Translated from the Arabic by Shawkat M. Toorawa
Syracuse University Press,
The first English translation of a signature work by one of the greatest living Arab poets. In this noted anthology, the poet Adonis evokes the wisdom of Whitman's Leaves of Grass (which he liberally excerpts and remolds), the modernism of William Carlos Williams, and the haunting urban imagery of Baudelaire, Cavafy, and Lorca. Three long poems allow him to explore profoundly the human condition, by examining language and love, race and favor, faith and dogma, war and ruin. In the lyrical "This Is My Name " and "Introduction to the History of the Petty Kings, " Adonis ponders Arab defeat and defeatism. In "A Grave for New York, " he focuses on Vietnam-era America. Originally published in 1970 to widespread acclaim, the collection has been reprinted often but has never before appeared in English. Enhanced by Shawkat M. Toorawa's bilingual edition of the Arabic and English on facing pages, an afterword, and assisted by a critical bibliography of Adonis's works, this book is a crucial reference for all students and scholars of modern and Middle Eastern poetry and culture. Noted Syrian intellectual Nasser Rabbat offers a compelling foreword.
Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said) has written poetry, criticism, translations, and anthologies for fifty years. He has won numerous international poetry awards and was a finalist for the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Shawkat M. Toorawa is professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. He is coauthor of Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition and author of the forthcoming Ibn Abi Tahir Tayfur and Arabic Writerly Culture.
With a Foreword by Nasser Rabbat
AN INTERVIEW WITH SHAWKAT TOORAWA
DISCUSSING THE POETRY OF ADONIS
Poetry in the United States is not widely read and arguably, has little influence in our culture. Do you see the poetry of Adonis as more relevant or occupying a more central role to the culture of Middle East today?
Poetry has always been important in Arab culture. Evidence of this is the fact that daily newspapers publish the work of poets. When the US began its military offensive in Iraq, a poem by Adonis appeared on the front page of an Arabic newspaper. There is evidently political poetry in the US, but I suspect that in the political realm it has given way to the protest song. As far as non-political culture is concerned, it would seem to be the case that schooled Arabs study and memorize more poetry than their US counterparts, but that is an anecdotal observation.
In "A Grave for New York" Adonis addresses Walt Whitman. In what way do American poets influence his poetry?
In the way that all great poets are influenced by all other great poets! Adonis likes Whitman in particular for any number of reasons. I might single out Whitman's engagement with New York, with the plight of African-Americans, and, for want of a better term, his freedom with language and form. Formally, especially in his long poems, Adonis also is influenced by William Carlos Willliams and Hart Crane. He is also a fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
His poetry involves innovative uses of language, experimenting with syntax, rhythm and metaphors. How does this complicate the role of the translator? What, if anything, gets "lost in translation"?
It complicates things immeasurably. One is constantly making decisions about what to sacrifice, to include, to replicate. But I don't want to give the impression that translating an apparently simpler poet is necessarily easier. It comes down to wanting to translate a sensibility. As for what gets lost in translation, Péguy says that poetry is what gets left behind in translations.
What does the poetry of Adonis, from his specific vantage point, offer students of poetry today?
I taught a seminar titled 'New York, Paris, Baghdad: Poetry of the City" last semester at Cornell. I assigned Adonis alongside Baudelaire, Whitman, Cavafy, Lorca, al-Bayati, Adnan and others. I think it's fair to say, based on the students' reactions, that Adonis offered them what other great poets offer: a way, sometimes new, sometimes just newly formulated, of thinking about self, world, language, and commitment.