20 October 2010

Jahan Ramazani

Here's a year-old news item about Jahan Ramazani that still holds interest:

"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."

Yes, indeed.  Poets and critics that read only the literature of their own countries miss the whole point of literature.  In this blog, I have deliberately tried to include as many "unknown" or "marginalized" poets and texts as I can, in order to remove the "stubbornly national" blinders that too many poets and critics have.  I am particularly annoyed by critics that read only literatures written in English, as though the English language were the very first or the only language in which writers have written the world's masterpieces.  (I have actually met literature professors who insist that we should read only the English translation but not translations into other languages of Oedipus Rex - or the Greek original - and even critics who actually quote the English translations, as though Sophocles thought and wrote in English.  Sad.)

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