Poetry that transcends

Adonis believes in the ambiguity of poetry, a position that earned him the label of a modern obscurantist. Thachom Poyil Rajeevan on the celebrated Arab poet, who was in India recently.

Updated - June 06, 2015 07:22 pm IST

Published - June 06, 2015 04:09 pm IST

In 1944, Shukri al-Quwatli, President of the newly established Republic of Syria, visited Qassabin, a village in western Syria. Ali Ahmad Said Esber, a14-year-old student of a mosque-affiliated local school, despite his father’s reservations and the village chief’s hostile denial, somehow got a chance to recite his poem before the President. He didn’t have any formal education other than learning the Quran and memorising classical Arabic poetry. Impressed by his creative enthusiasm, the President asked if the boy wanted any help. “I want to go to school,” replied the budding poet. Esber got a scholarship to the French lycee at Tartus from where he graduated in 1950.

In the course of time, he earned a doctoral degree in Arabic literature from St. Joseph University, Beirut, served in the army, was imprisoned for associating with the Syrian National Socialist Party and, advocating secularism and socialism, fled to Lebanon to become a citizen of that country. From there he moved to Paris seeking a permanent home. Today he is known as Adonis, author of 20 volumes of poetry, 13 of criticism and a dozen translations into Arabic; indisputably a celebrated poet not only in the Arab-speaking world but in contemporary world poetry as well.

Recently, Adonis was at Kaikara — a seaside hamlet near Thiruvananthapuram, and better known as the birthplace of the visionary poet, Kumaranasan — to receive the Kumaranasan World Prize for Poetry 2015. The 85-year-old poet is still the nonconformist he was half a century ago. His speech and responses — all in Arabic and translated by Arwad Esber, his daughter and aide — gave a glimpse of what the maestro thinks about poetry, politics and religion.

In his speech, Adonis introduced himself as coming from a world in which humans feed on the flesh of humans. “Wars have brought us back to a form of savagery, which we thought had long gone — and, yet we call ourselves modern. Everything seems to be a well-organised destruction of civilisations and of the meaning of human life itself. But I come to you with the light of poetry; with what remains in the Arabic language that weeps in sorrows.”

Engaged with the eternal dilemmas of identity, freedom and spirituality, Adonis’s poetry — as the jury observed — transcends the immediate national, political and cultural demarcations of the Arabic language to address the universal reader. Protean by nature, it has undergone various transformations in form and content; from voicing political and social predicaments to articulating an individual’s metaphysical sensitivity with the mystic zeal of Sufism — evolving into an entity that defies all predictable definitions of poetry.

In Adonis’ view “a poet is a metaphysical being who penetrates to the depth”. At the same time, while doing so, “he should keep solidarity with others”. Adonis believes in the ambiguity of poetry, a position that earned him the label of a modern obscurantist. He writes: “the poet does not transmit in his poetry clear or ready-made thoughts… Instead he sets words as traps or nets to catch an unknown world”.  A vision expressed in ‘Desert’ as: The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust/Only poetry knows how to pair itself to this place.

Be it poetry, religion or politics, Adonis has remained an avowed critic of the retrogressive beliefs and practices of traditions and a persistent experimenter pioneering a renewal of human understanding of life and nature by assimilating the constructive inheritance of myth and history.

Asked about his metamorphosis into Adonis, he said, “A deity worshiped in the Levant and Mesopotamia before the arrival of the Jews in Canaan, an extremely handsome young man, a name I adopted in my teens when editors rejected the poems sent by Ali Ahmad Said Esber”. The poet’s eyes gleamed with a naughty smile.

Thachom Poyil Rajeevan is a bilingual writer based in Kozhikode.

rthachompoyil@yahoo.com

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