Can a poem be topical twice?
The speaker of “Elegy for the Times”—a long prose poem by the Syrio-Lebanese poet Adonis, a master of Arabic verse—is not an “I” but a “we,” an anonymous collective that travels through a nightmarish landscape of tombstones, locusts, and sand. The journey is what the ancient Greeks called a catabasis, a descent from the interior to the coast, “the sea’s abyss.” Adonis’s “we” is a community in flight, but the end of the poem suggests that the sea may offer no escape, or that it may be the final, most harrowing obstacle.
The poem, which I translated for our Summer issue, is visionary in scope, yet attentive to haunting details: the light glinting off a helmet, the stains of sweat on a dancer’s loincloth. Beyond the controlled hysteria of its images, I was drawn to the poem because it seems to have leaped from today’s headlines, conjuring the civil war in Syria and the vast migrations it has provoked. The scale of this ongoing tragedy defies the imagination, yet Adonis’s elegy is one of those rare works that aligns with Seamus Heaney’s definition of poetry: “a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” (Heaney was thinking of Ireland’s own time of troubles.)
But Adonis’s poem actually has nothing to do with the predicament of present-day Syria—or at least, it wasn’t inspired by current events. “Elegy” was written more than fifty years ago, on a wholly different occasion. The first version of the poem was published in Arabic in 1958, the year Egypt and Syria merged to become the United Arab Republic (a prelude, some hoped, to wider Arab unification). Adonis thought this experiment was a dangerous folly. His poem imagines the union as an Egyptian invasion followed by a mass exodus of Syrians toward the Mediterranean Sea. Three years later, the UAR collapsed and Adonis rewrote his poem (I’ve translated this later version) in a way that disguised its original inspiration: there is nothing in the revised poem about Egyptians, and there is little to suggest a specific time or place. This suppression of details makes it easier to imagine the poem as belonging to the present. Adonis’s poem bears witness to a tragedy that never happened, until it did.
The original version of “Elegy” was arguably the first prose poem written in Arabic. It was published in the Fall 1958 issue of Shi‘r (Poetry), a quarterly that served as the house organ for Beirut’s literary avant-garde (it was named after Harriet Monroe’s venerable, Chicago-based magazine). It isn’t easy to convey to English-language readers how controversial the prose poem was in the Middle East when it first emerged in the late 1950s. For more than fourteen hundred years, the great majority of Arabic verse was written in one of sixteen classical meters; many contemporaries did not believe Adonis’s prose poems were “poems” at all. They viewed the genre as a foreign—and specifically French—affectation.
There was something to this. At the same time he was writing “Elegy,” Adonis was translating the poèmes en prose of the Guadeloupe-born, French poet and diplomat St.-John Perse (once among the most imitated and widely translated poets in the world, now strangely ignored). In 1957, a year before writing his “Elegy,” Adonis translated a long section of Perse’s Seamarks, a book-length prose poem in which a chorus of speakers descends from the city to the shore, chanting their praise of the sea. As opposed to the shorter, better known poèmes en prose of Baudelaire, almost invariably set in contemporary Paris, Perse’s prose poems are typically long, indeterminate in their time and setting, and ceremonious in their diction. Adonis’s “Elegy” is very much in this vein. It challenged Arab readers to think about what the boundaries of poetry really are, and to ask whether poems, like peoples, are not essentially migrants.
I hope my repatriation of the “Elegy” into English may help it speak to our own times.
Robyn Crewsell is poetry editor of The Paris Review.