Spring brought poetry from the inaugural round of the Dubai International Poetry Festival (4-10 March) to this week’s issue of Cairo’s most popular literary publication, Akhbar Al Adab, which dedicated its Bustan (Orchard) department to poetry criticism and poets’ testimonies: Youssef Rakha considers a maligned genre
In a video interview about Lost Highway, the American director David Lynch describes his ideal film as an abstract composition, a sort of audiovisual symphony. Then again, Lynch says that a film seldom works for the viewer without the benefit of a compelling narrative. In his own work he would rather do away with the narrative side of film-making, he says, but he endeavours to have enough story-line to keep people watching.
Lynch suggests there is a chasm between imagery and storytelling – which seems particularly relevant to contemporary Arabic writing in Egypt. Since the establishment critic Gabir Asfour made his millennial declaration that we are living in “the Age of the Novel” (zaman arruwayah), the idea of a contest between poets and novelists in which the latter are beating the former has sparked much ludicrous debate.
No reliable statistics have established that more novels are being sold now than a decade or two ago, or more novels than “diwans” of poems. But this is the prevailing belief; and the response of poets has ranged from publishing novels to holding a personal grudge against Asfour.
At the JW Marriott, Kuwait, attendance of the annual Alarabi Magazine Symposium (held on 2-4 March to mark the Kuwaiti institution’s 51st anniversary) was embarrassingly low until the final session – devoted to poetry. Prodded perhaps by embarrassment, perhaps by the presence at the podium of the south Lebanon poet Mohammad Ali Shamseddin – together with the Kuwaiti poets Saadiyah Mifrih and Salah Dabshah – previously m.i.a. invitees now nearly filled the hall.
Ironically it was Asfour of all people who replaced the co-ordinator of the session, the poet and patron of literature Abdulaziz Al-Babbatin, who could not make it to the seminar. Asfour was joined at the podium by another establishment critic, Salah Fadl – speaking in his capacity as head of the jury of the Abu Dhabi-based television programme Amir Ashshu’ara’ (Prince of Poets).
Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is the standard-Arabic edition of the pan-Arab Nabati (or Bedouin Colloquial) verse competition programme Sha’ir Al-Milyon (Millions’ Poet) – phenomenally popular in the Gulf – in which millions are awarded to the best poems written in free verse (ashshi’r alhorr, also known as shi’r attaf’ilah). Free verse breaks up and intermingles different metric schemes from ‘Aroud Al-Khalil (the compendium of metrical rules put together by Ibn Ahmad Al-Farahidi in the eighth century), partly or wholly doing away with rhyme. The taf’ilah – as this form’s rhythmic unit came to be called – may have emerged as early as the 1930s, but it did not achieve recognition until the 1960s.
Though some Sixties Generation poets wrote prose (Mohammad Al-Maghout and Sargon Boulos), the last generation of household-name poets (Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Qabbani) wrote free verse. After its heyday towards the end of the 1960s, free verse continued to appear, without making much of an impact, until the emergence in the 1990s of a new kind of prose poem showed up its anachronism more clearly than ever before.
Fadl did not cite the pre-eminance of the prose poem as a reason to reject the Age of the Novel, but he did point out that rejecting it is not unjustified. The prose poem remains the one original and definable form to have cohered and stood out since the 1990s, when said Age is supposed to have dawned. The novel, on the other hand, has fluctuated considerably, defined and redefined itself, and dithered at many crossroads without moving very far in any direction.
Whatever you think about this, ferocious exchanges will probably continue to take place. What is missing is a responsible discussion of what each genre actually constitutes.
The case for Arabic poetry in prose is resolved in practise; in recent memory hardly a single self-respecting talent has produced any verse. Yet it remains officially on the table, while “novel” – the youngest genre in the language, barely 100 years old, as opposed to the 1,400-year-old verse tradition – has become the catch-all term for almost any literary writing typeset in paragraphs rather than lines.
Memoir, autobiography, travel writing, sequence of short stories or essays, reportage, erotica, and of course extended poem: all are unthinkingly stamped NOVEL (by writers and publishers alike). In the absence of corrective classification, this makes Asfour’s epochal declaration redundant.
With the gradual emergence of popular non-fiction books like Khalid Al-Khamisi’s Taxi, classification is slowly improving. But the prose poem is still at best ignored. At worst it is subjected to a notoriously retarded attack by the poet Ahmad Abdelmo’ti Higazi, a didactic figure whose authority rests less on either enduring significance or sales figures than short-lived critical acclaim in the 1960s and a career in government institutions since.
Had Fadl mentioned the prose poem by name, however, he would have underlined the fact that, in restricting its scope to free verse, Amir Al-Shu’ara’ is in effect ignoring the most interesting poetry being written in Arabic today. Even within the Gulf, where verse traditions are more alive and tastes more conservative than elsewhere, only prose poets (Ibrahim Al-Mulla and Khalid Al-Budour in the UAE, for example) have achieved pan-Arab recognition.
Instead, Fadl stressed the role of TV – and, implicitly, of course, cash – in spreading the word about the Arabs’ trademark legacy at a time of relative decline. He did not touch on the absurdity inherent in quantifying “the success of the poem” compared to another poem. He did not deal with the implications of evaluating poetry through a system of points awarded by s.m.s., among other means. And he did not suggest that there may be better ways to financially serve poetry (which there are: the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which funds both programmes, still does not have a single publishing house to its name). Only Shamseddin, the most cogent speaker by far, made any reference to the difference between poetry and verse.
Perhaps inevitably, in the presence of Asfour, the proceedings centred on poetry during the Age of the Novel – whether or not, and how (if not through television) poetry can “extend” into an Age other than its own. But the to-and-fro between Fadl and Asfour failed to show how, while the prose poem is attacked or ignored, the novel which is not a novel acts to obscure the meaning of narrative. On the one hand there is the perception that novels may be selling because they tell stories; on the other, the fact that, whether or not they are selling, the books called novels are by and large un-story-like.
Egypt has an emergent, as yet vaguely articulated magic realist movement. Its authors – Hamdi Abugolail, Ibrahim Farghali, Mustafa Zikri, and, more recently, Tarek Imam, among others – are more or less atypically un-poetic. But aside from the new fictional realms intimated – or, rather, promised – by their work, the novel per se has contributed little to Arabic literature since the 1990s. Its function has been to transport the achievements of the prose poem to a place where they are safe from being attacked for making a clean break with the ‘Aroud. Higazi suffered censure for his pre-modern stand.
But someone has yet to attack the novel for identity theft.
In retrospect, notwithstanding the Age, extensions across or within, many have come to see free verse as an involuntary stopgap. It was the means for a verse-dominated culture to ease itself away from the ancient drum beats of the desert and the twinkle-twinkle cadences of a love song by Om Kulthoum – past the 1960s countless affirmations of and arguments with the aptly named ‘amoud (pillar) of traditional verse – and into an image-driven, down-to-earth music all its own.
Like many facets of Arab modernity, it seems, the free verse revolution was half-hearted and timorous. It could not be effective until the liberation of language and emotion that it implied was carried to its logical conclusion. But when eventually, at last, it came time for people to realise their poetic modernity in full, they ended up going on stage to an all but empty auditorium. Still, they performed anyway.
By the 1990s, in occasional publications like Al-Kitabah Al-Ukhrah and Al-Garad, incandescent talents like Iman Mersal and Ahmad Yamani were reinventing language. They de-ideologised discourse, de-nationalised human concerns, and acknowledged their (post) modern identity in genuine rather than authentic registers.
Accepting bare-headed status, they no longer wore the fez of free verse, much less the turban of the ‘Aroud. But it was hard to prove that, in taking these off, they had not slipped on Ataturk’s self-hating hat behind Higazi’s back. What can only be described as ancestor worship came in the way of Nineties Generation poets being immediately recognised or celebrated.
So did the insecurity of taf’ilah gurus suddenly realising that their role had not been quite as “historical” as they had thought, and that their insurgent energy may in fact have been reactionary.
Anyway, by then talented Sixties Generation writers like Ibrahim Aslan and Mohammad Al-Bisati – precisely by debasing narrative – had contributed to the loss of what little readership existed when they emerged on the scene. Themselves arguably frustrated prose poets, they excelled at short stories but caught the germ of obsessive novel disorder.
Now that the readership seems to be regrouping (around them as much as younger so called novelists), the Nineties prose poem – the only true agent of change – is the farthest from being a beneficiary of the good fortune.