A Transnational Poetics


Poetry is often viewed as culturally homogeneous—“stubbornly national,” in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, or “the most provincial of the arts,” according to W. H. Auden. But in A Transnational Poetics, Jahan Ramazani uncovers the ocean-straddling energies of the poetic imagination—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...

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A Transnational Poetics

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Poetry is often viewed as culturally homogeneous—“stubbornly national,” in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, or “the most provincial of the arts,” according to W. H. Auden. But in A Transnational Poetics, Jahan Ramazani uncovers the ocean-straddling energies of the poetic imagination—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 twentieth- and twenty-first centuries.

            Reexamining the work of a wide array of poets, from Eliot, Yeats, and Langston Hughes to Elizabeth Bishop, Lorna Goodison, and Agha Shahid Ali, Ramazani reveals the many ways in which modern and contemporary poetry in English overflows national borders and exceeds the scope of national literary paradigms. Through a variety of transnational templates—globalization, migration, travel, genre, influence, modernity, decolonization, and diaspora—he discovers poetic connection and dialogue across nations and even hemispheres. Exceptionally wide-ranging in scope yet rigorously focused on particulars, A Transnational Poetics demonstrates how poetic analysis can foster an aesthetically attuned transnational literary criticism that is at the same time alert to modernity’s global condition.

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Editorial Reviews


"Offering an insightful study of transnational poetics, Ramazani links modernity, transnationalism, and postcolonialism through a network of writers as they find themselves in a multiculture of global technologies and the remnants of the British empire....Enjoyable as well as important."
Journal of Philosophy
Ramazani's mission to reconsider poetry's transnational tendencies has been accomplished with perspicacity.—Journal of Philosophy

— Beerendra Pandey

Michael North
“In A Transnational Poetics, Jahan Ramazani continues to address an obvious but persistent imbalance in the American academy’s understanding of world Anglophone literature. A distinguished success.”
Stephen Burt
“With a wide scope and with vigor, Ramazani argues that these modern and contemporary poets are not only syncretic, inventive, and worth reading, they are also transnational: they don’t make sense unless we keep in mind their responses to conditions and traditions in more than one country. He is right, and his claim is important because it gives the academy good thematic reasons to pay attention to the formal inventions for which these poets should be known.”
Journal of Philosophy - Beerendra Pandey
"Ramazani's mission to reconsider poetry's transnational tendencies has been accomplished with perspicacity."—Journal of Philosophy
Harry Levin Prize Citation ACLA
“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….Given his enormous cross-cultural, cross-temporal breadth, it is all the more impressive that Ramazani is also adept at analyzing stylistic devices in individual poems—language, structure, imagery, voice, rhythm, allusion, and the like. Yet he grounds this analysis too in the writers’ transnational contexts….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.”
"Offering an insightful study of transnational poetics, Ramazani links modernity, transnationalism, and postcolonialism through a network of writers as they find themselves in a multiculture of global technologies and the remnants of the British empire....Enjoyable as well as important."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226703442
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jahan Ramazani is the Edgar F. Shannon Professor and chair of the Department of English at the University of Virginia. He is coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt


By Jahan Ramazani

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-70344-2

Chapter One


The narrator of Derek Walcott's "The Schooner Flight," a sailor nicknamed Shabine in West Indian patois because of his light black skin, memorably declares his cross-regional allegiances and inheritances:

    I'm just a red nigger who love the sea,
    I had a sound colonial education,
    I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
    and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.

Shabine would be a "nobody," if to be somebody one had to belong to a single cultural or ethnic group, if a literary voice were recognizable only when it could be slotted into a national category, or if the nineteenth-century British historian James Anthony Froude were right to say of the culturally and racially mixed Caribbean, "no people there in the true sense of the word." But in Walcott's twist on a moniker adopted by wily Odysseus, as by Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and so suggestive of the cipher of the poetic "I," this supposed "nobody" is teeming with bodies—the bodies genetically deposited in his fictive body by Dutch, African, and English ancestors, the bodies of various national and ethnic literatures incorporated in this literary character. This nobody contains multitudes. If a "nation," he is so as an irreducibly plural aggregate, not in the sense of a people united by common descent and language living in the same territory, as in the Dutch or English nation, or even—in extended usage—the pan-African nation. A character of cross-cultural as well as cross-racial heterogeneity, he announces his plural attachments, to the Caribbean Sea and to a British education imposed from overseas; 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 ("who love the sea"). The difference between the racist slur used for his African inheritances, though proudly transvalued, and the Standard English terms for his European inheritances marks the painful discrepancies of power between the cultural spheres soldered in his diction, grammar, and body. Learning that he fits the identitarian preconceptions of neither white settlers nor black nationalists, Shabine remarks, "I had no nation now but the imagination." As indicated by this wordplay, Walcott, like many other modern and contemporary poets, conceives the poetic imagination as transnational, a nation-crossing force that exceeds the limits of the territorial and juridical norm.

Walcott's Shabine is hardly the first or last such "compound" figure in twentieth-century poems written in English, to recall T. S. Eliot's "compound familiar ghost" whose spectral address not incidentally compounds elements at once English and American, Italian (terza rima), and Irish (over half a dozen echoes of Yeats). In Mina Loy's semiautobiographical "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose," the narrator witnesses the comically awkward sexual union of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Protestant English mother that will eventually issue in her "mongrel" birth— and the birth of her "mongrel" poem. The school composition anticipated in Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" will interfuse African American student and European American instructor across inequities of power; it will likely be as cross-cultural as the student's bilabially entwined list of favorite "records—Bessie, bop, or Bach." "Am I a slave or a slave-owner? / Am I a Londinio or a Nubian?" asks the self-dramatizing "composite" character Zuleika—the Afro-Roman, black British protagonist of Bernardine Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe. The very name Marilyn Chin—"Marilyn" a starstruck, immigrant Chinese American father's transliteration of "Mei Ling"—becomes a trope for transhemispherically splayed identity in "How I Got That Name," a Pacific Rim poem plaited out of Chinese, Euromodernist, confessional, and black feminist strands. These and a host of other cross-cultural figures personify the variegated transnational poetries of the twentieth century and beyond that are the subject of this book, from the modernism of W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, and W. H. Auden and the Harlem Renaissance of Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, to post–World War II North American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath, North Atlantic poets Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison, and Paul Muldoon, contemporary "ethnic American" poets Dionisio D. Martínez and Li-Young Lee, "black British" poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Bernardine Evaristo, and postcolonial African, Caribbean, and South Asian poets Wole Soyinka, Lorna Goodison, and Agha Shahid Ali. Although creolization, hybridization, and the like are often regarded as exotic or multicultural sideshows to literary histories of formal advancement or the growth of discrete national poetries, these cross-cultural dynamics are arguably among the engines of modern and contemporary poetic development and innovation.

Poetry may seem an improbable genre to consider within transnational contexts. The global mobility of other cultural forms, such as digital media and cinema, is more immediately visible, and most commentary on literary cosmopolitanism has been on prose fiction, one scholar theorizing cosmopolitan fellow feeling as the "narrative imagination." 11 Poetry is more often seen as local, regional, or "stubbornly national," in T. S. Eliot's phrase, "the most provincial of the arts," in W. H. Auden's. In another critic's summation, it is understood as "the expression and preservation of local attachment," "the vehicle of particular attachments, to mother, home, and native place." While prose fiction's interdiscursive and intercultural porosity is frequently rehearsed, lyric poetry especially is seen as a genre of culturally and psychologically inward turns and returns, formally embodied in canonical attributes such as brevity, self-reflexivity, sonic density, repetition, affectivity, and subtlety.

Mikhail Bakhtin famously distinguished between the "centripetal," "singular," "unitary, monologically sealed-off" qualities of poetry and the dialogic and double-voiced, heteroglot and centrifugal structure of the novel. It would be easy to subvert his distinctions on the basis of counterexamples; even Bakhtin conceded that his classifications blurred, especially in the twentieth century, when he saw poetry as being radically prosaicized. The intercultural congress within postcolonial and ethnic minority poetries and the anti-Romanticism of modernist and Language poetries obviously challenge Bakhtin's definitions of poetry as unitary, subjective, and monologic. But perhaps more productive than dissolving these theoretical antitheses altogether would be an effort to examine how transnational poems such as Walcott's "Schooner Flight" twist together the polarities. These are poems of heteroglossia, but often internalized (e.g., the intersection of standard and dialectal discourses in Shabine's self-reflections), of psycho-cultural inwardness, perhaps, but shot through with cross-cultural heterogeneity (Shabine as self-obsessed poet and Caribbean collectivity). They display Bakhtin's centripetal intentionality (the poet's self-recasting as Shabine), but are torqued by the centrifugal counterforce of cosmopolitan experience, allusion, and travel. The paradigm of a continuum between transnational poetry's centripetal and centrifugal tendencies avoids the Scylla of strictly poststructuralist models, in which the poem as discursive collage is evacuated of subjectivity, and the Charybdis of overly intentional models, in which the poem as personal utterance is reduced to authorial speech act. Although many transnational poems are "lyric" in being compressed, self-aware, and sonically rich, they also evince Bakhtin's dialogism, heteroglossia, and hybridization—the latter a term Bakhtin uses for the literary mixture of "utterances, styles, languages, belief systems." From Eliot and Sterling Brown to Brathwaite, Muldoon, and Grace Nichols, cross-cultural poems cannot be reduced to Bakhtin's putative lyric homogeneity: instead, they switch codes between dialect and standard, cross between the oral and the literary, interanimate foreign and indigenous genres, span distances among far-flung locales, frame discourses within one another, and indigenize borrowed forms to serve antithetical ends. Because poetic compression demands that discrepant idioms and soundscapes, tropes and subgenres, be forced together with intensity, poetry—pressured and fractured by this convergence—allows us to examine at close hand how global modernity's cross-cultural vectors sometimes fuse, sometimes jangle, sometimes vertiginously counterpoint one another. Bringing poetry into critical conversations about globalization can thus help focus attention on the creolized texture of transnational experience as it is formally and imaginatively embodied.

A lyric from the 1960s that suggests poetry's grounding in "mother, home, and native place" is Christopher Okigbo's invocation of a local river goddess of eastern Nigeria in his sequence Heavensgate:

    Before you, mother Idoto
      naked I stand;
    before your watery presence,
      a prodigal

    leaning on an oilbean,
    lost in your legend.

This poem enacts a longed-for communion with the ancestral goddess of the village stream, near where Okigbo grew up, in Ojoto, part of the Biafra for which he died fighting in the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. Its devices for bringing together supplicant and goddess, he leaning on her totemic, West African oilbean tree, include an imagery of watery reflection, the "I-Thou" formation of second-person lyric address, the symmetry between the first two and the last two stanzas, the epanalepsis in the line "watchman for the watchword," and the alliterations of "leaning on an oilbean, / lost in your legend." The resources of poetry enseam the speaker and his toponymically and botanically localized world. The poem could be seen as acting out a role Okigbo was to have taken up in life, as the inheritor of his grandfather's priestly responsibilities to Idoto's shrine.

Yet, ironically, the poet's mythologization of his return to indigenous roots is routed through the detours of Western modernist syncretism and free verse, the Christian story of the prodigal son and—in the last two lines—the language of the psalms:

    Under your power wait I
      on barefoot,
    watchman for the watchword
      at Heavensgate;

    out of the depths my cry:
    give ear and hearken ...

With its deep formal and allusive memory, lyric both locates and dislocates the speaker. Even as he elects a native return, he superimposes the language of monotheistic prayer on Igbo polytheism, redeploys Latinate syntactic inversions, and Africanizes the modernist concept of poetry as a personal verbal rite. A priestly offering to a local goddess, the sequence is also, according to Okigbo's introductory comments, an Orphic exploration of the poetic creativity that results, implicitly, in the very poem we read. If the speaker is at one and the same time the prodigal son, a psalmist, an Orphic poet, and an Igbo supplicant, the goddess he invokes, later appearing in the guises of lioness and watermaid, is an Igbo river deity, earth mother, muse, maternal culture, Eurydice, the Madonna, and the beloved. Okigbo holds in a rich poetic solution his Igbo, Christian, classical, and high modernist sources. Whereas Walcott's Shabine emphasizes the jarring discordances between the unlike spheres compacted in his being, this speaker melds a cross-hemispheric range of local and distant references in his poetry's musical resonances, alliterations, and fluid syntax, in accordance with Okigbo's avowed sense that there was no contradiction between his European, African, and other inheritances. Still, for all these differences, poetry functions for both Walcott and Okigbo, as for a host of other writers, as a language that can mediate seemingly irresolvable contradictions between the local and global, native and foreign, suspending the sometimes exclusivist truth claims of the discrepant religious and cultural systems it puts into play, systems forced together by colonialism and modernity.

If modernity is "inherently globalising," as Anthony Giddens puts it, then twentieth-and twenty-first-century poetry 's participation in the processes threading across geographic and political boundaries should be axiomatic. An Igbo Catholic, or a Catholic Igbo, with a classical education and an African upbringing, who read manuscripts in Nigeria for Cambridge University Press, Okigbo lived a life and built a body of work on various global and ex-colonial criss-crossings; so too, in different ways, transnational poets have done, from Pound to Walcott, Loy to Chin. Under modernity, to summarize baldly, global space and time have contracted; ever more people have traveled and migrated; technology and communication systems have circulated ideas, images, and voices across distant locales; empires have transferred armies, religions, goods, canons, and artifacts; militaries have unleashed destruction worldwide; and capitalism has "glocalized" products and services across national borders. Globalization—understood here as having a long prehistory in empire and trade but having been dramatically sped up by modernity, especially in the twentieth century—is the large, amorphous term that lumps together these and other distinct but entangled processes, different aspects of which are highlighted by different models.

Often globalization is represented as the one-way homogenization and westernization of the world, a model that accentuates the persisting asymmetries of economic and political power, in the wake of formal decolonization. Indeed, in defiance of the erasure of their cultural worlds, some poets champion poetry as a tool of resistance to the ravages of (neo)colonialism and modernity, as will be seen in chapter 6. Already in Okot p'Bitek's 1966 book-length poem Song of Lawino, an Acoli village woman named Lawino, anticipating antiglobalization discourse, rails against the displacement of rural African practices by Western technologies, foods, dances, religions, and beauty ideals. To her Mercedes-driving, whiteness-adoring, Africa-denying husband, she protests:

    Listen, Ocol, my old friend,
    The ways of your ancestors
    Are good,
    Their customs are solid
    And not hollow....

    I do not understand
    The ways of foreigners
    But I do not despise their customs.
    Why should you despise yours?

But Ocol is a lost cause, having thoroughly internalized imperial attitudes toward African rural culture as primitive and backward. He and others like him, reports Lawino, dress

    As if they are in the white man's country.
    At the height of the hot season
    The progressive and civilized ones
    Put on blanket suits
    And woollen socks from Europe,
    Long under-pants
    And woollen vests,
    White shirts;
    They wear dark glasses
    And neck-ties from Europe.
    Their waterlogged suits
    Drip like the tears
    Of the kituba tree
    After a heavy storm.

Lawino's comparison of the sweat-dripping suits to "the kituba tree / After a heavy storm" wryly indigenizes her husband's infatuation with everything Western. A resolute defender of African cultures against Western assimilation, Okot records in loving ethnographic detail the songs and dances, medicinal and religious practices, of the rural Acoli.


Excerpted from A TRANSNATIONAL POETICS by Jahan Ramazani Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1          Poetry, Modernity, and Globalization
2          A Transnational Poetics

3          Traveling Poetry

4          Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Poetry of Mourning

5          Modernist Bricolage, Postcolonial Hybridity

6          Caliban’s Modernities, Postcolonial Poetries

7          Poetry and Decolonization

8          Poetry and the Translocal: Blackening Britain


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