Judging the National Book Award for Poetry, publishing a new scholarly book about modern and contemporary poetry, teaching two courses, giving a keynote lecture at a conference in South Korea and another in St. Louis, chairing the search committee for the next dean of the College of Arts & Sciences– it’s been an unusually busy fall for University of Virginia English professor R. Jahan Ramazani.
He was one of five judges for the National Book Award who read more than 200 poetry collections, starting this summer. The group narrowed the entries down to a long list of 10, then picked five finalists. They made their ultimate decision in time for the ceremony Wednesday night in New York City, choosing Mary Szybist’s “Incarnadine” as the winner.
Szybist is a 1992 alumna of the U.Va. English department, giving the choice an added thrill for Ramazani – who did not teach her when she was on Grounds, but was in his early years as a newly minted professor. He now holds an endowed professorship as the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English.
Ramazani said he was delighted to hear that Szybist reads his critical work on poetry and uses it in her teaching. She even brought a copy of his new book with her for him to sign. He was the only literary scholar among the poetry judges.
His new book, “Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song and the Dialogue of Genres” (University of Chicago Press), explores poetry’s interactions with other kinds of writing. Poetry uses the same language that people use every day, but in myriad ways. Though poetry has its own rules and freedoms, it’s not a closed circle, Ramazani said in a recent interview.
“Poetry has often been seen as a somewhat closed genre, shut off from other kinds of discourse,” Ramazani said. “What I’ve tried to show is that poetry is intensely involved with a variety of other discourses, such as the novel, theory, the law, the news, prayer and song. But I try to tease out a double movement – poetry both absorbs these other discourses and at the same time distinguishes itself from them.
“Looking at poetry’s ties to other kinds of writing helps to understand it, in relation to something it’s not,” said Ramazani, whose previous book, “Transnational Poetics,” won the Harry Levin Prize from the American Comparative Literature Association in 2011.
Newswriting is among the youngest forms that poetry interacts with, he said; song among the oldest. Even if contemporary poets use the style of a news format or write about recent events, they write against a broad time-horizon, he said, and yoke their words to poetic patterns that have evolved over the centuries. Poetry has ties of its own to the past, over thousands of years.
Ramazani explained when a poet like Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet who died earlier this year, wrote about the Sept. 11 terror attacks or “the Troubles” – the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the ’90s – he processed them through poetic techniques, such as metaphor, archetype and sonic repetitions. He also echoes myths or events recounted in classical poetry, putting the recent events in a historical context and wider human experience. By doing so, he creates a kind of news that can last.
In contrast with the news, song is “poetry’s closest sister genre. They have a primal unity,” Ramazani said. The word “lyric,” as in lyric poetry, means “singing to the lyre.” If you strip away the musical component, song lyrics look like poems, although the forms are sometimes in tension, he said.
Ramazani has written about different kinds of modern and contemporary poetry. “A Transnational Poetics” and “The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English” explored poetry written in English from a range of countries with different histories. Earlier in his career, he focused on a type of poem, the elegy, publishing “Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney” in 1994 and “Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime” in 1990.
He has co-edited two editions of the 20th-century volume in the “Norton Anthology of English Literature,” one edition of the “Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” and was an associate editor of the 2012 “Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.”
A Rhodes Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, Ramazani holds master's degrees from Yale and Oxford universities and a Ph.D. from Yale. An Echols Scholar as an undergraduate at U.Va., he received his B.A. in English literature in 1981. He returned to the Grounds to join the faculty in 1988.
This semester, Ramazani is teaching two seminars in contemporary poetry, an introductory course and a majors’ course. He chose selections from the 10 semifinalist books of poetry he was considering for the National Book Award to read in the classes. At first, he couldn’t tell the students about the competition, because the long list hadn’t been publicly announced, he said.
“It was exciting and fun to share some of the very best poetry of our time with them. The students were like collaborators,” he said. “I like to think the awards process is a valuable activity and might help make poetry more visible in our culture.”
Ramazani has been involved in many valuable activities over his 25 years at U.Va. He chaired the Faculty Senate in 1997-98 and has chaired the English department.
Along with leading the search committee for the Arts & Sciences dean, Ramazani also is chairing the University Librarian review committee. He recently participated as one of the external reviewers of Harvard University’s English department, and will do the same at Emory University and University of California, Berkeley in the spring.
He regularly lectures around the country and around the world on modern and contemporary poetry and academic issues. Next spring he will deliver a keynote lecture at a conference on Heaney in Belfast and give other talks in Chicago, Los Angeles, Stanford, and Stockholm.
For his boundary-crossing scholarship in poetry and service to the intellectual life of U.Va., Ramazani received the 2011 Thomas Jefferson Award recognizing excellence in scholarship. His father, R.K. Ramazani, professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs, received the same award in 1994. They are the first father and son to have each won the award, the University’s highest honor.