The Modern Adonis

The Syrian poet Adonis, perenially listed as contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, is in hot water again. And you have to say this for his enemies in radical Islamic circles: Like censors in the former Soviet Union, when they try to supress poetry and poets, they at least prove that they think poetry and poets matter. It may be a reverse compliment, but it's a compliment nonetheless.

Adonis, whose real name is Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, is one of the leading modern poets in Arabic. He lives in Paris, where he's relatively safe to speak out. But the latest uproar took place after he was invited to give a lecture at the National Library of Algeria and was interviewed by an Algerian newspaper. The director of the library has been fired, and the newspaper has taken a lot of flak. What did Adonis say in the lecture and interview?

According to Middle Eastern media reports, he called on Muslims to "divorce their religious heritage and adopt a modern mindset," contended that "when religion intervenes in politics, both fail," and said that "if you are a truly believing person, you must grant me the freedom not to believe." The Algerian poet Ali Meghazi and other intellectuals are defending him and calling for reinstatement of the library director.

I'm not competent to judge Adonis's poetry, and it's not my place to comment on his politics. I just can't help wishing that modern American poets had as much resonance. When was the last time you even saw an interview with a poet in an American newspaper?

Wait! I know the answer to that. It was Elizabeth Alexander, who was profiled just a couple weeks ago in the Washington Post. She's no doubt a brilliant woman with an inspiring life story. But I thought she squandered the opportunity she had on inauguration day -- the first time a poet has read to that many people in the United States probably since Robert Frost at JFK's inauguration in 1961 -- and I wasn't the only one who felt she played it safe: Did you see how Adam Kirsch skewered her "bureaucratic" verse in The New Republic's blog? Ouch. "Bureaucratic" may be harsh, but Alexander's line about "the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of" was not exactly mellifluous. And no one is going to lose their job or stir up a controversy over a conundrum like: "What if the mightiest word is love?"

--Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  February 6, 2009; 10:03 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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I felt, sadly, that whatever Ms Alexander was reciting, it didn't qualify as poetry, and like you, I sorrowed that so large an audience would be confirmed in its indifference.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | February 8, 2009 9:02 AM

Not competent to judge Adonis's poetry? Have you not eyes to see, a brain to duh?

Yet, you are competent to judge Elizabeth Alexander? Same eyes, same brain ...

There are plenty of examples of the poetry of Adonis online, including a healthy chunk of the Sam Hazo translated "The Pages of Day and Night" at google books. Give it a try.

I bet your competent enough.

Posted by: donw714 | February 8, 2009 12:48 PM

This may sound terrible, but I really don't think most modern readers are particularly interested in poetry. Or, not in neatly published poetry. There's little market in it so nobody bothers. I often wonder if the only poets of this age are all angsty teens or if some writers truly devote a lot of time and effort into creating beautiful poems.

I didn't hear the poem on Inauguration day, nor have I read anything by "Adonis". I'll be sure to look into both poets, though.

Posted by: Biblibio | February 9, 2009 7:45 AM

What are you talking about? Alexander was vicious in her recital. Consider,

"Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice."

See how she stabs Ma with satire. "Trying to make music", but not. So so cruel.


Posted by: prokaryote | February 9, 2009 3:43 PM

A clarification in response to donw714: I should have made clear that the reason I don't feel competent to judge Adonis's poetry in a public forum is because I don't read Arabic. I do read Russian, and my experience is that translations of poetry from Russian into English tell you more about the skill of the translator than about the qualities of the poet. When I read Adonis in translation, I just don't trust that I'm understanding the original well enough to pass judgment on it. I have no idea how it sounds, to begin with. But I am interested, do you think Adonis is great, or greatly over-rated? And aren't there any GENUINE defenders of Elizabeth Alexander out there?

Posted by: coopermana | February 12, 2009 12:13 PM

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