Professor R. Jahan Ramazani (Col ’81), chair of the English department, edited the third edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and co-edited the 20th-century volume of the eighth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. He just published A Transnational Poetics.
What first inspired you to study literature?
I grew up hearing family members recite Persian poetry. After I graduated as an English major from UVA in 1981, a Rhodes scholarship took me to Oxford, where I fell in love with the Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ Collected Poems. I learned many of his poems by heart and would walk around reciting them to myself or anyone who’d listen. Their powerful rhythms lodge them deep in memory. Think of the opening line of his poem “Leda and the Swan,” which captures the force of Zeus’ sudden attack on Leda: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still ...”
As an editor for Norton, you had to make choices about what should be included in the canon. How do you make those choices?
The choices can be excruciating, especially since including someone new means excluding someone else: The number of pages is finite. You want to bring these neglected voices into the canon? Very well, then, which ones are you going to cut out? Anthologies must exclude vastly more than they can include.
In The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, it was a pleasure to include Allen Ginsberg’s once-scandalous Beat poem “Howl;” Seamus Heaney’s elegiac sequence for his mother, “Clearances;” and Jorie Graham’s poem about JFK’s assassination, “Fission.”
The choices are partly a matter of scholarship, since you have to have a comprehensive and independent knowledge of the field if you’re going to single out some of the best works. They’re also partly a matter of administrative compromise, since you have to balance the competing claims made for different schools and aesthetics. And they’re partly a matter of gut-level instinct: The poem has to click for you. In evaluating an individual work, I ask myself whether it’s doing something inventive with the language; whether it’s imaginatively lively and metaphorically rich; and whether it’s transforming the artistic conventions it uses—or just blandly repeating them.
What neglected work would you recommend?
Everyone knows Bob Marley and the great music—reggae, calypso, ska—that’s come out of Jamaica and the Caribbean. But fewer people know the robust and funny poetry of Louise Bennett. A trickster poet, she helped to legitimize the use of Jamaican English and was beloved for her comic performances by Jamaicans and other West Indians.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 novel of post-independence disillusionment, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. And a South African novel, the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. In harrowing scenes of abuse and torture, it demonstrates the ethical dangers of one people’s dominance over another, any time, anywhere. I’m also reading stories from India, Vietnam, China and Japan in preparation for teaching the literature of countries we’re visiting on UVA’s Semester at Sea’s journey around the world. It’s fascinating to see how these contemporary writers strive to be true to their own traditions and histories while at the same time responding to the worldwide conditions of modernity.