Q & A: Vijay Seshadri
What made you take on Samuel Johnson’s famous “Life” of his friend, the poet Richard Savage?
I didn’t take on the Savage essay specifically; I took on Johnson’s way with language. The poem was conceived as an exercise in syntax and diction. I read Johnson habitually—the experience is always a pleasure—and had the idea to write a poem with sentences that had a Johnsonian periodicity. Not imitation—he’s easy to parody but impossible to imitate accurately—but appreciation.
The idea of the poem, the “conflict” of the poem, is in the contrast between sentence structures. Savage was an afterthought, but once I’d thought of him he took over. The “Life of Richard Savage” has been famous for a long time as one of Johnson’s more problematic essays, maybe the most (also as a masterpiece). I haven’t followed the scholarship very carefully. But I’ve known almost as long as I’ve read Johnson that his empathy for, and indignation on behalf of, Savage was probably sadly misplaced, that Savage had, at the least, misrepresented his sufferings, and that he might have been a downright fraud, which makes Johnson’s essay even more poignant, and the relationship between them even more curious. My admiration for Johnson’s empathy, the contrast between the syntax of different eras in the history of the English sentence, and certain figures from my own past (my Savage is mostly fiction but part composite) were the central elements.
For me, the poem is a study in the way choices that have to do with the structure of language in a piece of writing generate image, feeling, meaning, and narrative. The distressed contemporary world my Savage inhabits wasn’t developed out of a search for significance but was something I felt I needed in order to turn and to spin the archaic formality of the sentence-making in the first half of the poem by means of strongly contrasting poetic circumstances. The words determined the worlds.