The ‘Ideal’ Text for Showing the Importance of Poetry in Ninth-century Baghdad

Beatrice Gruendler, editor-translator of Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī’s The Life and Times of Abū Tammām (2015), is Professor of Arabic at Freie Universität Berlin. Her books include The Development of the Arabic Scripts (1993), Medieval Arabic Praise Poetry (2003), and the collection Classical Arabic Humanities in Their Own Terms (2008), which she edited with the assistance of Michael Cooperson.

The central aim of The Life and Times of Abū Tammām, Gruendler said in a Skype interview, is “to show how brilliant Abū Tammām is.” But the book reveals much more than the brilliance of the ninth-century poet: It shows the role poetry played in Abbasid Baghdad and also has modern-feeling discussions around issues of scholarship, plagiarism, and intellectual property. Its lens on Arabic poetry is both broad and deep. As Gruendler says, “You can take this book and teach the entirety of Arabic poetry up to al-Ṣūlī.”

In Part One of an interview for the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) website, Gruendler discusses why al-Ṣūlī’s text contains so much about the world of Abbasid-era poetry. A second part will look at issues of translation and teaching The Life and Times.

Translator-editor Beatrice Gründler.

Translator-editor Beatrice Gründler.

When did you first come across this book?

In my research, I very quickly identified al-Ṣūlī as a good writer and a good source on the lives of poets, because he selects well. None of his reports are boring. He has a good eye, or a good ear, and then he comments as well.

Why translate The Life and Times of Abū Tammām?

The reason I chose this book is that I’m interested in the social history of poetry, and the poetry I deal with—in this new Abbasid style—is like mathematical equations. Its construction is binary, and its images are inherited and abbreviated. Unless you know what came before, you can’t enjoy this “modern” poetry. It’s really difficult to understand in isolation.

In order to bring it across in teaching, I always chose the situations in which the poetry did something: It was presented, paid for, criticized. One advantage is that the poetry comes in small doses, you only get a few verses at a time, not the whole long poem. And then you see what the poetry did. It’s the art of the word, but it’s also the underlying, the practical meaning.

All of this is explained by the stories [in The Life and Times of Abū Tammām], and I don’t have to come between. Instead of me telling the story, the people of the time tell the stories. You get the poetry framed within its context. What’s even nicer, some people at the time didn’t like and understand [Abū Tammām’s] poetry, because it was a new style. It was a time when knowledge about poetry, and poetry itself, were developing. The field of poetic criticism hadn’t yet fully evolved, so everybody felt entitled to an opinion.

Many people, especially the philologists, didn’t like the poetry, they didn’t understand it, and it threatened their expertise. The modern reader who also has some trouble with this poetry has an advocate saying exactly what they feel.

But some people at the time did like it.

The book gives us two layers. In [Abū Tammām’s] time, the fashionable people get it. The caliphs like this poetry because it’s a new aesthetic. It’s like having your portrait painted by the latest artist.

Then a hundred years later, al-Sūlī comes in as a commentator, and of course he thinks those [fashionable] people were right. He explains why they were right and why the other people were wrong. This makes for a lively and anecdotal type of poetic criticism. In terms of intellectual history, the book is really exciting, because it shows the germinating ideas of how to explain the aesthetics of poetry.

How did this book influence later poetics?

After al-Ṣūlī, poetics gelled into a proper discipline, where poetry is studied systematically. Criticism becomes clear and comprehensive, but it’s not as engaging, because then you get the answer before asking the question.

You open your introduction with a quote about James Joyce’s work that reads:

She longed to read Ulysses, and when Virginia [Woolf] produced it for her, Katherine [Mansfield] began by ridiculing it, and then suddenly said: “But theres [sic] something in this.” This scene, Virginia thought, remembering it almost at the end of her life just after Joyce’s death, “should figure I suppose in the history of literature.”

What doors does it open to compare the reception and criticism of Abū Tammām with that of Joyce?

[The quote] captures a moment in which Joyce, who also pioneered a new style of writing, is still being debated. Woolf describes the situation where Katherine Mansfield, also an author—and they’re both literary critics—is critical of this new style and doesn’t like it.

So you have the layer of initial rejection, and the layer of “Hmm, maybe there’s something to it.” It’s the very same moment: the flipping of criticism of a pioneer and the emerging appreciation of it. This turning point in the history of literature, as Virginia Woolf recognizes it in her diary, is analogous to the changing reception of Abū Tammām captured in al-Ṣūlī’s book.

As a contemporary reader, I find it easier to appreciate the criticism of this poetry vs. the poetry itself. But does the criticism also offer us a way back into understanding Abū Tammām’s poetry?

lifeandtimesI think so. The framing gives context, but there’s also the fact that the same motif recurs several times: This creates a recognition effect. The reader can feel what it’s like seeing the same poetic idea in different words and relishing the play. They can relive that pleasure of recognition that Abū Tammām’s contemporaries so enjoyed.

My students really got the point that poetry was a way of engaging and showing one’s knowledge, of being a player. Both the poet himself and the person who was able to understand it.

For instance, [in The Life and Times of Abū Tammām], there’s a story about a grammarian. He needs to go to a majlis and says, “Everybody talks about Abū Tammām and I don’t know his poetry.” Then he asks a courtier: Can you make a selection for me? He crams quotations so he can engage in the conversation. Stories like this show that it was important to be conversant in this new style of poetry. I think this book is ideal to show this.

Do we know how al-Ṣūlī might have gone about composing the work? Would he have had all the information in front of him, in pieces, and have worked on arranging it, cutting and pasting?

He was famous for owning a big library. He certainly pulled things off the shelves, and he had notebooks. He said so in different places: I can’t find where I wrote this down. So he must’ve written things down, and he used the diwans. He edited himself many diwans—he collected a lot of the poetry that was fashionable at the time and that had not been gathered as collected works.

The book really is a nutshell of the literary history of the ninth century. There is no event in the history of poetry up to this time that is not in some form mentioned. You can take this book and teach the entirety of Arabic poetry up to al-Ṣūlī. It’s a kaleidoscope. It’s broad in genres and deep in time—but it’s not systematic, so you need to know where you stand. That’s why I was careful to make the index quite detailed, for someone like me who has this book and wants to squeeze out all the information from every corner.

I found many of the snippets in the book particularly tweetable. In fact, I saved several of them in my own notebooks for future deployment. At the time were people also interested in tweet-length fragments?

That’s what the Akhbār [The Life and Times] do, yes, rather than taking a long block of a whole qaṣīda and throwing it at unsuspecting readers. Most people picked a couple of lines and cited them or put them to music.

Breaking the poems down into pieces, in digestible amounts, was what people did then, and that is what people do now. And it does fit into a text message.

At the “Corpus, Not a Canon” workshop in Oxford this spring, you described The Life and Times as a nesting-doll of different genres. How would al-Ṣūlī have understood the genres at work (epistle, poetry, poem-fragments, criticism, etc.)? Or would he have seen it as an organic whole?

He would certainly see it as one composition, but he does not cover the seams. He wants people to see his multilayered construction, which was very common at the time. You could say that there are layers of authors in the book: There’s Abū Tammām, and then there’s the quoted sources, and then there’s al-Ṣūlī. To lay this open rather shows that he was a scholar with integrity who credited his sources. And he criticizes people who don’t do that.

He’s interested in showing that he is using classical material and that he understands it and has the background to comment upon it. The coherence of the whole is one of a collage, but it is a collage that presents a concerted argument. He has other people say what he wants to say, and having earlier writers say those things actually gives him more power, just as we might quote Shakespeare.

Al-Ṣūlī spends some energy criticizing poor scholarship. Were his ideas about scholarship a shared concept in the ninth century or he was a pioneer?

About plagiarism—I think that’s a question where he’s exactly on the cusp between a growing concern, something people were aware of, and the beginning of established rules. People certainly knew when poetry was being reused and they would debate this. In two places, al-Ṣūlī cites rules. The conventions he mentions reappear later in poetic treatises.

But instead of plagiarism, I should say “borrowing.” Because it can be good or bad. As al-Ṣūlī explains, if an author does [a poetic motif] better, it belongs to him. You can retroactively earn the authorship of a verse if you say it better. He spelled that out. Then in the tenth century, borrowing becomes a fully-fledged debate, and volumes are written about it. Again, these would not be lists of real thefts. They would query: How did this poet reuse earlier images? In each case, there is a discussion of whether he did a good job or not. Today, we call this intertextuality.

Borrowing was not by itself reprehensible, it was a question of how. But distinct from that is where one poet or scholar tacitly takes over somebody else’s text verbatim. I call this “ripping,” and that was indeed frowned upon.

In scholarship, information was passed from teacher to student, but then the student would give the teacher credit. And the student would not be shy to do so, because that wouldn’t lessen the student’s authority, on the contrary. And that’s how it should be done. But not to give credit was improper and considered theft of intellectual property, and that’s how al-Ṣūlī understood it.

It’s an almost modern understanding.

But there’s a passage where someone takes Abū Tammām’s identity and performs what he pretends to be his poetry. The man’s not punished for it—he earns money for it!

That was certainly wrong. But as a story, it speaks to two things. It speaks to the wit of that person who gets out of trouble by witty statements. The man basically admits: Okay, I’m a liar, I’m not Abū Tammām. I lost my fortune and this was my friend’s idea, who forged the verses for me. He has a good story to tell. It also testifies to the mercy and grace of the assembly’s host in not punishing an impoverished noble. So it serves other purposes than showing what plagiarism is. Still, it’s made very clear that Abū Tammām’s identity was plagiarized.

But it was not a serious case. Often times, there are instances where poetry is a way out of poverty. The man’s act was not to shine, he was trying to survive, and that makes his plagiarism more palatable.

If al-Ṣūlī’s main aim is to prove the brilliance of Abū Tammām, is demonstrating scholarly good conduct and the rules of borrowing a sub-aim?

Indeed. He had a keen sense of ethics, expected to be treated fairly, and if that didn’t happen, he was disappointed. He probably wrote this book towards the end of his life when his star was no longer shining. Therefore his sensitivity to scholarly dishonesty had become keener.

But he also makes a good case for his own discipline, for his expertise in poetics.

Speaking of poetry as a way out of poverty, how rich did Abū Tammām get?

That’s another tricky question. The prices have to be taken with a grain of salt. Whenever the poems are paid for, it tends to be 10,000 dirhams or a thousand dinars, or sometimes ten times as much, and these staggering amounts are symbolic. But some akhbār in the book show that he had enormous earnings, and other akhbār describe that he wasn’t very good at managing and keeping the money, and gave it away generously.

We also know that he took care of aspiring young colleagues. There are two stories in which he lends his authorship to friends. You could donate your poetry to someone as a gift. So he probably earned a lot, but didn’t hold onto it very well. Yet he was always taken care of.

The section “Abū Tammām as a source” feels curious to me. How is this group of stories about other people meant to reflect on him?

The section’s title in the Arabic is literally “Reports by Abū Tammām.” The people in the reports are rather obscure, and if you read it one by one, no coherent theme emerges. What matters is the words these people used. That’s why Abū Tammām recorded them. He would collect paradoxical or pseudo-logical ideas whenever he found them expressed in few words. Each event ends with a witty and punchy statement.

Pithy quotes that say much in few words: He collected those wherever he found them.

So if these were sayings Abū Tammām collected, how did al-Ṣūlī get hold of them?

Al-Ṣūlī got most of those through two men of letters, one of them being [Aḥmad] Ibn Abī Ṭāhir, who was himself a critic, author, and adīb, and he transmitted these reports directly from Abū Tammām. The isnāds [chains of transmission] in this section are quite repetitive up to Abū Tammām, but he seems to have collected them from many and often unknown people, such as “an old man from the quarter.”

It shows Abū Tammām the poet as a gatherer of good primary material in prose, whatever the source.

The second part of this interview is scheduled to appear next Monday. This interview and next week’s both appear on the Library of Arabic Literature website, where you can find other LAL news and events.

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Categories: Library of Arabic Literature

5 replies

  1. Wonderful Interview! Thanks, Marsha, for these in-depth engagements of Arabic literature. Beatrice Gründler’s contributions to Arabic literature and Arabic are equally demonstrated in her support of the Arabic program at Yale as professor and as Chair.

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    • You know this blog is all for you, Shakir!

      Although interviews with engaged scholars like Beatrice also make it worthwhile.

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      • My wife and I had dinner with Beatrice in 2008 at Yale and we were really impressed with the breadth of her scholarship and her dedication to Arabic literature. A warm human being, too. .. And this flourishing blog is all yours, Marsha! Your diligent work, the countless hours you spent in developing it. The thoughtfulness! The credibility. The punctuality with which it has been appearing year after year! Can’t thank you enough for the service you keep extending to all of us.

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        • I never would have started it without your support. Thank you for your continued cheer, it helps so much in pursuing this non-remunerative adventure.

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  1. “It’s a kaleidoscope”: An interview with Beatrice Gruendler on ‘The Ideal Text for Showing the Importance of Poetry in 9th-century Baghdad’ | Library of Arabic Literature
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