"Introduction" to Three Egyptian Poets by Maged Zaher (editor), first published in Jacket Magazine, Issue 36, 2008:
Arabic poetry originated like all other poetic traditions — as an oral art. Two thousand years later, innovative contemporary Arab poets are still working to transform the oral nature of their tradition, and its established rhetorical and formal devices, with their cultural implications of favoring passion over intellect, the masculine over the feminine, and patriarchy over subversion.
Art is inextricable from the political. At its inception among desert nomads and tribes, oral poetry was the most advanced media form, and poets had an important political role: they were the spokespersons of their tribes. Poetry then had to be easily memorable, which was accomplished formally via regular rhythm and rhyme schemes, and rhetorically via hyperbole.
Now — in the late twentieth and early twenty first century — the avant-garde Arab poets face different political and cultural tasks. They recognize the need for a multiplicity of voices, and for a balanced dialogue between passion and intellect. They also recognize the need to challenge both the patriarchal aspects of their lives including the political dictatorships, and celebrate both feminine and masculine voices on equal terms.
The generation of poets represented here claims that the current recognized icons of Arabic poetry — mainly the occasional short list candidates for Nobel prize: Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis — although admirable and ground breaking, haven’t fully broken free from this oral and patriarchal tradition. They also claim that this intense celebration of these figures to the exclusion of other poets, is in itself a symptom of the ills of the romantic, patriarchal aspect, they are set out to challenge.
Of course there were many attempts to break with the strict form throughout the history of Arabic poetry: In the 1920s and 1930s the romantic poets’ generation — e.g. the Apollo group in Egypt — tampered slightly with the strict form by using softer language, imagery, and multiple rhyme schemes in the same poem. However, the usage of regular rhythm and hyperbole were still intact.
In the late 1940s, the Free Verse Movement started using irregular rhythm and rhyme schemes, which was considered to be a major break with tradition. However this poetic revolution stopped short from doing away with rhythm and rhyme entirely, which made it essentially — although necessarily a major step on the path of modernizing Arabic poetry — a variation from within the oral tradition, in terms of both form and rhetorical devices.
The innovation of the Arabic poetry in Lebanon started in the late forties and early fifties with the works of Youssef El-Khal, Onsi El-Haj and others. Adonis and El-Khal magazine Shi’r made a lasting impact on the Arabic language poetics, and the poets it published, who abandoned both rhythm and rhyme altogether: El-Khal, Adonis, El-Maghout, and others, acted as a precursor to the work of the Lebanese poets of the seventies and eighties: Wadih Saadeh, Bassam Haggar, Abbas Beydoun, who acted in their own as precursors to the poets represented here.
The Egyptian poets of the nineties generation took the achievement of their Lebanese predecessors several steps forward, via 1 — employing plain and simple language. 2 — writing about the “non-poetic” details of everyday life. Effectively, the poet opted out of being a hero challenging the world (a la Darwish and Adonis) and — in the work of these poets — poetry didn’t just stop being an oral art, it also rid itself from hyperbole and heroism. An illustration of this would be Ahmed Taha’s important article: “From Reciting To Writing” published in the first issue of the underground influential magazine El-Garad “Locusts” co-edited by Mohamed Metwalli.
Some terminology issues:
In the Arab world, the term “Prose Poetry” is used to describe poems that do not use rhythm or rhyme, even if these poems have line breaks. This usage is different from what the Western poetic tradition recognizes as prose poetry. In effect the Arab poetics tradition’s “Prose Poetry” is more equivalent to the Western poetic tradition’s “Free Verse.”
Meanwhile. in the Arabic tradition the term free verse is used to describe poetry that has irregular rhythm and rhyme schemes. (Imagine poetry written in the iambic but every line has a different count, with arbitrary rhyme scheme)
In the Arab world a continuous gap between the spoken and written languages exists. The written language is formal while the spoken is not. An example of this would be — for an English language speaker — to use the standard everyday English language for speaking, yet old Shakespearian English for writing.
Political speeches are always rendered in the formal language. They depend — at large — on the same rhetorical devices of hyperbole and exaggeration used in classical Arabic poetry. Most poetry is written in the formal language. The nineties generation poets still used formal language but they somewhat modified their diction to match journalistic and everyday speech.
Breaking with the existing rhetoric is considered a sort of a heresy and challenge to the culturally — romantic/patriarchal/religious — accepted language, hence the major cultural tension that surrounds this form of poetry. The aesthetic debate was often peppered by accusations of the poets who broke with the tradition as agents of imperialism or communism.
The three poets chosen for translation here are emblematic of the thematic and linguistic changes mentioned in this introduction.
The poetry of Ahmed Taha, the oldest of the poets included here, is an example of the transition: the poet’s protagonist is still, largely, a tragic figure, yet not a heroic one like the ones you find in Darwish or Adonis’ poetry.
Osama El-Dinasouri, who died in 2007 from a kidney failure, pushed the envelope further: His poetry is a consistent attack on the sentimentalism of the old tradition. In contrast to Taha’s tragic protagonist, Osama’s protagonist doesn’t take himself seriously most of the time.
Mohamed Metwalli pushes things even more, his protagonist is almost the anti-hero, and is more interested in the surrounding objects and their existence than his own thoughts and ideas. One reason that his poetry might be controversial is that Egyptian poetry readers couldn’t relate his poems to the aesthetic boundaries of the two thousand year old oral tradition. His poems were occasionally accused that they sound as if they are translated and not originally written in Arabic.
There are more women poets writing and publishing in this group — e.g. Iman Mirsal, Fatima Kandeel, Nagatt Ali, Hoda Hussein — than all published Arab women poets in the whole twentieth century. I am currently translating some of their work, which I hope to get published in a subsequent volume.