Many of our patrons enjoy stumbling across poetry on Instagram but don’t know where to start when it comes to picking up books. So, we reached out to multiple-award-winning poet Arundhathi Subramaniam to ask her which books she recommends.
Arundhathi Subramaniam has written 13 books of poetry and prose, and won various awards like the Sahitya Akademi Award, the inaugural Khushwant Singh Prize, the Raza Award for Poetry, the Zee Women’s Award for Literature, the International Piero Bigongiari Prize in Italy, and the Mystic Kalinga award. There are few more suited than her to the job of curating a poetry reading list for our patrons.
As a preface to this list, Subramaniam clarifies, “There are a couple of books of prose in here, but they are books about poetry… I’ve included as many anthologies as possible to offer a wide range of poems to those who might be starting out on their journeys as readers of poetry.”
Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Reading List
The Staying Alive Trilogy, edited by Neil Astley
The three anthologies of this trilogy—Staying Alive, Being Alive, and Being Human—ease you into contemporary poetry written by poets from different parts of the world. Each anthology has 500 poems that evoke not only deep emotion in the reader, but also new thought and sometimes a chuckle. If you want a distilled version of this series, a pocketbook called Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy whittles the selection down to 100 essential poems. It makes for a great gift, travel companion, or bedtime read.
Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
In the early 1900s, Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke corresponded with a young officer cadet through letters. These missives offered solicited advice on solitude, creativity, suffering, love, etc. This collection of profound letters written from a groundbreaking poet to an aspiring one have, over time, transmuted into a sort of blueprint for life and creativity for writers and artists. They continue to offer guidance and solace to whoever finds them.
The Lives of the Poets, by Michael Schmidt
Michael Schmidt surveys the rise of English poetry and the language itself from the Black Death to the court poetry of Chaucer and Sir Philip Sidney, the triumph of Marlowe and Shakespeare, the wit of Donne and Marvell, the urbane sophistication of Pope and Dr Johnson, the romanticism of Keats and Shelley, the questioning spirit of the Victorians and ending with the twentieth century, from T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats to Paul Muldoon and Thom Gunn. Each chapter combines commentary and quotation to acquaint the reader with the main themes of the poet’s work, what his influences were, what the key works are, as well as bringing in from the margins some neglected voices. An indispensable book for all those interested in poetry who may not want to read an entire biography of a poet and for anyone studying poetry at school or university.
The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature, edited by Andrew Schelling
Mapping bhakti literature from the first century BCE to the 20th century, this anthology covers a large swathe: the early poems to Siva, the compositions of the Alvar poets, the Virashaiva poets, the Varkaris, and the Vaishnava poets to Punjabi songs, the mystic music of the Bauls of Bengal, and Bengali Shakta lyrics. The anthology is as eclectic as the bhakti tradition and captures its depth and diversity through the ages—across languages and cultures. A great substitute for this volume is Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry, edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam herself.
The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry, by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto
This unique collection of Zen poetry spans 1,500 years, from the early T’ang dynasty to the present day, and offers Zen poetry in all its diversity: Chinese poems of enlightenment and health, poems of the Japanese masters, haikus, and much more. It has been jointly translated by a Japanese scholar and an American poet, and features many poems that have never before been translated into English.
The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil
This is the definitive anthology of Indian poetry in English. Made over two decades, this volume edited by Jeet Thayil brings together writers from around the world to present an expansive, encompassing idea of what makes an Indian poet. It features lost, uncollected, and out-of-print poems by major poets, essays that place entire bodies of work into their cultural contexts, and a collection of black-and-white portraits taken by Madhu Kapparath over three decades.
Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English
Arun Kolatkar was arguably one of India’s greatest modern poets, writing prolifically in Marathi and English, but he was famously reluctant to publish books. His first book of poems came out when he was 44. Jejuri (1976) won him the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and his third Marathi publication, Bhijki Vahi, won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2004. The same year, after he knew he was dying from cancer, Kolatkar published two more books, Kala Ghoda Poems and Sarpa Satra. A posthumous selection, The Boatride and Other Poems, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, contained his previous uncollected English poems as well as translations of his Marathi poems. This volume, Collected Poems in English, brings together work from all those volumes.
This list seems to cover all bases. But what does the poet like to read herself? “There are four idiosyncratic personal favourites that are often by my bedside,” she says, and gives us a glimpse of the stack:
8. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
This book holds 250 lyrical poems by Hafiz, considered one of the greatest Sufi poets of all time. Hafiz expanded the mystical, healing dimensions of poetry more than any other Sufi poet. The translator, Daniel Ladinsky, has said that his work was an attempt to do the impossible: to render light into words—to make the luminous resonance of God tangible to our finite senses. Each line of The Gift imparts the wonderful qualities of this master Sufi poet and spiritual teacher: encouragement, an audacious love that touches lives, profound knowledge, generosity, and a sweet, playful genius unparalleled in world literature.
9. Hymns for the Drowning, by Nammalvar, translated by AK Ramanujan
The poems in this book are some of the earliest about Visnu, one of the Hindu Trinity. There were 12 alvars, saint-poets devoted to Visnu, who lived between the sixth and ninth century in the Tamil-speaking region of south India. These devotees and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva (nayanmar), changed Hinduism, and their devotional hymns addressed to Visnu are among the earliest bhakti texts in any Indian language. In this selection from Nammalvar’s works, the translations reflect the alternations of philosophic hymns and love poems.
10. Speaking of Siva, translated by AK Ramanujan
This book is a selection of vacanas, or free-verse sayings from the Virasaiva religious movement, dedicated to Siva. Written by four major saints between the 10th and 12th centuries, they are passionate lyrical expressions of the search for an unpredictable spiritual vision of ‘now’. Here, yogic and tantric symbols, riddles and enigmas subvert the language of ordinary experience, as references to night and day, sex and family relationships take on new mystical meanings. These intense poems of personal devotion to a single deity also question traditional belief systems, customs, superstitions, image worship and even moral strictures, in verse that speaks to everyone regardless of gender, caste, and class.
11. The Light Trap, by John Burnside
In his eighth collection of poetry, John Burnside explores the ways we see our world, addressing the relationship between the environment and the unconscious, ideas and creatures. In his poems, the protagonists are mysterious and range from the deer who pass through a suburban garden to the poet’s six-month-old son. These are nature poems unlike any other: they pose questions to the basis of our knowledge, not only of living things, but also of the play of gravity and light that makes our world and theirs possible.