This scholarly clutch of “Chicago School” essays on classical Arabic poetry gives the non-specialist a chance to listen in on the stars and peek at their working translations. The real fun though is in watching the poetry they cover operate in an entirely different way than it does in our parochial here and now. Taking Arabic into English gives you a glimpse of the software, but it’s their knack for explaining the socio-cultural hardware that makes these brainy pieces shine.
A pre-Islamic genre with roots in the myths and harvest rituals of the ancient Near East, the Arabic qasidah, with its desert imagery and largely Bedouin social context, first gets written down, then Islamicized, then exported to regions far distant in time, tongue, and place. In the process, fixed images and rhetorical conventions assume new, often highly original meanings. A celebration of drunkenness or sexual love can become a trope for spiritual union, or praise for an absent lover an expression of the seeker’s desire for the divine, while each preserves its function in meeting the generic requirements of the classical ode. To twist a line from Olson, as the qasidah moves over the mountains what does not change is the will to make it look like nothing’s changed, until even the requisite camel dung left at the abandoned campsite gets itself stretched and metaphor’d into the princely ghazals of India.
The result is a poetry that’s highly aware of its status as a set of (increasingly artificial) rules and conventions, but one that shrewdly deploys allusion, intertextual chest bumping, and nimble ambiguities (is it wine or “wine”?) to leave a personal imprint on otherwise generic material. The closest comparison in our own culture might be to comics or opera, two forms with a clearly articulated code of conventions which their fans appreciate primarily as conventions, but which artists keep managing to turn to their own purpose all the time anyway without necessarily feeling the need to throw over the genre completely. (Brandon Brown’s amazing parsings of contemporary pop music come to mind here, too.)
I wonder if more contemporary poetry works like the qasidah—or like Brandon’s pop ballads—than we’re often ready to acknowledge, and if we might gain a more sophisticated appreciation of our literary resources if we talked about that more. I liked this book for making me wonder that.
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