We all know you can’t really pick five favorite books and call it a day. However, we at 32 Poems do appreciate those who attempt this impossible task. Ravi Shankar is our victim today and does an admirable job of distilling his poetic preferences into just five favorite poetry books.
Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942): this collection houses some all-time-classic Stevens’ poems, like “The Connoisseur of Chaos,” “Of Modern Poetry,” and “Poetry is A Destructive Force,” providing a vision of the asymptote of human intelligence towards which self-referential sounds seek but ultimately fail to merge. This collection also has such gems as “The Rabbit As King of Ghosts,” with perhaps the most zen-like line of poetry in the English language: “Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk.”
Barbara Guest, Defensive Rapture (1994): the crystallization of a painterly poetics about “understanding what it means / to understand music.” This collection is astonishing for the attention it pays to language’s materiality, the drifting silences of white spaces, the associative leaps as “something like images” spread concentrically outwards like splotches of rain falling on a pond.
Adam Zagajewski, Trzej aniołowie (1998), translated by Clare Cavanagh, Gorczyńsk, Benjamin Ivry & C.K. Williams. The Hudson Review *calls* Zagajewski “a wry metaphysician” and that’s just one of the aspects about his work that I adore. Along with his plurality, contradictions, the triumph of joy over tyranny and nihilism, and the reclamation of Polish history that are omnipresent in this memorably translated collection.
Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Yellow Hibiscus (2004): The selected poems from this renowned Indian linguist, poet & critic are full of conceptual riddles, savvy reinventions and formal experiments—Sapppho becomes a hijira in a Delhi slum, Kali a paan-chewing woman longing for a lover and the graphemic/run-on style of Sanskrit is masterfully rendered into a contemporary English idiom.
Cathy Park Hong, Dance, Dance Revolution (2007): a future world built from the dialect up, fractured and creolized, imagined with such force and newness that it seems an original genre is being born.
BIO: Ravi Shankar is founding editor of Drunken Boat and the author of five books and chapbooks of poetry, including most recently the 2010 National Poetry Prize winning collection of poems, Deepening Groove. Along with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal, he edited W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond called “a beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. He currently serves as Co-Director of Creative Writing at Central Connecticut State University and teaches in Fairfield University’s MFA Program and in the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong. You can follow him on Twitter @empurpler.