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Reviewed by:
  • A Transnational Poetics
  • Matthew Hart (bio)
A Transnational Poetics. By Jahan Ramazani. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 238 pp. Cloth $29.00.

Jahan Ramazani’s fourth book of poetry criticism begins with another of his many important contributions to the field: “Editing the third edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, I was reminded of Captain MacMorris’s question in Henry V: ‘What is my nation?’” (ix). Pondering a copyeditor’s request that he identify T. S. Eliot’s nationality, Ramazani was struck by the limitations of a literary history organized around citizenship, residency, or place of birth. A Transnational Poetics therefore covers an impressive array of modern and contemporary anglophone poetries from continents as far apart as Australasia and the Americas, exploring how and [End Page 580] why such poetry “overflows national borders” (xi). It is written with passion and winning clarity. And it is replete with fascinating and persuasive literary examples drawn from a wide range of poets, from the well known to the still obscure. If A Transnational Poetics does not quite live up to its stated desire to reconceptualize modern and contemporary poetry studies, that is because, notwithstanding his elegant use of postcolonial theory and criticism, Ramazani is ultimately more interested in exploring the poetics of transnational experience than in generalizing about critical method, curricular design, or editorial policy.

After a short preface, Ramazani leads off with two introductory chapters. Chapter 1 explains why transnational studies of poetry need to overturn “monologic models that represent the [poetic] artifact as synecdoche for a local or national culture imperiled by global standardization” (12). If, as Ramazani insists throughout, neither globalization nor modernity are singular or singularly hegemonic, then different cultural and historical circumstances will give rise to different sorts of creative adaptation. Indeed, the watchword throughout this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, is less transnational than translocal—a term that names the processes through which poems invoke specific places and experiences not in order to resist the planetary scale of modern life but to “interlace localities and nationalities with one another in a globally imagined space” (15). Chapter 2, from which the book takes its title, defends transnationalism as a literary-historical standard that, while not “inherently emancipatory,” might possibly disturb the “mononationalist paradigm” that, Ramazani implies, underwrites much U.S. foreign and military policy (48–49). In the words he adapts from Walcott’s poem “The Schooner Flight,” the collective aim of these chapters is to derail the either/ or logic that leaves one either “nobody” or “a nation” (1, 21, 178). If we are to respect the cross-cultural specificity of recent poetry, we need to finally disabuse ourselves of the romantic notion that art and personhood are only, or best, articulable within unitary categories of national citizenship.

In each of the following six chapters, Ramazani deploys a different “transnational template” (xi). Chapter 3 discusses how poets as different as Ezra Pound and Sherman Alexie exploit poetry’s “nation-straddling juxtapositions of image and sound” in order to travel across vast stretches of space and time (70). From the micropoetics of travel, chapter 4 moves on to genre and, specifically, to the way elegy might function as a “transhistorical and transcultural template” (71), allowing us to see how elegies by W. H. Auden and others simultaneously affirm and complicate Benedict Anderson’s argument about the relation between the national dead and the imagined community of the nation.1 By attending to the way the elegiac genre is shaped and reshaped in different transnational contexts, Ramazani [End Page 581] is able to argue—beautifully and wholly persuasively, in my opinion—that genre criticism allows us “to investigate poetic nationalism under conditions of globality,” revealing how “the very fabric of poetry . . . contravenes the very nationalism to which it sometimes gives powerful utterance” (73).

Chapters 5 and 6 consider the vexed relationship between modernist and postcolonial studies. As the “new modernist studies” has expanded beyond the usual Euro-American expatriates, it has become possible to see modernism as more than an adjunct of imperial discourse.2 Thus, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali felt able to build on Eliot’s example...


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