The writers and artists of Beirut’s Hamra street remember a day in 1973 when a young man from the northern village of Shabtin stood handing out his poetry to passersby. It was Wadiʿ Saʿada (b. 1948) with a stack of handwritten copies of his first poetry collection, The Evening has no Brothers. Stepping outside the established avenues for “making it” in the world of writing and publishing, Saʿada placed himself and his writing out in the open, literally on the side of the street.
The Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut (1934–2006) embraced the persona of the outsider, the loiterer, the hobo. He performed it in his life and in his poetry. This marginal posture guides and supplements the reading of his work and the perceived achievement of his poetic project.
The story goes that he joined the Baʿth party because its office happened to be closer to his house than that of the rival political party. Moreover, the Baʿth had the added advantage of a fireplace in the winter. And so, by accident, he ended up as a political prisoner in the Mezzeh prison outside of Damascus where he began writing on cigarette boxes. It didn’t occur to him that his writings were poetry until he showed them to his cellmate (none other than the poet Adunis) who said they might very well be. This is how al-Maghut himself likes to portray the beginning of his poetic career and his politcal invovlement, a funny coincidence.*
This poem (and every reading of it) is an ongoing exposure, opening up, and challenging of our expectations of poetry in Arabic. After having dislodged Arabic poetry from its rootedness in verse (meter and rhyme) in previous experiments, especially in his 1964 collection The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene,Adunis here drastically expands the limits of the poem.
The earth was not a body it was a wound
How is it possible to travel between body and wound?
How is it possible to settle?
The wound began to transform into parents and the question to turn into space
Come out into the space, Child.
This is the opening of Adunis’s monumental prose poem Singluar in Plural Form (Mufrad bi-sighat al-jam‘). First published in 1977, Adunis (b. 1930) continued to edit and revise it, finally publishing a version subtitled “a final formulation” in 1988.
This is an Arabic prose poem from the Lebanese poet Unsi al-Hajj’s (1935–2014) collection The Severed Head (1963). Many will take issue with calling it a prose poem in the first place. In its form and layout on the page, it does not correspond to what we know the prose poem to be in English or French. Nevertheless, it is an Arabic prose poem for two reasons: it claims and insists on being a “poem” and it is written without any metrical consideration whatsoever. In the tradition of poem making in Arabic, meter, no matter how strict or loose, was for a long time the fence separating poetry from everything else. The prose poem introduced in Arabic in 1960 is the first jumping of that fence.
Arabic Modernism's Other Tradition