Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Poetry

1.

Once upon a time, if you mapped the kinds of religious belief around the world, you would have colored the continents in with animism, polytheism, and pantheism. Monotheism would have occupied a small strip at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, and, numerically, it would have made up a negligible percentage of the world population. By the year 2000, there were only a few pockets, in Asia and Africa, where polytheist or animist beliefs still held; the vast majority of religious believers, on all continents, were monotheists.

Of course, atheists and agnostics were probably underrepresented, in antiquity as more recently; decorum, or fear of reprisal, goads a certain percentage to profess in public what they do not believe in their hearts. Antiquity’s three dominant modes of belief overlapped in practice; even today, Hindus who believe in many Gods and Goddesses may well light incense to the spirit of a local river. For that matter, monotheism and atheism overlap with those ancient modes, too. Islam, for all its iconoclasm, has imbued a specific city and a specific black stone with sacredness—treating a location as divine, and a rock at that location as divine. That is monothism hybridized with animism: Reverencing a sacred meteorite in a sacred city is analogous to reverencing a sacred tree in a sacred grove, if not to reverencing an idol in a temple. (It turns out the Makkan pilgrimage is a holdover from pre-Islamic polytheism, only with the original statues replaced by a non-representational black stone.) Medieval Christians placed relics in houses of worship because a sacred body’s toenail, hair, tooth, rosary, book, or shroud were imbued with divinity, no matter that it’s inanimate. The pantheists simply extended that logic to the universe, the body of God. Contemporary secular materialists, who might scoff at the benighted behaviors of all believers, ought to consider the way they treat artistic, musical, or scientific “geniuses”—their treasurings-up of Shakespeare’s handwriting samples, or Emily Dickinson’s desk and chair preserved in her house in Amherst, Brahms’s pince-nez in a glass display case, and so on. The overused word “genius” itself is a giveaway; it meant, originally, “attendant spirit,” and ancient Latins used to propitiate with incense the “genius loci,” the genius of a place.

In spite of these overlaps in practice, one deep, conceptual divide remains between our religious past and our present, considered as a species. It’s a question of a diffuse or centralized divinity.

In pantheism, the divine and mysterious element of life is witnessed in everything; in animism, it’s witnessed in every living thing. In the modern world, all that is dismissed as superstition. To reverence a tree or a river or a buffalo, to understand it as not just sentient but sacred, is to see it as fully alive. It is, in our perception, ensouled.

The monotheistic religions that superceded this outlook had one thing in common: They purged of God the natural world and the world of animals. Such things are “creation,” and they stand soullessly apart from God, as sculptures do from their sculptor. The human being is something in between those two broad categories; this sculpture, “made in God’s image,” has a soul in it, and that soul can be saved. But the cows and the whales, the groves and the streams? There is no quantum of God in them; they were made to be lorded over by the lordling, Man. Infusing matter with divinity again, returning some small fragments of reality to a pantheistic state of godhood—to bake the God back into the bread, as it were; to dissolve the divine Pearl into the wine—requires the elaborate ritual of the Mass.

Atheistic materialism purges the cosmos of divinity, too, but it doesn’t concentrate that divinity in the One God. It has substituted, in our time, here in the West, scientific wonder for religious wonder, ecological awareness for the reverence of streams and trees, and “liberal ideals” for Christian ideas of mercy. But there is no intrinsic reason why these gentle, laudable ideas need travel with Godlessness; it is more an accident of our historical moment. There is nothing intrinsic to materialism that stops the materialist from believing, and enacting, the opposite ideas. It may be that the kind find a way to link their metaphysical outlook with kindness, and the nasty, to link theirs with nastiness. Followers of Christ have been slavers; believers in nothing but atoms have striven to eradicate disease.

The outlook I call mine, best expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, falls halfway between the animist view infusing every living thing with souls, and the Abrahamic view that limits soulfulness to human beings. All species strive, over many births, to rejoin Brahman; but the nonliving material world is maya, illusory, a ceaseless shimmer and shapeshift, the play of light and atoms.

What does all this have to do with poetry, with literature? I believe poetry is an animistic, if not pantheistic, art—an art that dates back, and is most at home in, a world where everything is meaningful and hence soulful, and where God is not removed from the natural world. In “real life,” hearing a wolf howl in the distance as you entered a dark manor would be a coincidence, meaningless in itself, and you’d be silly and superstitious to read too much into it. In a novel, that moment is foreshadowing—and it does have meaning. That wolf knows something! Symbolism works much the same way. In Exodus, the God of the Hebrews promises to multiply his “signs and wonders”—that is, he will use things as language to persuade, overawe, intimidate Pharaoh. In literary art, this is commonplace. Things, animate or inanimate, great or small, become charged with significance, even in so-called “realist” fiction: Consider the train in Anna Karenina, or the schoolboy Charles Bovary’s cap. They mirror or express a higher and personal design; they foreshadow, they speak.

In many of the best and most beloved stories, ancient and modern alike, birds and animals have minds, emotions, speech. Dr. Doolittle could talk to animals and understand them, and so can just about every character in every fairy tale and many an epic poem, all the way back to Achilles and his horses, and Rama and the monkeys. When St. Francis of Assisi does it, though, it’s a big deal; that’s because it’s the breakthrough or revanche of a suppressed kind of belief.

In literature, the animals, ensouled again, can be helpful, like Hanuman in the Ramayana or Hedwig in Harry Potter, or they can be malevolent, like the she-leopard in Dante or Shere Khan in Kipling. But the souls that monotheism stripped from animals are returned to them, magically. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they never lost them.

2.

In poetry, the earliest literary form, the earliest religions have left their traces. These traces are not mere prehistoric flora and fauna; they are the landscape itself, the mountains and valleys shaped by glaciers long since retreated.

This has nothing to do with scriptural allusion or “religious imagery.” (I suppose that to a pantheist poet, or a poet who located the divine in nature, like many a Romantic, all imagery would be religious.) There are, in religious poetry of any tradition, readily visible points of contact between the poem and the religion. We could fill a short book pointing out the ways this or that line of Milton’s echoes or alludes to scripture; we could track the figure of the angel in poetry from Dante to Rilke. All that would call for is a feat of meticulous erudition.

What I want to examine lies deeper, in the elements that distinguish the art: metaphor, meter, rhyme. Poetry and religion have sprung from the same part of the mind; these two impulses, the poetic and the religious, are, if not the same, then twinned. And this shows up in how poetry works.

This isn’t to say that every poet who utilizes one of these poetic elements somehow believes, consciously or unconsciously, a given metaphysical idea. The traces reside in the forms and techniques themselves. Poet A can use a given form as a deeper expression of religious conviction, while Poet B can use it imitatively or as an homage, or by convention, or because it’s an interesting challenge, or because it sounds nice. So Dante’s Commedia is written in terza rima, which dovetails, in his work, with the Holy Trinity; but terza rima doesn’t dovetail with the Holy Trinity when Ariosto takes up the same form for a satire on marriage. Centuries later, the English Romantic atheist Shelley would use the meter Dante used for his sacred poem to relocate the sacred in the natural world. “Ode to the West Wind” has its antecedents all the way back in Rig Vedic hymns to Vayu. At some level, Shelley seems to have sensed the “pagan” nature of his Ode, collapsing Shiva and Vishnu into his divine afflatus as early as the first section of the poem: “Destroyer and Preserver, hear, O hear!” Romanticism repopulated the air with many a genius loci. It was a return of the Gods, a revanche des Dieux, disguised as a revanche of skylarks, nightingales—and the West Wind.

Some readers, and even some poets, think metaphor is just another gewgaw of figurative speech. I have always disagreed on this, just as I disagree that meter and rhyme are formal constraints or musical adornments of poetry.

To my mind, metaphor and rhythm are poetry’s origin and engine. Where does metaphor fall, really, on the spectrum of thought? Is it reasonable or unreasonable, and how reasonable or unreasonable is it? The binary doesn’t pertain; even the spectrum doesn’t pertain. There is rationality, there is irrationality, and then there is a third thing, lying askew to both. And that is metaphor.

“Love is a fire” makes sense without its being the result of logical inference. On one side of the equation: a shower of neurochemicals, the activation of the limbic system, a subjective feeling, accompanied perhaps by alterations in pulse and breathing. On the other side of it: a physical element. Who first equated these? Why is love fire and not water? Fire is love, and appears always to have been love, without being identical to love in any way that I can think of. Comparing a runner’s legs to pumping pistons, or calling a hardworking person a “machine”—these make even stranger statements. This organic thing is that inorganic thing. This living thing is that nonliving thing. It’s not always in praise; racist metaphors convert, by linguistic sleight, people into rats, or monkeys, or an infestation of insects. This reclassification is the first step towards treating people of another race like creatures of another species, whether by placing them in cattle cars, as in the Shoah; or, as in Kafka’s parable or King Leopold’s Belgium, in a zoo.

What kind of thinking underlies this act? “Analogical thinking,” in the broadest sense. But an early spiritual insight underlies the act of metaphor-making. Poets aren’t just understanding or expressing ideas and emotions by referring to external images. The art of poetic metaphor originated, historically, in a spiritual environment drastically different from ours. Presences were everywhere, helping or malevolent, demanding tribute, guarding territories. Animals possessed secret depths, possessed interiority; they were hermits peering out from their own skulls, enjoying supernatural flight and speed and strength.

In this world, the world of pantheism and animism and polytheism, the metaphor is hardly an ornament. It expresses a fundamental insight about the universe itself.

The mouth is the rose; the body is the wonderland; the heart is the lonely hunter. These synaptic connections were, and are now, fleeting glimpses of an All-God. In a worldview where divinity is ubiquitous, everything is one being, the same being. For the poet to make a metaphor, the poet must perceive this sameness, this identity. For the pantheistic vision is, no less than the Near Eastern monotheistic vision, a vision of Unity at bottom, a vision of Oneness. Connecting, through metaphor’s warm fusion, two disparate things can reveal, and revel in revealing, the unity.

That is why it gives us pleasure, that is why it feels right, when we hear that Hope is the thing with feathers. The art of the poet consists in peeking, through the odd-logic of poetry, on eternity. Aptness sets apart poetically “true” metaphors from a mere proliferation of nonsensical likenings. They are “trued” or “made true” in the little-used sense of the verb true: “bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.” The futon is not the weathervane, and the keyboard is not the sea turtle. But a pregnant Sylvia Plath is, to tell it true, “a melon strolling on two tendrils.”

What holds true of metaphor holds true of figurative language generally, as well as its underlying principle, analogy. These comparisons and likenings in language are identical in purpose and rigor to equations in mathematics. Let x = uncertainty. There is a 14th century Christian mystical work called The Cloud of Unknowing, and that cloud refers to the unknowing between the soul and God. The electron cloud maps the many potential positions of an electron between the observer and the nucleus of an atom; the exact position is uncertain, elusive, altered by the act of observation. Clouding of consciousness, meanwhile, is a medical term that still enjoys some use today, a stage just short of dementia; its colloquial counterpart is the mental fog. The unifying experience is the limited visual acuity of walking in a fog; that one experience is used to express and understand many drastically different kinds of limited cognitive acuity. You do not know the nature of God, the location of an electron, or the exact date and time…because of the cloud, the cloud, the cloud.

So much of our understanding of things is analogical, our most solid concepts of reality may well be a mere crosshatch of connections in a void. Some schools of Indian thought have opted for this sense of reality. They called that crosshatch maya, and they believed it surrounded the divine and must be penetrated. Maya resembles what that 14th century Middle English tract describes: a state of mind in which thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. That could well be a definition of poetry, too: to stand in a cloud of unknowing, but feel, in your will, in your language, a naked intent unto God.

4.

Lighting incense before a tree or in a grove, regarding a particular animal as sacred, attributing sentience to a river—such animist behaviors might well be poetry in its purest, linguistically unadulterated form. Animists enact what poets write. It’s no coincidence how many nonhuman creatures are permanently associated with specific poets. We have Rilke’s panther, Keats’s nightingale, Blake’s tiger, and so on. It may be that such examples from before the Romantic period are fewer because Christianity began its European decline around then. Goethe considered himself a “pagan” poet. The focus on the natural world, by European poets, represented a transition; most English language poets for a few centuries, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Chaucer, seemed to have little interest in nature studies or communion with grand Alpine vistas. Their flowers are abstractions, and hence most often the rose; their animals are theoretical, not closely observed. So Shakespeare writes of a pelican feeding her young by stabbing her own breast, which is something he didn’t observe but picked up from a bestiary. Shelley’s West Wind ode was published with a footnote, by the poet himself, placing the poem in “the wood that skirts the Arno, near Florence.” From the European Romantics it was a small step to the modern genre of “nature writing”—by way of Charles Darwin, the supreme observer of the natural world, already a teenager when Shelley died.

It’s worth comparing Far East Asian poetic and philosophical traditions. In Japan and China, animist and pantheist traditions stayed vigorous until very recently. In those traditions, the poets zeroed in on living creatures in their poetry. It’s also a very common practice to name and describe specific rivers, mountains, temples—a specificity of local description and observation that wouldn’t be found in European poetry until the travelogues of Byron and the footnotes of Shelley. The anthology of Traditional Japanese Poetry I have to hand comes with a several-pages-long glossary of place-names. Lengthy titles set up haiku that focus on a single animal, a single bird’s trill; and their poetry was often accompanied by a brush sketch of a landscape, or a bough, or a bridge in the mist.

Animism is a kind of spiritual localism; it does not centralize divinity in one God, and it does not centralize sacredness in one place. So animist traditions demand no pilgrimage across the seas to some equivalent of Makkah. Often poets belonging to animist traditions wrote about places where they traveled or lived. Milton, by contrast, litanied plenty of places—

………………………..Him the Ammonite
Worshipd in Rabba and her watry Plain,
In Argob and in Basan, to the stream
Of utmost Arnon….
Next Chemos, th’ obscene dream of Moabs Sons,
From Aroer to Nebo, and the wild
Of Southmost Abarim; in Hesebon
And Horonaim, Seons Realm, beyond
The flowry Dale of Sibma clad with Vines,
And Eleale to th’ Asphaltick Pool.

but they were all Biblical place names, places he had never visited. Wordsworth pushed to infuse his immediate locality (both geographical and linguistic; common speech, common places) with poetry, with divinity. He wanted poetry about milkmaids and the Lake Country. A century later, Rilke’s ding-gedichte, “thing-poems,” marked the conclusive reentry of pantheist and animist thought into European poetry. His approach regarded all things in the universe as poetic, an aperture through which poetry might be perceived. Where anything can be the stuff of poetry—when it doesn’t have to be about a rose or a beautiful woman—poetry is everywhere diffused, as divinity was in the earliest days of religion. Over time, poets have become willing to write poems about anything at all. The art of the Ode evolves from Shelley’s addressing the West Wind to Neruda’s addressing his socks.

5.

An aversion to chaos is at the heart of verse. The ordering of language in meter seems right for the religious mind; designed language reflects the designed universe. The repetition and periodicity of stressed and unstressed syllables (or “long” and “short” syllables) embodies the repetition and periodicity of the seasons, the alternation of day and night, the rhythmic pulse, the circadian rhythm. Poetry proves, with its patterning, the story of the Creator-God overcoming and orchestrating chaos, in the physical world as in the body.

The Vedas, Gilgamesh, the Zend-Avesta, the Orphic hymns, the Popul Vuh are works of poetry. Accounts of earliest time, or a time before time, are quite consistently cast in the earliest form, poetry. The only exception, and a significant one, is Genesis. There have been attempts at theological explanations for so much of the Old Testament (though not all of it) being cast in prose. One explanation, dating to the late 20th century, speculates that prose was chosen deliberately, to set the Hebrew account apart from the surrounding polytheistic traditions of the Near East. This would fit with the fierce insistence, on the part of the ancient Hebrews, that they were a people set apart, “chosen.” Their form of choice, in this theory, reflected their chosenness. Robert Alter’s explanation—that the Bible’s prose reflects, formally, the world fallen from God’s design for it—may have some justification in the text itself. In many books of the Bible, even setting aside the singable Psalms, fragments of poetry have been embedded, like Lamech’s song; and in the first few lines of Genesis itself, we find a rhyming reduplication, tohu-wabohu. It is as though these passages were rebuilt into sense from the ruins of some crumbled musical edifice. The Bible’s prose is post-Edenic.

The Bible’s prose, which is extremely ancient, complicates the usual, utilitarian explanation for verse in ancient writing: that meter was just a mnemonic aid, Mnemosyne being the mother of the Muses. The utilitarian explanation has its uses, but consider how Epicureanism was a worldview that arose after the establishment of writing. Lucretius still felt compelled to cast in verse the ideas of Epicurus, metrically ordering his guru’s insights into material order. What previous theistic poets attributed to a God, the later atheistic poet attributed to “nature,” but the instinct toward metrical order was the same. Even in Lucretius, traces of the old faith persisted; he invoked the Goddess Venus before embarking on his scientific materialist epic On the Nature of Things. Was this really just a poet’s nod to convention? Or did the ancient godsoaked art itself tease the philosophy into a Freudian slip?

Even supposedly freeform, wild, spontaneous, irregular poets like Whitman and Allen Ginsburg were obsessively, perhaps instinctively, attached to anaphora. The same holds true of slam and spoken word poets. Where patterns of meter and rhyme vanish, patterns of rhetoric rush to fill the void. The void being filled is in the ear, and the shaping of that void is order. Contemporary page poets, in our era when meter is no longer taught or practiced very much, typographically modulate their non-metrical language into tercets, couplets, or stanzas, to satisfy the eye, which stubbornly demands a pattern.

Yet the mention of the scientifically minded Lucretius compels the scientist in me to interrupt the religious thinker. The ubiquity of meter may well have a neurological basis. The beauty instinct that delights in seeing patterns—even babies prefer symmetric faces—delights in creating patterns, too. We are neurologically hard-wired to recognize patterns even where none are. It accounts for the man in the moon and the butterfly in the inkblot. The tendency is called “apophenia,” and a part of me knows that a fit of apophenia may account for this whole essay.

Unless, of course, our apophenic tendency is our God-detector—human eyes and ears always, and sometimes overeagerly, scanning the world for the rhythmic or symmetric hint a God was here, and structuring our own art with the rhythms and symmetries we long so devoutly to hear and see.

The religious impulse insists on seeing order, its mirror-image poetic impulse, on creating it. Notice how many of the most religious poets, historically, pursue intensely complex musical structures and strictures in their poetry. Dante invents terza rima’s interlocking sonic braid for his religious epic. Rumi writes ghazals and ruba’i (both using rhymes and refrains) in his Divan, while his other massive opus, the Mathnawi, is written in rhyming couplets, embodying the spiritual rhyme between Rumi of Konya and Shams of Tabriz. Among English religious poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins focuses so intensely on form that he more or less invents a complex new kind of rhythm. George Herbert patterns his poems both phonetically and visually, on the page. Form is not a “constraint” for such poets; it is the shadow of God cast upon language. The more elaborate the form, the more at liberty the voice.

6.

Rhyme is mysterious. Etymologically, the word rhyme actually develops from rhythm, through Middle English, Old French, Latin, all the way to the ancient Greek. One way to think of rhyme is as an evolution of rhythm, with the chiming sounds serving as “milestones” marking the meter. And the uneven distribution of rhymes was frowned upon for generations as doggerel; it was experienced as a betrayal of rhyme’s natural function.

In most traditions, rhyme shows up late. So in Europe as in India, the classical languages, Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, hardly ever used rhyme, even in their songs. Early Irish poetry was an exception; however, we lack the Druidic scriptures and commentaries to suss out a connection between form and metaphysics. Rhymeless poetry, as a general rule, corresponds to the uniformly polytheistic phase of both civilizations.

Centuries later, on both continents, rhyme established itself. Eventually, even matters of high religious solemnity in Christianity, like the Requiem Mass, would rhyme its lyrics. The devotional poetry of the medieval Hindu religious revival would rhyme as well. Such cultural practices spread, like styles of dress, through the dominance of a particular civilization; and both Europe and India, in the intervening centuries, were challenged and quickened by Islamic civilization, which was at its height during that period.

A recent parallel would be the spread of free verse. This form is utterly conventional in many foreign languages today. It originated with Laforgue and a few others in French, but it spread to other languages thanks to American global dominance. The whole world has ended up following Eliot and Pound. The fact that rhyme took a longer time to spread while free verse settled almost everywhere in a single century—a truly astonishing transformation of the art, seldom understood as the imperial phenomenon it is—simply reflects how history and communication have sped up.

Almost alone among classical traditions, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry gave rhyme pride of place. The ghazal, which uses at least six rhyme words of the same sound, originates in the longer form of the qasida. Both date to a time before Islam, the so-called jahiliyya or Time of Ignorance, when the Arabs were polytheists. The ghazal’s polytheistic origins are embedded in its structure; it is, ironically enough, given its adoption by the supreme Islamic mystical poets like Rumi and Hafiz, the world’s supreme polytheistic poetic form. In a ghazal, the same rhyme sound shows up at the end of each self-contained couplet; these rhymes are protean and multifarious Gods, endlessly recontextualized, invited to inhabit each couplet’s “world.” I see a Vedantic quality to the unity-in-multiplicity of those line endings, where the rhyme varies and the refrain stays the same. In the ghazal, identity and diversity combine, or rather recombine.

The Arab polytheists and their love of rhymed poetry influenced the literary form of the Qur’an, which is, to my knowledge, the only successful example of rhymed prose in literature. A transliteration of the Bismillah, not a translation, shows what’s going on musically.

Bismillahi ’rahhmani ’rrahheem.
El-hamdoo lillahi rabi ’lalameen.

Arrahhmani raheem.

Maliki yowmi-d-deen.

Eyaka naboodoo, wa yaka nest aeen.
Ihdina ’ssirat almostakeem.

Sirat alezeena anhamta aleihim, gheiri-‘l 
              mughdoobi aleihim, walad saleen.

Rhyming several times on the same sound, it is, formally, a kind of deconstructed ghazal. It was written at the same time that the new faith was deconstructing the Ka’aba and turning it from a polytheistic to a monotheistic shrine. In a pattern that would become common over the subsequent millennium and a half, the original form was smashed and its fragments incorporated, like the shattered Lingam into the steps of the Blue Mosque. The new faith smashed the pre-Islamic ghazal’s architecture just as it did the musical forms of pre- and non-Islamic idols.

In Europe, rhyme’s popularity, once it was introduced, spanned sacred and secular verse. Thomas of Celano’s 13th century “Dies Irae” used rhyme, and so did the troubadours, the singers of the Carmina Burana, and the earliest Sicilian practitioners of the “little song,” the sonnet. It may have been that the fulfilled expectation of the rhyme answered the hope of a Second Coming. Elizabethan playwrights eschewed rhyme because they wanted to imitate speech for the stage, and John Milton eschewed rhyme because he wanted to imitate pre-Christian, classical epic poets; but after those high-profile renunciations, rhyme reentered English poetry in force. Pope Englished Homer, who didn’t rhyme, into couplets that did; and rhyme would feature heavily in almost all lyric poetry until the 20th century.

In Indian devotional or bhakti poetry, the rhyme sound in one line reincarnated in the next. Rhyme likely arrived in the subcontinent’s Hindu poetry through Persian, from Arabic—and so from the pre-Islamic love of rhyme. The Jahiliyya’s poetry reached out—across the gulfs of geography, time, violence, and damnatio memoriae—to quicken a kindred civilization into the vigorous religious verse of a Tulsidasa or a Surdas. Rejuvenated by vernacular rhyme, this other polytheism did not perish.

7.

Forms and formal elements can be taken up in the spirit of archaism, nostalgia, play; they can be used to drive the verse by quickening the invention, or to divagate the poem along a line that would not occur to mere logic. In the modern era, these seem to be decisions of craft or matters of aesthetic preference; poets adopt them like naked hermit crabs backing into abandoned shells. Yet those shells were once secreted to the shape and specification of another life. We know the metaphysical life in which poetry evolved its musicality, its patterns. We know the extent and depth and temperature of that primordial sea of animist, pantheist, polytheist worship. A sense of those presences informed the sound of those poems. The earth was hotter, wetter, more tectonically active when we first evolved; the world of the spirit was different when poetry first evolved than it is now. I have sought to anatomize the ways poetic form adapted to the far past’s now-alien spiritual environment. This is itself an extended metaphor, a way of understanding the relationship of poetry and religion that relies on an understanding of something else. But genes themselves are read and transcribed, metrically substituted through mutations, edited through deletions, renewed through recombinations, invigorated through hybridity. This is why twins and generations rhyme, and surnames recur in a kind of refrain. We have trained our critical eyes to detect the genetic passings-down of influence and imitation. But there is a deeper, evolutionary past to literature, too, a mysterious spiralling cross-link in the sea of faith. It evolved from worship and words, dispelling the holy terror of the night by stories, invocations, and the beat of a drum. It evolved into the symmetry of sound we know as rhythm, and the symmetry of notion we know as analogy. Into the physiology and form of metaphor and meter that we hear in it today.

Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). A historical novel, Soar, was released this year in India from Penguin Random House, and a poetry collection in the United States, What He Did in Solitary, is forthcoming from Knopf in August 2020. His novel Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) was shortlisted for the HWA/Goldsboro Crown Prize for Historical Fiction and was named Best Debut Fiction of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and his second novel, The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio Program. His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. His first poetry collection, 0',0', was shortlisted for the Norma Farber Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his second collection, Heaven and Earth, won the Donald Justice Award. He also edited an anthology of political poetry, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now(Knopf, 2017). Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio's first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.
Amit Majmudar

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Author: Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, translator, essayist, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist. Majmudar’s latest books are Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary (Knopf, 2018) and the mythological novel Sitayana (Penguin Random House India, 2019). A historical novel, Soar, was released this year in India from Penguin Random House, and a poetry collection in the United States, What He Did in Solitary, is forthcoming from Knopf in August 2020. His novel Partitions (Holt/Metropolitan, 2011) was shortlisted for the HWA/Goldsboro Crown Prize for Historical Fiction and was named Best Debut Fiction of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews, and his second novel, The Abundance (Holt/Metropolitan, 2013), was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio Program. His poetry has appeared in The Best of the Best American Poetry 25th Anniversary Edition, numerous Best American Poetry anthologies, as well as the Norton Introduction to Literature, The New Yorker, and Poetry; his prose has appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017, The Best American Essays 2018, and the New York Times. His first poetry collection, 0',0', was shortlisted for the Norma Farber Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, and his second collection, Heaven and Earth, won the Donald Justice Award. He also edited an anthology of political poetry, Resistance, Rebellion, Life: 50 Poems Now(Knopf, 2017). Winner of the Anne Halley Prize and the Pushcart Prize, he served as Ohio's first Poet Laureate. He practices diagnostic and nuclear radiology full-time in Westerville, Ohio, where he lives with his wife, twin sons, and daughter.