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WWB Weekend: Walt Whitman in Baghdad

By Susan Harris

April is National Poetry Month, and we're spotlighting the over eight hundred poems in our archives. We do hope you'll read several at a sitting: As Ilya Kaminsky notes in his brilliant introduction to our Ecco Anthology of International Poetryreading collections of poetry provides what Anna Akhmatova called "correspondences in the air," where authors of wildly different backgrounds and languages appear to address each other in their works. Many of these occurrences are coincidental, but one such example, from our August 2012 issue, was thoroughly intentional, and as such emblematic of WWB's mission and goals. 

It appeared in our occasional series The World through the Eyes of Writers, in which established international authors recommend the work of younger or emerging writers, and we commission and publish the translation. When invited to participate, the great Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis suggested an Egyptian poet, Abdel-Moneim Ramadan, who had not been published in English. Ramadan’s dazzling submission, “Funeral for Walt Whitman,” evokes Adonis's famous "Funeral for New York" (itself in dialogue with Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York) and its appeal to Whitman in the face of the decline of the city; but the younger poet extends the connection, placing Whitman in direct conversation with Lorca, any number of classical Arabic figures, and a clutch of early modernist and contemporary Iraqi poets. Steeped in multiple poetic traditions, “Funeral for Walt Whitman” links poets across languages and generations, and demonstrates the crucial role that translation plays in the development of international literary culture: We can read the poem because it’s been translated into English, but Ramadan could write the poem because Lorca and Whitman have been translated into Arabic.

So: a Syrian-Lebanese poet who writes in both Arabic and French recommends an Egyptian poet, who draws on classical Arabic figures as well as modern Iraqi writers, alludes to a Spanish master, foregrounds an American giant, and blends them all in a work both densely allusive and thrillingly original. That poem becomes part of the literary and cultural landscape, poised to inspire and provoke further connections and understanding. In its synthesis of multiple poetic traditions, its drawing on the past to create something singular in the present, Ramadan’s poem embodies the notion that literary culture evolves over time, that each generation both extends and expands its literary traditions, and that cross-fertilization of languages, traditions, and writing enhances and benefits all sides. And the English translation in turn brings this fresh juxtaposition to readers who will discover not only Ramadan, but the writers and works that inform his work.

This is the power and importance of literature in translation: when other literary traditions are made accessible to us, they can only enrich our own. And this is the power of poetry, which we celebrate this month and throughout the year.

Photo: To a Locomotive in Winter [Page 1 recto], an early manuscript version of Walt Whitman's To a Locomotive in Winter, written in his own hand. (Boston Public Library, cropped) 

Published Apr 8, 2016   Copyright 2016 Susan Harris

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