Modernism in Translation: Poetry and Intellectual History in Beirut

Robyn Creswell

Yale University

In his preface to the 1983 reissue of Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Albert Hourani wrote an evenhanded and acute consideration of his own work.1 While affirming the basic validity of his approach and conclusions, Hourani notes one change of emphasis he would make now, were he to write the book again, and also points to a lacuna. In addition to close readings of the intellectuals he treats, Hourani suggests that it would have been useful to ask, “How and why the ideas of my writers had an influence on the minds of others.”2 Such a history, he writes, would pay more attention to the changing “structure of society,” to significant differences among Arab countries, and to the media of intellectual debate. It is with respect to this last area of study, what Hourani calls “the process of communication,” that he notes, without elaboration, one shortcoming of his own book: “The ideas I was concerned with did not spread only through the writings of those whose work I studied, but were mediated to a larger public in writings of another kind, and above all in poetry.”3

Two poets who enjoyed wide audiences and played significant roles in the spread of such new ideas were Gibran Khalil Gibran and Ahmad Shawqi. Gibran helped to popularize Nietzschean concepts among Levantine intellectuals, as well as to reintroduce, via Blake and Carlyle, the rivalry between poetry and prophecy to Arabic letters.4 Similarly, the language of Arab solidarity and Egyptian patriotism that characterizes Shawqi’s poetry, and accounts for some of its popularity, might have illuminated historical analyses of such Nahdawi intellectuals as Rashid Rida, Constantine Zurayk, and Satiʿ al-Husri. Shawqi’s well-known elegy for Damascus, “Nakbat Dimashq,” a poem composed after the French shelling during the Syrian Revolt of 1925–1927, is one instance of his powerful pan-Arab, anti-colonial rhetoric. In the poet’s address to his Syrian confreres, we hear distant echoes of al-Husri and other theorists who insisted on the primacy of language in creating national bonds: “I have given you counsel, and though our dwellings differ in our cares we are all from the East. / Though our countries are separate, we are bound by one undivided speech and one eloquence.”5

The importance of poets to the intellectual life of the Middle East increased markedly after the end of World War II. During the 1960s, a number of poets from across the Arab world, such as Mahmoud Darwish, ʿAbd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, and Abdellatif Laabi, rose to prominence as public intellectuals. Identifiably engagé, in the populist sense that Arab intellectuals understood the Sartrean ideal, they addressed questions of politics and culture for a broad audience. Darwish and Laabi also founded important literary magazines, al-Karmil and Souffles respectively, which published original and translated poetry as well as political essays. Even poets who argued against the theory and practice of iltizam (commitment), such as the Beiruti modernists I will discuss in this essay, nonetheless engaged in wide-ranging debates about the relationships between politics and culture, East and West, the institutions of religion and the institutions of power. To write an intellectual history of this era without taking its poets into account would be at best incomplete, though many intellectual historians continue to do just that.6 There is a good reason for this exclusion, which is that historians of ideas are rarely trained to analyze the specialized rhetoric and formal conventions of poetry. But without immersion into the particulars of that tradition, an intellectual history of the modern Middle East will remain partial and abstract. One hope for this chapter is to suggest the existence of a largely unexplored archive for intellectual historians, as well as the necessity for poetry critics of doing intellectual history.

In the wake of World War II, Arab poets played a leading role in debates over the concept of modernity or modernism (“al-hadatha” translates both English words). Anxiety about the definition of “modernity” is perhaps the most reliable symptom of the thing itself. This debate, which was also, inevitably, a debate about “tradition,” is arguably the most contentious subject of recent intellectual history in Arabic. Arguments about al-hadatha quickly bled into others about secularism, feminism, and development.7 The Beiruti modernists clustered around the quarterly Shiʿr (Poetry) (1957–64, 1967–70) made al-hadatha the crux of their literary and ideological project, which sought to redefine the parameters of Arabic culture by insisting on its internationalization and depoliticization. Their contribution to the debate over al-hadatha was systematic and far-reaching. Of course, poets were not the only intellectuals to take part in this dispute, as the voluminous literature on “Islamic modernities” attests. And indeed, the religious and literary debates shared many tropes, including the crucial one of “renewal” (al-tajdid), which programmed many attempts to revisit and reinterpret the theological and jurisprudential heritage, from Jamal al-Din al-Afghani to Hasan Hanafi.8 But while the question of modernity and Islam has been extensively researched, scholarly treatments of Arabic poetic modernism are relatively rare, particularly in English.9 It is often taken for granted that “modern” or “modernist” poetry in Arabic is simply a poetry with few formal constraints. “Modern” poems are thus irregularly rhymed or not rhymed at all, and they are loosely metered (as in the case of al-shiʿr al-hurr [free verse], pioneered by the Iraqi poets Nazik al-Malaʾika and al-Bayati) or not metered at all (as in the case of the Lebanese qasidat al-nathr, which I will address later on). On this reading, most recent poetry in Arabic might be considered “modernist.”10 But while questions of prosody are doubtless important, they hardly exhaust the topic. Instead, I will suggest that a study of literary modernism in Arabic quickly expands into adjacent fields of cultural politics, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and intellectual genealogy.

Beiruti modernism was a movement of multiple translations – translations of European and American poetry, first of all, but also of the classical past. These translations were undertaken as part of a project for the “renewal” and “modernization” of Arabic culture. The original texts and methods of transmission were carefully chosen as elements of an ambitious attempt to reestablish the bases of literary and intellectual authority. In this sense, the Shiʿr movement was a continuation of certain strands within the nineteenth century Nahda, in which translations of European texts played an important role in determining the discourse of Arab or Islamic modernity.11 A methodological focus on the act of translation has the additional benefit of avoiding debates about imitation and authenticity, which continue to constrain studies of modern Arabic literature. Beiruti modernism cannot be understood either as the copy of a European prototype or as a betrayal of the Arabic poetic tradition. Instead, I would suggest that a concretely historical study of how “modernism/modernity” was transmitted into Arabic intellectual life at a particular time and place – in this case, Beirut in its so-called golden age around the middle of the twentieth century – may serve as an example of how to study the transmission of other putative universals, such as human rights, reason, and development, which continue to be contentious topics of debate in the Arab world.

Arabic Modernism as Late Modernism

The modernist movement in Lebanon was a classic example of the phenomenon, a gathering of exiles and émigrés who, between 1955 and 1975, established themselves in West Beirut, “the closest the Arab world could ever get to having its own ‘Greenwich Village,’” in the words of sociologist Samir Khalaf. The neighborhood of Hamra, writes Khalaf in a somewhat nostalgic vein that still typifies historical accounts of this period, was “the only genuinely ‘open’ community in the entire Arab world,” a place where there was “room for everyone: the devout and the heathen, pious puritans and graceless hedonists, left-wing radicals and ardent conservatives.”12 This milieu, centered on the American University, became a magnet for uprooted intellectuals from neighboring countries. West Beirut was a place with all the characteristics of what Roger Shattuck, in his study of the early Parisian avant-garde, has called “cosmopolitan provincialism”: an eclectic community of those from elsewhere, living on the margins of established culture.13 This modernist moment coincided with the rise of Beirut as the center of Arabic print culture, usurping the place hitherto held by Cairo. Lebanon’s liberal censorship laws attracted publishers and editors from all over the region. Many of these immigrant intellectuals were Palestinians, fleeing north in the wake of the 1948 Nakba. Subsequent waves were composed of Egyptians or Syrians escaping the increasingly repressive regimes of Nasser and the Baʿth. As Franck Mermier writes in his rich study of modern Lebanon’s print culture, “At the end of the 1950s, Lebanese publishing was able to transform itself into the crossroads of Arabic intellectual production. Unlike its competitors elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanese publishing enjoyed a striking degree of autonomy from the State and was held almost entirely in private hands.”14 In many retrospective accounts, the Lebanese capital in these two decades before the civil war is figured as a civic oasis in the midst of an authoritarian wasteland. It was an entrepôt of ideas and ideologies, a “laboratory of numerous and conflicting tendencies,” in the words of Adonis, a Syrian-Lebanese poet who was among West Beirut’s immigrants and who was also at the center of the modernist movement.15

Historians should pay more attention to political and cultural journals published in Beirut during this period since they were the key media that facilitated the spread of ideas, and therefore can be read as primary documents of modern intellectual history. Beirut’s sophisticated magazine culture is an especially rich resource in this respect, where many of the era’s debates were hatched and fought out. The chief organ of the modernist collective was Shiʿr (Poetry) magazine, a quarterly founded in 1957 by the Lebanese poet-critic Yusuf al-Khal and named after Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based magazine, which al-Khal encountered while living in the United States during the early fifties. Shiʿr published forty-four issues during the eleven years of its existence, including manifestos, poems, translations, criticism, and letters from abroad. Under al-Khal’s editorship, Shiʿr was a militantly internationalist magazine; its openness to foreign literature and ideas was one of the ways it defined its own modernity. At various moments, the magazine had correspondents in Cairo, Baghdad, Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, and it published a remarkable range of verse in translation: English-language poetry by Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, and T.S. Eliot; French poetry by Paul Valéry, Henri Michaux, Yves Bonnefoy, and St.-John Perse; Spanish poetry by Frederico García Lorca, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Octavio Paz; Italian by poetry Salvatore Quasimodo and Giuseppe Ungaretti; and German poetry by Gottfried Benn and Rainer Maria Rilke – and this is hardly an exhaustive list. Toward the end of the quarterly’s life, there were special issues on contemporary Armenian, Iranian, and Turkish poetry, as well as dossiers of Beat poetry and poetry from the Third World.16 The magazine’s book publishing arm, Dar Majallat Shiʿr, brought out al-Khal’s Anthology of American Poetry, his Selected Poems of Robert Frost, and a collaborative translation of poems by T.S. Eliot. The first issue of the magazine featured al-Khal’s version of Pound’s first Canto, which was already the English translation of a Latin translation of Homer.

Shiʿrs interest in translation was not unique among Lebanese literary magazines of this period, though it was especially pronounced. What did set al-Khal’s journal apart was its editorial stance, which posited an absolute separation between poetry and politics. As one collectively signed editorial put it, “Shiʿr magazine embodies non-factionalism [al-la madhhabiyya] in its richest sense: we mean non-partisanship [al-la tahazzubiyya], we mean a complete and universal openness that grants the person a space of freedom for his experimentation and dynamism. For us, the person is more important than the party, more important than ideology; for us, the person and his freedom come first, before anything else.”17 This rejection of the link between poetry and politics, as well as a corollary heroization of the uncommitted individual, was often reaffirmed. Poetic autonomy was in fact the movement’s central ideological plank. As al-Khal wrote in a subsequent editorial, “The poem as a work of art looks no further than itself, it is an independent creation, sufficient unto itself [muktafiya bi-dhatiha].”18

This rejection of politics was in part a reaction to a collective experience of political defeat. Most of the modernist group’s central figures, including Yusuf al-Khal, Khalil Hawi, Adonis, Khalida Saʿid, and Muhammad al-Maghut, were at one point members of Antun Saʿada’s Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a party founded in 1932 on a platform of Greater Syrian unity based on its geographical and historical integrity.19 Yusuf al-Khal was one of the earliest members, joining the party in the late 1930s while it was still a secret society, and Adonis was imprisoned for his militancy in the group, leading to his flight to Lebanon in 1956. Not unlike the Baʿth, Saʿada’s militantly secularist party was especially successful in attracting intellectuals from minoritarian backgrounds such as ʿAlawis, ʿIsmaʿilis, and Greek Orthodox such as Saʿada himself. As Labib Zuwiyya Yamak writes, somewhat schematically, “The Maronites opposed [the SSNP] because it negated the existence of a Lebanese nation, and the Muslims rejected it because of its avowed anti-Arab and anti-Muslim orientation. Consequently it was forced to seek its adherents among those dissatisfied groups and militant minorities that did not share the national aspirations of the majority.”20

By the time Shiʿr was founded, in 1957, the SSNP’s prospects were in steep decline – Saʿada himself was executed by the Lebanese authorities in 1949 – and all the modernists had cut their formal ties with the party. In subsequent writings about their time in the SSNP, the Shiʿr poets tended to describe their attraction to Saʿada’s thought in cultural rather than political terms. In a 1993 memoir of his early days in Beirut, Adonis acknowledged Saʿada’s influence, but suggested that he was chiefly important as a visionary of literary rather than political revolution. He stressed the significance of Saʿada’s “totalizing” vision of cultural renewal, his interest in Near Eastern myth, and his idea that the poet had to be a lighthouse rather than a mirror for his age.21 Saʿada’s ideology of Greater Syria, to say nothing of his fascistic style of party organization, receives no mention.

The movement’s rivals never fully credited the modernists’ repudiation of politics. Pan-Arabist intellectuals, especially those associated with Suhayl Idris’s monthly al-Adab, attacked al-Khal’s magazine as a cultural front for the SSNP (for the engagé critics at al-Adab, all writers were in fact “committed,” whether they willed it or not). These attacks were especially easy to make during moments of political crisis. In late 1961, dissident officers in the Lebanese army convinced the SSNP leadership to collaborate in a coup against the government of Fuad Chehab. A few hours after the attempt began, on the morning of December 31, government forces had removed the threat. Hundreds of party members were arrested, along with most of the leadership. “At the start of the year,” wrote al-Adab on the front page of its February 1962 issue, “Lebanon was saved from the terrifying disaster a group of Western imperialist agents plotted for her.” The editorialists went on to claim that the conspiracy went beyond its political dimension, and that the Shiʿr poets – not named, but clearly implied – were accomplices:

Here we must point out that this conspiracy was operative in a number of fields. We at this magazine have tried more than once to expose it in the field of culture, where the conspiracy was nourished at the hands of a group whose chief aim is the destruction of the Arabic heritage, the propagation of anarchy, and the spread of “rejectionism.” It has made extremism and madness its law while claiming to represent truly the new tendencies in Arabic literature. In that sense, it effectively participated in facilitating the criminal conspiracy that nearly overwhelmed the country and tore down its pillars.22

In other words, nationalist critics saw the Shiʿr group as rival nationalists, whose poetic program was merely disguised ideology. They routinely accused the modernists of trashing the “Arabic heritage” in favor of a translated culture from abroad, implying that they were the proxies of cultural imperialism. Marxist critics, publishing in the Beiruti magazines al-Tariq (The Path) and al-Thaqafa al-Wataniyya (Nationalist Culture), often echoed these attacks. Writing for al-Tariq, Husayn Muruwwa characterized the Shiʿr group’s modernist project as being comprised of two goals: “First, to tear up the spiritual and intellectual roots between Lebanese and their Arabic history … And second, by way of this uprooting, to facilitate the spread of unpatriotic (cosmopolitan) ideas and concepts among the Lebanese youth.”23 Later critics writing in the same tradition, such as Syrian historian Muhammad Jamal Barut, have stressed the modernist poets’ “elitism,” a critique that stems from Muruwwa’s earlier notion of the “ivory tower intellectual,” which he had pressed against Taha Husayn.24

The modernists’ notion of cultural politics went against the grain of intellectual life in Beirut and elsewhere in the Arab world: rather than advancing a politicized concept of cultural practice, they sought to establish a firewall between literature and politics; in place of iltizam, they made a hero out of the unaffiliated individual. Critics attempted to unmask this stance as a dissimulation of the modernists’ true political aims, but in retrospect these attacks are not quite persuasive. In fact, there are very few traces of Saʿada’s political ideology in the poems and essays published by the magazine.25 The Shiʿr poets were certainly not pan-Arabists, but they had no notion of “destroying” or ignoring turath. Adonis’ interest in that heritage – a revisionary interest, to be sure – was evident as early as his 1961 collection Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi, and this interest would deepen during the years to come. While the Marxist accusations of elitism have some truth, this hardly counts as a critique since the modernists never pretended to write for a mass audience.

The modernists’ critics misrecognized their opponents largely because the Shiʿr group’s ideology was a historical novelty, rather than a disguised nationalism or a familiar cultural elitism. The Beiruti modernists’ program to internationalize the cultural field – a program concurrent with Lebanon’s own integration into the global market through its financial sector – as well as their insistence on poetic autonomy, should be understood as two aspects of a single project. It was only by releasing poetry from its moorings in national culture that the modernists could secure a place on what Yusuf al-Khal liked to call “the map of world literature.”26 To imagine “modern” poetry as the product of deracinated individuals floating free of political constraints is in fact an intellectual commonplace of the early Cold War period. This was a moment when, as George Steiner writes, “The apparent iconoclasts have turned out to be more or less anguished custodians racing through the museum of civilization, seeking order and sanctuary for its treasures, before closing time.”27 The museumification of modernism began in what had been its heartlands and affected all the arts, from poetry and painting to architecture. This is the period in which Wallace Stevens’ poetry was appropriated by the New Critics for university syllabi, when Clement Greenberg won the war to canonize Abstract Expressionism, and when the International Style achieved global ubiquity. This is, in other words, what Frederic Jameson calls the moment of late modernism: the retrospective definition of modernism as an ideology of aesthetic autonomy, or purity of medium.28 It is also the moment when modernism could be seen as a truly global phenomenon, rather than a congeries of local styles – Vorticism, Futurism, Expressionism, Simultaneism – some of which migrated across national borders.

Beiruti modernism is a distinctively late modernist movement, characterized by its insistence on the separation of poetry from politics and its determination to internationalize the field of Arabic literature. The poets’ turn away from Saʿada’s party was facilitated by their affiliation with an alternative institution, more diffuse and difficult to conceptualize, which is that of international modernism itself. This was an institution constructed of individuals, journals, publishers, canons of taste and reading, conferences, and prizes – precisely the world that Shiʿr’s correspondents kept the magazine’s readers apprised of through their letters from abroad. Modernism, conceived in this sense, provided the Arab poets with a set of globalized standards and established ideologies, which served the Shiʿr poets as a new model of professionalization. The modernists’ characteristic inflation of the lyrical “I,” most emphatic in Adonis’ Mihyar poems, whose shape-shifting protagonist is a version of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, is a symptom of this process: it makes professionalization into an adventure, as indeed it was for a certain strain of poet at this historical conjuncture (the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, for example, provides a striking point of comparison with the Shiʿr group). The Arab modernists had a systematic understanding of this novel institution. More quickly and comprehensively than their engagé peers, they descried the new parameters for poetry set by late modernism, and they also intuited how its ideology might provide leverage in local polemics, allowing the Shiʿr group to take arms against “committed” poets and their allies.

The modernists’ grasp of this new global institution and the opportunities it afforded them is explicit in their program of translation. In early 1957, as the first issue of Shiʿr was going to press, Yusuf al-Khal gave a lecture at the Cénacle Libanais, a forum for elite opinion in postwar Lebanon, called “Mustaqbal al-Shiʿr fi Lubnan” (The Future of Poetry in Lebanon).29 The lecture is often taken as a foundational moment in the history of Shiʿr. This is mostly due to the ten principles announced at the conclusion of the lecture, which served as a manifesto for the new movement.30 Addressing himself to the future poets of Lebanon, al-Khal’s seventh principle advocated an awareness of the “spiritual-rational Arabic heritage,” the eighth called for “a plunge into the spiritual-rational European heritage,” and the ninth urged his audience “to benefit from the poetic experiments of literary writers of the world [udabaʾ al-ʿalam], for the modern Lebanese poet must not fall prey to the danger of isolationism, as the ancient Arab poets did with respect to Greek literature.”31 Al-Khal’s magazine would be guided by these principles throughout its history. Shiʿr’s translations of European poetry and its transmissions of classical work – what Pascal Casanova has helpfully referred to as “internal translation”32 – are arguably the magazine’s most important legacy. This is not merely due to the careful selection and editing of these materials, but also because they suggested that literary authority and sanction for future practice might be established through the act of translation.

In light of this editorial position, it is not by chance that the magazine’s opening editorial is itself a translation. The first pages of Shiʿr’s inaugural issue feature a statement by the American poet and critic Archibald MacLeish. MacLeish’s text is of a piece with the rhetoric and ideology of late modernism. After evoking the specter of standardization and the destruction of individual experience, he concludes his short text with a familiar exhortation: “It is not necessary for those who practice the art of poetry in a time such as ours to write political poetry, nor to attempt to solve the problems of the age with their poems; they must rather practice their art for its own ends and according to its own requirements.”33 Positioned as a foundational statement for the new magazine, this declaration asks to be read not merely as a manifesto in translation, but as a manifesto for translation (like al-Khal’s version of Pound’s first Canto, published in the same issue). While the contents of MacLeish’s text are unremarkable, the fact that it comes from an American poet is striking.34 To assert authority through the act of transmission destabilizes the parameters of literary production in dramatic fashion. The Beiruti modernists’ advocacy of free exchange in poetry – al-Khal’s principle of “anti-isolationism” – exposed the local literary field to an influx of foreign texts. These imports established new sources of authority, along with new formal protocols and techniques. By far the most controversial of these imports was the prose poem or qasidat al-nathr, a form that would come to be more closely identified with the modernist movement than any other.

Translating the poème en prose

Adonis’ essay, “On the Prose Poem,” was published in Shiʿr in 1960.35 The text is a manifesto for the qasidat al-nathr, a type of poem that Adonis had been experimenting with since 1957. Adonis’ apology for the new form borrows much of its language for from the work of Suzanne Bernard, whose magisterial study, Le poème en prose de Baudelaire jusquà nos jours (1959), Adonis had encountered while on a fellowship in Paris. Bernard’s characterization of the poéme en prose as a peculiarly “modern” form, as well as its “dynamism,” “polymorphism,” “organic unity,” and its escape from the “tyranny” of meter, are all echoed (when they are not simply repeated) in Adonis’ account.36 Later in 1960, Unsi al-Haj published his first collection of poems, Lan, for which he wrote an introduction that also served as a manifesto for the qasidat al-nathr and reaffirmed several of the arguments made by Adonis.37 The prose poem was among the modernists’ most radical and consequential experiments in translation and one they were at pains to defend, in part because of its explicitly foreign extraction. And indeed the new form encountered immediate resistance. Writing for al-Adab, Nazik al-Malaʾika, an Iraqi poet with credentials of her own as a pioneer in metrical forms, called the prose poem a “strange and heretical innovation.” She argued that the term “shiʿr” was misapplied in this case, since there were no line breaks, and wondered if the new form’s advocates were perhaps “ignorant of the limits of poetry [hudud al-shiʿr]?” Al-Malaʾika went on to lay responsibility for the qasidat al-nathr directly at the feet of Shiʿr, a magazine that she characterized as being “published in the Arabic language with a European spirit.”38

What are the limits or borders of poetry? Are they co-extensive with national or linguistic borders? Is translation always an act of heresy – a letter divorced from the spirit? Most scholarly commentary on the qasidat al-nathr has focused on technical features, seeking to locate the form’s innovations within the history of metrical experimentation in Arabic poetry.39 But the result of these researches, many of them expert and illuminating, is to make it less rather than more evident why the qaidat al-nathr should have attracted so much controversy. By proposing formal precedents in the unmetered al-shiʿr al-manthur (prosified poetry) of mahjar writers such as Ameen al-Rihani and Khalil Gibran, or the use of mixed meters by the Egyptian Abu Shadi, such studies show that the loosening of metrical forms is a consistent trend in Arabic poetry of the twentieth century. This suggests that the massive reaction against and sometimes in favor of the prose poem cannot be explained by its metrical novelties alone. Rather than focusing on questions of prosody, it is more helpful to view the arguments surrounding the qasidat al-nathr as being centrally concerned with the parameters of poetry and its sources of authority.

For the Shiʿr poets, the prose poem was an echt-modernist form, sanctioned by French poets and critics since Baudelaire. For them, the strictures of Arab readers such as al-Malaʾika were partisan and provincial. Writing in response to the Iraqi poet’s censure of the Shiʿr group, Yusuf al-Khal described her as having “donned a schoolmarm’s veil of traditionalism and close-mindedness, ignorant of everything that has happened and is happening as regards the development of poetical and artistic experimentalism in the world.”40 For al-Khal, and for others in the movement, literary experiments happening elsewhere (especially in Paris or New York) could serve as authoritative precedents for Arab poetry. The fact that the qasidat al-nathr was a translated form did not mean Arab poets should be prohibited from writing it. The limits of what could legitimately be called “shiʿr” coincided not with the limits of Arabic, but with the limits of “the world.”

In 1957, three years before writing “On The Prose Poem,” Adonis published his translation of St.-John Perse’s “Étroits sont les vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels),” the long ninth strophe of Perse’s longest poème en proseAmers (Sea-Marks), published by Gallimard that same year.41 Adonis would go on to translate the French poet’s oeuvre in its entirety and his encounter with Perse had momentous consequences, not only for his verse but for the history of modernism in Arabic. Perse’s cosmopolitan poetics of exile, along with the eloquent undulations of his verse, are especially evident in Adonis’ poetry of the late fifties and sixties. And it was Adonis’ translation of Perse that spurred him to write his own versions of the prose poem, which would soon become closely associated with the Shiʿr movement as a whole. It is no doubt because Perse is at the center of Adonis’ understanding of the qasidat al-nathr that his relation with the French poet – both as translator and inheritor – has received more attention that his relation with any other figure, foreign or Arab.42 The controversy about Adonis’ versions of Perse is thus symptomatic of a broader struggle over the modernists’ attempt to authorize their own practice through acts of translation.

It is arguable whether any other poet of the twentieth century was so handsomely translated as Perse. The translations themselves often draw attention to this circumstance. The 1949 edition of T.S. Eliot’s version of Anabase, for example, includes a bibliography of translations in a half-dozen European languages. These include the 1926 Russian version, with a preface by Valéry Larbaud; the 1929 German version, translated by Walter Benjamin and Bernard Groethuysen, with a preface by Hugo von Hoffmansthal (Benjamin’s involvement was in lieu of Rilke, who translated Perse’s Images à Crusoé in 1925); the 1930 English version, translated by Eliot himself; and the 1936 Italian version, translated by Ungaretti.43 Perse was equally fêted by late modernists of the postwar period, such as Macleish, Stephen Spender, and Giorgos Seferis. Suzanne Bernard’s comprehensive history, so important to Adonis’ understanding of the poème en prose, concludes with a discussion of Perse, whom she situates at the apogee of the form’s history, though, as she notes, “He has produced few real disciples.”44

Adonis, another late modernist, was aware that translating Perse might serve as a passport to international modernism. In the commentary he wrote for his own version in Shiʿr, Adonis mentions Eliot, Ungaretti, MacLeish, and Hoffmansthal as previous translators.45 Like them, Adonis places special emphasis on the freedom of Perse’s poetry from constraints of place and time. In his preface to Anabase, Hofmannsthal credits Perse with “the renewal of lyrical inspiration,” declaring that, “the action itself dispenses with historical, ideological or social allusions.”46 Eliot, in his own preface, claims that he required only one reading of the poem to grasp that “no map of its migrations could be drawn up.”47 For Adonis, it is precisely this “ability to live on its own, independently,” that explains why “[Perse’s] poetry appears, in translation, more worldly [akthar ʿalamiyya] than any other” – a restatement of the familiar modernist claim that autonomy is the sine qua non of world literature.48

In a lecture delivered to the Fondation Saint-John Perse in 1993, Adonis gives an intriguing account of how he discovered Amers.49 In the summer of 1957, Adonis writes, he and Yusuf al-Khal visited the editor Albert Adib at the Beiruti offices of his magazine, al-Adib, where both poets had previously published work. There, Adonis discovered the latest issue of the Nouvelle Revue Française, with “Etroits sont les vaisseaux” printed on its first page.50 (Here, again, it is worth noting the importance of Beirut’s magazine culture to these intellectual encounters.) It was the first time Adonis had heard of the French poet, but in reading his words, Adonis writes, “I had the impression of reading something that surged up from by deepest being.” This moment of self-recognition soon leads to a desire for translation: “I said to myself: St.-John Perse must become an Arab poet through me,” though Adonis later admitted that he may have “led [Perse] astray in trying to Orientalize him.”51 Adonis’ interest in Perse was not merely aroused by the discovery of a poetic sensibility uncannily like his own; he was also struck by the idea that the French poet could be used to establish the legitimacy of the qaidat al-nathr: “I was suddenly struck by the idea that the translation of this poem might provide, through the lyrical force of the text, though its splendor and density, a solid support for the very principle of the prose poem, which had been categorically rejected by the dominant literary milieu.”52 All newness needs sanction: this is a principle the modernists consistently confirm in practice, even as their rhetoric insists otherwise. In line with the precedent set by al-Khal, Adonis here envisages the founding of a modernist genre through the translation of new authorities.

It is not by coincidence that Amers is a poem whose dominant topos is that of the sea. The modernists’ consistent use of maritime tropes is especially blatant in a literary tradition whose origins are typically thought to lie in the desert. “I admit,” Adonis writes in his 1993 lecture, “that when I undertook to translate St.-John Perse, I wasn’t certain that the Arabic language, born of the desert, could encompass that lyrical and epic sea that is the text of Perse.”53 The pages of Shiʿr are full of sea-poems, both translated and original. In addition to Pound’s first Canto (“And then went down to the ships”) and Perse’s long poème en prose, the magazine published Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre,” the “Chant Premier” of Chateaubriand’s Les Chants de Maldoror (“Old ocean, you are the symbol of identity”), Valéry’s “Cemetery by the Sea,” and Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium.” For his Anthology of American Poetry, Yusuf al-Khal did not chose to translate Hart Crane’s iconic “The Bridge”, but rather the six “Voyages” (“Above the fresh ruffles of the surf”). The topos is equally characteristic of the modernists’ own poetry. “Nahnu jil al-safina” (We are the generation of the ship), Adonis writes in “al-Zaman al-saghir” (Petty Times), a poem he dedicated to the intellectual historian and fellow SSNP member Hisham Sharabi.54 Again and again, the modernists’ poems trace an itinerary of renewal, out of the desert and toward the sea – an allegorical narrative for the modernists’ turn away from what they took to be the provincialism of Arabic culture toward wider, “more worldly” vistas. Perse’s “Étroits sont les vaisseaux” is also a poem that repeatedly figures the sea as “an immense dawn,” and which evokes “the migration of sand toward the sea.”55 It is in this sense, perhaps, we should understand Adonis’ assertion that in reading the French poem he was struck by a feeling of self-recognition. Perse’s poème en prose inhabits a landscape that was deeply familiar to the Arab poet, who had fled from the claustrophobic world of Damascene politics to the Mediterranean port city of Beirut. Adonis’ own first qasidat al-nathr, “Wahduhu al-yaʾs” (Only Despair), published in Shiʿr in the fall of 1958, also traces a journey from the interior to the coast – what the Greeks called a “catabasis” – as well as a journey from a collective, suffering “we” to a heroic, solitary “I”.56

Adonis’ translation of Perse was typical of the modernists’ editorial acuity and formal ambitions. Importing the poème en prose was part of their project to internationalize Arabic poetry – to redraw its political and aesthetic limits – by way of translation. Adonis’ version of “Étriots sont les vaisseaux” also fit neatly with the Shiʿr group’s peculiar and polemical geography: their orientation toward the Mediterranean as a place of cultural rebirth and away from the desert interior. The poème en prose represented, for the modernists, a realm of freedom from conventional limitations, one that was perhaps only accessible by speaking in another’s tongue or borrowing another’s rhythms. For modernists, the metrical strictures of classical verse, still maintained by poets such as al-Malaʾika, were emblematic of Arabic culture’s own rigidity. “Étroit la mesure, étroit la césure” (narrow the meter, narrow the caesura), Perse writes, in the excerpt translated by Adonis, as though the French poet had indeed become “Orientalized.”57 But it is also true that Adonis’ translations helped to estrange his Arabic from itself. In Arabic, “bahr” can mean both “sea” and “meter,” a coincidence that lends itself to some characteristically modernist punning. In the opening line of Adonis’ breakthrough collection, Aghani Mihyar al-Dimashqi, the eponymous hero is depicted as a version of Atlas: “Yesterday he carried a continent and moved the sea from its place (naqala al-bahr min makanihi).”58 Reading “translated” for “moved” (naqala) and “meter” for “sea” (al-bahr), we get the Adonis’ program for importing the prose-poem into Arabic: he translated the meter from its place.59

Modernist Elegies

The Shiʿr poets’ rivals often accused them of seeking to demolish or undermine the “heritage” of Arabic literature. The modernists’ interest in European and American poetry, as well as their past membership in the SSNP, cast doubt on their commitment to the tradition of al-Mutanabbi and Ahmad Shawqi. In their editorial following the coup attempt of 1961, the pan-Arabist intellectuals of al-Adab called the modernists “a group whose chief aim is the destruction of the Arabic heritage, the propagation of anarchy, and the spread of ‘rejectionism.’” Unsi al-Haj, for one, welcomed the accusation. In the introduction to Lan, his first volume of prose poems, al-Haj claimed that the modern poet’s “first duty is obliteration.” Against those who would “accept the inheritance of decline,” he announced his own slogan: “Destruction and destruction and destruction (al-hadm wa-l-hadm wa-l-hadm).”60 In fact, the modernists’ project was largely one of reconstruction rather than demolition. Just as significant as their translations of poetry from abroad were their attempts to transmit a revised form of the classical Arabic heritage (what al-Khal called, in his seminal lecture to the Cénacle Libanais, “the spiritual-rational heritage”). And just as the Shiʿr poets often presented the foreign under the guise of the deeply familiar, so they often represented the indigenous in the form of the new.

The phenomenon of intra-linguistic inheritance is what Pascale Casanova helpfully terms “internal translation.” She specifies its uses in this way:

The task of what might be called internal translation, which is to say bringing the national language forward from an ancient to a modern state, as in the case of translations from ancient to modern Greek, is one way of annexing, and thereby nationalizing, texts that all the great countries of Europe had long before declared to be universal, by claiming them as evidence of an underlying linguistic and cultural continuity. But it might also involve texts that were unknown beyond the borders of a country on the literary periphery.

For Casanova, contests over antiquity are “the classic form assumed by the struggle to accumulate literary capital.”61 The Arab modernists’ internal translations certainly involved a claim of underlying cultural continuity, although this gesture of annexation was the opposite of nationalization. Instead, the Shiʿr poets’ transmissions of classical texts aimed at the creation of a counter-canon, a modernist tradition that was also the interruption of tradition as understood by the state or any other political collective. The fabrication of this counter-canon entailed a transformation of poetry’s parameters, bringing into prominence certain literary categories while abandoning others that had previously been central.

More than any other poet in the modernist collective, it was Adonis who undertook this work of canonical revision. Each number of Shiʿr, from the fifteenth to the twenty-third, excluding Winter 1961, contained a selection of poems under the rubric, “From the Arabic poetic heritage,” which featured examples of pre-Islamic poetry selected by Adonis. These dossiers were the seedbed for Adonis’ Anthology of Arabic Poetry, his first encyclopedic revision of the classical turath and a pre-cursor to his critical study, al-Thabit wa-l-mutahawwil (The Fixed and the Changing) (1974).62 A less obvious but equally important method of internal translation is Adonis’ practice as an elegist. It is in part through his early elegies (marathi, sing. rithaʾ) that Adonis negotiates his characteristic turn away from the political and seeks to establish a genealogy of “modernist” poets, a series of imaginary filiations that provide him with a compensatory, non-political authority.63

Without some sense for the tradition of Arabic rithaʾ, as well as its varieties of contemporary practice, it is difficult to appreciate the strangeness of Adonis’ marathi. There are two rival traditions of the Arabic elegy, whose features will highlight the singularity of Adonis’s texts. In the medieval tradition, marathi were most often composed for relatives or patrons.64 Less frequently, they were composed for cities, or even – a parodic sub-genre – domestic animals. The main lines of this tradition survived through the early twentieth century and witnessed a significant rebirth at the hands of neo-classical poets such as Ahmad Shawqi.65 Adonis edited an anthology of Shawqi’s poems in 1982, in which he censured the Egyptian as a passive transmitter of outworn conventions: “The speaker of these poems,” Adonis writes, “is the tradition, a tradition that makes no new beginning, but rather shores up the authority of old words.” Adonis’ rivalry with Shawqi was partly the result of the older poet’s reputation as an elegist (it was also the result of Adonis’ systematic effort to minimize the innovations of Nahda-era poets). Nearly one quarter of the Egyptian’s poems were marathi, most of them for local pashas and politicians, or Arab luminaries such as King Husayn and Libyan anticolonial revolutionary ʿUmar al-Mukhtar. In one of these poems, Shawqi provides a punning epigram for everything Adonis found objectionable in the classical tradition. Ventriloquizing the German Emperor Wilhelm II, who paid homage to the Arab general Salah ad-Din while visiting his grave in 1898, Shawqi writes: “ʿAzimu al-nasi man yabki al-ʿizama / wa yandubuhum wa law kanu ʿizama (The great man is he who weeps for the great [al-ʿizama] / and mourns them even when they be but bones [al-ʿizama]).”66 For Adonis, as for the other modernist poets, it is this confusion of the literary with the political, the implication that a poet becomes great by exalting powerful men, that vitiates so much of the canon. To a modernist sensibility, Shawqi’s elegy is merely a praise that happens to be written in the past tense. (The Greeks often traced the etymology of “elegy” to “e e logoi,” “to speak well of.”)

The second rival tradition of elegy to note is that of the collective marthiya. The origins of this genre lie in the classical city elegy, or rithaʾ al-mudun, which stems in turn from a far older corpus, originating in such texts as the Sumerian “Lament for Ur” and the Book of Lamentations.67 This genre, never strong in the European tradition, was powerfully maintained by medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry. A more recent and relevant example, well known to Adonis, is Shawqi’s elegy for Damascus, “Nakbat Dimashq,” referred to at the outset of this chapter. A related contemporary strain of the collective marthiya is what Adina Hoffman has called “a bold new form of politically charged elegy,” written by Palestinian poets in the wake of the massacre of Kafr Qasim in 1956.68 The most striking examples of this genre, what we might call poems of witness, are Samih al-Qasim’s “Kafr Qasim,” and Mahmoud Darwish’s later, Lorca-like series, “Azhar al-Damm” (Flowers of Blood), in which the poet speaks of his wish to assume “the power of the graveyard’s silence.” “The poetry of Kafr Qasim became, in a sense, a genre unto itself,” Hoffman writes. “When a poet read his verse about the massacre aloud before a crowd it took on extra meaning, as though he were speaking not just for himself but for the group as a whole and as if the grisly event were not unique but the sum of so many others.”69 Such collective elegies tapped into a long tradition of lamentation, reformulating and reauthorizing it for specifically political, anti-colonial purposes.

Adonis’ marathi are pointedly distinct from the neo-classical and the collective elegy. Indeed, his innovations spring from a refusal of their tropes and techniques. In contrast to the neo-classical elegies, directed at prominent political figures, Adonis’ are addressed to individuals whose distance from political authority is emphasized by the poems themselves. Most of Adonis’ marathi are in fact written for poets who were victims of political power. The elegist’s claim of affiliation is thus premised on a common experience of suffering and sometimes exile. Elegies written for fellow poets are hardly unknown in Arabic literature, but Adonis’ single-mindedness in this respect is notable and signals a difference between his marathi and the engagé elegies of poets such as Darwish and al-Qasim. The suffering figures of Adonis’ elegies are not abused for belonging to a particular collective, Palestinian or Arab, but precisely as individuals. Moreover, the poets he elegizes are not acquaintances or contemporaries but classical precursors, that is, figures for whom there can be no real claim of affective bonds. Rather than serving as poems of formalized mourning, Adonis’ elegies enact a drama of inheritance. Their chief concern is to translate a counter-canonical authority into the present.

The most concentrated group of elegies in Adonis’ oeuvre is the series of marathi that comprise the final section of Aghani Mihyar. The addressees of these marathi are not always specified, but the subjects of the central four poems are named. The first, “Marthiyat ʿUmar ibn al-Khattab,” sets the terms for Adonis’ swerve away from the mainstream marthiya tradition, with its deference to figures of political power. ʿUmar was the second Caliph and therefore a fitting subject for praise and elegy. But Adonis’ poem is actually a hijaʾ: not a poem in praise of the Caliph, but a critique of his authority.

A voice without promise or justification

calls out, with the sun for its umbrella,

When will you be beaten, Jibilla?

Friend of despair and hope,

the green stone hangs over the fire

and we are waiting

your appointed time, coming from the sky.70

The intertext for this short poem is a medieval tradition in which a nobleman named Jabala – “Jibilla,” in Adonis’ poem, for reasons of rhyme – has his robe trampled on while circumambulating the Ka’aba.71 Jabala turns on the inadvertently offending party, a poor Bedouin, and beats him. ʿUmar is asked to intercede and agrees to let the Bedouin answer Jabala blow for blow, in accordance with the Islamic stipulation that all worshippers are equal, but then lets the nobleman go, apparently out of deference to his status. So the elegy’s central question, “When will you be beaten, Jibilla?” is a demand for justice made in solidarity with the victim, whose solitary voice, exposed to the elements, is otherwise “without justification” or legitimacy. As for ʿUmar, the subject of the elegy, he is a failed Caliph, an abuser of his power.

This episode of suspended punishment stands in apposition to the other three marathi of the series, addressed to Bashshar bin Burd, a blind Basran poet of the eighth century, his younger, libertine contemporary, Abu Nuwas, and al-Hallaj, a mystical exegete of the ninth and tenth centuries and an alter-ego for Adonis over the course of his career. Bashshar is explicitly figured as a victim of the state. The marthiya begins, “Do not weep for him, but leave him to the mad Caliph’s whip,” an allusion to the flogging which caused the poet’s death after he had composed a poem mocking the Caliph al-Mahdi (a gesture mimicked by Adonis’ own invective against ʿUmar). Al-Hallaj’s crucifixion and dismemberment at the hands of the ‘Abbasid regime were proverbial, and in Adonis’ poem the emphasis is on al-Hallaj as a Christ-like figure of resurrection, or indeed an Adonis-like figure of vegetal rebirth. The elegies’ emphasis on suffering, their insistence on episodes in which poets are subjected to the violence of the state, signal Adonis’ intention to found a modernist, heterodox tradition of the anathematized. This ambition is figured in the opening of the elegy for Abu Nuwas as a “pageant of stones” (mawkab al-hajar), a kind of historical frieze in which the poet situates himself in the train of his precursor-poet: “You know that behind you, in the pageant of stones, / beyond our history of corpses, / there I am with poetry and the rain.”72 The marathi of this collection are not so much poems of mourning – “Do not weep” might even be their motto – so much as they are poems of canonical revision, claiming certain aspects of the poetic tradition while ignoring others.

In the elegy for Bashshar, Adonis figures this genealogical revision as a revival or rebirth, a trope that recurs throughout his work:

Do not weep for him, but leave him to the mad Caliph’s whip.

Call him devil, call him plague,

he is here, and still there,

rumbling in the deaf streets,

rumbling in our mute caverns,

rumbling like an earthquake.

He is here, and still there,

blind, without land or city,

he searches for a blue pearl

that his poems will keep safe

for a lean year.73

Here, the rebirth of poetry is figured through a present tense evocation of the poet’s voice, rumbling through the silent streets of Baghdad. The emphasis given by the rhyme in lines four and five – sammaʾ-kharsaʾ (“deaf”-“mute”) – reminds us that the trope of a deaf or mute landscape is a family resemblance between the Western tradition of pastoral elegy (“Where were ye, nymphs?”) and the classical Arabic canon, in which the poet questions the graves and abandoned campsites and never receives an answer.74 In the second stanza of “Elegy for Bashshar,” the poet’s blindness becomes the stigmata of mystical insight. Unable to see, he nevertheless searches for a “blue” pearl, a treasure his poems store up for “a lean year.” In the context of ʿAbbasid court life, this might mean a season without caliphal commissions and their demand for a steady diet of praise and blame. So the revival of a particular strand of ʿAbbasid poetry is linked once again to the modernist taboo on “political” poetry.

A later and final example of how Adonis’ modernist program is refracted through the genre of the elegy, though the poem is not specifically labeled a marthiya, is provided by “Mirʾat li-Abi al-ʿAlaʾ” (A Mirror for Abi al-ʿAlaʾ), a poem from the 1968 collection, al-Masrah wa-l-maraya (Theater and Mirrors).75 The poem evokes a visit to the grave of another blind ʿAbbasid poet, Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri, whose tomb lies just south of Aleppo:

I recall that in al-Maʿarra I visited

your eyes and heard your steps.

I recall that the grave walked, mimicking your steps,

while around the grave

your voice, like a confused rumbling, slept

in the body of days, or in the body of words,

on the bed of poetry.

And your parents were not there

And al-Maʿarra was not.

The language of the opening line, “adhkur anni zurtu fi-l-Maʿarra,” suggests the poet’s visit is related to a type religious pilgrimage, the ziyarat al-qubur, or visiting of the graves. In Shiʿa practice, these visits were typically made to the tombs of Imams and members of the Prophet’s family, reputed to possess powers of intercession. The tomb of Adonis’ poem does not belong to an Imam or saint, but to a skeptical poet who often expressed his doubts about the afterlife. It is a scene of literary rather than religious piety.

Al-Maʿarri is one of the fixtures in Adonis’ heterodox canon. He comments on al-Maʿarri’s verse at length in the second volume of his Anthology, where he calls him, perhaps echoing Eliot, a “metaphysical” poet of disillusionment and death. Man, in al-Maʿarri’s verse, is “dead before he is put in the grave, and his life is no more than death in motion. The clothes man wears are his shroud.”76 The penultimate line of Adonis’ poem, “your parents were not there,” allude to the epitaph al-Maʿarri is said to have written for his own tombstone: “Hadha janahu abi ʿalaya wa-ma janaytu ʿala ahad” (This crime was by my father done to me, but never by me to anyone). The crime in this case is procreation – in effect, a death sentence – which al-Maʿarri took care not to commit, living a famously ascetic life and remaining childless on principle. Here is a striking figure for modernism’s impossible inheritance, for how does one claim the legacy of a poet careful to have no heirs? “He did not leave an artistic tradition that one might be influenced by,” Adonis notes in the Anthology, yet his poem of pilgrimage is in part an attempt to secure an intercessor on behalf of his own poetic afterlife.77 In the last line, “There was no al-Maʿarra,” the whole theater of the poem falls away. This may suggest the visiting poet’s ultimate identification with al-Maʿarri’s blindness, or else that the visit, like many mystical journeys, takes place in the poet’s mind – a reading that gains plausibility in view of Adonis’ inability to return physically to Syria. The poem’s opening verb, “adhkur,” which might be translated as “I recall,” “I state as a fact,” or “I think of,” is a gesture of defiance. Adonis’ poetic pilgrimage crosses boundaries that political authorities have made otherwise uncrossable.

“Mirror for Abi al-ʿAlaʾ,” like the elegies for Bashshar bin Burd, al-Hallaj, and Abu Nuwas, is not so much a poem of mourning as a text of genealogical revision. This function is not foreign to the history of elegy, though it has not always been so central to the Arabic rithaʾ. As Peter Sacks writes of the tradition that stems from Theocritus, “In its earliest conflictual structures, as also in successive adaptations of the eclogue form, the elegy clarifies and dramatizes this emergence of the true heir.”78 For Adonis, the elegy is indeed a claim of inheritance and the right to transmission. In his marathi for the Abbasid poets, he lays claim to a buried ʿAbbasid modernism, sedimented within the canon of Arabic poetry. This argument is helped by a species of etymological witz, according to which the modernists’ contemporary project of al-hadatha revives the poetics of the muhdathun (“the innovators”), a sobriquet for those ʿAbbasid poets, like Bashshar and Abu Nuwas, who were thought to have rejected the conventions of their own time. The polemical aim of Adonis’ modernist elegies is to re-imagine the relation between culture and politics, attempting to emancipate poetry from the power of political collectives. In “Mirror for Abi al-ʿAlaʾ,” a tenth-century poet is resurrected as a voice, attended to by another poet, who visits his tomb. This scene of transmission and reception occurs outside or beyond national boundaries – on “the bed of poetry,” where one’s forbearers and place of birth no longer have any authority.

Adonis’ poetics consistently emphasizes tropes of originality and innovation. The Arab poet, in his writings, is a figure of incessant, volcanic activity. As opposed to the rigid traditionalism of their rivals, modernist poets are characterized, in his words, by their “undulation [al-tamawwuj], movement, and creation in an eternal dynamism.”79 One argument of this essay is that readers of Adonis should understand these tropes as symptoms rather than descriptions. The modernist rhetoric of innovation is most productively read as a reaction formation: the movement’s real historical importance lay in its work of translation and transmission (which is very different from imitation). The Shiʿr poets’ importation of new authorities, such as St.-John Perse, and their refashioning of old ones, such as Abu Nuwas and al-Maʿarri, were their characteristic activities. “Translation is one thing, creation is another,” al-Khal writes in one of his more programmatic essays.80 But the Shiʿr poets’ achievements suggest otherwise.

The movement’s most consequential translation was that of “modernism” or “modernity” itself. The question of whether the Arab modernists translated this construct correctly or mistakenly seems like the wrong question. Or rather, it seems wrong so long as translation is conceived as an act of adequate substitution or the assertion of equivalency. Rather than a merely technical feat, translation is an act that calls for a fully historical interpretation. For the Shiʿr poets, translating modernism resulted in a distinctive vision for Arabic literary and intellectual life. Against the dominant trends of their day, whether Marxist or pan-Arabist, the Beiruti poets argued for and attempted to create a culture that was purged of politics and closely linked to the intellectual circuits of Europe and America. Their flight from local institutions and authorities was facilitated by the appearance of a new, quasi-global institution, which was that of international modernism itself – a set of canons and attitudes Beiruti poets used to shift the parameters of Arab culture. The degree to which contemporary Arab intellectual life approximates their hopes is one index of the movement’s success (which is not to suggest that it has been completely successful). Scholars who seek to understand the dynamics of modern Arab intellectual history would do well to begin by wondering what “modern” means, and has meant, to the men and women they study.

1Hourani (1983: iv–x).

2Ibid., vii.

3Ibid., viii.

4See, for example, Nuʿayma (1950: 120–24; and the commentary by Hawi (1963: 206–11).

5Shawqi (1982: 165).

6A notable exception is Fouad Ajami (1981; 1999), who pays consistent and close attention to poets and poetry.

7See Kassab (2010).

8On Hanafi, see Yasmeen Daifallah’s chapter in this volume. More broadly, see the readings in Kurzman (2002), particularly the lecture by Muhammad Rashid Rida, “Renewal, Renewing, and Renewers,” 77–85.

9The most helpful studies are Kheir Beik (1978); Barut (1991); and Badini (2009).

10See, for example, Jayyusi (2006). Jayyusi seems to equate “modernist” with “technically innovative,” and uses the word to qualify almost any significant post-1948 poetry. Similarly, in Badawi (1993), the chapter on post–World War II poetry is simply entitled “The Modernists.”

11For two sophisticated readings of the ideologies of translation in the Egyptian Nahda, see Tageldin (2011) and Selim (2012).

12Khalaf (1987: 262).

13Shattuck (1968: 30).

14Mermier (2005: 52).

15Adonis (1993: 10).

16Badini (2009: 455–60) has compiled a helpful table of all the magazine’s translations.

17Shiʿr, 6:22 (Spring 1962), 9–10.

18Shiʿr, 7:25 (Winter 1963), 141. Adonis often used similar language. In the introduction to his Anthology of Arabic Poetry, Adonis (1964, 1:13–14) writes, “Poetry acquires its ultimate value from itself, from a richness of experience and expressivity, not from outside, from what it reflects or expresses.” In other words, “It is a self-sufficient voice [sawt kafin bi-nafsihi], standing on its own [qaʾim bi-dhatihi].”

19The best short study of the party’s history and ideology is Yamak (1966). For a brief biography of Saʿada, as well as an analysis of his influence on Khalil Hawi, see Ajami (1998: chapter 1).

20Yamak (1966: 144).

21Adonis (1993: 101–08).

22Al-Adab, “Lubnanuna (Our Lebanon).” 10:2 (February 1962), 1. For the modernists’ response, see Shiʿr, 6:22 (Spring 1962), 5–16. This is the collectively signed editorial referred to above.

23Al-Tariq, 21:11 (November 1962), 10.

24Barut (1991: passim). In this sense, the critique of the udabaʾ by pan-Arabist and Marxist critics in the mid-fifties (on which, see Di-Capua’s essay in this volume) lived on in their attacks on the Beiruti modernists. On Muruwwa’s intellectual itinerary, see Di-Capua (2013).

25I have argued elsewhere, however, for a reading of Arabic modernism as premised on a repression of the political. See Creswell (2010).

26Shir, 7:25 (Winter 1963).

27Steiner (1975: 466).

28Jameson (2002: 161–79). For a journalist’s account of the same history, see Saunders (2001).

29ʿAhd al-nadwa al-lubnaniyya (1997: 337–44). On the Cénacle itself, where Adonis and Khalida Saʿid also gave lectures, see Shehadi (1987).

30Adonis qualifies al-Khal’s lecture as “the first theoretical manifesto for modernism in Arabic poetry” and quotes the ten principles in full, Ha Anta, 61. For an English translation of these principles, see Jayyusi (1977, 1:570–72).

31ʿAhd al-nadwa (1997: 344).

32Casanova (2004: 238).

33Shiʿr, 1:1 (Winter 1957), 3–4. No scholar, so far as I am aware, has tracked down a source for this text in MacLeish’s papers. His published correspondence makes no mention of Shiʿr.

34Equally striking is the choice of MacLeish himself. Hardly read today, MacLeish was undoubtedly the most powerful poet of his time (or perhaps any time) in institutional terms. He was a Librarian of Congress, Assistant Secretary of State, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, the Bollingen, a Tony Award (for his play, JR), and an Academy Award (for his screenplay of The Eleanor Roosevelt Story). In his dialogue, Poetry and opinion; the Pisan cantos of Ezra Pound, MacLeish intervened in the Bollingen Prize debate by arguing for the necessity of separating poetry from politics when assessing the work of Pound. But it was his professional connections made MacLeish especially effective in securing the poet’s release from St. Elizabeth’s hospital. MacLeish’s status as one of Shiʿr’s maîtres à penser is a vivid index of mid-century modernism’s institutionalization of earlier energies.

35Shiʿr, 14:4 (Spring 1960), 75–83.

36Bernard (1959). Much of Adonis’ text is based on Bernard’s introduction, 9–17.

37Al-Haj (1960).

38al-Adab, 10:4 (April 1962), 5–9.

39See, for example, Jayyusi (1977); Kheir Beik (1978: part III); and Moreh (1988).

40Al-Khal (1978).

41Shiʿr, 1:4 (Fall 1957), 38–89.

42Much of this critical literature is centered on questions of “intertextuality” (al-tanas) and “plagiarism” (al-intihal). For a summary, see Radhouane (2001).

43Perse (1949). The Bollingen editions of Perse’s poetry include similarly detailed bibliographies.

44Bernard (1959: 762).

45Shiʿr, 1:4 (Fall 1957), 87. He mistakenly credits Hofmannsthal with a 1952 translation of Anabase. Nor do I know of any translations by MacLeish, though he wrote many essays and appreciations of Perse.

46This preface, translated by James Stern, is included in Eliot’s 1949 edition; Perse (1949: 105–07).

47Ibid., 9

48Shiʿr, 1:4 (Fall 1957), 86.

49Adonis (1994). All translations into English are my own.

50In fact, this must have been the July, 1956 issue of La Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue Française, which printed Perse’s poem on pages 1–37.

51Adonis (1994). (“Peut-être l’ai-je dérouté en voulant l’orientaliser.”) Adonis may be slyly mocking the Quranic warning that only those who have been led astray (al-ghawun) will follow the poets. Q 26: 224.

52Adonis (1994).


54Adonis (1961: 186).

55Perse (1958: 103, 121).

56Shiʿr, 2:7–8 (Summer–Fall 1958), 10–23.

57Perse (1958: 122). It is typical of Perse’s classicism that this phrase is itself an alexandrine with an emphatic caesura.

58Adonis (1961: 13).

59It is worth noting an antithetical use of this pun at the end of Mahmoud Darwish’s Beirut memoir, Dhakira li-l-nisyan. Waiting to embark on the boats that will take the PLO to Tunis in 1982, Darwish encounters a soldier who asks about the meaning of “al-bahr” in poetry. “Is al-bahr in poetry the same as al-bahr in al-bahr?” the soldier asks. “Yes,” the poet responds, “al-bahr is al-bahr, in poetry and in prose, and at the edge of the land.” The soldier is sure there is some “symbolic” meaning to “al-bahr” in poetry, but Darwish assures him, “My bahr is your bahr– it’s the same bahr. We are from one bahr and we are going to one bahr.” Darwish (2007: 186). Darwish’s insistence on the non-symbolic character of “al-bahr” is partly a gibe at the modernists, whose glorification of the sea-voyage is at odds with Darwish’s own poetic and political experience, in which the sea is a topos of exile.

60Al-Haj (1960: 9).

61Casanova (2004: 238–40).

62Adonis (1974). For a study of Adonis’ Anthology and its revision of classical genres, see Creswell (2010).

63For the idea of elegy as translation I am indebted to the suggestive essay by Warren (1989: 202) in which she writes, “A poet’s elegy for another poet is somehow a translation of that poet or at least of a tradition, and involves some kind of transfer of powers, perhaps aggressively asserted by the survivor.”

64See the entry on “Marthiya,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed., C. Pellat.

65For a summary study of Shawqi’s elegies, see Boudot-Lamotte (1977: 160–77). A historically contextual approach is provided by Noorani (1997).

66Shawqi (2000: 436).

67For a comprehensive study of the genre, see Muhammad (1983).

68Hoffman (2009: 260).

69Ibid., 261.

70Adonis (1961: 232).

71For details, see Weidner (2001: 216–17).

72Adonis (1961: 233).

73Ibid., 237.

74Jaroslav Stetkevych (1994: 116) notes the presence of this trope in the genre of the nasib as well as that of the rithaʾ: “The stopping at the abandoned encampment and the questioning are thus symbolic stances kindred to those of the visitation of the grave and of its questioning … There is here the promise to those who read the Orphic poets’ verses that tombs shall speak to them as they first spoke to the poets themselves.”

75Adonis (1968).

76Adonis (1964, 2:27). This is a periphrasis of a poem, cited in the Anthology, where al-Maʿarri writes, “My clothes are my winding sheets and my home is my tomb (ramsiya) and my life is my death.” Ibid., 497.

77For an elegant reading of al-Maʿarri’s epitaph and “the link between procreation and the gift [of death],” see Kilito (2000: 11–18).

78Sacks (1985: 37).

79Shiʿr, 5:18 (Spring 1961), 180.

80Al-Khal (1978: 10).

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