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Another Book Critics Circle Award

Second faculty member in two years wins prestigious book award

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March 15, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
Clare Cavanagh

Clare Cavanagh
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University Professor Clare Cavanagh -- widely considered the best translator of Polish literature into English -- was named the winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in New York late last week. It is the second time in two consecutive years that a Northwestern faculty member has won the prestigious award.

Cavanagh earned the acclaim of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) for “Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland and the West” (Yale University Press). An organization of roughly 600 active book reviewers, the NBCC gives yearly awards for the best literature in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, biography and autobiography as well as criticism.

In making the award, the NBCC judges said: “Don’t let Clare Cavanagh’s scholarly gravity scare you: erudite but always clear, aware of detail but never overwhelmed by it, (Cavanagh’s) book tells a dramatic story about a hundred years of poems in three languages, a story of revolutions, repressions, inventions, and mistakes.”

Cavanagh, who is of Irish-American descent, first began working on modern Russian and Polish poetry as a Harvard University graduate student. There, she collaborated with Professor Stanislaw Baranczak on the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. Their volume, “View with a Grain of Sand,” was cited by the Swedish Academy when the Polish poet won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Suddenly I was plunged into this wonderful world of contemporary writing,” says Cavanagh, professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “While not a poet myself, I became part of the poetry I translated.”

“Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics” explores how poetry traditions in the West differ from those in Russia and Poland. “There’s a strain of criticism that sees American and British lyric poetry as unengaged with the world -- where a poem is seen as a little flower under glass that tries to create a timeless moment in itself,” Cavanagh says.

In contrast, Russian and Polish poets have to fight to have a private voice. “Lyric poetry is part of people’s civic identity,” she says. “When the Soviets tried to repress poetry in the 20th century, poets more than ever were perceived as an underground and alternative voice of the people.”

Cavanagh’s essays and translations have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, New Republic, New York Review of Books and other publications. She has received numerous honors, including the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Prize for Outstanding Literary Translation, the Modern Language Association’s William Riley Parker Prize and election to PEN, a worldwide association of writers.

In receiving the National Book Critics Circle honor, Cavanagh joins faculty member Eula Biss. Last year, Biss, who teaches English at Northwestern, won the 2009 NBCC Award for Criticism for her book “Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays” (Graywolf Press).
Topics: People