Adonis On the Power of Poetry

AL30NOV-ADONIS-2 David Mattin in The National:

The new book – called, simply, Adonis: Selected Poems – spans his entire career, from the early works produced in his native Syria in the 1950s and amid a post-colonial atmosphere of new Arab national consciousness, through the long, fragmented epics of the 1970s – including the work best-known to English readers Funeral for New York – and on to his most recent, crystalline, short works, tinged with erotic longing. But how important is this book to Adonis; is he much concerned that he is read in English?

“I'm interested in all readers,” he says. “The reader is such that what he does is a part of me, and English readers are no different from Arab readers in that regard.

“The reader is the 'other', the person I am trying to reach. And that 'otherness' is also a part of me. I'm interested in the perception of non-Arab readers because they may allow me a clearer perception of myself.”

Indeed, it seems that Adonis feels acutely the difficulty of reaching a western readership:

“Unfortunately, western readers continue to see Arab culture as marginal. Arab politics has little weight; this is accepted; but we musn't conflate politics and culture, which unfortunately is what western readers tend to do.”

It would be hard to argue with any of that. It's unavoidable, though, that only readers of Arabic can have first-hand knowledge of ways in which Adonis transfigured the Arab poetic tradition in the 20th century. English readers, then, are left with the reports of critics, who tell us that he broke radically from traditional rhyme and meter and evolved an Arabic free verse; that he enlivened a classical poetic vocabulary by using the language of everyday, conversational Arabic; and that he eschewed traditional subject matter and turned, instead, to poems that captured the great changes in thought and self-identity sweeping the Arab world, and fuelling the rise of Pan-Arabism.

Indeed, trouble over his involvement in nationalist politics saw Adonis leave his native Syria for Beirut in 1957, where he founded the influential magazine Shi'r (Poetry), host to much of this experimental work.

In short, Adonis is credited – above any of his contemporaries – with making Arab poetry modern.