In Praise of…Khaled Mattawa

I do believe that poets can become too easily shackled to ideology.* A certain sort of political poem (the rim-shot “Arab Spring” poem or “confessional Western feminist” poem or “confessional Arab feminist” poem) can become un-surprising. It can make us fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Poetry, if it’s free, must engage widely. It must look everywhere. It must look particularly at itself, hard.

The poetry we call “political,” engaged in the shared public moment, can be alive only for that moment, in that place. But it can also have ongoing currency.

Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa seems to be one of those broad poetic spirits who can soak up and celebrate Adonis’s great talents, can translate, can range over history and sound and image, can engage in the moment, can surprise. And when he writes poetry of the moment (such as “Now That We Have Tasted Hope“), it is not just a metallic-tasting echo, but a rebirth.

Oh, and his “Tocqueville” has a sense of humor, too.

Read it:

Mattawa’s poems on Web del Sol

Mattawa’s work on Poets.Org

Conversation with Mattawa on PBS NewsHour’s Art Beat

Interview and “The Old House with Thee” on Blackbird

Mattawa on Twitter

Mattawa’s translations on WWB

“Ecclesiastes,” from Mattawa’s most recent collection, Tocqueville,  reviewed here by Hilary Plum on KRO and here by “aka Joe” on his blog.

The whole opening to Tocqueville

*More easily than novelists? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe.


  1. In recent months, I’ve admired your blog and your ability to capture Arabic history in the moment that it happens. I have been grateful to receive real news from the homelands, social / political as well as literary. Today’s blog-post however has angered me considerably. I disagree strongly with your derisive comment about so-called “Confessional Feminist” Poetry. Whether the writer is Western or Middle Eastern, man or woman, their ability to express their innermost grief, to play the fool for society, lay themselves bare in order to shed light on what is probably a common experience, is an incredibly brave act, and I must say far from boring or repetitive. The work of Anne Sexton and Jack Kerouac has for decades found an answering cord in many reader’s minds, and allows us to understand something about ourselves through their experiences. As well, their works are powerful, musical, and textural explorations of their world. I’m truly sorry not to be able to point to Arab Writers of this genre, but I’m surprised that you don’t see the political power inherent in this work. If we don’t first attempt to understand our own sorrows and joys and where it springs from, if we don’t first attempt to heal the rift inside us as individuals, how on earth can we hope to heal the rift between nations, between families and neighbours? Your opinion shows a male arrogance my friend, and its not a pretty sight.

  2. I see now that the owner of this blog-site is a woman. My comments remain, your statement was arrogant and un-necessary.

  3. Wahibe,

    I didn’t mean at all that there isn’t good confessional feminist poetry. Or that confessional feminist poetry can’t be surprising, or real, or authentic.

    I just mean that there are bad ones, too, ones that have hewed too closely to a cardboard impression of what this feminism should be, that have shackled themselves to a particular, poorly-examined ideology. I was reading a collection like that last night. What it confessed was too little, too obvious, and it didn’t look in its own mirror.

    Indeed, confessional poetry is a great deal of what modern poetry has done, and it has accomplished a lot…and yes, it is political. Certainly!

    And yes, I’m female, and I have written confessional feminist poetry that ranged from mediocre to bad. But I hope that has nothing to do with the price of eggs.

  4. Arabic-language poets who’ve explored this genre include those who I don’t particularly care for, such as Joumanah Haddad. And those who I do, such as Iman Mersal.

  5. I don’t think I saw that. Were you guys hiding it? Anyhow, thanks…

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