When Adonis was on his US tour last year, he visited with some of translator-poet Khaled Mattawa’s students at the University of Michigan. One of Mattawa’s students apparently told the great Syrian poet that poetry was an insufficiently popular form. (Or something to that effect: The New York Times did not quote the student directly.)

Adonis reportedly said:

“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.”

This month in the new journal Asymptote, Adonis’s ideas on how to read poetry are more fully available in English, thanks to a translation of his “Ambiguity” by Elliott Colla.

Adonis writes (via Colla): “Ambiguous is how a reader describes a text that he cannot grasp, or that he cannot master in a way that turns it into a part of what he knows.”

So how should this student relate to “real” poetry (such as Adonis’s)? First, we’ll slip by parts of Adonis’s essay, particularly the bits where he (being Adonis) says things like “since Islam, Arab society has lived in a world of complete certainty.”

Fast-forward instead to section seven, where he describes older poetic forms:

In this manner, poetry, the verbal weapon of the Bedouins, was transformed into an instrument serving the mind, not unlike how a spoon serves the mouth. The value of a tool-instrument lies in our trust and ability to rely upon it. It lies in the confidence we place in it: we lift the spoon to our mouth everyday without thought or effort. We wear shoes everyday without thought or effort. So too are we supposed to read and understand a poem: without thought or effort.

So poetry becomes a form that we can consume, like a popsicle or pop song, without thought or effort. But why clarity? Because clarity is a necessary function of the oral arts:

Oration is a form of articulation that imposes on the speaker a distinctive rhythm, a directness, simple words and clear ideas.

And the need for clarity was further solidified, Adonis says, by Arabic poetry’s status as a “science”:

Arabic poetry began, like every science, to describe reality in terms of minute detail and adequation, and its primary value became tied to its use and benefit. In this way poetry began to move within an intellectual-rational framework, that is, it became a kind of reiteration, a mold, a subject to study and apply, something concerned with presenting “the truth” more than something concerned with innovation and invention.

Those were the “old” poets. Or some old poets. (For instance, Abu Tammam is a modern, or allied with the idea Adonis is equating with modernity.) Anyhow. What then is “real” poetry?

…the poet is a poet only on one condition: only insofar as he sees what others do not and that he discover and push forward.

And who is a real reader? Well, this is an un-real one:

…the reader who proceeds from memory, custom and received tradition, far from the spirit of constant advance and discovery, carries on in his thinking when faced with a poem as his body carries on when faced with a substance to consume: he does not consider himself the owner of the thing until he has consumed it. This kind of reader is good for everything but poetry.

Thus Adonis returns to what he began to tell Mattawa’s student, about how “real” reading is itself a creative exercise, on the same scale as being a real poet:

The difference between them [reader and poet] is a form of complementarity that compels the reader to become another creative genius, another poet.

Go on, bring yourself to the poem:

The Beginning of Speech

Or buy (rent, borrow) Khaled Mattawa’s translation/collection of Adonis, titled Adonis: Selected Poems.

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