Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The themes, conventions and literary movements of Arabic poetry since 1875

I have compiled the following on Arabic poetic movements and their major stylistic and thematic components. The list is not exhaustive but is based on a university level Arabic poetry course. I hope it gives a summative overview of the subject. It is important to remember that literary movements do not suddenly end and begin; there are still poets who chose to write in the Neo-Classical standard. The dates given for the movements can therefore only be approximate. 




Neo-classicism الكلاسيكية الجديدة (late 19th century until 1920s)

·           Organic unity insisted on –wehdat al-bait-unity of the line- the concept that each line had to be grammatically and semantically complete (i.e. enjambment never featured)
·           A serious and lofty conception of poetry prevailed and was poets considered had prophet-like status much like the masters of German literature enjoyed
·           Traditional values and themes were espoused in forms such as declamations, panegyrics and eulogies (i.e. disparaging an enemy, extolling a tribe or writing obituary-like poems of reverence to high profile leaders)
·           Highly conventional, little experimentation
·           Good neo-classicist poems were considered those that followed convention most successfully

Romanticism (approx post World War I)  الشعر الرومانسية

·           Still regard organic unity as important element in later stages of neoclassicism/ early romanticist poetry.
·           Not merely ‘verbal tricks’ anymore but the product of a deep emotional, spiritual and transcendental experience
·           Avoidance of displaying verbal skill for its own sake as earlier poets had done. Hence less archaic words but not avoided altogether in late neoclassicism.
·           Poets believed their writings ought to express an attitude to existence or a life philosophy
·           Poetry becomes more subjective and personal in nature
·           Pride of Arabic literary tradition was displayed especially in late neoclassicism
·           The changes that occurred in conventions are the firm product of  genuine changes in poets’ attitude to life and were not simply artificial changes in style
·           New literary and artistic movements always come in reaction to the perceived failings of the previous movement. Romanticism was a reaction to neoclassicism. It criticized neoclassicism for its unoriginality and for its attempts to recapture the glories of early Arab poets instead of displaying genuine artistic development
·           A belief emerged that the traditional concept of the ‘unity of the line’ stifled the poet’s imagination as it obliged him to write in a format preferring literary device and form above ideas and sentiments
·           Enjambment- carrying on the line to the next -was seen as revolutionary, free composition, stanzas and varying rhyme schemes
·           The Romantics even disregarded grammatical rules to refine their poems such as Nu’aima’s Close Your Eyelids, See where he omits the accusative marker to aid rhyme. The idea that poets might purposefully disregard grammatical rules for aesthetic purposes was previously unheard of.
·           A major interest was displayed in how nature could be experienced in an individualist way.
·           The Romantic poets held a consciousness of the transience of things or the ‘mutability of all things’ as the English poet James Shelly, also a Romantic poet put it.


The Mahjar (‘diaspora’) poets شعر المهجر (from early 20th century until dawn of World War II) (those of largely Syrian and Lebanese descent who went to the United States and South America in the early twentieth century)

·           They were Romantics but they retain features of pre-romantic convention such as ‘organic unity of the line’ in the earlier stages of the movement
·           They were all Christians with western-orientated education, full of modernist and even anti-traditional views
·           They had greater freedom in America for literary experimentation,-no influence from traditional values around them. They found new social freedoms and liberalism and industrialisation -forces averse to conservatism
·           Jayussi notes (1977) ‘there can  no doubt that they recognized in what they saw in [North America] an advanced level of human progress and freedom with which they could not identify their own people’.
·           Their exposure to modern trends in the Americas explains to a large extent the emergence of Romanticism amongst them
·           Rejection of Arab social traditions was manifested in their rejection of poetic traditions
·           They suffered a heavy feeling of exile and lack of belonging
·           They felt their culture and language was at stake which led them to establish several literary journals and societies
·           Their feeling of homesickness was propounded by their awareness of being outsiders in the USA. This feeling was common to all the emigrant poets and often underlies their idealization of their homeland, the desire to return to an idyllic natural abode and the opposition between the materialism of the west and the spirituality of the east.
·           Romantic features included in their works- heightened feeling of individualism and isolation. These are based firmly on their circumstances and not just influence from other western literature. They saw neoclassical poetry as remote and impersonal.
·           In South America, the emigrant poets felt less cultural isolation. They had more pride in the Arabic poetic literary tradition and did not reject traditional Arab cultural as strongly as their northern colleges- they show more concern for preserving traditional values-reflected in names of literary review al-Andalus al-Jadiida (‘The New Andalusia’)
·           Jibran Khalil Jibran was most influential figure in United States-wrote both in Arabic and English and founded the Pen Association.
·           His rejection of outdated traditional Arab values inspired younger poets
·           The Pen Association aimed to infuse new vitality into Arabic poetry by turning it away from obsessive preoccupation with verbal skills and traditional structures to a universal expression of human thoughts and feelings. They wanted to develop a literature with a keen sensibility and subtlety.

Jibran Khalil Jibran

·           Jibran wrote, ‘the poet is an angel sent down by the gods to teach men divine things’.
·           Famous for the ‘Processions’- excessive sentimentality, irregular stanzaic form- no rigid rhyming scheme. Thematic continuity in all stanzas. The structure rejects the monorhyme qasida form.

Themes of mahjar poetry

·           Treatment of metaphysical and moral questions- good and evil, the soul and body, what man has amounted to etc
·           Aversion to panegyrics or eulogies
·           The need to return to nature- symbolic of rejecting man-made institutions including society
·           Contains mystical respect for life inspired by the English poet Blake
·           Division and hegemony was shown to be in human society everywhere but not in nature
·           Nature is highly idealized, there are no clashes or oppositions and even death is celebrated
·           Emotionalism
·           Mystery of the universe, the transfiguring effect of love
·           Juxtaposition of shortcomings of society and perfect state of nature
·           Nature is uncorrupted and everything is transient. Yet despite this, the poet doesn’t lament this-see for example Nu’aima’s Autumn Leaves in which the poet celebrates the death of the leaves for their own sake
·           Rejection of complexities of civilized life in favour of simplistic natural life
·           The revolt against human institutions motivated by hypersensitivity to human suffering
·           To some extent, the poets’ rejection of civilized life for nature reflects their homesickness in the US
·           The poet is sadly aware of the impossibility of returning to nature

Mikha’il Nu’aima

·           The lack of rhetoric and the poetic tone creates an intimacy with the reader, particularly in Nu’aima’s work. This method has been called ‘whispered poetry’.
·           Nostalgia for childhood
·           Intense spirituality and sense of serenity in his poems. In Close Your Eyelids and See he tells reader to look inwards in times of distress in order to see that everything is in reality calm and good. In Autumn Leaves he advises the leaves to fall gently without bitterness.

Iliya Abu Madi

·           Received education in Egypt where conservative forces greater which moderated any potential extremist views. Hence we see him using the monorhyme although he retained aspects of individuality
·           His poem ‘Come’ is a celebration of human love against background of harmonious nature
·           The Mahjar poets exercised a liberating influence on Arabic poetry.


Realism الواقعية (post World War II)

·           Romanticism declined after the Second World War, which had a profound impact on literature.
·           By that time romanticism had acquired its own diction, convention and images, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the Arab world which was waking up to the harsh political and social realities.
·           Romanticism criticized as escapist, unreal, vague and sentimental and the heightened subjectivity in it- unable to communicate harsh reality.
·           Idea accentuated that poetry should reflect and aid the social reality- should be written for the people, about the problems of the people and in a way the people could understand.
·           Many Marxist/leftist writers began to criticize the Ivory Tower ‘literary’ style of romanticism. Criticized as ‘adolescent’.
·           From around the time of the Second World War, many novels appeared in Egypt documenting the horrors and degradation of urban life and political themes such as social justice, class struggle and national independence were on the agenda.
·           Idea of ‘commitment’ iltizam الالتزام was debated in 50s from Sartes’ ‘engagement’- idea that writer needs a message rather than writing merely imaginatively.
·           The committed realist movement was so influential it caused a change in style of Qabbani-see for example his Bread, Hashish Moon.
·           Realism led to a politicization of Arabic poetry, not that it previously was apolitical, but it directly scolded political leaders in an obvious fashion


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