"Has Kahlil Gibran been an influence on your poetry?" someone asked me recently. "No," I replied. And yet, of course I had been aware of Gibran. Growing up in New York, I recall the reverent way my father would mention his name. Like me, Gibran was an Arab American of Lebanese origin. There, most resemblances end. I was born in Brooklyn; he was born in Bsharri, Lebanon. I've struggled a lifetime for recognition as a poet, novelist, playwright, scholar, and essayist. Just one of Gibran's books, "The Prophet," has sold over nine million copies since its publication by Alfred Knopf in 1923. As of August 2001, it was in its 136th printing and has been translated into more than 20 languages. Yet, despite Gibran's enormous popularity, along with increasing academic interest (the first international conference on his work was held at the University of Maryland in 1999), Gibran continues to be rejected by mainstream critics in America. I began to consider the paradox. Is there something that readers appreciate and critics do not? Do critics need to reevaluate Gibran, especially in the light of the growing interest in Arab-American literature?
As I stepped off the escalator at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan the other day, I noticed a table at the second-floor landing, labeled "Mind, Body, Spirit." It featured holiday gift suggestions, including books by singer Patti LaBelle and the Dalai Lama. The bulk of the books, offered in two large stacks, were copies of" The Prophet." I picked up one to replace my venerable, second-hand edition.
Gibran wrote major works in English, including "The Madman, His Parables and Poems" (1918), "The Forerunner" (1920), "The Prophet" (1923), "Sand and Foam" (1926), and "Jesus, The Son of Man" (1928). "The Madman" and "Jesus, Son of Man" were well-received critically and have been judged by some as stronger works than "The Prophet." Nevertheless, Gibran retains an anomalous position in American literature as a foreigner. He is absent from important mainstream anthologies like "The Norton Anthology of American Literature," and even from "The Heath Anthology of American Literature," which makes a strenuous effort to be inclusive. "Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry" (1988), edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa, was the first major American anthology to feature his work.
What is my reaction to "The Prophet" today? Immediately I see that Gibran's 12 drawings, in style and textual relevance, connect him with William Blake. Both began as artists: Blake, as an engraver, Gibran as a painter. Both illustrated their books, experimented with verse techniques, and employed symbolism. Both were visionaries, proclaiming in different ways the total unity of being, of all Nature, including the human and the divine. The two poets had unorthodox yet deeply religious concerns that evolved, though divergently, from the Bible. There are substantial differences between them, however. Blake was frequently epigrammatic and aphoristic. Northrop Frye, the distinguished scholar, deciphered Blake's abstruse symbolism of the prophetic books. In his seminal study "Fearful Symmetry" (1947), Frye called the poet "perhaps the finest gnomic artist in English literature." Gibran is more metaphorical and readily accessible throughout, closer than Blake to biblical parable, substance, cadences, and parallel structures. He was drawn also to other Romantic poets, like Shelley and Keats, and to the French Symbolists.
In "The Prophet," the central figure, Almustafa, prepares to return to his native country after a stay of 12 years in Orphalese, a walled, mythical sort of city. The spare, narrative tact, pastoral setting, and symbolic illustrations indicate a remote time and place, with appropriate touches of archaic language. People gather to see him off. Almitra, a seeress, poses questions that elicit his parting gifts of truth, a kind of farewell Sermon on the Mount. In 28 chapters, Almustafa discusses a broad range of 26 topics, named like essays and compressed into prose poem dialogues, including “On Love,” On Marriage,” On Children,” “On Joy and Sorrow,” “On Crime and Punishment,” “On Religion,” and "On Death.” Here is an Excerpt from the first, "On Love,” presented in the book’s typical mode of irregular verses.
Then said Almitra, Speak to us of Love.
And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and
there fell a stillness upon them. And with a great voice he
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep,
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound You
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north
wind lays waste the garden…
Now listen to the contrast in tone and substance, with T.S. Eliot’s opening lines of “The Waste Land,” published the year before “The Prophet:”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound led the post-World War I aesthetic revolt against elaborate diction and abstraction.” Go in fear of abstractions!” warned Pound, and wrote essay after essay delineating how to read and write poetry. The two men focused on image and object. They campaigned for terse presentation of irony, wit, ambiguity. While some of their ideas were salutary, like insisting on a tight control of adjectives and of rhetorical excess, they went to the extreme of jettisoning the English Romantic Poets (except for John Keats ) and trashing John Milton in favor of William Shakespeare. Their attacks, promoted by some of the "new critics," resulted in decades of scholarly defense that gave new life to both the Romantics and to Milton. Nor could they stomach the expansiveness of Walt Whitman, though Pound came to accept him grudgingly. Their approach articulated the mistrust of Romanticism's emotional tenor and illusory idealism that came to be identified among modem writers, of fiction as well as poetry, with World War I.
In 1919, an essay by T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," proved to be an important signpost for the new direction of American poetry. In that piece, Eliot called for a remove from direct expression of emotion to an "extinction" of personality in the poem. He advised poets to find "an objective correlative," and defined it as "a set of objects, a situation, and a chain of events, which shall be the formula of that particular emotion...." When "The Waste Land" was published three years later, the impact of its elitist intellectualism and allusiveness led William Carlos Williams to note in his autobiography that it struck poetry "like a sardonic bullet."
Williams understood the importance of the poem. He anticipated the direction in which Eliot, together with Pound, would lead American poetry. What he feared, and accurately predicted, was a flight of poetry from its place in the heart and at the hearth of life into academic havens.
Poets tended to follow Pound and Eliot. They began writing for other poets, populated the academies, and took refuge there as general audiences shrank. Confessional poets gained popularity, and so did the Beat poets. Long gone were the days when ordinary people turned to poets for wisdom and concern with their daily lives. (Note that during the Civil War, a group affectionately calls "The Fireside Poets" offered the nation psychic and cohesive sustenance. John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Cullen Bryant were among those who addressed themselves to common life and were read in daily newspapers.)
Eventually, other new movements, chiefly emanating from ethnic poetry, especially Black, found lost audiences and built their own. They developed supporting aesthetics and leadership. "Minority" writers slowly gained recognition, though usually in a separate category. Their poetics embraced current events and issues, music and musicality. The hunger for spiritual nourishment increased, even as mainstream poetry generally grew more remote and self-absorbed.
Gibran has important American poetic roots and affiliations: in Walt Whitman, the father of modern American poetry, whom he greatly admired; in his own philosophy that echoes American Transcendentalism, humanism, and individualism; and a call to liberty. "The Prophet" has also been compared with Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," which the poet enjoyed. And yet Gibran's paradoxes, parables, aphorisms, their mixture of poetry and prose and prose poetry, and their visual dimension make it unique in American poetry. His book is experimental. "Make it new!" said Pound. Indeed, Gibran largely succeeds in creating a modem, quasi-religious myth. At Barnes & Noble, interestingly, the regular category for "The Prophet" is not "Poetry," but "Eastern Religions."
Shelving Gibran in this section highlights a dual problem. First, the books literary merits. If "The Prophet" is accepted on its own terms as a poetic work, regardless of its distinction from prevailing modes, one is struck by its direct engagement with common life. It addresses ordinary people. It conveys hope, affirmation, and the possibilities of self-actualization, of spiritual unity, of love. It offers wisdom and wit, along with a musicality of style and sensibility.
Second, the matter of classification. If a writer's work or works cannot be squeezed into a ready-made category, why not create a new one? Invent a name? When I was working on my study of Gwendolyn Brooks, I read critics who despaired of her use of alliteration, advice that was generally frowned on at the time. Yet after hearing her powerful readings, and absorbing the contexts of her alliteration, I understood it as phonically empowering her verse. I developed a nomenclature to identify something new-- Brooks’s "heroic voice," with subcategories of “grand" and "plain." In a recent discussion with a friend about perhaps doing the same for Gibran, she suggested "holistic poetry." That's one possibility--a poetry that would include "mind, body, spirit," like the Barnes & Noble holiday table.
And why not a "poetry of the spirit?” What ever happened to lyricism? To emotion? We have been overdosing on the poetry of objects which suits our culture's increasingly materialist and narrowly scientific bias. We have welcomed William’s Objectivism ("No ideas but in things!") and Charles Olson's Projectivism which, in his "Projective Verse" essay, with a variation on Eliot, calls for "getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego" and encourages the view of human beings as objects among other objects in nature.
For too many years the Mad Hatters and March Hares have been crying "No room! No room!" at the table of American literature, glorious in its potentially abundant range. It is time we insisted, like "Alice in Wonderland," "There's plenty of room!" Whatever the Barnes & Noble or critic-approved categories, without Gibran--and a case can be made for the other Syrian Mahjar (immigrant) poets of the early 20th century, as well as for poets of other ethnicities--something is missing.
Something vital is missing in large measure from the main current of contemporary American poetry. Emotion is often vaporized. Commitment and compassion are hustled out the back door like unruly guests. It is time for an infusion of something other, an Eastern spiritual tonic (remember the Beatles in India, and Ashley Montagu's concept of beneficent "hybrid vigor"?).
The devastations of September 11, 2001 bring a new relevance to the question of Arab-American poetry. Their tragic aftermath has witnessed a rush to console and to be consoled, to examine one's values, to search for spiritual guidance, meaning, and a path to humane existence. I continue to summon a poetry sensitive to these needs. Surely Gibran is a resource, with his "holistic poetry" that foregrounds the spirit, as well as the mind and the body. With music of his verses and his ideas, his appeal to an area of-- dare I use the word --Soul? His dialect of spirituality is a tongue familiar to all non-Western peoples--and not exclusively to non-Westerners, either.
Kahlil Gibran offers a therapeutic rapprochement between reason and emotion, a spiritual bridge between them. In "The Prophet," he observes, "Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul." Combining the individual quest for enlightenment with a unified concept of humanity, he observes, "When you love, you should not say, 'God is in my heart,' but rather, "I am in the heart of God.'" Our current human situation is too dire to ignore a major poet who offers us insight and a tonic to an ailing tradition. Our pretensions to democracy and to multiculturalism demand this validation. It is time to accept Gibran not as a foreigner who wrote books in English, but as an American, with his difference and with his gifts. Let "The Prophet" and Kahlil Gibran enter the canon of American literature. The book and its author have been standing outside its rusty gates long enough.
Author's Note: After this article was sent to Al Jadid, "Gibran and the American Literary Canon: The Problem of the Prophet," an essay by Irfan Shahid, came to my attention. This excellent piece appears in the Festschrift, "Tradition, Modernity, and Post modernity in Arabic Literature," honoring Professor Issa J. Boullata (Brill, 2000). - D. H. Melhem.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, No. 40 (Summer 2002).
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