An Interview with Adonis

This article appeared online on the New York Times, October, 2010

A Revolutionary of Arabic Verse


ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Every year around this time the name of the Syrian poet Adonis pops up in newspapers and in betting shops. Adonis (pronounced ah-doh-NEES), a pseudonym adopted by Ali Ahmad Said Esber in his teens as an attention getter, is a perennial favorite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. This year Ladbrokes, the British bookmaking firm, had his chances at 8-1, which made him seem a surer bet than the eventual winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, a 25-1 long shot. Why Adonis appeals to the oddsmakers, presumably, is that he’s a poet, and poets have been under-represented among Nobelists lately; that he writes in Arabic, the language of only one Nobel winner, Naguib Mahfouz; and that as is the case with so many recent winners, most Americans have never heard of him.

In the Arab world it’s a very different matter. There he is a renowned figure, if not everywhere a beloved one. He is an outspoken secularist, equally critical of the East and West, and a poetic revolutionary of sorts who has tried to liberate Arabic verse from its traditional forms and subject matter. Some of his poems are immensely long and immensely difficult and resemble Pound’s Cantos at their most impenetrable. Others reveal a Paul Muldoonish playfulness, a Jorie Graham-like expansiveness and fascination with blank space. His poems are as apt to cite Jim Morrison as the Sufi mystics, and his 2003 volume “Prophesy, O Blind One” includes some long, leggy lines about traveling that could have been written by Whitman, if only Whitman had spent more time in airports.

“The textbooks in Syria all say that I have ruined poetry,” Adonis said with a pleased smile last week while visiting the University of Michigan here.

Adonis, now 80, moved to Lebanon from Syria for political reasons in the 1960s, and since the ’80s has lived in Paris. (He is a French citizen.) Yale University Press is bringing out a volume of his selected poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, this month, and next Monday he will read from it at the 92nd Street Y. He was at Michigan, where Mr. Mattawa is on the faculty, to do some readings and give lectures. Small and animated, with a nimbus of poet-length gray hair, Adonis also posed graciously for photos with female fans who were presumably collecting souvenirs in case the Swedish Academy gives him the nod next year.

But in conversation he refused to discuss the Nobel. “I don’t think about it,” he said sternly. “I don’t wish to talk about it.” Adonis speaks fluent French, and his English is better than he lets on, but while in Ann Arbor he preferred to use Arabic, with Mr. Mattawa interpreting. Occasionally, when Mr. Mattawa, racing to keep up, paused for a breath, Adonis gave him a nod and a smile of encouragement.

Adonis’s indifference to prizes appears to stem partly from modesty and partly, to judge from a noontime talk he gave on Tuesday, from a conception of poetry that transcends not just literary politics but politics altogether. Poetry for him is not merely a genre or an art form but a way of thinking, something almost like mystical revelation. “Poetry cannot be made to fit either religion or ideology,” he said in the talk. “It offers that knowledge which is explosive and surprising.”

He went on to complain about what he called the “retardation” of contemporary Arabic poetry, which in his view has become a rhetorical tool for celebrating and explaining the political and religious status quo. In the Islamist scheme, he said, there is not much place for poetry, because Islam assumes that with the Koran knowledge is complete and there is nothing left to add.

Over lunch, Adonis remarked with a shake of his head that the situation of poetry in the West was not a whole lot better, marginalized not so much by religion or ideology but by the media and pop culture. And yet his enthusiasm for poetry remains youthful and undiminished. Traditional Arabic poetry, he explained, was usually written in one of 16 meters, in balanced lines split by a caesura, and frequently employing a single end rhyme for an entire poem. His innovation, starting in the ’60s, was to introduce unrhymed free verse and even prose poetry and to write in mixed meters.

“I wanted to draw on Arab tradition and mythology without being tied to it,” he said, adding, “I wanted to break the linearity of poetic text — to mess with it, if you will. The poem is meant to be a network rather than a single rope of thought.”

Some critics have suggested that his poetry is, in a way, a poetry of exile, and that doesn’t trouble him at all. “Every artist is an exile within his own language,” he said. “The Other is part of my inner being.”

Lately an erotic element has been creeping into his work; in one recent poem the beloved is poetry itself, imagined as a mistress who comes at night in a black dress. “Happiness and sadness are two drops of dew on your forehead,” he writes, “and life is an orchard where the seasons stroll.”

He has also become interested in the plight of women in Islamic countries. Visiting a class taught by Mr. Mattawa, he said: “Right now we feel Arab culture is paralyzed. We suffer from women’s sense of their lack of freedom, of being deprived of their individualism. It’s impossible for a culture to progress with men alone, without women being involved.”

But he surprised some of the students, and raised a few eyebrows, by adding: “The person who is oppressed is the woman, but the real slave is the man, caught up in defending his enslavement. Women should help him become free.”

Just where does poetry fit into all this, one young woman asked a little skeptically, adding: “Isn’t poetry a pretentious, elitist form, not really a force for change?”

“Poetry cannot change society,” Adonis said. “Poetry can only change the notion of relationships between things. Culture cannot change without a change in institutions.” But to the criticism that poetry was an insufficiently popular form he replied: “Poetry that reaches all the people is essentially superficial. Real poetry requires effort because it requires the reader to become, like the poet, a creator. Reading is not reception.” He smiled and added, “I suggest you change your relationship to poetry and art in general.”

Afterward Adonis said he had enjoyed the exchange. “My approach in teaching is always to encourage the students to combat me,” he said.

He has two grown daughters, one a visual artist and the other the director of a French cultural organization, and raised them not to be poets, necessarily, but to question everything. “They were free, and I told them to do whatever they liked,” he said. “Even if it went against me.”