If there were two disappointments I had while reading the opening chapter of Sinan Antoon’s The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry, “Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf: Genealogies,” they were: 1) that the full book is listed at more than $70, and 2) that there wasn’t a companion historical novel that gives full imaginative license to a re-crafting of Ibn al-Hajjaj and his contemporaries:
As an opening chapter, “Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf: Genealogies,” is a delight. Ibn Hajjaj (941 – 1001 CE) was, as Antoon notes, the great al-Mutanabbi’s (915 – 965 CE) “contemporary, erstwhile enemy and ultimate ‘other[.]'”
While al-Mutanabbi’s poetry has remained a part of the Arabic canon, al-Hajjaj’s has fallen off in recent times, something Antoon calls “one of the most serious cases of cultural amnesia and academic neglect.”
It’s not hard to see why Ibn al-Hajjaj and his signature sukhf were disappeared from the canon. A manual composed three century after al-Hajjaj’s death “instructs teachers to prohibit boys from reading or memorizing any of Ibn al-Hajjaj’s poems…and to be beaten if they are found doing so.”
As Antoon further notes, this both underlines al-Hajjaj’s threat to conservative schoolteacher morality as well as his lasting popularity and fame.
Antoon goes to some lengths to discuss what is and isn’t sukhf (as a poetic mode), and where it overlaps mujun and hazl. The art of sukhf is variously understood as “gross language and comportment upsetting to the squeamish,” “foolishness, obscene or nonsensical” and an “incessant breaching and violation of boundaries of all sorts.”
From al-Hajjaj, trans. Antoon:
Had I wanted to write serious poetry
It would not be difficult for me
But then I would merely be like
all those who write poetry in our age
Were it not for me, sukhf would never
have been written down or read
And to him who faults me for my sukhf I say:
You most foolish of all people!
Generally, Antoon writes, modern critics — Arab and non-Arab — have also been fools in failing to render al-Hajjaj his poetic due. Antoon quotes Abdelfattah Kilito as saying that “If Ibn al-Hajjaj is forgotten, it is because his poems do not reproduce that image of Arab culture desired today. No textbook, on the other hand, can afford to ignore the likes of Abu Firas [al-Hamdani] and al-Mutanabbi, who glorify war and represent a reverent image of the past.”
In any case, don’t you forget: the first chapter, Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf, is available online with many wonderful translated poems and poem-fragments that contemporary schoolchildren would surely get suspended for repeating.