Al Jadid on Adonis -- A Poet Responds Some Further Remarks on Arabic Poetry

Etel Adnan

Al Jadid's feature paper on Adonis' views on Arab poetry was most interesting and thus calls for some further debate. As an Arab-American poet and one familiar with the works of most contemporary Arab poets I would both agree and disagree with what was said.

It is true that "tarab" is intrinsic to Arabic poetry's past and present, as it is intrinsic to Adonis' own poetry. "Tarab" being, at its best, the sort of ecstasy reached when the musicality of the verse coincides with the visionary quality of the thought expressed.

There has been a major shift from the "beauty" of the poem to the realization of other qualities, or values, which were present in classical poetry but were subservient to the necessities of formal values such as meter, rhythm, rhyme, etc.

Since the surrealist revolution, poetry tends to be more analytical, more explosive, and less predictable; its subject matter is more varied, moving from what could have appeared to be trite, common, ugly, even pornographic, to the more familiar themes of passion, loves, and longing themes which, by the way, could never become "old fashioned," given that they are part of the human condition and experienced over and over again by every human being.

Let us not oversimplify traditional Arab poetry. Adonis himself has written a remarkable work on Arab poetics showing that traditional poetry was infinitely richer and inventive in both meaning and aesthetics than is usually known. It is true that meter and rhyme were poetic tools which made poems easier to memorize while also creating a mesmerizing effect that we call "song", an effect that is still considered desirable in contemporary literature and music. Contemporary poetry is often considered "obscure," difficult, and, for many people, altogether non-poetic.

First, let us bring out the fact that many Arab poets do write contemporary poetry; I mean the kind of poetry that Adonis seems to admire and thinks to be non existent among Arab poets. These poets are usually young, and, most importantly, are dispersed, most of them exiled either in Europe or in the Americas. They don't need to look for models only in Western or non-Arab poets, as they have read poets who broke with tradition such as Mahmoud Darwiche, Fadel el Azzawi, Sargon Bulos, and a few others. And younger poets in Lebanon, Bahrain, the Yemen, etc. are branching out in poetics of their own.

There is also the question of the audience of poetry, of the societies in which poets live. Poetry "which is unrhymed, nonmusical, based on contemplation and examination of inner worlds" does not "lie outside Arabic poetic taste," exclusively, as Elie Chalala's quote from Adonis says bluntly. This is a problematic situation faced by poets all over the world. After all, most contemporary poets choose to be difficult, elliptic, allusive, and philosophical, thus reducing knowingly their audience. To give an example: the editors of the best American, English or French poets that I know publish editions which go between 300 and 500 copies!

This is not an exclusive Arab situation but one which is inbuilt in the very nature of the poetry which is being written. Very few have the luck to reach a broad audience while following the aesthetics of the time. But they know it; we can say that very few physicists or mathematicians are read by the public at large, their field of knowledge being by definition reserved to specialists. Contemporary poetry has become a highly specialized field and poets seem to be only read by other poets. Society is not to blame. Poetry was an essentially tribal art, an oral art form even when it was written down. But we have new modes of expressions for a world so broken down that we can say that each man or woman is a tribe to him or herself. Poetry, music, and visual arts keep changing at the pace of the world. There are no absolutes in these domains and the poetics of today can probably not last any longer than the generation that produced them, regardless of their merits.

I would like to make one more point. There is a growing number of Arab poets who write in "foreign" languages, especially English, German, or French. They are neglected by the Arab poets who write in Arabic: their works are not included in Arab universities' curricula, they are not taught in contemporary Arab literature classes, and they are not seriously studied by the critics in Arab countries. Until this is done no judgment of any worth can be passed on contemporary Arab poetry.

Etel Adnan, a Lebanese-American poet and novelist, is the author of many works, among which are Sitt Marie Rose, Of Cities and Women (Letters to Fawaz), Paris, When It's Naked, The Indian Never Had a Horse & Other Poems, The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestations of the Voyage, The Arab Apocalypse, and Journey to Mount Tamalpais, all by The Post-Apollo Press, California.

Those interested in having some information on Arab-American writers and poets can contact a small but lively organization called R.A.W.I. which has a good newsletter c/o Barbara Aziz, 160 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10013

This article appeared in Vol. 2, No. 4 (February 1996).

Copyright (c) 1996 by Al Jadid