Sunday, 28 January 2018

Review: Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets by George Whitman and A Y al-Udhari.

Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid Poets by George B.H. Wightman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The informative introduction to this book sets the context for its coverage of 3 Abbasid poets - Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf (b. 750), Abdullah Ibn al-Mu'tazz (861-908) and Abu al-Ala al-Ma'arri (973 - 1057) by stating that
"One of the effects of the Prophet Muhammad's teaching was to convert people separated by allegiances to their tribes and chosen idols into an organised force united by the monotheistic Muslim faith.....between 656 and 750 the Umayyad family....established a centralised government and extended the Arab Empire as far as the Pyrenees in the west and the border of India and China in the East. The Ummayyad's imposition of hereditary rule gave their government, and the Empire itself, an appearance of stability. But in fact the court was no more peaceful than the Tudor court. After enlisting the support of various dissidents, notably in the provinces, the Abbasid family, who were relations of the Prophet, seized power in 750. The Abbasid Period from 750 - 1258 became the Golden Age of Arab Literature."

Thus the main periods of Arab poetry are
(1) Pre-Islamic - Jahiliya (450-622)
Its best known form is the qasida or ode, a polythematic poem and an example of a poet of that era and style is Imru al-Qais, the "father of Arabic poetry".

(2)Post-Islamic and Umayyad (622-750)
Conquest, trade and the growth of towns influences poets and their poetry. As the idea of individual citizenship grew and tribal status declined the Ummayad poets broke with the qasida and wrote about topics of personal interest. Love poetry, wine poetry, and polemic verse developed as did the naqa'id or flytings a form of satire in which the poet attacks his rivals.
In this period there were two schools of love poetry, both influenced by music and a wish to set their poems to music
(a) Meccan school of lyric which is engaged and erotic, the poetry is typified by the ghazal, written in a simple and conversational manner. The best known poet here is Umar Ibn Abi Rabi'a
(b) Udhri or Bedouin school "practised a more self-pitying, platonic lyric with the poet as the martyr to an unobtainable mistress who idealizes all his hopes". This is poetry characterised by a natural simplicity of the language of country rather than town. Poets of this style includeJamil Buthaina.
But the best known poets of the Umayyad period are the writers of satirical invectives in the form of naqa'ids which were flung back and forth at each otheral-Aktal, al-Farazdaq and Jarir.

(3) Abbasid (750-1258)
The Abbasids built Baghdad which became a wealthy, cosmopolitan city but at the expense of other nations which felt subjugated. Poets not in court wrote poetry of poverty and struggle. These poets typically used natural speech eg Abu Nuwas “openly mocked the qasida, gloried in hunting, wine and boys”
badi poetic technical devices such as metaphor, alliteration, personification, hyperbole, assonance, dissonance, puns and wits.

Over time Abbasid poetry grew more complex “concepts are as important as images; ideas as dynamic as events” Eg Abu Tammam , Al-Mutanabbi is considered one of the greatest Arabic language poets. His poetry “expresses the Zeitgeist – the anguish of the homeless individual personifying the loss of empire” during this time of its decline, and Abu a-Ala al-Ma’arri.
al-Ma'arri‘s work has “philosophical overtones and moral energy” and is considered the “high water mark both of this period of intellectual dynamism and of the Golden Age as a whole.

According to the writers, Abbassid poetry after Ma’arri “was arrested by the dead weight of tradition and stultified by attempts at new forms which lacked the necessary accompanying vision and body”, matching the weakening of central government, a breakdown in trade links, invasion and the ultimate destruction of the Empire by the Mongols in 1258.

A word about translations – the translators and compilers of this book state they have “agreed to sacrifice form, rhyme, metre and sound…. in trying to communicate the spirit, tone, diction and content of the Arab originals into the English of today.”

Now to the 3 poets themselves:

wrote qit’a, or fragments, short descriptive poems, exclusively concerned with love. These short verses tend to concentrate on a single subject or theme.

Ahnaf’s poetry is said to be an “expression of a mature, humorous sensibility and reflects a wide variety of moods”. He wrote many of his poems to be set to music. “His diction is plain, simple and lively. Yet this simplicity is deceptive. His imagery is so natural that we are likely to overlook its originality. When he writes

“When she walks with her girl servants
Her beauty is a moon between swaying lanterns”

the picture he presents is clear, penetrating and immediate. It is also unusual.

In other poems he organises his metaphors and thought into a highly complex whole, but …we are only conscious of an intrinsic aptness. He constructs these poems like a mobile sculpture; the imagery of one line, or bait, is not logically connected with the imagery of another, but placed together the sequence of unexpected relationships establishes an organic sum which in turn creates an overall mood”. Eg

Love has trees in my heart, and they
Are watered by pent-up rivers.

The black-eyed girl who’s so demure
And speaks coyly like a high flute
Nudged sleep from my head. My liver
Turned to fire and I cried with pain.

I loved those tears which swamped my eyes
Two pupils drowned beneath a liquid sky”

Within a poem he often moves suddenly from one subject of address to another, from direct to indirect speech, without warning. This ploy encapsulates in the poem the rapid activity of an intelligent mind under pressure from a variety of emotions. The underlying humour distances the experience and places it in perspective.

My other favourites

"My dear, is your heart true or false?
It is false. You promised
To love me but the evidence
I was shown proves you broke your word.
Don't ask my heart to love you more
From its ground a spring burst like blood."

"On the road to her house, I was ambushed
By outlaw Night, then struck by suave Darkness.

A lone star in the quarry of the sky
Became a blind man ditched without a guide.

Who destroyed my sleep by closing her eyes
And won't see the agony her rest causes?

You’ve made my irises uncurtained windows;
Why must they stare? Let my sleep bless your sleep."


"When I visit you and the moon
Isn't around to show me the way,
Comets of longing set my heart
So much ablaze, the earth is lit
By the holocaust under my ribs."

(2) Abdullah Ibn al-Mu'tazz
A member of the Abbasid dynasty, he avoided court politics. When this book was compiled little of his poetry was available in translation. He frequently concentrates on an intense visual experience in a surprising metaphor or simile His work have an economy of expression which make us see physical objects from a different angle.

"Narcissus stares without once
Resting its eyes; its back is bent
By still raindrops, its face is pale
Watching how the sky chastens the earth."

(3) Abu a-Ala al-Ma’arri
al-Ma’arri’s poetry reflects the mind of a man who continues to think about the serious questions of life without coming to a final conclusion. Truth and morality are twin obsessions in his moral poetry. He uses wit, satire and epigram to lash out at man’s pretentions and follies. He was notable as being scornful of religion.

Perhaps my favourite has to be the heart wrenching

"The soul driven from the body
Mourns the memory it leaves behind.

A dove hit in flight sadly turns
Its neck and sees its nest destroyed"

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