In a recent essay published in the London based daily Al Hayat, the poet Adonis offers his own perspective on contemporary and past Arabic poetry. He claims that past and present Arabic poetry is basically similar, if not identical, in experience and expression.
According to Adonis, the cultural bias favoring the group over the individual remains constant, with the poet seen as "a worker producing for the group" with the poetic "product" limited by what the group can accept and utilize. Adonis believes poetry is driven by a social functionalism expressed in two main directions "one ideological of religious origin and the other musical, in the form of singing and tarab."
In other words, poetry must serve a cause, and ideology in the first case, while in the second, and in fact the more keenly felt and popularly enjoyed function, the purpose is sheer pleasure and jubilation. Ideally, the two functions concur-- this is the goal of such poetry.
Adonis emphasizes that "tarab," i.e., singing causing ecstasy or euphoria, remains fundamental, indeed intrinsic to Arabic poetry past and present. Poetic verse is always subject to this standard. "Don't we notice that the Holy Koran today, for example, is a matter of audition or tarab for most Muslims more than a matter of reading and comprehension and contemplation," Adonis writes.
Adonis points out that the two elements, "song" and "function” (the serving of a cause), are so fundamental that any poetic expression not embracing them is culturally relegated to the status of "philosophy," complex and remote from the people. Thus, unrhymed, non-musical poetry, poetry based on "contemplation and examination of inner worlds" lies so outside Arabic poetic taste as to be utterly marginalized, reaching only a tiny, refined audience.
Adonis sees a conflict between this cultural reality and his own conviction that poetry must challenge boundaries and establish new aesthetics. This poetic effort means embracing rather than spurning the difficulty and ambiguity of meaning. "The problem in this context lies in the refusal of Arabic poetic taste to place poetry at par with the great cognitive and discovery intuitions."
As Adonis points out, poetry continues to be judged by the causes and concerns it champions, and by the author's affiliations and ideologies. "Original readings concern themselves not with the essence of poetry but with its 'soil' and the 'climate' in which it is produced."
This phenomenon, according to Adonis, will only be reinforced by society's increasing domination by the non-literate media, TV in particular. Thus, modern communications technology only serves the religious and social traditions already so profoundly established. This leads Adonis to an equally profound pessimism regarding the present and future chances of Arabic poetry escaping its traditional limitations.
This article appeared in Al Jadid VOL. 2, NO. 3 (January 1996)
Copyright © 1996 by Al Jadid