‘The Dangers of Poetry’: Translating Poetry to History

Earlier this month, Kevin Jones’ The Dangers of Poetry came out from Stanford University Press:

By Tugrul Mende

In The Dangers of Poetry: Culture, Politics, and Revolution in Iraq, Kevin Jones reads poetry not so much for its aesthetic value, but as a tool for understanding the social history of a nation. Starting from the end of the nineteenth century and following the form to the 1950s and 1960s, he engages with poets and intellectuals who were not only working on literary writings for their own sake, but as a tool for understanding the period in which they were living.

Tugrul Mende: In the introductory chapter of your new book, The Dangers of Poetry, you write on the nature of translating the poetry you choose. What difficulties did you have in translating them?

Kevin Jones: The biggest dilemma that I faced was learning how to strike a balance between the fluid translation of semantic content and an adherence to the aesthetic form of poems. As an historian, I’m generally much more interested in content than form, and I began this project by mining poems for historical evidence in the same way that I would any other source. With the exception of a few quatrains, I have not translated any poems in their entirety but have instead included only the fragments needed to document a particular historical argument. When I first began working on this project as a graduate student, I did not even think of it as a history of poetry but instead as a history of culture and politics that happened to rely heavily on poetry as an historical source.

Over time, as the project evolved more explicitly into a history of poetry and public performance, I became more attentive to questions of form and aesthetics. As I gained more experience and expertise with poetry, I learned to adapt my translations to express something of the original style. I also began to realize that I simply could not answer historical questions about the cultural and intellectual genealogy of ideas and emotions expressed in poetry or the public reception and political impact of particular poems without taking serious account of aesthetics and recognizing that content and form are never separable in poetry. Despite this recognition of inseparability, I also acknowledge that much is lost in the translation of poetry. While my translation style remains more historical than literary, I have tried to convey the aesthetic value of the original poems whenever I feel as though my translations have not done proper justice to the poem or poet.

TM: Your book is divided into six time periods; what made you choose those particular divisions?

KJ: The chronological structure of chapters corresponds directly to widely recognized political eras in Iraq history: Late Ottoman Iraq (1876-1914), WWI and the British Occupation (1914-1920), British Mandate (1920-1932), Independence and WWII (1932-1945), Post-WWII Iraq (1945-1958), and the July Revolution and Qasim Era (1958-1963). Even though these divisions therefore seem somewhat natural in terms of conventional political history, there are still important thematic reasons for which I settled on them. While some historical studies might treat the poetry of WWI and the Iraqi Revolution of 1920 as part of a longer chapter on the British occupation (1917-1932), I chose to highlight how the war and subsequent collapse of the Ottoman position in Iraq threw political loyalties in turmoil, leading to a profusion of anonymous poems published in the nascent Iraqi press, provocative public debates about future political borders, and dangerous forays of Iraqi poets into new realms of mass politics in both Damascus and Baghdad. Some studies likewise treat the period of the Independent Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq (1932-1958) as a self-contained, unitary whole, but I chose instead to emphasize the distinctions between poetic debates on Arab nationalism in the first half of this period (1932-1945) and the more direct poetic engagement with communism, commitment (iltizam), and mass politics in the second half of the period (1945-1958). Finally, my decision to devote an entire chapter to the relatively brief Qasim era (1958-1963) was simply motivated by my reading of the poetry of that period, which convinced me that the role of gender in the cultural politics of communism and nationalism in this revolutionary environment would dramatically transform our understanding of the period.

TM: Your title speaks of the dangers of poetry. What was so dangerous about them?

Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri

KJ: I think about the danger of poetry in this period of Iraqi history on at least different levels. First, poetry was dangerous in literal terms. Poets risked their lives and livelihoods and endured trials, prison, torture, and exile for the sake of their craft. This was particularly true of communist poets like Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri and Muhammad Salih Bahr al-ʿUlum, but it also applies to nationalists like Muhammad Bahjat al-Athari and ʿAdnan al-Rawi. Critical to my argument is the fact that this literal danger of poetry was not linked solely to the political content (communist or nationalist dissidence) of poetry but instead to its public resonance; poetry was dangerous precisely because it was popular. Second, poetry was dangerous in political terms. Poetry brought a certain degree of cultural legitimacy to politicians, who simultaneously cultivated the support of prominent poets and feared the repercussions of their failure to do so. In the 1920s, in particular, the political panegyric became a dangerous “double-edged sword” that could undercut the nominal target of praise by damning him with faint praise, mischievously praising his commitment to goals that could not possibly be achieved, or resorting to thinly-veiled satire couched as praise. Public performances became dangerous games for both poets and politicians as the bounds of patronage and deference were constantly tested and stretched. Third, poetry was dangerous in cultural terms. As a self-consciously social and political practice, the cultural prestige of poets and poetry was never simply limited to aesthetic evaluations in this period. In their political stances and public performances, poets risked their own reputations, livelihoods, and legacies. The reputations of the neoclassical pioneers Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi and Maʿruf al-Rusafi suffered due to the stances they adopted in WWI and the Iraqi Revolution of 1920. Even more notable, in my view, was the struggle over the historical legacy of the poetry of the Qasim era (1958-1963) that I discuss in my conclusion. Key lines, poems, and even entire collections from the oeuvres of prominent communist poets like ʿAbd al-Wahhab al-Bayati and Buland al-Haydari were altered or erased in subsequent decades in an attempt to erase the embarrassing and dangerous political controversies.

TM: How did you go about translating the poetry included in the book? Do you have a particular method?

KJ: I have no formal training in the art of literary translation, and so my methods are instead rather more typical of historians. I generally take three concerted passes at translating a poem. In the first pass, I translate the poem (or its more relevant sections) as literally as possible. I know that I may simply end up referencing or paraphrasing the poem in my published work, so I spare myself any excessive waste of time by treating poems much like any other source on which I am taking notes in this pass. In the second pass, I make an effort to think about aesthetic form of my translation. I pay more attention to the economy of style, making sure that the length of verses remains relatively symmetrical with their Arabic original. I think more concretely about word choice and metaphor and try to capture some of the beauty or awkwardness of the original, however difficult and incomplete that process may be. Even in this pass, I have generally avoided any serious attempt to translate meter or rhyme, both because I am not aiming for literary translation and because I am skeptical about the possibility of such an attempt when grappling with such a vast number of poets writing in such different styles. In the third and final pass, I return again to the original poem and check it against my translation to ensure that I have distorted meaning or metaphor in my revisions of the literal translation.

TM: How was each time period different, when it came to translating the poetry you choose? What characteristics marked the different periods?

KJ: The most obvious difference is the dramatic rupture between neoclassical poetry and free verse poetry that took place in the early 1950s. Some poets – most notably Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri but many others as well – continued to write the neoclassical verse, but the younger generation of poets were mostly converts to the new style. Free verse poetry is dramatically easier to translate, in my view, both because there is no assumed symmetry between verses and because the vocabulary and metaphors used by the free verse poets tend to be simpler and more direct. When we talk about the impossibility of translating Arabic poetry due to what is lost in translation, I find this judgement to be much more applicable to the neoclassical era and to particular neoclassical poets like Jawahiri. There are many other differences in translation, but most of them are linked to the individual styles of poets rather than period.

Muhammad Salih Bahr al-ʿUlum, who was known as the “People’s Poet” due to his populist messaging and economy of style, was infinitely easier to translate than Jawahiri, his contemporary and fellow communist comrade. Even in the late Ottoman era, some of the early experiments of neoclassical pioneers like Zahawi and Rusafi were particularly easy to translate because they were consciously striving for linguistic simplicity and employing a didactic approach to meaning and metaphor.

TM: You write of poets who are “canonical representations” and others who were considered “bad poets.” How do you distinguish the poets in such categories?

KJ: I read a great deal of literary criticism and analysis of Iraqi poetry, both in English and especially in Arabic, in order to properly understand the literary and aesthetic reputations of the poets who I am studying. When I refer to “canonical representations,” I am simply referring to those poets who have been elevated by Iraqi and Arab critics as key figures of these poetry scenes. “Bad poets,” on the other hand, usually refers to examples of poetry that I have found in the Iraqi press that have not attracted any significant attention from critics. In many cases, the poor quality of this poetry would be evident to even a novice student of Arabic – this is particularly true of many of the pseudonymous poets who wrote in praise of Britain after the occupation of Baghdad in 1917. There are other cases that are somewhat more complex. The “scientific” and “didactic” experiments of Zahawi and Rusafi in the 1890s and 1900s are universally regarded as aesthetic failures, an assessment with which I readily agree. These experiments, however, are generally regarded as exceptions to otherwise distinguished careers, and they cannot really be considered “bad poets.” A more interesting case is Muhammad Salih Bahr al-ʿUlum, who was publicly attacked as a “bad poet” by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab for reasons that cannot be entirely divorced from the latter’s anticommunist politics. Bahr al-ʿUlum has received considerable attention from Iraqi critics, but largely for his political commitments rather than his poetic achievements. I actually really enjoy Bahr al-ʿUlum’s terse and populist style, and while I would never describe him as a “great” poet, I think that “popular” or “populist” is a far more appropriate label than “bad.” In general, I have avoided rendering strong aesthetic judgments about the quality of poetry I cite and translate.

TM: Your book is partly about poetry, partly social history, partly intellectual history, and much more. What made you combine these elements around poetry, and how much do you think do they influence each other?

KJ: This project really evolved from my reading of Iraqi memoirs and histories of Iraq written in Arabic as a graduate student. I was struck by the recurrent discussions of poets and poetry in these texts and the relative absence of their presence in historical scholarship published in English (with several notable exceptions). I became more and more convinced over time that the history of modern Iraq, the Iraqi engagement with modernity, and the long Iraqi struggles for national liberation and socialist revolution could not be adequately narrated without serious attention to poetry. As I noted previously, I began by trying to develop an analysis of anticolonialism that drew heavily from poetry as an historical source in my dissertation. Ultimately, however, I concluded that the story that I wanted and needed to tell in this book was really about poetry as cultural vocation, intellectual discourse, social practice, and political platform. The particular relevance of poetry to Iraq history as I see it changes from period to period – from endowing discourses of modernity with a spirit “cultural authenticity” in the late Ottoman period to foregrounding the centrality of gender and morality to the cultural politics of anticommunism in the Qasim years – but the social and political relevance of poetry and its dominant cultural position remains essentially unchanged throughout the duration covered by this book.

TM: Is this book part of a broader project? And how do you see it in relationship to other scholarship on Iraqi history?

KJ: The Dangers of Poetry was very much inspired by recent scholarship on Iraqi history. The work of Orit Bashkin, Peter Wien, and Eric Davis on nationalism and cultural politics in Iraq informed much of my approach to these topics and suggested new angles for exploration. I feel extremely grateful to be working at a moment when really exciting and innovative scholarship on Iraq is being produced by so many young historians, anthropologists, sociologists, literary critics, etc. I won’t list any names here in fear of leaving someone out, but the rapid growth and development of Iraqi Studies over the past decade has been truly incredible to watch. Even when my work does not seem to intersect directly with that of other young scholars in the field, I feel enriched and inspired by reading their work and responding to their queries.

I do consider this book part of a broader project that will contribute to the new cultural history of Iraq and the broader Middle East. This project, however, is not primarily linked to an interest in literature or poetry, and my new projects will move in decidedly different directions. One of my current projects, a cultural and intellectual genealogy of anticommunism and sectarianism in the twentieth century, is directly inspired by my reading of Iraqi poetry and will no doubt incorporate serious analysis of poetry as an historical source, but certainly not to the same extent as The Dangers of Poetry. Another project grapples with the lived experience of colonialism and “democracy” in the colonial Middle East, a theme that interested me in my dissertation research but receded as my project shifted toward a history of poetry. In thinking about this broader project of Iraqi cultural history, I see these studies of poetry, sectarianism, and democracy emphasizing the same links between literary, intellectual, social, cultural, and political history that I have uncovered in The Dangers of Poetry.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher.