What’s Missing from the Poetry in Beirut39?

When re-reading the Beirut39 collection, with a specific eye to its poetry, I began to develop a feeling—at some point—that something was missing.

This is not really representative, I thought, of contemporary Arabic poetry.

Certainly, representative is a strange word in this context: A collection of award-winning poets shouldn’t promise to be “representative,” which would probably require the collection to have lots of teenagers writing about their first loves and their relationships to God in various commonplace ways.

But, for all that, the collection (which has some excellent poetry: Ahmad Yamani, Bassim al Ansar, and Nazem al Sayed being my decided darlings) seems to be missing something.

A recent piece I read on the Middle East Online, “Arabic words in golden ink,” points toward the absence. The article’s subtitle is: “Poetry remains popular among Emiratis, seen as treasure trove of wisdom.” (Evidence of poetry’s contemporary importance among Gulf Arabs includes the popular show Million’s Poet, and how contemporary ruling elites interest themselves in the genre.)

Also, I was reminded of a paragraph from Mursi Saad El-Din in a recent Al Ahram Weekly:

An Egyptian literary critic cleared a controversy when he published a book with the title The Age of the Novel. In his book he claims that the novel is the literary form most popular in Egypt and that the country is living the age of the novel. His claim was immediately refuted by a number of writers who insisted that the country is living, as it has always been, the age of poetry. Poetry is known as the Diwan of the Arabs, a genuine literary expression known for thousands of years. The novel, on the other hand, is a literary form imported in recent times from the West.

Of course, just because a form is popular doesn’t mean it necessarily has literary merit. Trashy magazines are, for instance, quite popular in the West; perhaps they’re the Diwan of the Americans. But certainly our view of literary merit is culturally programmed. Sharon Olds probably wouldn’t get very far on “Million’s Poet.” And the poems that win the popular “Million’s Poet” show would probably have little truck if translated into English. (Then again, very little poetry in English has much truck.)

But if Arabs are still living in the age of poetry, it isn’t evident in Beirut39, where only 10 of the writers chose to be represented by poetic works. And most of those poems seemed stylistically very similar to the works we are familiar with in the West, like poems I could’ve read anywhere.

Perhaps a collection that aims to showcase the best young Arab writers to a world audience necessarily focuses its energy on contemporary free verse (references to Bob Dylan instead of the expanse of the desert). Still, I can’t help but think that something’s missing.