Poetry in a Global Age, by Jahan Ramazani, University of Chicago Press, 323 pp, $30, ISBN: 978-0226730141
“Despite the many ways that languages and cultures can meld and mesh in poetry, there’s still a tendency to view the art first and foremost through a national gaze.” As an English poet living in Berlin, who translates Russian and German poetry and has lived in China, Alistair Noon is well-positioned to see what might emerge in poetry after the nation has been put to one side. In “Translocal Underground: Anglophone Poetry and Globalization” (2007), he argued that that we might best approach poetry translocally, distinguishing between the weak translocality of Euro weekends, and a stronger version that is built on longer engagement with particular places, traditions and languages. While migratory culture is often still understood in national terms – for instance, how the US and UK read incoming work as immigrant literature, and outgoing as émigré – so many poems of the last few decades (along with many other genres) are now on the move and are best read untethered to a national narrative. This might be considered characteristic of recent poetry, but, having shifted our terms of references, we see a substantial translocal tradition emerging. “This stuff is only hybrid,” Noon concluded, “if you conceive of cultural products as ever having had some kind of primordial essence, such as national genius. They don’t: synthesis is inherent in the process of creation.”
Jahan Ramazani would agree. Over the past two decades he has shown how we might think transnationally and translocally about poetry. Much literature in the area concentrates on the novel, as critics assume that poetry is more integrally tied to particular traditions. If the real world is globalised, then, so the logic goes, since the novel incorporates larger tranches of that world, it must deal more immediately with globalism. This perhaps demonstrates the shortcomings of such critics than any shortcoming in the genre of poetry. In A Transnational Poetics (2009), Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (2014), and Poetry in a Global Age (2020), Ramazani leaves no doubt that the genre can easily keep pace with the novel. My own criticism is indebted to his and indeed to him, so under disclosures, I note that he wrote a positive reader’s report on a study of transnationalism, poetry, and the Cold War that I published in 2015, and I also contributed to one of his edited volumes in 2017. This should be declared before also declaring that the sustained, coruscating, and persuasive argument of these books is that poetry “both instances and reflects on global processes, both participates in them and helps us apprehend them in all their connectivity and violence, integration and scattering, enmeshment and dispersal”. Ramazani exemplifies what is best in transnational literary criticism.
The latest instalment, under review here, has chapters that deal with the issue from various aspects. How can cosmopolitan sympathies persist in times of heightened nationalism? The chapter on Isaac Rosenberg and the poetry of World War I shows that a poem like “Break of Day in the Trenches” delicately illuminates the transnational commonalities between soldiers, in defiance of political and national divisions. No-Man’s Land provokes in Rosenberg a desire for the “pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”. Such a reading will not surprise readers of the poetry of World War I; instead, Ramazani’s achievement is to incorporate such conclusions in a broader approach to poetry. New ecological visions of the globe animate the philosophy of, among others, Timothy Morton; Ramazani helps us to read Wallace Stevens, a poet who has been heavily nationalised by many critics, as more implicated in such global to-and-fro.
WB Yeats and Seamus Heaney are the subjects of two separate chapters. In the first, Yeats is presented less as a poet of Sligo and its environs, or even of Ireland, and more as an occasionally orientalising high modernist. Ramazani adduces his own heritage in this case. Referring to a passage in “The Statues” that mentions “Asiatic vague immensities”, he comments:
As someone whose parentage is mostly Persian, I’ve long felt uncomfortable about this stanza, since it aligns with and updates the notion that my ancestors were the original “barbarians” – their unintelligible speech sounding to the ancient Greeks like an echoic and nonsensical barbarbar that marked them as the uncivilized other […].
He probes further in Yeats’s oeuvre, attempting, in his own words, “to navigate a path between the sensitivity to power and historical injustice in orientalist critique and the neutral tracking of cultural dissemination and reproduction in ‘world literature’”. Here, Yeats is not Edward Said’s decolonised poet, but fairly and squarely ensconced in and speaking from the imperial centre. It has always been an accurate view, pace nationalist criticism from Field Day on. (Indeed, it was the nationalist view of the poet in the early twentieth century; referring to the stipend that he received from the British crown, some nationalists jeeringly called him “the Pensioner Yeats”.) Examining his engagements with Asia, Ramazani reaches a more eirenic and scrupulous conclusion: “What of the idea of orientalism as negatively prejudicial?” The evidence amassed tells us otherwise: “In Yeats’s poetry, Eastern worlds are often intellectually, sensually, culturally robust sites of wisdom and insight and cross-cultural integration […]”
In the case of Heaney we observe the full force of a translocal approach. With his poems of landscape, history, mythology, contemporary events, what poet could seem more Irish? Yet, in Ramazani’s reading, we encounter a poet who is, yes, immersed in the local, but from that vantage point he attains various visions of the world, in poems like “Alphabets” and “Electric Light”; one might also add “Known World”, and his masterwork, “Seeing Things”. Ramazani does not dismiss the importance of a national imaginary for many of the poems that he discusses; he simply insists that this is far from the whole story, viewing attempts to read poems as purely local or national as reductive. He is alert to how Heaney grounds himself locally in order to range globally.
One of the limitations of A Transnational Poetics was that it operated almost exclusively in an anglophone environment. That arena is vast, but some of the most exciting and absorbing transnational action takes place between languages, not only in translation, but also in poems that code-switch, that is, that move between languages (and also language varieties and sociolects within languages). So, the chapters entitled, “Code-Switching, Code-Stitching: A Macaronic Poetics?” and “Poetry, (Un)Translatability, and World Literature” are among the most interesting in his new book. In the first, he discusses the macaronic work of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa; for a critic schooled in high modernism, this raises comparisons with the code-switching of Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. Ramazani concedes that the work of the first two poets is social mimesis, whereas the language of Pound and Eliot’s poems were not examples of their conversations. He discriminates well here, even as his book more broadly illuminates the commonalities of high modernism and Latinx poetry. Likewise, in this book code-switching poets such as Daljit Nagra and Bernardine Evaristo brush shoulders with Philip Larkin. The latter is generally thought of as a “quintessentially English monologist”, but Ramazani draws attention to the intralingual code-switching we find in a poem like “Sunny Prestatyn”. That he provides a critical framework that can accommodate these different poets without vanishing in generalisation is another reason to grateful.
In order to discuss translation, he uses Ezra Pound’s idea of phanopoeia (images that lose nothing in translation), logopoeia (wordplay that is mostly lost in translation), and melopoeia (the music of the words themselves, which is lost completely in translation). Perhaps a frustration with translation theory of recent decades led him back to this, but it seems to me equally unsatisfactory. Critical attempts to analyse the “music” of poems usually ends in grief; one might as well count the semi-colons in the poem, as the Prague Structuralists used to. Critics can isolate the assonances and alliterations in a line of poetry, but any further point founded on this has always seemed arbitrary. One may imagine that by attending to the sonic qualities of a poem one has a foundation for more abstract assertions, but those assertions usually turn out to have no necessary connection to them. All the more unserviceable then are Pound’s categories for a discussion of poetry translation.
Does Dublin have translocal poets? Some might argue that Thomas Kinsella could be read in this way; Susan Howe is also a strong contender. My own vote would go to Peter Sirr’s Bring Everything (2000), which derives so much of its imaginative exhilaration from the city: “I have lived here in the roar of the streets / Each year more of it enters me, I am grown / populous and tangled.” Translations and versions of poems from Sirr’s several languages are folded into the urban panoply, as are multiple elsewheres, which conjures a copious impression of the globe’s vastness (this quotation is a version of a Chinese poem by Po Chü-i). Sirr’s Dublin is opulently populous and tangled, shot through with a generosity that welcomes newcomers and venerates parents. The same is true of Ramazani’s work.
Justin Quinn’s most recent book of poems is Shallow Seas (Gallery, 2020). With Gabriela Kleckova, he edited Anglophone Literature in Second-Language Teacher Education: Curriculum Innovation Through Intercultural Communication (Routledge, 2021). His translations of the Czech poet Jan Zábrana will be published by Charles University Press/University of Chicago Press in 2022. He works at the University of West Bohemia, Czech Republic.