Wallace Stevens, Shankar creates “his unreal out of what is real.” And then, amazingly, he blended the poems of this book into another, Deepening Groove, that won the 2009 National Poetry Review Book Prize.
As poet Derek Walcott said in a 1997 lecture, “All art has to do with light.” Shankar understands this in his work, and that is what makes his poetry luminous.
This poet extraordinaire talked with me recently about the creative process. Here is a portion of that interview:
Mary: Ravi, just to get this out of the way right up front, you do share a well-known name. So the question is: Does that sitar player get really tired of being confused with a famous poet?
Ravi: Ah, Yes. (laughs) There are actually three Ravi Shankars living,* so I’m probably the third most famous. Interestingly though, I had to disassociate myself from my name and that gave me part of my nomadic spirit. I think that’s why I explore so much. Ultimately, human identity is so much more than what you’re labeled.
M: Names are identity and you had to do a bit of separating, and that process is what you describe in your work. One of the things you say about the purpose of poetry is that it’s about “building a bridge between the visible and the invisible.”
R: There are always debates about the death of poetry: Is poetry still relevant? It’s in fact the most timeless of human arts because of the musicality and lyricism that was used to pass on oral histories, but also because there was always this reaching out towards the unknown. In the workings out of the poems that I most admire and that I return to with the greatest pleasure, there’s the sense of a dimension that exists in the periphery of your vision. It’s a nearly spiritual seeking. A poem attempts to construct that path that will allow you for a moment to glimpse what was ineffable or what you didn’t think you knew before. And in that kind of momentary revelation a true epiphany is born, and that for me has always been the purpose of poetry, whether in my own or in others.
M: Your use of the word “spirit” strikes me. I wonder if you think about writing the way I do: That sometimes the writer is the vehicle for the writing rather than the writer.
R: Oh yes, absolutely. You can’t will those moments. When you have a time for distilled awareness, something happens and you just have to be there for it. But there is a way in which you’re used, and the poem is wiser than the poet. You see this time and time again with poets’ lives. You can’t believe that Rilke wrote the poems that he did when you hear about his horrendous personal relationships. And I think he crafted some of the most beautiful poems, the ones I bring back to my class often.
M: I’d like to talk about your most recent collection Deepening Groove. On your first book Instrumentality, you said you were not seeking cohesion in that book. In Deepening Groove I see cohesion that begins with the epigraph by Lucretius’ De Rarum Natura loosely translated as On the Nature of Things. The epigraph is “Let us examine if it be finite.” That of course sets the tone for what you’re doing here, particularly in the last poem in the book, a gorgeous love poem.
R: There’s little story about that.
M: Why don’t we get the story?
R: That poem was one of the more difficult poems for me to have to write and perform, even though I have performed at the Dodge Poetry Festival out in LA in front of 5,000 people. But that occasion was not nearly as stressful as having to write a poem for a very good friend’s wedding, an epithalamium, a poem for a wedding. I was commissioned by one of my old college friends to be part of the program. It was difficult in that I was going to read it in front of friends and family and it would encapsulate my friend’s love and be a marker to the ceremony. I had a lot of trouble writing it. One night I went on a midnight canoe ride while I was out at the Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondacks—
M: Which is how the poem starts—with that canoe ride.
R: Yeah, I was on my own and thinking about navigating this canoe in the dark along this water and how that experience would be different if I had someone in the canoe with me. Two people paddling, if they’re in synchronicity, would be an apt metaphor for the working out of a marriage. That’s how the beginning of the poem came to me.
M: Could you read a bit for us through the words “divine purpose.”
Lake with Human Love
Seen from canoe stem on a moonless night
the cosmos stretches boundlessly above,
a panoply of stars & the whitish curve
of the Milky Way, love the lone paddler
significantly insignificant, utterly diminutive
yet part of some larger, grander tapestry
unable to fully fathom. Human love is like
that, for when it appears, it affirms the person
before us, not as a projection or a romantic
ideal, but as who our beloved in actuality is.
When you love, it is paradoxically not you
who love but love which acts through you,
imbuing the mortal life with divine purpose. …
You can hear my full interview with Ravi Shankar on Rare Bird Radio where Ravi also talks about the art of teaching, about the poet Reetika Vazirani—who committed suicide after killing her own three-year-old son—and about her book of poems that he edited entitled Radha says.
Shankar’s generosity to others and his insights on creativity will give you grounds for hope in the lyrical light that enters life, however shattered or broken, because, as we know, love is the answer.
* Editor’s note: Ravi Shankar, the musician, passed away Tuesday, December 11, 2012, at the age of 91 as this article was being posted.
Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a memoir and The Woman Who Never Cooked and the novel Who by Fire. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster.” Find out more at http://www.maryltabor.com
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