This chapter comes from Adonis’s Ha Anta Ayyuha al-Waqt (Look, Oh Time, 1993). Here, Adonis describes “distinct friendship developed with [Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab], both personal and poetic, which I consider among the deepest experiences of friendship that I have known“:
When al-Sayyab Visited Beirut in 1957
Translated by Ghareeb Iskander
The arrival of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab to Beirut in the spring of 1957, invited by the journal of Shi‘r (poetry), was a poetic-cultural event. His coming reminds us of previous visits by Arab poets before him, from [Ahmed] Shawqi to Badawi al-Jabal. Beirut was a meeting point between the desire to get out of the ideological ‘Arab culture of the establishment’, and the desire to expose cultural repression – a symbol of freedom and liberation. Being on the margin of the Arab political level, Beirut was the leading Arab cultural body. This is one aspect of its unique artistic contradictions. Hence, it was a medium that allowed Arabs to meet many precious things that were distant wishes and dreams in other Arab circles. Therefore, its appeal was not only intellectual, but also psychological.
With [al-Sayyab’s] arrival, the literary community was moving and active – as if you were seeing the body of the Arabic language pulsing with the unity of Arab culture, and the unity of Arabic poetry. In the midst of that political ashes that dominated Arab life, you could see, thanks to poetry, a flame rising from behind the ashes.
However, there is a difference between the visit of al-Sayyab and the visit of his predecessors, is that Shawqi or others, for example, used to connect the reader with the experience of memory, while al-Sayyab connects the reader with life experience. The former was obsessed about stability and the anxiety about the retention and continuity [of past culture], and the latter had the obsession of transformation and the anxiety of exploration and discovery.
In the poetic meeting that the journal prepared for him, al-Sayyab presented the issue of Arabic poetry with a broad vision and an influential perspective. He introduced his poems, which he delivered at the Great Forum of the American University of Beirut, with a powerful oversight that gave the poet the role of a seer who gives poetry the task of creating a humane world dominated by the values of freedom, beauty, and goodness.
He said: “If I have to depict the modern poet, I would not find a closer image than the image imprinted in my mind of Saint John, his eyes devoured by his vision, seeing the seven sins spread over the world, as if they were a gigantic octopus”.
Poetic intuition, in this perspective, is a companion to religious intuition. The truth, as al-Sayyab said, is that poetry and religion are “twins” – “Just as the boundaries between the end and the means in religion have vanished, so these boundaries have vanished in poetry as well. We believe and become religious, not in pursuit of worldly interest. We read poetry (and write it) not in search of materialized benefit. But we know that religion has a noble purpose, and so does poetry”.
Although some poets, in the context of history, tried to avoid “the huge duty: to interpret and change the world”, these attempts failed, because this duty is at the core of poetic practice.
Perhaps, because of this, the reader does not understand great poetry as much as he is alarmed by it, as T.S. Eliot underlined. This is because “reading a great poem is like labour pains, a kind of birth. Man is born only through pain”. And if poetry is a reflection of life, it must be gloomy and terrifying, because we live in a world “as if it were a terrible nightmare”. It is the nature of poetry here to discover “on the soul, the arms of the gigantic octopus of the seven sins, who slams it and almost strangles it. But as long as life continues, the hope of salvation remains with life. It is the hope that the soul will awaken, and this is what modern poetry tries [to do]”.
So, what is this world in which the poet lives? It is a “world in which there is no poetry and in which non-poetic values prevail, and where the ultimate word is for materialism”. And because of that, it is cold and rigid, and the poet has to resort to means that spread some heat and warmth, and surrounds it with dreams and with the kindness of the primary innocence. Among the most important of these are “the myths that still retain their warmth, because they are not part of this world”. From these myths, the poet creates “symbols from which he builds worlds that defy the logic of gold and iron”. He himself creates “new myths” too.
Modern Arabic poetry, in its attempts to create a new world, opens “all the windows of its house to all winds”. And if its pioneer representatives are still in the beginning of their creative experiment, they are fully confident that they are “paving the way for a new generation of poets, who will make Arabic poetry readable in the whole world”.
The audience that listened to Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was not used to such a discourse about poetry. They were surprised, but with an overwhelming tendency for admiration. And if we add to his talk (published in Shi‘r (3), summer 1957), the conversations on the Lebanese radio and in al-Nahar and al- Jarida newspapers, and the private meetings and seminars, we realize to what extent those ten days he spent in Beirut were full with: the ideas he evoked about modern Arabic poetry in particular; poetry in general; and the literary activity he generated. Thus, his visit to Beirut turned into a symbol of unity among the poets of Arab modernity in this horizon that they opened onto Arabic culture and the future.
From the moment we met Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, we felt that despite our geographical distance, we had a unity of direction and aspiration. Thus, his presence among us increased our confidence in what we write, and in what we say. And in the course of our discussions, we discovered how dialogue among poets haunted by poetry is a kind of reminder of things they know. There is no arguing, no obstinacy, though sometimes we disagree on some details, and no desire to show-off, no presumptuous, but humility with an open insight that is only bound by the essence of the poetry. It was as if a deep understanding brought us together, as if our dialogue was nothing but a telling signal and a sign of remembrance.
A distinct friendship developed with him, both personal and poetic, which I consider among the deepest experiences of friendship that I have known. I felt that if he had told me, for example, that I think you should give up the poetry you have written so far, I would not have hesitated for a moment to give it up. He, too, felt the same way. After we agreed during his visit to publish a collection of poems in the Publishing House of Shi‘r, he put in my hands all his output, and gave me complete freedom to decide what is suitable for publication and what is not. This is how I chose for him the collection of poems published under the title Hymn of the Rain, and recommended that the rest to be put aside. He agreed to what I did, without any discussion, or any question.
When poetry is the poet’s first existential passion, and when it is his basis of looking, and the light that illuminates his approach to things and the world, his behavior itself becomes poetry: the little things – envy, jealousy, competition – are nullified, and poetry turns into a kind of magic that unites all poets, and engulfs life innocence and purity. Rather, poets become one person with many voices. And when a poet says to his other brother: I do not like this or that poem of yours, change this, modify or delete that, the other poet feels as if he is hearing himself, as if what he hears is coming out of his mouth.
When I compare the poetic relationship that developed between me and Badr Shakir al-Sayyab with the relationships prevailing among Arab poets, I wonder: were we in an illusion, or in a dream? Were we wrong, and they were right? And I wonder: can a small-hearted, liar or hater be a poet? Is poetry intrinsically linked to high morals, nobility of mind and heart?
The poems of Badr Shaker Al-Sayyab published by Shi‘r before the release of his collection Hymn of the Rain are not only among the most beautiful that he wrote, but are also among the most beautiful poems in modern Arabic poetry. And one of these poems – “The River and Death” — is among the seminal keys that allow us to discover distinguishing characteristics in modern poetic experience, especially at the level of poetic language.
I remember now Badr Shakir al-Sayyab – I see him in our house, with a group of friends, sitting on small straw chairs, sharing a table, or improvising a seat on the floor. And we see him reading his poetry in a voice that rises from a hidden depth as if it was rising from a reed as tall as Arab history. And we listen to the visitor from Basra, which an Arab historian described as “the heart of the world” – we listen to him transporting us to the heart of poetry.
This chapter was selected, with a permission from the author, from Ha Anta Ayyuha al-Waqt (Look, Oh Time), (Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 1993).
A perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Adonis, born Ali Ahmed Said Esber in the Syrian village Al-Qassabin in 1930, is one of the most influential modern Arab poets and cultural critics. He has received numerous honors, including the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the Goethe Prize, and the PEN/Nabokov Award. The most recent translation of his works is Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Ivan Eubanks.
Ghareeb Iskander is an Iraqi poet living in London. He published serval books including A Chariot of Illusion (Exiled Writers Ink, London 2009); Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, a bilingual collection, which won Arkansas University’s Arabic Translation Award for 2015 (Syracuse University Press, New York 2016); English Poetry and Modern Arabic Verse: Translation and Modernity (I. B. Tauris, London 2021). He was the featured writer of Scottish Pen in 2014. Ghareeb received his PhD from SOAS, University of London in comparative literature with an emphasis on literary translation.
Reading T.S. Eliot in Arabic: A Talk with Ghareeb Iskander
How inspiring. Could it be possible to meet Adonis?
What a wonderful surprise! Many thanks to ArabLit in Translation and to Ghareeb Iskander for this valuable piece of cultural history. (R. Creswell’s City of Beginnings about Beirut and its contributions to modern Arab cultures also revisits the 1950s in insightful narratives.)
Muhammad al-Maghut also has a short recollection of one of Al-Sayyab’s visits to Beirut in his collection “Sa’akhuunu WaTanii” I translated this vignette and a few others, and they were published in Al-`Arabiyya in 1992–available on JSTOR.
Shukran Gordon for the Maghut note. Al-Maghut always reminds me of the sad fate of his wife–a much better poet and a more humble human being than Al-Maghut himself.
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