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from the November 2014 issue

Walt Whitman and Me: Notes on a Poetic Education

To the poets of the Lebanese Journal Shi‘r  

I know I’m about to write myself into another maze and I’m going to get lost in it.

In my infancy there was my father, there was my mother, there was also the shaykh of the nearby mosque, there was the shaykh of the Qur’ân school.  In my childhood there was my father, there was my mother, and there was our president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In my adolescence there were the Egyptian romantic poets, there were the Lebanese emigrant poets in America. There were Khalil Gibran, Mikha’il Na‘ima, Ameen Al-Rihani, and there was Gamal Abdel Nasser. In my early manhood there was Ibrahim al-Mazini and there was Adonis. And there was the last face, Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In my childhood, the distance between my father and Gamal Abdel Nasser did not seem vast.  My father with his flowing robes and his constant prayers could with his two hands lift me to the skies, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, with his pompous voice and his jangling nerves, could pull those skies to earth and trample them, down to the farthest depth, so much so that I felt forced to bend down and crawl. And crawl I did.  At home, my father looms in every corner.  At school, Gamal Abdel Nasser waits for me under the bell.  Between the school and the house there is a broken bridge.  At school there are teachers planting in our heads gross fantasies, fraught with cheap morality. In the house my mother is singing her sensual songs, while my father clings to his special rights in this world.  He carried three names: the one his mother gave him at birth, the one the state chose for him, and the one he chose for himself, sharing it with the people who loved him.  Between my mother’s songs and my father’s three-part title, I was filled with bewilderment at our oral heritage and those stories which, though religious, teem with sensuous bodies and with lust; and because of Gamal Abdel Nasser I was filled with fear and a sense of confinement. Outside of the house and outside school I welcomed, trembling, the poetry of the Arabic Romantics.    


My poetic education came not in the classroom but outside it, in my own discoveries. I came across the poetry of Gibran and Rihani, and I heard for the first time the name of Walt Whitman, with whom Rihani felt a close literary connection, and with whom he had an emotional connection, and I became consumed with curiosity. At the university I met other students who loved arts and literature, who were also seeking new names, names of beloved poets and novelists. The strangest one among them was a swarthy student with long disheveled hair and full lips.  His name was Muhammad Abu al-Qumsân. Because he had memorized Leaves of Grass in English and liked to recite it in a high voice in both English and in Arabic, his colleagues began calling him Muhammad Walt Whitman.  Muhammad Abu al-Qumsân did not write poetry.  He used to read the novels of Dostoevsky, so others gave him the name Muhammad Dostoevsky.  He was a Marxist who embraced political theory and dreamed of change from the very root.  After he graduated I heard that he grew a beard and joined a religious organization, and I heard that he was still reciting poems from Leaves of Grass and reading Dostoevsky. At that time I was busy with the literature of the emigrant poets and Ameen Al-Rihany, who made me discover Walt Whitman a second time. I was sure that the things you do not acknowledge in your dreams will confront you in reality and that the most dangerous obsession is art, because it makes us discover ourselves again while we discover it and  creates us anew when we create it.  The condition for achieving discovery and creation is the meeting of two destinies, our destiny and the destiny of art, obsession.  I was possessed by memory and  forgetfulness and  by Arabic poetry, consumed with all three of them and with other poetry, simply because it was different, and while I was searching for  this difference Muhammad Abu al-Qumsân made me fall once more into obsession, after he himself fell into it.   


After the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, our Romantic movement began to announce its presence, the first reaction to a long-entrenched classicism. Romanticism was a natural outcome of man’s ability and desire to move beyond his restricted territory. And just as focused as the new Romantics were on writing their own poems, they were also  devoted to translating poetry from other languages.  And so the geography of Arabic poetry widened and that expansive diwan began to include both poems written in Arabic and poems translated into Arabic.  The new poets were better enabled to recognize Al-Mutanabbi, Abu Nuwâs, Ahmad Shawqi, Salah ‘Abd al-Sabur, Al-Sayyâb, Adonis, and Mahmoud Darwish.  They became equally knowledgeable about Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Aragon, Tagore, Pushkin, Eliot, Frost, Neruda, Nâzim Hikmet, Lorca, and Whitman. And the notion that poetry could not be read outside its own language, that the heart of poetry could not beat except in its own mother language, fluttered to the ground like a withered leaf. 

And after I read translations of poetry by academics and professional translators, I started to prefer translations by poets, ignoring what nonpoets might produce.  During my first year at the university I could feel, indeed was infected with, the fever of Rimbaud’s poetry.  I wanted to talk about him with everyone, from my good friend Maha to the mailman, even with my mother who was a simple woman.  In those days I corresponded with the traditional poet Al-Awadi Al-Wakîl, a student of ‘Abbâs Al-‘Aqqâd.  I read the diwan of Al-Mutanabbi with Al-Awadi while he was preparing a new edition of his poems.  I revised some of my own poems based on his suggestions.  In one of my letters to him I wrote about Rimbaud, about “The Drunken Boat,” A Season in Hell, and Illuminations.  And I told him that the poet, according to Rimbaud, and according to Whitman, sought to live the experiences of all people and to seek out the most dangerous, even the worst of them.  I was happy when I wrote this and waited for Al-Awadi’s response.  His letter came, short and abrupt:  “My son, I wish you would avoid reading this poet.  He is a deviant.”   I disagreed immediately with Al-Awadi and sent him a letter with a photo of Rimbaud which I was fond of, and along with it four lines of his poetry:   

I will not speak, I will have no thoughts:  
But infinite love will mount in my soul;  
And I will go far, far away, like a gypsy, 
Through the countryside—joyous as if with a woman. 

And after that letter I left Al-Awadi in his ancient territory. And I started down the road to the full understanding of art and its magic, which mocks our incessant worn-out thoughts and classifications, just as it mocks the classifications of others.  I learned how poetry is bigger than the poet.  Poetry has never-ending shadows, and the shadows of things are bigger than the things themselves are.  This is how we see it, and this is how we hear the echo of the voice prolonged.  It reaches farther than the voice itself.  After Muhammad Abu al-Qumsân, my road had begun to widen, and after Al-Awadi Al-Wakîl, the road opened to Rimbaud, Lorca, and Cavafy.  Once I met Whitman at Lorca’s. Yes, at Lorca’s.  Whitman was like a whole continent with its waters, with its trees, with its animals, flowing into Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman”:  “And you, beautiful Walt Whitman, sleep on the shores of the Hudson. . . . your tongue is calling out / for comrades to watch over your bodiless gazelle.”  Another time I saw both of them sitting with Henry David Thoreau.  And Walt Whitman was Thoreau, three years older.  And on a tree-stump I saw two books—Walden, or Life in the Woods and Leaves of Grass. Just as Thoreau learned how to do without possessions, to worship nature as if all the earth had become his companion, determined to enter the earth, the mountains, the river and the trees, he also tried, like Whitman, to grasp all of existence, because all things are equal in value and Walt Whitman, was part of the primal substance.  


At the beginning of my university years I came across Ibrahim Al-Mazini’s translation of a few poems from The Golden Treasury, the popular anthology of English poetry.  I was sorry to have lost the book.  Al-Mazini remained like one of my shaykhs.  I would go back to him whenever I felt despair, or felt that I was being misunderstood, and he would help me. Walt Whitman, in the nineteenth century, remained one of the few who produced a great book, Leaves of Grass. When I was almost forty years old, the official Marxist tree was wilting and its leaves were falling.  Freudianism was losing its hold over us; the conscious self was opening its eyes wide. The sun of biography was rising too, and with it the sun of confessions and memoirs.  It was the strumming of chords on an abandoned instrument, the instrument of the second-person “you.”  Our culture was suffering from a feeling of belated, even excessive regret. Culture was suffering from lost time; it tried to find atonement by calling out feverishly for the liberation of the imprisoned “I” which was lurking throughout the sixties behind the walls of the great novels.  In the nineties Walt Whitman appeared again, as if he were a part of that generation.   


In front of me now is an inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass in English and a selection from the poem in Arabic, translated by Saadi Yusef. Here I am, standing in front of those books as if I were an unfinished poem myself.  I didn’t forget to warn myself about the alienation that comes from glorifying classical Arabic culture.  And also to warn myself against losing the self in its mazes, the mazes of our forebears, just as I want to warn myself against the alienation of imitating the West.  The first alienation is immersion in the past.  The second is the imitation of others.  Poetry is our constant attempt not to underestimate the emptiness. As the Andalusian poet Ibn Khafajah writes, “I’m the kind of person whose nature is to be empty, / within himself, searching for himself.” 

© 2014 by Abdel-Moneim Ramadan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Michael Beard and Adnan Haydar. All rights reserved. 

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