Thursday, 30 December 2010

‘Close your eyes and see’- how modern Arabic poetry took form

 Poetry is often considered the Arab literature. Indeed, until the eighteenth century when the novel was introduced though European furlongs into the Middle East, poetry remained the sole mouthpiece of literary expression for the Arabs.


Poetry is highly esteemed in the Arab world as the TV programme شعر المليون ‘The Million Poets’ demonstrates. The show is mix between American idol and a traditional poetry recital. Aspiring poets from Mauritania to Iraq sit enthroned on stage reciting their works to viewers who can vote by phone. In the last series, Hissa Hilal, a Saudi woman covered head to toe in an abaya, rose to international fame for her unapologetic rebuke of the extremist religious leaders of her country. She didn’t win the competition but she did get death threats. 

 In the late nineteenth century a revival movement known as Neoclassicism الكلاسيكية الجديدة  broke out among poets who saw the renaissance of classical Arab-Islamic heritage as the best response to the foreign, seemingly hostile invading European cultures and their literatures.

Hissa Hilal
Literary movements-as is the case with all the arts- develop in response to the perceived deficiencies of their current forms, as well as to major socio-political changes.

The Neo-classicist poets held lofty conception of poetry and the traditional qasīda  قصيدة and insisted on retaining the elaborate and archaic forms used since the before the time of Islam. This includes ‘organic unity’ –وحدة البيت whereby each line was semantically and grammatically self-contained. Another mighty principal of Arabic poetry was the monoryhme قافية wherein each line or verse بيت of the poem ended in the same consonant sound.

All very well. But a group of reformist poets began to challenge the rigidity of classical poetry. They claimed the qasīda deprived poetry of the dramatic, epic and narrative elements already present in European poetry. The stringent monorhyme and other conventions were seen as a burden on the poet as he is forced to serve his ideas with words chosen for their rhythmic value and not for their meaning. Hence rhyme itself dictates the meaning, and obliges the poet to employ much redundancy. Emphasis on rigid formal conventions subdues the poet’s originality and creativity. The monorhyme was criticised as monotonous and for promoting a lack of cohesive unity throughout the poem since each line is self contained and end-stopped. The independence of each line makes the poem a mere collection of independent parallel statements with little cohesion.
Classical Arabic poetry looks like this:

أتبعَ الـدَّلوَ الرشاءَ
صاحبٌ لمَّـا أساءَ
ــهُ سوى الصبرِ شفاءَ
ربَّ داءٍ لا أرى منــ
سرَّ منْ أمري وساءَ
أحمدُ اللهَ على ما


The enforced uniformity means poems are sometimes tediously prolonged. Emphasis is on rigid formal conventions which were later said to subdue the poet’s originality and creativity. Later, poets of the Romantic school الرومانسية who emerged after the First World War, said the formality and convention in the classical style does not allow subtle sensibility of expression. What is more, the classical-style poems were often written to impress, and contained an over-refined and archaic diction which is simply inaccessible to most readers- even the educated.

As we shall see in the next blog post, the Romantic poets’ main gripe was that the rigidity of classical Arab poetry actually subordinated the poet’s experience to its rigid conventions- placing emphasis on form not subject matter, and not freeing the poet to express his mind. Later poets such as Mikha’il Nuaima and Jibran, along with their European and American counterparts, aspired to capture the expression of universal human thought. It seems they didn’t achieve their goal as another literary movement would sweep Arabic poetry after them, and become the means of expression of their time...

The quote in the title is from Mikha’il Nuaima’sإغمض جفونك تبصرلغمض جفونك صض جفونك تبصرا

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