Nazik al-Malaika: Queen of Free Verse Remains Uncertain

Fifty Years of Debate Yield No Consensus Over Her Place on the Throne of New Arabic Poetry
Elie Chalala
Photograph of Nazik al-Malaika at the University of Wisconsin, where she completed her masters in comparative literature in 1959.

Rarely do I open a cultural page in Arab newspapers, whether print or online, without catching wind of new discourse on modern poetry. Though I have never written poetry, the topic naturally draws my interest as an academic in political science, lecturing on debates between tradition and modernity for nearly a third of a century...Debates between traditional and new poetry shouldn’t be dismissed as simply Byzantine arguments. Such discourse indicates significant changes in the Arab world, including modernization and later globalization. Several critics have raised this discussion, the latest of which was in a column
by Aref al-Saadi in Asharq Al Awsat, who writes, “I say this based on a slow study of our contemporary poetry and its trends, and I say it because it is the logical result of our willingness to read European literature and study the latest theories in philosophy, art, and psychology. In reality, those who want to combine modern culture with ancient traditions of poetry are like those living today in the clothes of the first century of immigration.” According to Saadi, there are two alternatives to discussing modernity and tradition: “Either we learn the theories, are influenced by them, and apply them, or we do not learn them at all. It may be useful for us to remember that the development in the arts and literature in a given era arises from the meeting of two or more nations.” Closed nations don’t produce anything new but merely repeat what their ancestors did.
The recent, though familiar, schism in Arab literature between modernists and traditionalists, and specifically on who historically holds the “pioneering chair” in the modernist movement, arose again over the Arab League of Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organizations’ (ALECSO) nomination of Nazik al-Malaika (1923-2007) as an influential Iraqi figure in 2023. Considered a pioneer, patron, mother, and perhaps queen of contemporary Arabic poetry by many critics, Malaika was one of the first poets to use free verse in Arabic poetry. This was also true of her contemporary, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926-1964). The nomination prompted questions over Malaika’s claim to the pioneering title among critics. Still, regardless of the debate over whether Malaika received this honor too late or whether there were other motives, the nomination is well-deserved.
Excerpted from Elie Chalala’s “Nazik al-Malaika: Queen of Free Verse Remains Uncertain,” scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 27, No. 84.
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