10 Books of Poetry I keep returning to

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The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry’ –Joseph Brodsky

Selecting the best books you have read is a intensely personal affair and it becomes tougher when you have select ‘Best Books of Poetry’. I love a lot of poets but there are a few poets whom I keep reading regularly, like once every week or sometimes once every day. I list 10 such poetic works which have had a lasting impact on me. I know I am missing some great poets here but as I said at the beginning, this is an intensly personal list.

1. Kurunthogai (Tamil) : Sangam poetry is divided into Agam and Puram: the Interior and Exterior world. Kurunthogai belongs to the agam part and in my opinion the best Sangam collection, for it has the perfect length. These poems are a result of an amazing marriage of ancient poetic aesthetics to an extremely modern approach to poetry. The Sangam poems follow the ‘thinai’ aesthetics were different landscapes represent different emotions. Tightly coupling these imagery to intensely personal narrative, the Sangam poets deliver verses which are hyper-modern. The aesthetics of those poets resonates with a serious reader even today and I can say with certainty that it will resonate with readers of the future. For, the Sangam poems achieve with ease what every poet wants to achieve: to transcend the barrier of place and time and locate themselves in an unchanging modern world, where the poem sounds meaningful in any mileu and at any point in time in human history. (I was so impressed by the modernity in these poems that I started translating them to English. I did around 70 of them. 13 of them were published in ‘Indian Literature’ a magazine brought out by Sahitya Academy.) These poems are the pinnacle of Tamil Literature and as A K Ramanujan rightly said, they have not been surpassed in Tamil Literature yet. I too feel the same.

2. Kamba Ramayanam (Tamil) : I must confess that I have read only some parts (maybe around 5% ) of Kamba Ramayanam but whatever I read has left a deep impact on me. I keep reading Kamban in various places: Nanjil Nadan’s book on Kamban, Chokkan’s Kamban Classes in Bangalore, articles by Giri and so on. Every new poem of his that I read my respect for Kamban increases by a notch. This image is surely clichéd but it fits him perfectly: Kamban is like a flowing river. His words have a very natural flow and the poems reads as if they were spontaneously written. My mother used to recite some of Kamban’s poetry on ‘Narasimavatara’ and tell me, “Kamban makes you see a drama performance in front of your eyes through his poems”. Very true words. For Kamban could recreate scene through his words, which are so life like that you end up thinking you have actually witnessed the scene unfolding in front of your eyes. The power, the majesty and beauty in Kamban verses in of the classical variety and he can easily stand up to Shakespeare and Homer on one side and to someone like Seferis on the other.

3. Collected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska (Polish) : With a knife on my throat and asked to pick only one poet’s works to take along with me, I would unhesitatingly pick Wislawa. I have been writing a series of articles based on poetry and Wislawa’s poems feature prominently in that series. I feel very close to Wislawa’s aesthetics since I see them reflecting my own aesthetics to a large extent. Ofcourse, Wislawa’s power of expression is something which I will never achieve. To paraphrase what she says in a poem, she takes heavy words and makes them light. The way she approaches life in her poems, through irony and wit, is achievable only by those whose understanding of life is deep. She has this knack of seeing things from a perspective you never imagined existed. Added to this is her superb sense of humor and the knack of turning the poem on its head in the last few lines. This twist isn’t to stun or to awe. Rather it provides an understanding which we lacked earlier. Wislawa will always remain relevant and modern. She will always remain close to my heart.

4. Poems of Charles Bukowski (English): Bukowsi wrote almost as much as what Jeyamohan is writing nowadays and those who have been following Jeyamohan will understand how prolific Bukowski must have been. I own around 6 books of his poems and I can’t distinguish one from the other. The style is extremely consistent in all these books. His poems are as much about attitude as they are about language. He has a chatty, ‘I don’t care a damn what you think of me’, ‘Go screw yourself if you don’t link what you read here’ and ‘Same to you’ attitude which gives a uniqueness to his voice. All his poems are autobiographical and some of the poems can send people into paroxysms. He writes about sex, violence, drugs, music, gambling and lot more. There are no taboos in his poems. Extremely powerful they can hurt you if you are not prepared.

5. Masterpieces of Urdu Ghazals (Urdu) : Translated by K C Kanda: This was the book which introduced me to the lovely form of ghazal. Till then I was under the impression (like many folks) that ghazal was a musical form, which you sang as if you were malnourished. I bought the book and read a random ghazal. The first couplet that I read was of Ghalib and it went:

‘yeh na thi hamari kismet ke wisal-e-yaar hota

Agar aur jeete rahte, yahi intzar hota’

I was stunned and I was hooked to the ghazal form. This book has an excellent layout. On the left side pages are the ghazals in Urdu. On the right side top half, the ghazals are transliterated to English and the bottom half has the translation. This was a boon to guys like me who can understand a bit of Urdu but cannot read the language. You can relish the ghazal only if you understand the language.

The book introduces some of the great figures of Urdu ghazal including Wali, Dard, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Momim, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Iqbal, Firaq Gorakhpuri. Kanda followed it up with another volume of Ghazals which had other famous poets including Sauda, Sahir etc.

My favorite amongst these are the ghazals of Ghalib, closely followed by Mir. I consider Ghalib and Mir along with the sangam poets like Kapilar and Auvaiyar as some of the most modern poets of India. The sentiments they express, they way they express it and their overall command over the poetic form is such that they are relevant even today and tower over most of the contemporary poets. Ghalib had an excellent sense of humor. His voice was ironic and he used irony long before it became a fashion of modern poetry. I keep going back to Ghalib often because his way of looking at life is very Sufi like in nature and coincides with how one of my favorite authors, Basheer, looks at life.

6. Collected Poems by Tomas Transtromer (Sweden) : Transtromer is a poet of images: images which are at once shocking and exhilarating. They tend to leap at you at unexpected times. As with all great poets, the world he creates is very unique and indelible. The images remain with you long after you have forgotten the poem. Here is a sample which will give you a glimpse of the amazing craft of Tomas Transtromer (translation by Robert Fulton):

National Insecurity

The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X

and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles.

As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground

so the demon merges with the opened newspaper.

A helmet worn by no one has taken power.

The mother-turtle flees flying under the water.

7. Collected Poems by Constantine Cavafy (Greece): Cavafy was a quintessential sensual poet. I would say his poetry is the poetry of flesh. Even when Cavafy meditated about old age, he meditated about the pleasures of the flesh left behind. His lyrics are delicate and fragile. He was inspired by the Greek legends and wrote lot of poems about them. Here is a sample (translated by : Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

An Old Man

At the noisy end of the café, head bent

over the table, an old man sits alone,

a newspaper in front of him.

And in the miserable banality of old age

he thinks how little he enjoyed the years

when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.

He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.

Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.

So brief an interval, so very brief.

And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,

how he always believed — what madness —

that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

He remembers impulses bridled, the joy

he sacrificed. Every chance he lost

now mocks his senseless caution.

But so much thinking, so much remembering

makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,

his head resting on the café table.

8. Dream Songs by John Berryman (English): I am not sure if people will agree with my comparison that John Berryman is to poetry what Faulkner was to prose. When I read Dream Songs I always remember the character of Benjy in Faulkner’s ‘Sound and the Fury’. Dream Songs is a very unique effort and I don’t want to give anything away by quoting any poem or trying to explain what Berryman has done. The title is very apt for what Berryman lies somewhere between the fully conscious state and the dream state. Some read like the ravings of an unhinged mind. Berryman twists the language in innovative ways to achieve this dream like state. Berryman, like Faulkner, is tough to read. Like Faulkner he is very rewarding.

9. Present Hour by Yves Bonnefoy (French): I love Yves Bonnefoy’s poetry. If you ask me why, I may not be able to explain. If you ask me whether I understand all of what he writes, I will have to say No. Yet something pulls me to his poetry. He is the opposite of Bukowski in tone. His poems are dreamy in nature. The give an impression of talking about something which you seem to understand but maybe you don’t. His touch is sure, his images delicate and when I finish reading the poem I feel happy as if I am just back from visiting an idyllic place. I keep reading him again and again. He is still very distant and at the same time he is very close.

10. Awater by Martinus Nijhoff (Dutch) : I had never heard of this author until I read an article on poetry by Joseph Brodsky where he recommended some poets. He had recommended the ‘stunning Awater by Martinus Nijhoff’ in that essay. It was not easy to obtain this book in earlier days. Thanks to the rise of companies like Flipkart I was able to procure this book. It turned out to be stunning. It is a long poem almost in the form of a story, which I will not reveal here. Starting as down to earth poem it slowly transforms itself into something magical. One of the best long poems that I have ever read.

Here is Joseph Brodsky’s essay on poetry:http://www.brainpickings.org/tag/joseph-brodsky/

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