Earlier this month, Robyn Creswell received the Gaddis Smith International Book Prize for best first book for his City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut (Princeton University Press, 2019):
Creswell’s book, written in an engaging style, is an exploration of Arabic poetry’s modernist movement, as it emerged in Beirut in the 1950s and developed through the twentieth century, particularly as centered on the Beirut-based magazine Shi’r, founded in ’57 by Yusuf al-Khal.
As Creswell writes in his introduction, City of Beginnings “is situated at the crossroads of poetry criticism and intellectual history. Along with many Arab poets of the period, the Beirut modernists addressed themselves, albeit at times obliquely, to the signal debates of their day: the relations between cultural power and political power; rivalries between nationalism, secularism, and Marxism; and the transmission of literary authority.”
To do justice to these debates, Creswell writes, he must switch between “the specialized language of literary criticism and the broader discourses of intellectual, political, and economic history.”
This is also a personal history of poets like Adonis, al-Khal, and Unsi al-Hajj — and a story about money and influence.
The book’s introduction is available to read online.
Teaching Modern Arabic Literature was noteworthy, according to Jessica Winston, chair of the award committee, for its “helpful orientation to non-specialists.” She said, in a prepared statement: “The book makes a persuasive case for teaching modern Arabic literature in translation.” She added: “Each essay offers enough background on the politics and cultural contexts of modern Arabic literary works to allow both new and experienced instructors who are not experts in the field to teach these texts.”