English Professor Jahan Ramazani to Take Latest Literary Ideas on Semester at Sea

"I had no nation now but the imagination." — Derek Walcott

August 24, 2009 — While Jahan Ramazani teaches on Semester at Sea for the next few months, he'll have the opportunity to put his latest literary ideas into practice.

Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, recently published his fourth book, "A Transnational Poetics," in which he argues that poetry from different countries and cultures should be analyzed and appreciated in light of how its form, content and influence spill across national and continental borders.

Ramazani, and his wife, Caroline Rody, a U.Va. associate professor of English, will teach a course examining the literature from some of the countries the ship will visit, and they will take students to meet writers in those places – from Casablanca to Cape Town, from Hong Kong to Honolulu.

"It's the perfect opportunity to teach the literature of the world," said Ramazani, who just finished a three-year stint as chairman of the English department.

Co-editor of the two-volume "Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry" and of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" section on the 20th century to the present, Ramazani said he has tried to help make these standard textbooks global in their reach.

In his own research, he concentrated on 20th-century British, Irish and American poets earlier in his career, then turned his attention to Caribbean, African and South Asian writers. He realized these identifications and subdivisions in literary scholarship tended to distort global influences and conjunctions, he said. They were just plain inadequate.

Western writers of the 20th century were influenced by contact with non-Western cultures, and vice versa. English is read and spoken all over the world, and information travels faster than the blink of an eye, but poetry has been considered "stubbornly national," as T.S. Eliot wrote.

Eliot's own poetry, however, belies that statement, Ramazani pointed out. Although he was American-born and began writing poetry in the U.S., Eliot moved to London and became a British subject and thought of himself as having a European mind. Plus, he incorporated ancient languages and Eastern religions in his work. How does a literature scholar describe him in one term?

"My book argues against local and national visions of poetry and culture and for developing new ways of thinking about poetry's transnationalism, as embedded in language, in the metaphors, lines, rhythms and images," Ramazani said.

"The miracle of poetry is that in such a small space it can travel so widely, moving in all different directions. If you look exclusively at local or national canons, you miss that," he said.

Ramazani distinguishes this cross-cultural literature from other products of globalization, such as the one-way export of Western television to other countries or the diluted versions of foods that have become popular in the U.S., such as Taco Bell and many Chinese restaurants.

Not only was Eliot's poetry influenced by European and Eastern literature, but his work also influenced poets in the Caribbean and Africa, Ramazani said. For example, Caribbean poets, educated in English, learned to use Victorian and Romantic styles in their writing until the mid-20th century, when they heard recordings of Eliot reading his own poetry, with rhythms from American jazz and ordinary conversation. Hearing Eliot empowered them, Ramazani said, to use their own indigenous elements, such as the rhythms of calypso and Creole.

"A foreign import can bring the writer back to the local. Poetry can be global in its outlook, but locally responsive," he said.

His book also discusses recent ideas on the issues of these influences. For instance, literary critics of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, who was killed in 1967 fighting for the independence of Biafra, have debated whether he gave up his Igbo cultural heritage in his poetry, but Ramazani writes, "Okigbo holds in a rich poetic solution his Igbo, Christian, classical and high modernist sources."

Derek Walcott serves as another example of the dozens of poets Ramazani writes about in his book to show how their work melds language, forms and traditions. Walcott, who was born on the island of St. Lucia, which was colonized by the French and the British, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and divides his time between St. Lucia and Boston.

In Walcott's poem, "The Schooner Flight," the speaker is a sailor of mixed heritage: African, Dutch and English. Ramazani writes, "His odyssey, set in the Caribbean basin, is told in Standard English iambic pentameter in alternating rhyme, inflected by vernacular triple speech rhythms and West Indian verb forms."

"In the hands of a great artist, the forceful melding of different traditions creates something new," he said.

Another of Ramazani's courses, beginning with poets from the Caribbean, will explore new modes of expression transnational poets have created, mixing Western literary traditions with local cultural resources.

— by Anne Bromley