Adonis on What ‘Real Poetry’ Requires

It’s no longer Nobel season, but Adonis has a new book coming out in the U.S., so another flutter of press is to be expected. Yesterday’s piece in the NY Times followed the Syrian-French poet on a visit to a class that (his translator) Khaled Mattawa teaches at the University of Michigan.

Adonis refused to discuss October’s Nobel circus with interviewer Charles McGrath: “‘I don’t think about it,’ he said sternly. ‘I don’t wish to talk about it.'” (He did talk about it, a bit, in a 2002 interview with the NY Times, criticizing the committee’s choice of Naguib Mahfouz.)

McGrath’s article makes it sound a bit like Adonis is the only Arabic-language poet who’d realized one could work outside strict rhyme and meter, but never mind that. What was most interesting was this exchange with one of Mattawa’s students:

“Isn’t poetry a pretentious, elitist form, not really a force for change?”

“Poetry cannot change society,” Adonis said. “Poetry can only change the notion of relationships between things. Culture cannot change without a change in institutions.” But to the criticism that poetry was an insufficiently popular form he replied: “Poetry that reaches all the people is essentially superficial. Real poetry requires effort because it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception.” He smiled and added, “I suggest you change your relationship to poetry and art in general.”

You can read some of Adonis’s work online at Guernica (co-translated by Adnan Haydar and Michael Beard), or translated by H. Hilmy (not sure if with permission?) on his own site.