A Revolutionary of Arabic Verse

ADONIS-1287338610067-articleLarge Charles McGrath in the NYT:

Every year around this time the name of the Syrian poet Adonis pops up in newspapers and in betting shops. Adonis (pronounced ah-doh-NEES), a pseudonym adopted by Ali Ahmad Said Esber in his teens as an attention getter, is a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This year Ladbrokes, the British bookmaking firm, had his chances at 8-1, which made him seem a surer bet than the eventual winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, a 25-1 long shot. Why Adonis appeals to the oddsmakers, presumably, is that he’s a poet, and poets have been under-represented among Nobelists lately; that he writes in Arabic, the language of only one Nobel winner, Naguib Mahfouz; and that as is the case with so many recent winners, most Americans have never heard of him.

In the Arab world it’s a very different matter. There he is a renowned figure, if not everywhere a beloved one. He is an outspoken secularist, equally critical of the East and West, and a poetic revolutionary of sorts who has tried to liberate Arabic verse from its traditional forms and subject matter. Some of his poems are immensely long and immensely difficult and resemble Pound’s Cantos at their most impenetrable. Others reveal a Paul Muldoonish playfulness, a Jorie Graham-like expansiveness and fascination with blank space. His poems are as apt to cite Jim Morrison as the Sufi mystics, and his 2003 volume “Prophesy, O Blind One” includes some long, leggy lines about traveling that could have been written by Whitman, if only Whitman had spent more time in airports.

“The textbooks in Syria all say that I have ruined poetry,” Adonis said with a pleased smile last week while visiting the University of Michigan here.