Part 54b

What is Poetry?

December 27, 2021

The prosodists define poetry as a metrical rhymed speech. This is a wrong defintion. Prosody considers poetry only 1466 under the aspect of the agreement of the verses (of a poem), with respect to the number of successive syllables with and without vowels, 1467 as well as with respect to the similarity of the last foot of thefirst hemistich of the verses of a poem to the last foot of the second hemistich.

This concerns meter alone and has nothing to do with the words and their meaning. (The definition of the prosodists mentioned) can serve as a definition (of poetry) for them.

But as we look at poetry, as including vowel endings, eloquence, meter, and special molds (of expression peculiar to poetry), there can be no doubt that the definition of (the prosodists) is not a valid (definition of poetry) for us. We must have a definition that will give us the real meaning of poetry in our sense. We say= Poetry is eloquent speech built upon metaphoric usage and descriptions; divided into cola agreeing in meter and rhyme letter, each colon being independent in purpose and meaning from what comes before and after it; and using the methods of the Arabs peculiar to it.

The phrase “eloquent speech” in our definition takes the place of genus. (The phrase) “built upon metaphoric usage and descriptions” differentiates (poetry) from (eloquent speech), which does not have that (and which must be differentiated) because it is mostly not poetry.

The phrase “divided into cola agreeing in meter and rhyme letter” differentiates (poetry) from the (kind of) prose speech that nobody would consider poetry. The phrase “each colon being independent in purpose and meaning from what comes before and after it” explains the real character of (poetry), because the verses of poetry can be only this way. This does not differentiate (poetry) from other things. 1468

The phrase “using the methods peculiar to it” differentiates (poetry) from (speech) that does not use the well-known methods of poetry.1469 Without them, it would not be poetry but merely poetical speech, because poetry has special methods which prose does not have. Likewise, prose has methods which do not apply to poetry. Rhymed speech that does not use those methods is not poetry.

It was in this sense that most of the professors of literature whom we have met were of the opinion that the rhymes of al-Mutanabbi’ and al-Ma’arri are by no means poetry, because these (two men) did not follow Arab poetical methods. 1470

The phrase in (our) definition, “using the methods of the Arabs” differentiates it from the poetry of non-Arab, nations. (This is) for those who are of the opinion that poetry exists both among Arabs and among other (people). 1471 (On the other hand,) those who are of the opinion that poetry exists only among the Arabs would not need the phrase. They might say instead= “using the methods peculiar to it” (omitting the words “of the Arabs”).

Having finished with the discussion of the real character of poetry, we shall now return to the discussion of how poetry is produced. We say It should be known that the production of poetry and the laws governing the (poetical) craft are subject to a number of conditions. The first condition is to have an expert knowledge of its genus-that is, the genus of Arabic poetry. (This is the thing) that eventually creates a habit in the soul upon which, as on a loom, (the poet is able) to weave. The material for memorizing should be selected from the most genuine and purest and most varied (poetry), 1472 The selection, at the least, should comprise the poetry of outstanding Muslim poets such as Ibn Abi Rabi’ah, 1473 Kuthayyir, 1474 Dhu r-Rummah, 1475 Jarir, 1476 Abu Nuwas, 1477 Habib (Abu Tammam), 1478 al- Buhturi,1479 arRadi, 1480 and Abu Firas.1481

Most of the material would come from the Kitab al-Aghani, because it is a collection of all Muslim poetry and the choicest pre-Islamic poetry. 1482

The poetry of poets who have no expert knowledge of (the old poetical material) is inferior and bad. Brilliance and sweetness is given to poetry only with the help of memorized knowledge of much (old poetical material). Those who knowlittle or nothing of it cannot (produce) any (real) poetry= They merely produce bad rhymes. They would do better to keep away from poetry.

After the poet is saturated with memorized (poetical material) and has sharpened his talent, in order to be able to follow the great examples, 1483 he proceeds to make rhymes himself. Through more and more (practice), the habit of (rhyme making) becomes firmly established and rooted (in him).

One of the conditions governing (poetical production) is to forget the memorized material, so that its external literal forms will be wiped out (of the memory), since they prevent the real use of (the poetical habit). 1484 After the soul has been conditioned by them, and they are forgotten, the method (of poetry) is engraved upon the (soul), as though it were a loom upon which similar such words can be woven as a matter of course.

The poet, then, needs solitude. The place he looks at should be a beautiful one with water and flowers. He likewise needs music. He must stir up 1485 his talent by refreshing it 1486 and stimulate it through pleasurable joy. 1487

In addition to the (afore-mentioned) conditions, there is another. The (poet) must be rested and energetic. This makes him more collected and is better for his talent, so that he is able to create a loom similar to that which is in his memory. It has been said= “The best time for it is in the morning right after waking up, when the stomach is empty and the mind energetic, and in the atmosphere of the bath.” 1488 It has (also) often been said= “Stimuli to poetry are love and drunkenness.” This was mentioned by Ibn Rashiq in the Kitab al-’ Umdah . 1489 The ‘Umdah is especially devoted to poetry and has given it its due. No work on poetry like it 1490 has been written either before or since. (Then too,) it has been said= “If (the poet) finds it difficult (to make a poem) after all that, he should leave it for another time. He should not force himself to do it.”

The poet should have the rhyme (in mind), when the verse is first given shape and form. He should set it down and build (his) speech on it all the way through to the end, because, if the poet neglects to have the rhyme (in mind) when he makes a verse, it may be difficult for him to get the rhyme into its proper place, for it often is loose and unstable.

If a verse is satisfactory but does not fit in its context, (the poet) should save it for a place more fitting to it. Every verse is an independent unit, and all that is to be done is to fit (the verse into the context of the poem). Therefore, (the poet) may choose to do in this respect whatever he wishes. After a poem is finished, (the poet) should revise it carefully and critically. He should not hesitate to throw it away, if it is not good enough. Every man is fond of his own poetry, since it is a product of his mind and a creation of his talent. (The poet) should use only the most correct word combinations and a language free from all (poetic) license, since 1491 the (use of it) is a defect as far as the linguistic habit is concerned. He should avoid it, because it might deprive (his) speech of eloquence. The leading authorities forbade the later-born (poets) 1492 to use (poetic) license, since by avoiding it they might be able to obtain the most exemplary (linguistic) habit. (The poet) should also keep away, as much as he can, from involved word combinations. He should try to use only those whose meaning can be understood more quickly than the (individual) words they contain. 1493

The same applies to putting too many ideas into one verse, which make it somewhat complicated to understand. The choicest (verse) is the one whose words conform to the ideas (it contains) or are more copious (than the ideas). If there are many ideas, the verse becomes crowded. The mind examines the (ideas) and is distracted. As aresult, (the listener’s literary) taste is prevented from fully understanding, as it should, the eloquence (of the verse). 1494 A poem is easy only when its ideas are more quickly grasped by the mind than its words. Thus, our shaykhs used to criticize the poetry of the poet of eastern Spain, [Abu Bakr] b. Khafajah, 1495 for crowding too many ideas into one verse. They used also to criticize the poetry of al-Mutanabbi’ and al-Ma’arri, because it does not follow the methods of the Arabs, as was mentioned before. 1496 Thus, the poetry of the (two men) was rhymed speech inferior to poetry. The judge in such matters is (one’s) taste. 1497 The poet should also keep away from farfetched and pretentious words. 1498

He should also (keep away) from vulgar words that become hackneyed through usage. (The use of such words) deprives the poem of eloquence. (He 1499 should) also (keep away) from ideas that have become hackneyed by being generally known. (Their use,) too, deprives the speech of eloquence. It becomes hackneyed and almost meaningless. For instance, such phrases as “The fire is hot” and “The heaven above us” (belong in this category). The closer a poem gets to being ‘meaningless, the less can it claim to be eloquent, since (meaninglessness and eloquence) are (opposing) extremes. For this reason, poetry on mystical 1500 and prophetical subjects is not, as a rule, very good. Only the best poets are good in it, and (even they) only in small (portions of such poetry) and with great difficulty, because the ideas with which such poetry deals are generally known to the great mass and, thus, have become hackneyed.

If a person, after (observing) all (these conditions), (still) finds it impossible to produce poetry, he should (try and) practice it again and again, since talent is like an udder, giving milk only when it is milked, drying up and giving little milk 1501 when it is left alone and neglected. In general, (the subject of) poetry and how to learn it is exhaustively treated in the Kitab al-‘Umdah by Ibn Rashiq. We have mentioned (such information) on poetry available to us, as far as we were able. Those who would like to study the subject exhaustively must turn to the (‘Umdah). It contains all one could wish. (Our remarks) should suffice to give an idea. God gives support.

People have written poems dealing with poetry and its requirements. The following poem, which, I believe, is by Ibn Rashiq, is among the best statements made on the subject= 1502

God curse poetry! How many Kinds of stupid poets have we met! They prefer strange (expressions) to what Would be easy and clear to the listener. They consider the absurd a sound idea, And vile speech something precious. They ignore what is right in (poetry). On account of (their) ignorance, they do not know that they are ignorant. Not we, but others, blame them. We, in fact, find them excusable. Poetry is that which is harmonious in its rhymes, Even if in (its) descriptions, it is varied. Each part of it has the same form as the other parts. Front and back have come to be alike in it. Every idea in a (poem) comes to you as you Wish it would be, if it were not. It has attained such great beauty of style that Its beauty comes close to being clear to those who look (at it).Its words are like faces, And the ideas contained in it are (their) eyes. It fulfills all the wishes one might have. Those who recite it are adorned 1503 with its beauty. When you praise a noble free man in a poem, You should set out to be as profuse as anyone. You should make the nasib easy and to the point. You should make the laudatory (part) truthful and clear. You should avoid whatever might not be nice to hear, Even if it is properly put metrically. When you satirize him, You should consider the ways of those who use gross language blameworthy. 1504 You should consider frank statement in (satire) medicine. Recourse to allusions you should consider a hidden illness. Whenever in (a poem) you lament those who will one day soon Depart, and the women who are carried away (in their litters), You should suppress (your) grief, You should subdue The tears that are stored up in (your) eyes. 1504a And when you express censure (of a friend), you should mingle promises With threats, and harshness with gentleness. Thus you will leave the person whom you censure Wary as well as assured, strong as well as weak. The soundest poetry is that which is outstanding in 1505 poetical (Form), clear and transparent. When recited, it must make everyone desirous (of producing something similar), And when one wishes to make a (poem like it), this must be found impossible.

The same subject is also dealt with in the following verses of a poet an-Nashi 1506: Poetry is (a thing) the crookedness of whose front you have straightened out, And the belt of whose back you have tightened through careful revision, The cracks in which you have repaired 1507 through profuseness, And whose half-blind eyes you have opened through conciseness, The near and remote parts of which you have gathered together, And whose stagnant (well water) and spring water you have united, And in which you have provided, wherever required, l508 (Like with) like, and counterpart with counterpart. If you praise in a (poem) a noble, generous person, And repay with gratitude all the debts due him, You should present him with what is (most) precious and grave (in poetry) And distinguish him with what is important and valuable (in it). Thus, (poetry) should be generous in the use of its various types, And easy (to understand) in the (general) agreement of its various branches. If in (a poem) you lament dwelling places and the people who lived there, You should make the grieved person to shed the water of the sutures of his skull. 1509

If you want to hint at something dubious, You should leave the matter midway between clear and cryptic. Thus you make the person who hears it mingle his doubts With clarity, and his conjectures with certainty.If you censure a friend because of a slip, You should cover the severity of censure with gentleness. Thus, you will leave him civilized by mildness, Reassured in the face of 1510 his sadness and grievances. (But) if you want to attack the (girl) you love, When she breaks with you, with seductive (poetry), 1511 You should (try to) enslave her with fine and subtle (verses) And inflame her with (their) concealed and hidden (meanings). If you would apologize for a mistake you (yourself) have made, You should go at it (with verses somewhere) between fanciful and clear.

Thus, your sin will turn out in the eyes of him who is affected by (your poetry),

To be a censure of himself obliging him to swear (that he did nothing wrong). 1512

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