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