Twentieth-Century Literature's Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, 2006

Article excerpt

The winner of this year's prize is Frances Dickey's "Parrot's Eye: A Portrait by Manet and Two by T. S. Eliot. "The judge is Jahan Ramazani, Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English and department chair at the University of Virginia. Among his works are The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English and Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. He coedited the most recent Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry and the twentieth-century volume of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Professor Ramazani writes:

  Whole worlds of thought--that is what I felt I encountered in the
  anonymous essays I had the honor of considering for this year's prize.
  Just back from an international literary convention, I was bracing
  myself for far less substantial pieces of work: the dazzle of clever
  but thin reflections on a theme, the hum of hastily applied buzzwords,
  the precariousness of massive cultural generalities built on needle
  tips. Instead, each essay selected by the journal as a finalist opened
  onto large and complex areas of literary thought; each seemed to me to
  represent deep and serious reflection on the questions it explored;
  and each possessed something of the richness that we often prize in
  works of literature.
    Of the finalists, the world of thought that seemed to me the most
  fully and rigorously elaborated may well appear, paradoxically, to be
  the most modest--in its topic, scope, and procedures. "Parrot's Eye: A
  Portrait by Manet and Two by T. S. Eliot" focuses, as the title
  suggests, on one painting and two poems. A study in what used to be
  called the sister arts, it practices such unglamorous skills as close
  reading and source analysis. Yet despite or perhaps because of its
  self-circumscription, this essay--embracing limits after the manner of
  a sonnet or a villanelle--struck me as being large in its
  implications.
    Crossing the boundaries of different media while remaining faithful
  to the peculiarities of each, the essay meticulously examines Eliot's
  largely unknown early sonnet "On a Portrait" in relation to the Manet
  portrait that inspired it, Woman with a Parrot. Contemplating the
  Manet painting, the author demonstrates how it instances a flatness
  that will eventuate in postmodernity's notorious emphasis on two-
  dimensional surfaces. Deploying the work of Michael Fried and other
  art historians, the author incisively teases out the painting's
  central ambiguity, which in turn shapes Eliot's poem: the flat and
  elusive quality of the painting's subject may promise unknown depths
  and a deliberately withheld inner world, or it may signal an emptiness
  and banality that is all surface with no depths whatsoever. Reading
  the essay, I was reminded of a statement by Conrad's Marlow about a
  character in Heart of Darkness: "it seemed to me that if I tried I
  could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside
  but a little loose dirt, maybe." The question of the mind as a space
  of psychic depths or automaton-like emptiness clearly haunts other
  works of modern literature, such as Ulysses and The Waste Land--hence
  the suggestiveness of this essay's central insight.
    Having carefully pried open this dual possibility, the author
  explores it with an almost dogged precision and intensity. …