While officially honored and celebrated, the poetic tradition is effectively the preserve of a shrinking elite in the English-speaking world. What lessons can be learned from the Middle East, where verse is so cherished that poets can draw enormous television audiences – and even have their work featured on best-selling ringtones? Written by Rachel Aspden.
"If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live,” then Senator John F Kennedy told the Harvard Alumni Association in 1956. By these standards, poetry in the English-speaking world of 2013 is very much alive. It recently made UK headlines after a spat between the Education Secretary Michael Gove, a committed champion of verse, and the billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson.
“The casual dismissal of poetry as though it were a useless luxury and its study a self-indulgence is a display of prejudice,” snapped Gove after Dyson attacked it as a waste of time compared to 'important' subjects that prepared students for work in the aircraft and nuclear power industries.
The value of poetry is not just the subject of political debate, but is also enshrined in institutions. In Britain, the post of Poet Laureate has survived from the time of Ben Jonson in the 17th century, the position traditionally rewarded by a small pension and a 'butt of sack', to the 2012 London Olympics, which current laureate Carol Ann Duffy immortalized as: “A summer of rain, then a gap in the clouds.” In the US, meanwhile, six poets have been invited to participate in presidential inauguration ceremonies since Robert Frost recited his poem The Gift Outright for Kennedy in 1961. (Frost claimed the “sun in his eyes” prevented him from reading the generally less highly regarded prologue, Dedication, he actually wrote for the event.)
The US and Canada celebrate National Poetry Month each April, while in the UK October 3 is National Poetry Day, marked by events across the country from primary school recitals to poems written on fireworks and shot into the sky. This year, borrowing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the theme is “Water, water, every where”.
“We challenge participants to smuggle poetry into the most unlikely places,” say the organizers, the Forward Arts Foundation.
“Not just in libraries and classrooms, but on fishing boats and ferries, via postcards, mobile phones and announcements on station platforms.” The foundation’s Executive Director, Susannah Herbert, is optimistic that new developments will ensure poetry’s relevance for younger generations.
“Poetry is valuable because voices from the margins are constantly reshaping the center,” she says. “For instance, women used to be marginalized – anthologies in the UK were entirely by white, university educated men – and that is changing and needs to go on changing.”
But statistics paint a gloomier picture. The problems start at pre-school level, where traditional nursery rhymes, the beginners’ poetry of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Humpty Dumpty, are now only taught to children by 36 percent of British parents. The outlook for traditionally published adults’ poetry is even bleaker. The total value of UK poetry sales fell from £8.4 million in 2009 to £6.7 million in 2012. As poets are laid off by publishing houses struggling to stay afloat, any collection that sells over 200 copies is considered a best-seller. From the numbers alone, English-language poetry may appear to be no more than the preserve of a shrinking elite.
Elsewhere, however, and especially in the Arabic-speaking world, the story is different. Even before the coming of Islam to the Arabian peninsula, its people were famous for their poetry.
Today, Arab schoolchildren still study the seven ancient mu’allaqat, or 'hanging poems', rumored once to have been suspended inside the Ka’ba as the supreme examples of pre-Islamic verse. In the largely illiterate tribal communities of the desert, poems handed down through the generations by professional rowah, storytellers, were the sole means of preserving the knowledge, history and art of the people. In the centuries that followed, poetry continued to flourish alongside the religious sciences, and a long line of Arab scholars and poets were famed for their prodigious feats of memory.
The ninth century theologian Ahmed Ibn Hanbal was said to have memorised a million hadith (sayings of the Prophet), while 100 years later, a fellow Iraqi, the poet Abu Al Tayyeb Al Mutanabbi, was revered for his ability to memorize the contents of a 30-folio book in a single reading.
Poetry’s central place in the hearts – and memories – of Arab societies endured well into the 20th century. “No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs… The rhythm, the rhyme, the music, produce on them the effect of what they call ‘lawful magic’ (sihr halal),” wrote the Lebanese scholar Philip Hitti in his 1937 classic work History of the Arabs. But since that time, much has changed. In the technology obsessed 21st century, is poetry in danger of becoming as marginal an art form in the Arab world as it is in the West?
There are few places in the Arabic-speaking world where life has changed more rapidly than Qatar. The country’s astonishing economic development since the first major shipments of oil in the 1940s has been accompanied by equally sweeping social change: literacy rates are now the highest in the Arab world.
The eminent cardiologist and poet His Excellency Dr Hajar Ahmed Hajar Albinali, Qatar’s former Minister of Public Health, is one of those who remembers the traditions and customs of old Qatar. Though he now works at the cutting edge of modern medicine, as a boy he joined the children of his beachside community in spear fishing for squid to make ink for their school studies. (“It was good black ink,” he remembers.) In Dr Hajar’s view, poetry is one of the best ways of ensuring continuity between the generations and preserving a culture that might otherwise be swept away by the forces of globalization.
“One of the first diwans [poetry collections] I wrote was about my childhood memories, about the life around me and the customs of the people,” he says. “My aim was to capture these things in poetry for the young people of Qatar who have no idea how things were when we were children. Our children’s generation doesn’t know how we celebrated Eid or Ramadan, or what we experienced when we went to school. In these poems I also talk about my mother and what she was doing in the house when I was a child, milking the cow and working the whole day.”
In those days, Dr Hajar remembers that the ladies of his community, most of whom couldn’t read or write, would gather in the evening to recite poetry and tell stories. “At that time, poetry occupied a big place in everyone’s life,” he says. “My father loved poetry and wrote his own poems, and he used to teach his students concepts through memorising poems, because it’s easier. Even the complex grammar of the Arabic language was transmitted in this way – if there are 1,000 verses to memorise, then you will learn every point of grammar.”
But poetry’s role was more than purely educational and practical. “In the old times, medicine was magic, not a real science. A magician, not a doctor as we understand the word, would treat people,” says Dr Hajar. “Poetry started just like that – it’s a magical word, a magical concept. In our traditional culture there was the idea that good poetry came through djinns [spirits]. The djinn gave the poet the poem and taught him how to recite it – so the poem is actually performed by the djinn and the person is merely a conduit. There is a very close link between poetry, emotion and magic.”
It is not only beliefs about its mysterious powers that have changed in the modern era, but convictions about what Arabic poetry can and should be. To some extent the debate reflects the division between standard Arabic – the formal written language that is shared by the Arabic-speaking world – and the multiplicity of dialects, often mutually incomprehensible, that are spoken across the region. The classical poetic tradition that stretches back to the time of the mu’allaqat is still alive, following the centuries-old rules that dictate its 16 possible “seas” or meters, its structure, themes and even rhyme scheme – most often the monorhyme that Arabic vowels allow to be sustained over a long poem.
Prince Of Poets
Since the late 19th century, however, Arab poets have increasingly chosen to play with these long-established norms. The use of colloquial Arabic – once considered impossible or improper to write down – has also increased. From the mid-20th century onwards, the most progressive poets have chosen to work in either free verse, which fractures the rhythms of the classical tradition, or prose poetry, which abandons them altogether. (The Arab poets whose work is best known in the West, such as Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, have largely worked in the free verse tradition, the development of which went hand-in-hand with the search for new forms of political and social structures.)
But where the experimental fringes of poetry might be the preserve of intellectuals, there is still a thriving popular poetic tradition that even has its own prime-time TV shows.
This year the hit program Prince of Poets, filmed in Abu Dhabi, returned for its fifth season. Based on the familiar Pop Idol format, the talent contest pits Arab poets against each other for a cash prize of one million UAE dirhams, and regularly attracts 20 million-plus viewers. Though it focuses on classical, rather than colloquial, poetry, the glitzy show has proven popular with the Facebook generation.
In its first season in 2007, it hit the headlines when the young Palestinian poet Tamim Al Barghouti, the son of the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour and the Palestinian poet and memoirist Mourid Barghouti, won audiences’ hearts across the region with his poem In Jerusalem. The poem was so successful it even became a popular ringtone – despite Al Barghouti not being chosen as the eventual winner. Prince of Poets’ sister show, Million’s Poet – which has a similar format but promotes nabati poetry composed in a dialect specific to the Gulf – is regularly cited as one of the most popular TV programs in the region, with eager audiences tuning in from Sana’a to Rabat.
While TV and ringtones are helping bring poetry to young people in the Arab world, a new generation in the West is discovering it through the internet. More than 20,000 teenagers currently write poetry on the US-based social reading website Wattpad, with more than 100,000 reading its poems online. On the young adult community writing site Movellas, the most popular poems are read up to 15,000 times. And according to the Southbank Centre Poetry Library in London, “hundreds of thousands” of dedicated English-language poetry websites have emerged, some of which are specially designed for younger readers.
Young people in the Arab world have also adopted poetry as a means of expression in a time of change and upheaval. The Egyptian revolution of early 2011 unleashed a flowering of spontaneous verse and lyrics, capturing revolutionary slogans and changing sentiments in the turbulent months that followed. But while these poems might be beloved of the people, established poets have responded to the outpouring with trepidation. The Egyptian poet, author and journalist Youssef Rakha emphasizes the importance of not confusing “post-folk” oral verse with a more literary tradition.
“Recently we’ve seen a lot of vernacular poetry that’s very traditionally minded, that has a great overlap with music lyrics, and this has a relatively large place in Egyptian culture,” he says. “On the other hand, it is rare to find ‘serious’ poetry that is any good. This kind of poetry is not popular – it’s the preserve of a particular kind of educated person. That might be unfortunate, but there’s no point in pretending that it’s otherwise.”
Rakha’s own vision of poetry is far from both these street ballads and the more classically based tradition popularized by Prince of Poets.
“In English, traditional poetic meters are a lot more flexible and subtle,” he says. “In Arabic, they are like drum rhythms. So since the 1950s there have been people who decided to use different rhythms or lengths of rhythms – and this was free verse. Then there were people who said: ‘you know, we’re not interested in rhythm’ – the prose poets. And they are infinitely more interesting to me.”
He mentions the 'Nineties generation' of Egyptian poets, including Ahmad Yamani and Yasser Abdel Latif, as producing standout examples of work conceived in reaction to both 1960s political engagement and the Adonis-influenced obscurantism of the 1970s.
Part of the interest of these writers’ work lies in their play with registers of language. In recent years, for example, the Arabic slang developed for use in chat forums, text messages and social media has had a strong influence on progressive poets’ work.
“Literary language is absolutely affected by people’s everyday conversation. Writers cannot keep away from the ways in which language is changing,” says the young Egyptian poet Aya Nabih. “I find it amusing as a writer and a reader to use some colloquial Egyptian words in a classical Arabic text. When it is done with discretion, this creates a familiarity between the reader and the text.”
Writing in colloquial Arabic, which has no formally defined grammar or orthography, also allows poets to escape the weight of tradition carried by standard Arabic.
While new generations in the West share poetry online and Arab teens compose revolutionary lyrics, poets agree the art form has retained its power and mystery even in the age of technology.
“Poetry is a very difficult thing to define,” says Rakha. “It’s not a straightforward narrative, it’s not an essay, not a short story – it’s what everything else is not.” Dr Hajar concurs. “It is impossible to write a poem by saying: ‘OK, today I will sit and write a poem,’” he says. “It is magic – it is all emotion.”
Rachel Aspden is a former Literary Editor of the New Statesman and Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellow. She is currently writing a book about the youth of the Arab uprisings.
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