Thinking About Beginnings: A Conversation with Robyn Creswell

Where to start?

By Tugrul Mende

In 1975, Edward Said wrote, in his Beginnings: Intention & Method, “The beginning is always a first step from which (except on rare occasions) something follows. So beginnings play a role, if not always a very clearly understood one.” In 2019, Robyn Creswell, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, investigated the beginnings of a significant mid-century literary movement in his book City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut.

In this interview, Creswell talks not only about how he began thinking about the poets examined in the book, but also how it’s connected to his current projects, which include the translation of a poetry collection by the great Egyptian writer Iman Mersal.

Two years have passed since you published City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, which concentrates on poets such as Adonis,Yusuf al-Khal and Unsi al-Hajj. The book got attention even outside academia, both in English and Arabic; did you expect this?

Robyn Creswell: My book is about a group of difficult—even, at times, wilfully hermetic—poets, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the attention. The dynamics of Cold War culture have received a lot of scrutiny lately, as the archives keep coughing up their secrets, and I’m pleased that scholars of modernism have taken note as well. I’m sure much of the interest in my book stems from an interest in Adonis, who is a vital and also controversial thinker. In the Arabic-language press, some reviews have focused on my treatment of his political stances: his initial support for the 1979 Revolution in Iran, for example, and his refusal to support the uprising in Syria in the spring 2011. These are subjects I address in some detail, but my deeper argument is that thinking about poetry and politics together can shed light in both directions.

Adonis‘ role and impact has changed a lot in the last two decades. Do you remember the first time you read work by Adonis, and how it seemed different from the work by other poets you discuss in your book?

RC: Anybody who studies Arabic literature quickly understands how central poetry is to that tradition. My teachers encouraged me to study and memorize poems (helpful when learning i’rab) and I was struck by the strong opinions they held about Adonis in particular. Even those who disliked him agreed that he was a major thinker, someone who had the whole history of Arabic poetry at his fingertips. Adonis‘s poems, as well as his work as a critic and editor, aim to revise our understanding of what Arabic poetry has been in the past and might be in the future. It’s a mind-bogglingly ambitious project, and it distinguishes him from the other poets at Shiʿr magazine. Adonis is a true poeta doctus. I’ve learned a great deal about Arabic poetry, intellectual history, and modern political culture just by reading (and often disagreeing with) his work. 

I’m not sure, by the way, that Adonis’s role has changed all that much during the past few decades. One argument of my book is that the commitments he developed during his years at Shiʿr have been remarkably durable, despite the twists and turns of Arab history since that time. I understand why many were disappointed by his reaction to the Syrian uprisings—I was too—but I don’t think it was intellectually dishonest or inconsistent.     

What was special about their journal Shi‘r? When did the focus on this journal began to emerge?

RC: What made Shiʿr distinct from other magazines of the period—and the kiosks of Beirut in the 1950s were jam-packed with journals—is that it was self-consciously and systematically modernist.

I think that modernism (al-hadatha) meant two very specific things for these thinkers: first, that Modernism (al-hadatha) meant two very specific things for these thinkers: first, that poetry should be separated from politics. Poetry, for Adonis and his colleagues, is a self-sufficient or autonomous activity. This stance put them at odds with engagé poets and critics—Marxist or nationalist—for whom the doctrine of iltizam (engagement)was crucial. The Shiʿr poets didn’t pluck the idea of autonomy out of the air, though: the insistence on art’s separation from politics was a commonplace of the post-war era. This was the moment when Clement Greenberg began promoting modernist art as distinct from—and more advanced than—the art of the Soviet Union, which he viewed as a form of propaganda. To say that one was making modernist art was, in this view, to free oneself from the constraints of ideology. But as I say in the book, artistic autonomy was an ideological stance in its own right.

The Shiʿr poets‘ second argument about modernism was that it encoded a particular kind of internationalism. They were determined, as Yusuf al-Khal put it, to put Arabic poetry on “the map of world literature.” Their eagerness to participate in the forums of international (especially American and European) modernism reflected their desire to break out of what they regarded as the parochialism of their own heritage.

Internationalism and autonomy were actually two sides of the same coin. For the modernists, putting Arabic poetry on the map of world literature meant jettisoning one‘s local political affiliations. It‘s no coincidence that most Shiʿr poets joined the magazine just as they were disassociating themselves from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (another subject my book examines in detail).

In the introduction you write that your book “is situated at the crossroads of poetry criticism and intellectual history.“ Why this crossroads, and how does it reflect the particular “beginnings” in your book?

RC: I think Arab poets are best seen as public intellectuals: that is, thinkers who address themselves to a wide audience on subjects of broad communal concern. Arab poets played a central role in debates over decolonization, feminism, secularism, and the conflict with Israel. That poets play a public role is obvious in cases like Mahmoud Darwish or Nizar Qabbani, but I think it’s also true of relatively “difficult” poets such as Adonis.

It’s important to emphasize that the interventions poets make in political debates take the form of poems: they don‘t slot abstract dogmas into verse molds. No—they actually think in poetry. For example, I don’t think one can really understand Adonis‘ attitude toward the poetic heritage (turath) without taking into account his way of thinking about and writing elegies (marthiya). In a similar vein, Darwish’s most complex response to the Oslo process was his poem, “Eleven Planets.“ Of course, my sense that political history is crucial to understanding poetry contrasts with the modernists’ belief that poetry is a self-sufficient pursuit: I don’t think that‘s a productive or historically accurate way of thinking about poetry and its place in the world.

What do you hope results from your book, in the study of Arab modernism and modernist poets?

RC: My book was published only two years ago and scholarly views change slowly. City of Beginnings isn’t intended as a comprehensive survey of the work done by the Beiruti modernists. I wanted to situate the movement within a particular historical conjunction—the early Cold-War, Lebanon’s so-called Golden Age, the global moment of late modernism—and to examine some of the group’s most important texts: Adonis’s early collection Aghani Mihyar, Unsi al-Hajj’s Lan, the criticism and translations of Yusuf al-Khal. I also wanted to suggest how much remains to be studied. Shiʿr published a huge amount of poetry, translations, and essays, and I hope my book encourages future scholars to dig deeper into this archive. That’s become much easier now that the magazine’s entire print run has been digitized.

Did you talk with poets who were influenced by this movement? How does this particular beginning stand today, within the contemporary literary scene?

RC: One of my book’s chapters looks at the debates that swirled around the qasidat al-nathr, or prose poem, which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began writing in the late 1950s. The Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika argued that the qasidat al-nathr wasn’t an Arabic form of poetry at all; she called it “a strange and heretical innovation.” Mahmoud Darwish was wary of it, too. But of course the prose poem is now a dominant form in Arabic verse—even for poets who don’t view themselves as influenced by Adonis, or feel at all friendly to his intellectual project. The poets I’ve talked to are interested in the history I trace, but they aren’t constrained by it: the historical origins of a form don’t determine its later evolution, though I do think it retains a certain relevance. 

I have the sense, from talking to and translating younger poets, that many of them feel more affinity with the prose poetry of Muhammad al-Maghut, a collaborator with Shiʿr in its early days, who eventually drifted away from the movement. Al-Maghut‘s poetic persona—a kind of Syrian everyman: obscene, hilarious, self-loathing, uninterested in ideology—as well as his rather straightforward style, have made him appealing to younger poets. A student of mine, Daniel Behar, has written a brilliant dissertation on al-Maghout’s afterlife, in Syria in particular.

In one of your more recent pieces, “Poets in Prose: Genre & History in the Arabic Novel,” you discuss novels such as Youssef Rakha‘s The Crocodile and Naguib Mahfouz‘s The Cairo Trilogy. You quote Mahfouz saying, “The novel is the poetry of the modern world.“ What relationship do you see between the Arabic novel and poetry?

RC: That’s a big question. In the Dadaelus article, I look at some Arabic novels that feature poets as protagonists. For example, the narrator of Tayeb Salih’s A Season of Migration to the North is a scholar of poetry. His relationship with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed begins with the recitation of a poem by Ford Maddox Ford and ends with the narrator completing a poem begun by his now dead doppelgänger. Youssef Rakha’s lively recent novel is about a group of sexed-up, avant-garde poets—think Roberto Bolaño—in the waning years of the Mubarak regime. I suppose my largest argument in the essay was that novelists often use poetry as a foil for thinking about those aspects of the cultural past that seem utterly out-of-date but also (or perhaps therefore) immensely attractive. Rakha’s scribblers know that poetry is in some sense no longer relevant, but they’re obsessed by it anyway.      

How does any interest in poetry relate to your translation of Sonallah Ibrahim‘s novel That Smell? In what way was the translation process for you different, working on this novel vs. on poetry?

RC: Sonallah is a fiercely un-poetic writer. Especially in early work like That Smell, he wants to rub the reader‘s nose in the prosaic—even unbeautiful—quality of his writing, as well as the world he’s describing: the wreckage of late twentieth-century Cairo. Translating that novella, I wanted my English to be as uncompromising and bleak as the original. When I translate Iman Mersal, whose poems I’ve been working on for several years now, my concerns are of course distinct. Iman shares Sonallah’s concern for the quotidian and his mistrust of conventionally beautiful language, but her voice is completely different: it has a sinuous, rough-edged music that’s a challenge and a delight to translate.

For instance here, in “I dreamt of you.”

If City of Beginnings is a beginning, how did it lead to — or relate to — your next book, The Ruins: Arabic Poetry in an Age of Extremes?

RC: City of Beginnings is about a small but influential group of poets and their political milieu. My current book, The Ruins: Arabic Poetry in an Age of Extremes works on a larger canvas. It‘s an intellectual history of the post-War Arab world as told through the lives and works of its representative poets: Darwish, al-Sayyab, Qabbani, Sargon Boulus, al-Mala’ika, and others. I’m interested in how these thinkers made poetry live in the present by rewiring ancient tropes. For example, I look at how they used the classical figure of the atlal—the ruined desert campsite—to articulate contemporary dislocations. After the Nakba, the destroyed villages of historical Palestine presented themselves to Darwish as so many ruins: sites of melancholy return and unfulfilled longing. My hope is that the book can suggest how poetry remains a powerful way of thinking about—and perhaps even changing—the world.

One book I‘ve taken special inspiration from in writing my book is the tenth-century compendium of tales about poets and singers, Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani‘s Kitab al-Aghani [The Book of Songs]. It’s a panorama of literary culture that uses biographical anecdotes—and extensive citations of verse—to tell a history of the relations between artists and state power, as well as the fate of poetry. It’s a great read.  

Are there any particular novels or authors that you would like to (begin to) see in translation, or are thinking of translating yourself?

RC: Right now, I’m finishing my translation of Iman’s collection, The Threshold, which will be published next year. I don’t have any other translation projects on the horizon, but I’ve recently been reading the works of the Egyptian historian Sharif Younis. His books on Nasserist populism and the career of Sayid Qutb are deeply researched and elegantly argued. I’ve learned so much about modern Egyptian history from reading him, and many others would too if he were published in English.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.

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1 Comment

  1. Many thanks for this wonderful interview. I just finished reading the book, and it’s well-worth reading for anyone. Brilliant topic, and brilliant tribute to a city that proved colossal in shaping Arab cultures for decades. The book was also well-reviewed in The New York Times Review of Books.

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