‘I want to go to school’
The story has been told many times, by the poet himself and by his many commentators. It will no doubt be retold innumerable times, and each time it will sound fresh to the ear, as legends, myths and fairy tales always do.
A boy is born in western Syria in 1930, in a small farming village called Qassabin that does not even have a school, not to mention electricity or the telephone. He grows up with the unassuming name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber, reads the Koran at the local Maktab, and memorises classical Arabic poetry, of which his father is an aficionado. And in time poetry comes to him “as naturally as the leaves to a tree”; Keats’s phrase is apropos in his case.
In 1943, Syria becomes an independent republic; and its first president, Shukri al-Quwatli, on a tour of the country, stops at a town near Qassabin. Ali Ahmad composes a poem celebrating the visit and the country’s independence and plans to recite it before the president. He mentally rehearses the scene: he presents himself before the visiting dignitary and recites the poem; the president likes it and offers him a boon. He says simply, “I want to go to school,” and his wish is granted.
And that precisely is what comes to pass. In this fairy tale manner the boy’s life undergoes a sea change. He is admitted into the country’s best school, the French lycée at Tartus, and when it closes down in 1944 he transfers to a government school. He next wins a government scholarship to study at Damascus University from where he graduates in 1954 with a degree in Philosophy.
Poetic identity as mythopoesis
He does not let schooling inhibit his poetic flow, but newspaper editors reject the poems he submits. He is frustrated. He comes upon the mythological story of Adonis, the handsome young hunter who is killed by a boar. Shelley had turned it into a mythopoeic representation of the Romantic poet Keats “butchered” by critics. Ali Ahmad too sees himself as Adonis and the newspaper editors as boars that try to destroy him. He submits his poems again, this time signing himself as Adonis. And he is accepted: The establishment of his poetic identity is, literally, an act of mythopoesis.
Politics, prison, exile
As a school student Ali Ahmad -- no, Adonis -- joins the Syrian National Socialist Party: Not to be confused with Hitler’s party; it is a secular democratic party and is targeted by the repressive Syrian regime. When he is doing his mandatory military service in 1955-56, he is imprisoned because of his political affiliation with an opposition party. On his release he and his recently wedded wife, Khalida Said, a literary critic, cross over into Lebanon and settle in Beirut, where they devote themselves full-time to literary activities. The first of Adonis’s 20 plus poetry collections appears in 1957; soon he becomes the leading innovator in Arabic poetry, exploiting the resources of rose poetry to extend the thematic and emotional reach of poetry; he studies in France for a year on a scholarship, and starts translating French poets like Yves Bonnefoy, St-Jean Perse and Henri Michaux. He is associated with influential Arabic literary journals, co-translates Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Ezra Pound, Phillip Larkin and Robert Lowell; edits a multi-volume anthology of Arabic prose; completes a PhD in Arabic literature at St Joseph University, Beirut, and teaches Arabic literature at Lebanese universities, as he does later at universities in France and the USA. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 he decides to move again, and in 1985 settles in Paris, where he has lived with his wife and two daughters ever since. Many prizes are showered on him, and for years he is a bookies’ favourite for the Nobel.
A committed poet
The reader may well ask: What is a committed poet? To the functionary of an authoritarian state a committed poet is one who sings the praises of its leaders and the official ideology. To me Adonis is a committed poet by virtue of his commitment to a comprehensive vision -- a vision that champions critical thought which is articulated in poetic language as well as essayistic writings. His immediate life experience encompasses awareness of the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians by Zionist settlers; the Arab debacle of 1967; and the turmoil in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion; and more recently, the troubles throughout the Arab world.
The shock of the Arab defeat in 1967 elicits an extended poetic meditation in “This is my name,” a poem that seems to present history as a perpetual apocalypse:
Come closer, wretched of the earth, cover this age with your rags and tears,
cover it with a body seeking its own warmth The city is arcs of madness
I saw revolution bearing its own children I buried millions of songs and I came
(Are you in my grave?) Let me touch your hands: Follow me
My time has yet to come, but the graveyard of the world is already here I bear
ashes for the sultans Give me your hands Follow me
("Is My Name")
Likewise, in The Book of Siege
, Adonis’s poetic response to the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion, the apocalyptic, the lyrical and sustained prose meditation combine to offer a vast vista of our desolate world:
The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust.
Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this space.
And you, are you getting bored, dear reader, from this ancient one striking into the depth of history? But don’t you too see how poetry can spring out of what we imagine to be poetry’s contrary? And don’t you also see that what we call reality is nothing but skin that crumbles as soon as you touch it and begins to reveal what hides under it: that other buried reality where the human being is the poetry of the universe.
Poetry = thought
Adonis considers thought to be an integral part of poetry. “Poetry is thought, and great thought is also poetry,” he tells an interviewer (World Literature Today). In a filmed interview on Louisiana Channel, available on Youtube, Adonis explains that with the coming of Islam, thought became the special preserve of religion and theologians, and poets restricted themselves to the expression of personal feelings. One could put it in Eliotesque terms by saying that a dissociation of sensibility had set in. Adonis resorts to Sufism to reintegrate thought and poetry, and in a daring cross-cultural leap equates Sufism and Surrealism. He has published over a dozen books of criticism, none of which have been translated into English. I think it would be an immensely enriching task to translate Adonis’s prose alongside his poetry; it would allow Anglophone readers to experience his poetry together with the discursive presentation of his thought.
Adonis has not by any means isolated himself from current crises; far from it. And his acerbic comments on recent events deserve to be mentioned. Talking to Maya Jaggi (The Guardian), he says that though he welcomed the Arab Spring, he had misgivings as well, for “it’s the Islamists and merchants and Americans who have picked the fruits of this revolutionary moment.” Further: “If we don’t separate religion from the state, and free women from Sharia law, we’ll have more despots. Military dictatorship controls your mind. But religious dictatorship controls your mind and body.” Regarding Western double standards: “If westerners really want to defend Arab human rights, they have to start by defending the rights of Palestinians.” At a talk in Paris he held up a photograph as evidence and said: “American soldiers pissed on Iraqi corpses. So these are the people they want to call in to liberate Arabs, and piss on the living?” What then is the state of Arab civilisation? “What is civilisation? It’s the creation of something new, like a painting. A people that no longer creates becomes a consumer of the products of others. That’s what I mean by the Arabs being finished -- not as a people, but as a creative presence.”
But Adonis’s creativity remains vital as ever. Lately, he has ventured into the visual media, combining Arabic calligraphy and collage or Rakima (in Arabic), and has exhibited in Paris. Let a great prose writer, Sir Vidia Naipaul, have the last word in this brief introduction to a great poet: “His vision is extraordinary. His poetry sublime … He is for me a master of our times.”
All references to Adonis’s poems are from Khaled Mattawa’s translations
Kaiser Haq is a renowned poet, essayist and translator. Enlarged editions of his books of poetry, 'Pariah and Other Poems' and 'Published in the Streets of Dhaka,' will be released at Dhaka Lit Fest where he is a speaker.