Specializing in Hinduism, Linda Hess writes on the poetry of North India’s great 15th and 16th-century “poet-saints,” their ongoing popularity and influence, and modes of performing their works. Research and teaching interests include poetry of religious experience, gender, performance, and reception of religious texts and practices by people in different social and historical circumstances. Publications include The Bijak of Kabir (translations and essays),Singing Emptiness: Kumar Gandharva Performs the Poetry of Kabir, and articles on interpretation and performance of the Ramayana.
Professor Hess holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley.
[When applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete my book on Kabir oral traditions, I learned that Guggenheim gives its applicants a unique and wonderful assignment. They are asked to write about their life history as it is relevant to the work they are doing. How did you get here? What do you care about, and how is this expressed in your project? I found this exercise inspiring and clarifying, and I’m sharing it here in place of a more conventional “bio,” for anybody who’s interested.]
Poetry was at the center of my personal and, later, my academic universe. Composing, translating, or studying, I was moved by the life of that intense and creative language. When I wrote poetry from early childhood, when I memorized Keats and Chaucer in high school, Stevens and Hopkins in college, later Baudelaire and Verlaine, the words–their placement on the page, their sounds, rhythms, colors, textures–had a physical presence that couldn’t be separated from their meanings. It seemed to exist in my cells, and differently in the cells of bone, blood, organs, nerves. Sometimes it actually lit up my body. Pulled deep into Dante’s journey, I was strange among undergraduates in not stopping at the Inferno, but finding a kind of linguistic and sensual rapture in the Paradiso, despite the barriers of translation.
Going to India in my early twenties, I started up the rocky road of learning Hindi, the widespread vernacular of the North. Learning Hindi wasn’t as easy as learning French. Though not technically difficult, Hindi was embedded in a culture, or complex of cultures, that I didn’t really understand. It partook of histories that I didn’t inherit. The colloquial turns, proverbs and jokes, intermixture of modern and premodern forms, diversity among regions, classes, rural and urban speakers, kept getting in the way. Despite my facility with languages I kept running into problems, like the potholes and diversions, the jams of trucks, tractors and animals, the sudden disappearance of pavements and bridges, on Indian country roads. Even now the effort continues. I can carry on a good conversation, make a speech to a city or village audience, and work my way through the terrain of modern criticism or medieval verse–with help and delays. The difficulty of this process has been instructive.