Badr Shakir al-Sayyab is one of the most important names in modern Iraqi poetry — and indeed modern Arabic poetry. The poet, who died in 1964 at just 38, shook the poetic world with his verse. Translator, scholar, and author Dr. Issa Boullata, whose PhD dissertation became a book on al-Sayyab, answered a few questions about the poet’s life and work:
Issa Boullata: Early in 1965, I was looking for a topic on which to write my Ph.D. dissertation in Arabic literature at the University of London. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab had just died in late December of 1964, and I had read much of his poetry that impressed me. I liked to write my dissertation on him, using historical methods to study his life and its influence on his poetry, and adopting literary methods to assess his poetry and its place in modern Arabic literature. But I was afraid that my proposal would be rejected because of the common belief that the university accepted only proposals about long-established figures, and my proposal could be considered premature.
I was surprised — so were many others — that it was accepted. I therefore wrote my dissertation on al-Sayyab’s life and poetry, and defended it orally in June 1969, my examiners being Professor Walid Arafat of the University of London and Professor M. M. Badawi of the University of Oxford. I later translated it into Arabic and published it in Beirut in 1971 with an introduction by poet Yusef al-Khal who knew al-Sayyab personally. Six editions of it have so far been published, the latest being in 2007, and it has been translated into Indonesian.
AL: What drew you to al-Sayyab? What role did his poetry play in your life, your understanding of poetry? Do you remember your first readings of his poetry? What effect did they have on you and people you knew?
IB: I was drawn to al-Sayyab because of his sincerity, his authenticity, his innovation, and the immediacy of his poetry in relation to contemporaneous conditions in the Arab world. His earliest poems followed traditional rules of meter and rhyme, and were not particularly distinguished in their ideas, language or imagery. But since 1946 he began to experiment with what was later called “free verse.” Initially romantic, his free verse poems later dealt with socio-political topics related to his life and that of all the Arabs.
The period was that of the Cold War and al-Sayyab, being a communist at the time, was leaning to the camp of the socialist left and, with the rise of Nasserism, his poems later embraced nationalistic causes as well. These were among my first readings of his poetry, and I felt they echoed my own feelings. The concept of iltizam (commitment) in literature was becoming prevalent among younger Arab writers in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly as defined by Jean-Paul Sartre’s engagement, and al-Sayyab was one of the foremost committed Arab poets without letting his verse fall into triteness or become a stereotypical or cheap political discourse. He always aimed at novel images and inventive forms, and he dealt with urgent issues and became very popular. He made me think that that was what poetry should be, and not merely beautiful writing expressing one’s personal emotions collected in moments of tranquility, with no serious purpose.
AL: How did he go from dying in poverty to, a few years later, having a statue erected for him, becoming a prominent and beloved poet? What shifted?
IB: Al-Sayyab did not only die in poverty, he lived in poverty all his life (1926-1964), the last three years of which were indeed miserable, compounded — as his poverty then was — with an incurable, degenerative neuron disease of his spinal cord (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that led gradually to the paralysis of his legs and the deterioration of his nervous system, culminating in his death at the young age of 38. Over the years, he had sought treatment for it in Basra, Baghdad, Beirut, London, Paris, and Kuwait to no avail—meanwhile still writing poetry, even when hospitalized, and publishing it; but it was often of inferior quality and was understandably obsessed by pathetic themes of forthcoming death, pleas to God for mercy, and experiences of incapacitation.
When he died, his death was not unnoticed: it rather shook the world of Arabic literature, judging from the reactions to it in newspapers and literary journals, and it was followed by republication of his works and the appearance in 1967 of a book of selections from his poetry by the Syrian poet Adonis with an excellent introduction. Al-Sayyab’s influence continued to grow among Arab poets who appreciated and developed his use of myths in poetry, especially ones unifying the sundry images in a poem, and particularly myths of resurrection which had the Arab nation in mind. I believe that the erection in 1971 of a statue for him in Basra, not far from his beloved birth village, Jaykur that he immortalized in his poetry, was a “political” act recognizing his literary stature and renown.
AL: How would you describe his importance to Iraqi and Arabic poetry of his moment, and ongoing? Is there a metaphor in English letters, a poet or poets who played a similar role?
IB: Arabic poetry in general was at the end of its Neoclassical phase and, between the two world wars, was being gradually replaced by Romantic poetry, of which al-Sayyab’s early free verse in the late 1940s was an example giving the final touch to the earlier fine poetic achievements of Lebanese Ilyas Abu-Shabaka, Egyptian Ali Mahmud Taha, and a few others who had brought the Arabic Romantic movement to its highest expression. As countries of the Arab world achieved independence from colonial rule, a new and less ethereal poetic sensibility was growing and Arab Romanticism gave way eventually to poetry of Social Realism.
This was the moment of al-Sayyab’s major contribution to Iraqi and Arabic poetry. His poems after mid-century successfully grasped the need of the Arab world for new poetry, and his genius led him to experimentation with new rhythms and images, and with new socio-political ideas to satisfy this need. Writing in free verse and publishing in Al-Adab monthly nationalist journal of Suhayl Idris established in Beirut in 1953, he gave the Arabs one of his best poems, “The Song of Rain” (1954), as well as several others.
In Baghdad, he published a long poem in a booklet entitled “The Blind Whore” (1954) castigating injustice in Arab society, and he published another entitled “Weapons and Children” (1954) criticizing war mongers of the capitalist world and calling for peace. Late in 1954, al-Sayyab came to know the Greek myth of Adonis in an Arabic translation of two chapters of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough done by his Palestinian friend in Baghdad, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and he found in this myth rich symbolic ideas to express his own belief in the triumph of life over death through a victim-hero; and so, he used it in his poems about ongoing nationalist and liberationist struggles in the Arab world.
He also began to use other similar myths and narratives in his poems, including the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, his ideas and images in these poems were made to function as part of the myth used, and the myth was employed as a unifying principle in the poem, thus producing artful masterpieces of verse, one of which was his long poem entitled “From the Vision of Fu-Kai” (1955), Fu-Kai in it being a cleric in the Jesuit mission in Hiroshima who became insane upon the explosion of the atomic bomb, and the poem being a call for peace and a reproof of the monstrosity of bloodshed, of the love of power, and the dominance of capitalism.
Al-Sayyab’s poetry set a model for other Arab poets in the use of myth, and Arabic poetry has not been the same ever since. In English letters, it is perhaps T. S. Eliot who may be considered to have played a similar role, especially with his The Waste Land (1922) and its use of myth and allusions. I don’t mean that al-Sayyab’s works are comparable to Eliot’s but, as a whole, their role in helping to give direction to contemporary Arabic poetry was similar to Eliot’s in influencing English-language poetry that came after his.
AL: Is there poetry of his that’s lesser-known (beyond “Return to Jaykur” and “The Song of Rain”) to which you would draw readers’ attention?
However, I will mention here a couple of his later poems. One of them is “The River and Death” (1957), a long poem he published in Shi‘r magazine, a new liberal quarterly for poetry established in Beirut by his friend Yusef al-Khal, in which al-Sayyab published his poetry almost regularly for the next five years during which he had stopped contributing to Al-Adab. In this poem, the poet addresses Buwayb, the little river in Jaykur and, in child-like vision, he describes its beauty and he wishes to drown in it — death being a victory bringing to his mind those who struggle to give birth to life as the river does.
The other poem is “Jaykur and the City” (1958), also published in Shi‘r magazine, and in it al-Sayyab draws a stark contrast between the idyllic Jaykur, symbol of peaceful life, and the city as an embodiment of capitalist greed and spiritual death in his view.
Dr. Issa J Boullata is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian writer, literary scholar, critic, educator and translator. He started his career with a PhD in Arabic literature from London University in 1969 and went on to be a Professor of Arabic Literature at McGill University in Montreal. He introduced and translated the groundbreaking poetry anthology Modern Arab Poets, 1950-1975 (1976) and has given a number of contemporary Arab authors award-winning translations. He has also published his own novel and short stories, including the novel عائد إلى القدس and the English-language short-story collection A Retired Gentleman and Other Stories. (More of Dr. Boullata’s work here.)