On Nazik al-Mala’ika’s Revolutionary Romantic Poetry

Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika is best known for the important role she played in the development and popularization of Arabic “free verse” (or taf’ila poetry) in the 1950s. But while she is well known as a pioneer, her verse itself is less well-known, and largely absent in translation. Emily Drumsta has translated one of al-Mala’ika’s poems for Jadaliyya, “Revolt Against the Sun,” and is currently at work on another translation. She talked about translating al-Mala’ika:

nazikArabLit: Why did you choose to translate al-Mala’ika? What drew you to her work, about the work itself and/or about her life? 

Emily Drumsta: I was initially drawn to al-Mala’ika because of her reputation as one of the pioneers of “free verse” (al-shi‘r al-hurr) in modern Arabic poetry. Most literary-historical accounts of Arabic poetic modernism cite her and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab as the pioneers of this new form, which is often erroneously equated with the English and French versions of “free verse” and vers libre. A more descriptive term for al-shi‘r al-hurr is “taf‘ila poetry,” named for the feet or metrical units that make up the lines. While many scholars have delved into al-Sayyab’s poetry at length to elaborate its formal and thematic features, very few seemed to have engaged with al-Mala’ika’s work on a similar level. I wanted to know what exactly were the forms that al-Mala’ika pioneered—the concrete, technical elements especially. How different were they from the traditional Arabic meters, often called the “Khalilian” meters, for the eighth-century scholar al-Khalil Ibn Ahmad. And what exactly made them “free”? How was this form of “free verse” similar to or different from the British and French versions? As I soon discovered upon reading al-Mala’ika’s criticism and poetry, there was very little that was “free” about taf‘ila poetry, and an immense and largely understudied discourse surrounds the question of “freedom” in poetry—a discourse with important social political implications.

In short, al-Mala’ika seemed to be an important turning-point figure—someone who earnestly sought to remake the familiar structures of pre-modern poetry without completely losing them, to transform Arabic poetry for a new century without completely unmooring it from its metrical roots. Among the modern poets of the 1950s and 60s, she seemed like one of the few who recognized that these metrical roots are precisely what has cemented poetry’s popular appeal in the Arab world, as well as its traditional reputation as the “register of the Arabs” (diwan al-‘arab).

AL: Can you talk a little bit about her importance to the poetry of her moment? Thus far, as I’ve asked poets about their influences, many have mentioned al-Sayyab, but no one (yet) al-Mala’ika. How do you see her space and place in Iraqi poetry, in Arabic poetry, in “world” poetry?

There is no question that al-Sayyab has had a much wider influence than al-Mala’ika. I’m not sure of the exact reasons for this (I’m sure there are many, each specific to a particular poet), but I think it is in part because al-Sayyab was much faster to embrace the language, symbols, and themes associated with “Tammuzi” poetry—that is, poetry that abandoned the tropes of Romanticism to explore myths of regeneration and renewal borrowed from the poetry and criticism of T.S. Eliot, James Frazer, and others.

In many ways al-Mala’ika actually fits better with the Arab Romantic poets than she does with the “modernists”: she is more concerned with articulating deeply felt emotions and sensations than she is with elaborating new models for cultural regeneration. And yet her concern for Arabic poetic form is also, I would argue, quite political. Unlike her modernist contemporaries, al-Mala’ika was not ready to throw out the old Arabic meters entirely. Instead, she sought to reconfigure and adapt them for a new era without letting poetry lose its “Arab-ness”—that is, its rootedness in the undulating long and short vowel patterns of the Arabic language. Without these undulations, the careful constructed-ness of poetry (shi‘r or nazm—literally, “arrangement”) would be little different from the “scattered-ness” of prose (in Arabic, nathr, which shares its root with the verb for “to scatter”). How does one transform something and simultaneously retain a trace of what it once was? Al-Mala’ika’s struggle with this paradox was very interesting to me.

Many other poets and intellectuals in the 1950s and 60s—among them Jabra Ibrahim Jabra–criticized al-Mala’ika for her rigidity and insistence on maintaining the taf‘ila or “foot” as the building block of Arabic poetry. In contrast with these critics, I think al-Mala’ika’s metrical stringency about has important political implications. As Ghassan Kanafani wrote of poetry from occupied Palestine in 1966, “The modernist poetry that we are now seeing in the Arab capitals is less able to spread as a form of literature commensurate with resistance than traditional poetry.” He was referring to the fact that the traditional, Khalilian meters facilitate the spread of poetry in popular venues—such as protests, marches, weddings, and funerals—by adding a dimension of performativity and collectivity to the verse. Meter facilitates memorization and transmission; it makes poetry easy to chant and repeat in large groups. When poetry abandons the traditional meters, it also abandons this popular appeal; it becomes limited to the sphere of an elite literary coterie. I think al-Mala’ika was actively aware of these things, and they go some way to explaining her rigidity where meter is concerned.

As far as “world” poetry is concerned, I must admit that though my degree is in Comparative Literature, I’m still not really sure I know what this means (besides being a euphemism for “Western” poetry). Arabic poetry has such a long and complex history; a major part of what interests me about al-Mala’ika is her immense concern for that history, its specificity, and its almost sacred status in Arab (and particularly Iraqi) culture.

AL: Why “Revolt Against the Sun”? What did you find in this work that made you want to share them with English-language audiences? What have you discovered as you translated, in terms of her work, its various strands, its trajectory? 

As a student of Arabic literature engaging with the politics of literary form, I’m interested in the ways tradition emerges in supposedly “modern” works—the concrete, technical, structural ways writers rework traditional or conventional elements for new purposes, whether in terms of form or thematic content. This type of reworking is what drew me to “Revolt Against the Sun.” In the Arabic poetic tradition, women poets were relegated almost exclusively to the realm of elegy, and have long been celebrated as excellent elegists—but only as elegists. It was supposed that women had a greater sensibility for grief, and were thus better able to capture and lament the experience of death in words. As a poet and scholar well schooled in the tradition, al-Mala’ika was certainly aware of this timeworn stereotype. But rather than outright reject it—rather than totally discard that traditional positionality—she both embraces and repurposes it in “Revolt”: the poem’s speaker takes on sadness not as a biological imperative, but as a form of defiance and refusal. “Sadness,” the speaker says, “is the form of my revolt and my resistance.” It is thus a poem in which form itself truly is political, as it offers a critique of the Arabic poetry’s historical gender/genre politics.

The reconfiguration of traditional tropes for modern purposes is also what drew me to “A Song for Humanity.” This very long poem uses the ancient topos of “crying over the ruins” (al-buka’ ‘ala al-atlal) to mourn the destruction — both psychological and material — wrought by the Second World War.

AL: US poet Adrienne Rich said she “suspected” that translations were not bringing al-Mala’ika across properly, saying, “One reads, guessing: is this or that poem actually more remarkable than translation can suggest? is it, in translation, bound, like Prometheus, on the rock of its its language and cultural references? Has the translation been timid, binding itself within the literal, or within an idea of Anglophone poetic language (e.g. ‘wondrous’) which, to an American eye and ear, seem artificial?” What do you feel Rich may or may not have been missing as she read Mala’ika in translation?

What a wonderful quote! I’m curious to know which translation(s) Rich is referring to here. Regardless though, I think she makes some important points about al-Mala’ika’s poetry in general, and about the “bounds” of Anglophone poetic language in particular. As I mentioned above, some of al-Mala’ika’s biggest literary influences were poets like John Keats, Lord Byron, and Thomas Gray. (She translated Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and an excerpt from Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” into Arabic).

I think because she has generally been understood as a Romantic poet herself, translators have relied on the language of the British Romantics when carrying over her melancholy meditations into English. This often lends the English verse a flavor of sentimentality and “artificiality” that just isn’t there in the Arabic. Let’s take Rich’s “wondrous” as an example. Though I’m not sure which poem she’s referring to above, the original word is probably ‘ajib or some other variation on the root ‘ayn-jim-ba, which in Arabic lacks the lyrical resonance of “wondrous,” though “wonder” has long been the acceptable English equivalent. I myself struggled against the restraints of Anglophone lyricism when translating “Revolt Against the Sun,” as is probably evident in the translation. Of course, as it is with any translation, much of what Rich was “missing” when she read al-Mala’ika’s verse in English were the creative ways it reconfigured and repurposed the familiar elements and tropes of the pre-modern tradition: embracing the elegiac position as a defiant or resistant one, reworking the trope of “crying over the ruins” (al-buka’ ‘ala al-atlal), etc.

In these heady postmodern days, we tend to dismiss the political importance of Romanticism, not only as a Western movement, but also for its global aesthetic resonances. Many of the most “modernist” Arab critics and poets were profoundly influenced by the humanistic message of the Romantics—their commitment to ideals like liberty, freedom of expression, and the notion of poetry as a kind of prophecy. Adunis himself often returns to Jibran Khalil Jibran in both his critical and poetic work, and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra wrote volumes of essays on figures from William Blake and Lord Byron to the American Walt Whitman. (My favorite of these essays is titled “Byron and Satanism.”)

AL: As Erica Wright noted in Guernica around the time of al-Mala’ika’s death, there has been a good deal of Anglo attention to al-Mala’ika as a poet (a Google doodle, many obituaries in major newspapers), but not to her poetry. Why do you suppose she has been so little-translated?

ED: On a practical level, perhaps some of what explains the “Anglo attention” for al-Mala’ika is the fact that she studied in the U.S. on two separate occasions, first studying literary criticism at Princeton in 1950 (when it was still an all-male school!), then earning her Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1956. In many ways, she was just as much a scholar of English poetry as she was a poet and critic working in Arabic. I think she might have readily admitted this.

There may also be a more general explanation for why there is more interest in the figure of the poet than in her poetry—not only in al-Mala’ika’s case, but as a general trend. In the West—both in academic and non-academic literary circles—I think we are more interested in the byline than in the specifics of the poetry. We are constantly hunting for resonances with our own lives, for easily digested kernels of knowledge about other cultures, but rarely have the patience for the intense language training that would sharpen our sensitivity to form and questions of audience, transmission, etc. These are the things that I find most interesting in al-Mala’ika’s poetry, this balance between tradition and regeneration, but they are also elements that are not necessarily available to all audiences.

A more practical reason why al-Mala’ika remains so little translated might be because translators are intimidated by the way she sought to combine the traditional metrical and popular aspects of Arabic poetry with a more expressive sensibility. This is something that’s quite difficult to translate, as it emerges more in the history surrounding the poetry than in the work itself. In other words, you either need to include a lot of footnotes, alter the meaning of the words significantly to achieve a similar sonic effect in English, or sacrifice the interesting structural features of the poetry altogether. I think as scholars and teachers of Arabic literature, if we’re going to include al-Mala’ika in our narratives of Arabic modernism (as we should), we ought to spend at least a little time with the mechanics of her poetry and explore the potential that form itself can communicate a political message.

An excerpt from al-Mala’ika’s ‘A Song for Mankind’:

Trans. Emily Drumsta

Also by al-Mala’ika:

Revolt Against the Sun,” trans. Emily Drumsta, on Jadaliyya

New Year,” trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson, on WWB

Love Song for Words,” trans. Rebecca Carol Johnson, on WWB

Previous Thursdays:

August 1: Basim al-Ansar: ‘Poetry Is the Source of All the Arts’ 

August 8: Khaled al-Maaly: Poetry Worldwide Has No Boundaries

August 15: Between Iraqi and Scottish Poetries: The Closest Thing to Magic One Could Hope to See 

August 22: Ghareeb Iskander on Iraqi Poetries and the ‘Third Language’ of Translation

August 29: Dunya Mikhail: Writing Without Falling Into Narrow ‘Political Poetry’ 

Emily Drumsta is a Ph.D. student and Jacob K. Javits fellow in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. Her research interests include modern Arabic poetry, literature in French and Arabic from the Maghreb, postcolonial theory, and translation studies. Her translations have previously been published in Jadaliyya and Circumference magazine.