‘Art Has Changed from Poetry and Literature into Photography and Cinema and Graffiti’

Last month, a report on al-Jazeera announced that A ‘new poetry’ emerges from Syria’s civil war.” I, like many others, read it with equal parts curiosity and puzzlement:

Photo from PEN International.

Or perhaps “puzzlement” isn’t the right word — but I felt, echoing around in the back chambers of my brain — what novelist Nihad Sirees and others had told me about the impossibility of writing in this difficult moment. A little later, poet Osama Esber wrote to me about new possibilities, now that he is writing in exile:

And after these horrible scenes of destruction and mutual killings and the desperate conflict for power that destroyed the country and paralyzed it, I thought that our literature should be more courageous to explore the depths that led to all of this, to seek new perspectives and approaches to reality, to liberate itself from borrowed forms and create its own forms. In a way exile puts you in a new position to see things in a new, different ways.

I was glad that, in an interview conducted this past June, novelist and activist Samar Yazbek also addressed this question. Writer and translator Lauren Pyott asked Yazbek “what of literary creativitiy in documenting the revolution?” Yazbek said:

Of course there is poetry and singing and music, but I feel that this is not the time for the novel. I think it will need longer because of the vast amount of violence that’s come out of the revolution. Literature hasn’t been emerging in the way that it should have by now. I don’t even consider all that I have written to be literature, just testimonies. I need more time. There are some good poets but there have also been great young people writing about the revolution. Wonderful people. There still are. As a result of this extreme violence and the daily massacres, and the extensive destruction, art has changed from poetry and literature into photography and cinema and graffiti. That’s how it is. But I personally think that literature will come later, when the people are able to breathe a little. Right now people are living under perpetual death and blood and destruction.

There is certainly literature and poetry “of the moment,” that speaks to the moment. But whether it’s a really new sort of poetry is a different question. Perhaps exile — after all, there are more than two million external refugees — will change the shape of Syrian poetry, although a better person wouldn’t even entertain that thought, and would hope only that this exile is short-lived.

1 Comment

  1. Your article made me recall Seamus Heaney’s words in his essay ‘Feelings into Words’ (Preoccupations) where he describes poetry as “a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament”. It might be some time before Syrian poets feel they’ve found what is adequate.

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