April 22, 2011 — Jahan Ramazani, an English professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, won the Harry Levin Prize for "A Transnational Poetics," recognized as the best book in comparative literary history published in the years 2008 to 2010. He was honored earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English, was cited for producing "a volume breathtaking in its global scope and critical incisiveness. The spectrum of issues and poets treated in this book is nothing short of stunning. ... Whether on the global or the textual plane, Jahan Ramazani's combination of multicultural erudition, keen insight and critical ingenuity renders this book a masterful resource that will be consulted for decades."
The Harry Levin Prize, along with the René Wellek Prize, given in alternate years, are the top awards the association bestows.
In "A Transnational Poetics," Ramazani explores the poetic imagination without borders – in modernism and the Harlem Renaissance; in post-World War II North America and the North Atlantic; and in ethnic American, postcolonial and black British writing. Cross-cultural exchange and influence are, he argues, among the chief engines of poetic development in the 20th and 21st centuries.
"The literary imagination transcends national boundaries," he said.
"Jahan Ramazani's book highlights the discrepancy between how literature is most often taught – classified by artificial boundaries such as language, nation or period – and the reality of how many of the most important poets have been inspired by work done in many languages, from many countries and all times," said Randolph Pope, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish at U.Va. and director of the University's comparative literature program.
The boundaries of academic disciplines have been questioned before, but Pope said Ramazani's book "brings not only a more accurate description but, more importantly, an engaging and fascinating approach to the reality of great art."
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 these days, but the study of poetry has been restricted to nation and culture.
"We were tossing confetti in the halls of Bryan when we heard the news that Jahan won the Harry Levin Prize for the best book in comparative literary history," said Cynthia Wall, who chairs the English department. "What a splendid honor for Jahan – and for U.Va."
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.
The American Comparative Literature Association, founded in 1960, is the principal learned society in the United States for scholars whose work involves several literatures and cultures, as well as the premises of cross-cultural literary study itself.