Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong became a household name — or as close as you can get to being one in the world of literature — following the release of his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous which became a New York Times bestselling novel. His other books, Time Is a Mother and Night Sky with Exit Wounds, also earned the writer a bevy of awards such as the T.S. Eliot Prize. Hence, it comes as no surprise that he joined New York University’s creative writing program faculty.
That was back in June 2022. Fast forward to 2023 and Vuong is apparently teaching a hybrid texts class this Spring 2023 semester. The best part? People on the internet have gotten their hands on Vuong’s concise 1-page syllabus that lists 11 books as part of the required reading for his class.
If you want to follow along in spirit without having to take out another student loan, here are all the books from Ocean Vuong’s syllabus.
The Books You Will Need This Semester According to Ocean Vuong’s Syllabus for Spring 2023
1. Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
READ DICTEE BY THERESA HAK KYUNG CHA
Written by Korean American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee is a story of women and womanhood — whether the women in question are real and mundane or exceptional and divine. It braids together the lives of Korean activist Yu Gwansun, the mother-daughter goddess pair Demeter and Persephone, and Cha’s mother and Cha herself. Since Ocean Vuong’s syllabus is for a hybrid texts class, this book is a mixture of mediums in addition to themes, incorporating both visual and textual mediums.
Dictee‘s celebrated writer is one of the most revered Korean American writers but is also known for the difficulty of reading her text. If House of Leaves was not your cup of tea, you might want to skip this one.
2. Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil
READ SCHIZOPHRENE BY BHANU KAPIL
British-Indian writer Bhanu Kapil’s Schizophrene is a book about that takes you through a dizzying journey between the places that the author has lived in. It ping pongs from India to Britain to North Colorado and back again ad nauseum in a disorienting way that’s not at all unlike the internal experience of being a stranger in so many places. The book also touches on the psychological stress, and resulting mental illness, brought about by the duress of always being that stranger. There’s this feeling in the book of always going somewhere, always arriving, but never quite really being there because even when the body is present somewhere, some other part of the self exists in a Point A that no longer is.
3. Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg
READ KADDISH BY ALLEN GINSBERG
Kill Your Darlings, anyone? The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg finds a spot on Ocean Vuong’s syllabus with Kaddish, a poetry book that includes the titular pome Kaddish that was dedicated to Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi Ginsberg, for her passing on June 9, 1956. The book’s name is a reference to a prayer for mourners but it’s not the straightforward mourning you’d typically think a son would have for his mother, well, in an ideal world. Kaddish has a lot of baggage and so does Ginsberg hence the poem veers close to the Freudian in the way it explores the relationship between mother and son. So uh, might not be your cup of tea if that gives you the heebie-jeebies.
4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho
READ THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH BY MATSUO BASHO
Japanese poet Matsuo Basho was a prolific haiku writer known for his ability to capture the essence of Japanese landscape painting in a few syllables of poetry. His work, which is strongly shaped by Zen Buddhism, is the best example of that. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a travelogue that captures Basho’s adventures through the Japanese countryside in a series of prose and poetry that blends together the real world and his contemplations on it.
Like other haiku poets of his time, Basho’s work is complex but not intimidating, making them easy to appreciate even if you’re not quite the type to sign up for the class Ocean Vuong’s syllabus is for.
5. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land by Aimé Césaire
READ NOTEBOOK OF A RETURN TO THE NATIVE LAND BY AIMÉ CÉSAIRE
A politician may not be the first person you think of as the type to be a poet, but Aimé Césaire was. The French politician of African heritage is known for his role in founding the Négritude movement, a cultural framework for and by the French African diaspora.
Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is a long poem that leaves the impression of an epic journey — not unlike the kind in The Odyssey — across the boundaries of geography, politics, and culture. If you enjoy the work of W.H. Auden, you will find Notebook familiar enough to be an easy read but different enough to still be breath of fresh air.
6. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
READ LEAVES OF GRASS BY WALT WHITMAN
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is a poetry book that needs no introduction. It’s one we’ve all come across since high school literature class all the way to present recommendations on the best American poetry books. This massive poetry collection is both a love letter to the self and to an ideal America.
7. Meet Me There by Samuel Ace/Linda Smukler
READ MEET ME THERE BY SAMUEL ACE
Meet Me There is a collection of poetry and short essays written by trans author Samuel Ace who, for the purposes of making this book and its author easily identifiable to anyone interested in picking up a copy of his work, was previously known as Linda Smukler. The book is an exploration of identity, sexuality, and politics that electrify with its desire for other bodies and beings. It has a lot of erotic poems but you can get a feeling of Ace’s grappling with genderqueerness even in his earlier poems.
8. Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works by Arthur Rimbaud
READ ARTHUR RIMBAUD: COMPLETE WORKS
Arthur Rimbaud was a queer French poet who wrote prolifically throughout his life but, as is common for artists of any kind, struggled to actually make money off of his writing. What it did win him, however, was a couple years of love shared with then-married poet Paul Verlaine before Verlaine shot him in the hand in Brussels.
Though Rimbaud died at just 37 years old due to cancer, he left behind a large body of work that is credited for its influence on the Surrealist movement.
9. One Big Self: An Investigation by C.D. Wright
READ ONE BIG SELF: AN INVESTIGATION
One Big Self: An Investigation is a collection of photographs and poetry shot by photographer Deborah Luster and written by C.D. Wright that documents, on a material and emotional level, the experiences of incarcerated people in Louisiana’s state prisons. It was one of the first looks at the prison-industrial complex before the term entered common parlance (a.k.a Twitter space threads).
The book tries to capture the psychological effects of incarceration on an intimate level not by analyzing the circumstances of its subjects, as a researcher would, but simply by bearing witness with its collection of prison data, letters, and mundane counted things that mirror the slow counting of the days until freedom.
10. Generations by Lucille Clifton
READ GENERATIONS BY LUCILLE CLIFTON
Unlike a lot of books in Ocean Vuong’s syllabus, Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton is prose, first and foremost, but is not without its poetic touches. The book revolves around the lives of the African American Sayles family and traces heritage further back through the Jim Crow era to the Atlantic slave trade and all the way back until it finds itself home in West Africa.
11. Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayer
READ MIDWINTER DAY BY BERNADETTE MAYER
Midwinter Day is the literary equivalent of a quiet snowy day spent at home with your cats, a good book, and a warm cup of hot chocolate as you cook beef stew in your slow cooker. It’s a very domestic poetry book that has this cozy vibe as it takes you through an ordinary yet beautiful daily routine filled with cold light, winter air, and references to mythology.
An excerpt from the book reads:
“…I would sleep twelve hours, I would wake up
And get into my boat with my scribe,
I would study the twelve hours of the day
Spending an hour in each
I would have a secret name
I would rush upon the guilty without pity
Till the goddess of my eye in her vengeance
Overwhelmed my own rage
as you and I take turns
In love’s anger like the royal children
Born every morning to die that night,”
Looking for more books to add to your 2023 reading list? Check out 2023 Book Releases to Look Forward To.
Arthur Rimbaud did not write prolifically throughout his life. He stopped writing poetry early in life and ceremoniously burned some manuscripts and never wrote again.