In 1967 a penniless 23-year-old Iraqi, with no documentation, applied to the American embassy in Beirut for a visa to enter the US. A writer, he claimed an intimate knowledge of American poetry. He was called to meet the ambassador, who asked him about poetry. He started with Walt Whitman
and referred to many contemporary Beat poets, of whom the ambassador had not heard. But he was impressed. “Enough!” he said, “you’ve got it.” The young man went to New York, and on to San Francisco, which became his home for the next 40 years.The young man was Sargon Boulus, who has died in Berlin aged 63, after some months of poor health.
Sargon was born in al-Habbaniyah, on the Euphrates in Iraq, to an Assyrian family. The British had provided the Assyrians, an ancient but threatened Christian sect, speaking its own Semitic language, with a safe haven near a military base. His family moved to Kirkuk, where Sargon had his secondary education. He started writing poetry aged 12. His first published poem came a year or two later since when, as he wrote, “I haven’t stopped. It just grabbed me, this magic of words, of music.”
It was an exciting time for Arabic poetry, with a rejection of classical forms that had held sway for a millennium and more. Beirut was the centre of experimental poetry, especially the magazine Shi’r (Poetry), edited by Yusuf al-Khal. When he was 17, Sargon sent some poems to Yusuf al-Khal that were immediately published. He was encouraged to go to Beirut and made the journey from Baghdad with no identification papers, avoiding public transport and official border posts. He was warmly welcomed by the innovative poets based in Beirut and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, gathering at the Horseshoe cafe with other writers, and writing for the newspaper al-Nahar. He was picked up by police as an illegal immigrant and jailed. Friends intervened and he applied, successfully, for entry to the US.
In San Francisco, he became part of the Beat generation. Sargon lived on the edge, running a Middle Eastern restaurant, writing and translating, demonstrating for native American rights and against the Vietnam war. He introduced Arab readers to Allen Ginsberg, Carl Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He became intoxicated by the classical English poets and translated Shakespeare’s sonnets, as well as Shelley, Ezra Pound, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. At his death, he left uncompleted a major study and translation of the writings of WH Auden.
He wrote his own poetry, feeling savage about the limitations of Arabic and the upholders of formal classical traditions. He talked about “linguistic fundamentalists”. Arabic, thought Sargon, “is always too full of decoration, unnecessary words and fat – linguistic fat. I’m cutting it like a butcher and I’m trying to show the bones behind the flesh and I think that’s something worth doing.” He wrote poetry in Assyrian, Arabic and English.
He spent time in Athens and Germany, where Iraqi publisher Khalid al-Maaly helped promote his work. He was also a journalist and translated romantic novels into Arabic. From 1998 he was a consultant editor of Banipal, a London-based magazine of Arab literature, and a prolific contributor, translating a range of contemporary Arab poetry into clear and concise English.
Sargon worked hard, played hard and travelled hard. His last years were dogged by ill-health, but he was working and writing to the end. He is survived by his partner of several decades; she shares a name with film star Elke Sommer.
· Sargon Boulus, poet, born 1944; died October 22 2007