ABU NUWAS A GENIUS OF POETRY – book Sample
CONTENTS – ABU NUWAS A GENIUS OF POETRY
- Preface Acknowledgments
- “DANGLING LOCKS AND BABEL EYES” – A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF ABU NUWAS (c. 757–814)
- Background and origins Education
- Love for Janan
- The Move to Baghdad The “Modern” Poet Sexuality
- Character and Temperament Prison
- Sojourn in Egypt Death and Afterlife
- “LOVE, WINE, SODOMY … AND THE LASH” – THE LYRIC POETRY OF ABU NUWAS
- Erotic Poetry
- Two Traditions of Love Poetry – A Sketch A Digest of Idealized Love
- Inching towards Frivolity and Lust The Psychology of Master and Servant Turning the Tables
- Pandering (to) Satan
- Fear of Women and Other Anxieties Seduction and Rape
- Writing (and) Letters Christian Boys
- Wine Poetry
- Beloved Wine
- Failed Cross-Wooing and an Orgy Two Views of Time
- “Whose are the Remnants…?” Trumping the Theologian Dialogue with a Jewish Taverner Numinous Wine
- Jonah Comes Out of the Whale
- 3 “THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY” – ON PANEGYRIC AND SATIRE
- The Panegyric
- Formal and Sober
- Less Formal and Less Sober
- Occasional and Miscellaneous Eulogy
- “Pens Dipped in Bitter Gall” – Satire
- Bread and Bereavement
- The Politics of State and al-Amin Spite and Sacrilege
- Tasteless Ja‘far the Barmecide
- The Alchemist and Phony Genealogies Isma‘il ibn Abi Sahl
- The Stolen Member
- Philosopher of Egypt
- Onanist Job
- A Prison Consultation Servants and Singing Girls Fatal Provocation?
- 4 SOME HUNTING POEMS AND A GAME OF POLO
- A Saluki Hound The Cheetah Elegy for a Hound The Polo Match
- 5 “POETRY FOR MORTALS AND THE DEAD” – ON THE ASCETIC POEM AND THE ELEGY
- The Ascetic Poem
- A Righteous Dowry Man’s Mortal Genealogy The Danger of Empty Talk Eloquent Simplicity Sound and Meaning
- The Permanent Ink of the Angels
- The Elegy
- For Harun al-Rashid (d. 809)
- For Muhammad ibn Zubayda “al-Amin” (d. 813) For the Barmecides
- Fragment for His Son For Waliba ibn al-Hubab For a Sick Friend
- For Himself
- An Afterword – “Walk the Even Path with Me …”
“LOVE, WINE, SODOMY . . . AND THE LASH”
The Lyric Poetry of Abu Nuwas
“When my eyes roamed his cheeks as if grazing In the Gardens of Eternity, he said to me,
‘Your gaze is fornicating with me!’ I replied: ‘Then my tears will give it the lash above
and beyond the legal prescription.’ ” (D. iv, 196)
“I have exhausted the expression of a lover’s grievance …
I have turned the horizons of speech inside out …” (D. iv, 144)
The love poetry (Ar. ghazal) of Abu Nuwas ranged in tone from the sublime to the ridiculous. While he is often remembered for a bawdy register of poetry that could shatter all literary strictures of decorum, his chaste love poems at their finest can be deemed second- to-none in the Arabic tradition.
Like much of his verse in other genres, because he composed so prodigiously, a lot is cast from a purely conventional mold. Yet even here a certain poise and mastery is shown, and these poems should in any case be judged according to a combined prosodic and linguistic aesthetic that is almost entirely impervious to (anything but the most ingenious) translation.
All these lyric poems – the marvelously original and the quite ordinary – were in fact also songs, as “lyric” of course connotes, and did not require, in each and every case, distinctive explorations of theme or sentiment. However, across well over 500 poems and fragments of erotic verse, there are indeed numerous images of either extraordinary delicacy or striking, at times seemingly irrepressible invention.
Two Traditions of Love Poetry – A Sketch
By the dawning of Abbasid times in the mid eighth century, Arabic love poetry had developed in two, some argue three, principal ways. Disengaged and separated from a complex, multi-themed and ritualized pre-Islamic ode (qasida), it evolved in the seventh century into two “independent” genres: (1) ‘udhri, or chaste and “platonic”, and (2) ibahi, or sensual and erotic, love poetry.
They were both, however, quite dependent on a common stock of descriptive imagery and certain standard motifs (for instance, those of the bestiary of love: the gazelle-like aspects of the paramour).
‘Udhri takes its name from the Banu ‘Udhra, an Arab tribe from a valley in the northern Hijaz most associated with this kind of expression. Ibahi in Arabic simply means “permissive”. ‘Udhri poetry proper, which is essentially a phenomenon of the desert, was relatively short-lived – though it had a far-reaching influence through the ages upon Arabic courtly love; the chaste verse of al-‘Abbas ibn al-Ahnaf (d. 808), favorite of Harun al-Rashid, assumed the mantle of the ‘udhris in the Abbasid capital, Baghdad. Ibahi poetry, associated principally with the Meccan dissolute ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi‘a (d. 712), is a poetry of seduction. Though certainly more urbane than ‘udhri verse, it is not yet entirely urban. Some of the more memorable narrative-poems are set in the desert, in a Bedouin context.
There had been some precedents for the intensity of ‘udhri poetry in pre-Islamic Arabia. But it was nevertheless essentially distinctive in several respects. The influence of Islam can be felt in the language and imagery of the new genre (assimilating religious practice into a quasi-spiritual enterprise), and even more significantly in its changed perspectives of time and reality.
The ‘udhri poet was an introspective individual; he had a subjective view of the world which he observed through the filter of his love and suffering. The outer world, according to the way he viewed its landscape and fauna, was internalized in psychological harmony with him. The poet devoted himself faithfully and exclusively to one beloved, thus his name is seldom mentioned without evocation of his female counterpart:
Jamil-Buthayna, Majnun-Layla, Kuthayyir-‘Azza, et al.
When love was blighted by time and separation, the pre-Islamic poet had tended to “cut the ropes of affection” (to cut his losses in an heroic posture); the ‘udhri poet, by contrast, projected his love into the future opened up by the new religion: toward death and, of course, far beyond it.
The ibahi poet too had precedents for some essential features in both early and late pre-Islamic verse. The philandering ‘Umar ibn
Abi Rabi‘a modeled himself partly on Imru’ al-Qays (fl. early sixth century). ‘Umar’s animated poem in which he describes a nocturnal visit to his beloved’s tribe (stealing into her tent, spending the night and oversleeping, and having to escape the encampment at dawn draped in a woman’s robes, trailing them behind him to erase his tracks), expands upon a short passage in Imru’ al-Qays’s Mu‘allaqa (“Suspended Ode”), one of the archetypes of the ancient corpus.
Abu Nuwas was a product (in very schematic terms) of this essential dichotomy of love poetry. Like the verse of the highly influential Bashshar ibn Burd (d. 784) before him, his ghazal was an alloy of the various tones and registers in which he was no doubt apprenticed during his literary schooling.
Since he is better known for his licentious verse (which in its most depraved mode is scarcely “love” poetry at all), it is worth surveying briefly, as we do in the next section, the possible idealism of his expression. Quite apart from adept allusions to ‘udhri style and technique, pointed references to ‘udhri poets themselves are numerous: we find across poems ‘Urwa ibn Hizam, lover of ‘Afra’, Jamil ibn Ma‘mar, lover of Buthayna, and Qays ibn Dharih, lover of Lubna listed almost prosaically.
The pre- Islamic proto-‘udhri Muraqqish “the Elder”, lover of Asma’, is mentioned in the same spirit. These references pay lip-service to a certain kind of acute sensibility and create a sense of literary heritage and pedigree.
The range of registers in Abu Nuwas is complemented in an important way by the fact that he composed homoerotic as well as heterosexual poems. In the editorially permissive recension of al-Isfahani there are over 450 homoerotic poems (Ar. mudhakkarat), a figure that is something of an exaggeration: al-Suli considers some of them falsely attributed and others to belong in the category of mu’annathat (poems written about women).
Often they are in fact poems in which the paramour apostrophized or described might be of either gender. This highlights the ambiguity of gender in much classical Arabic love poetry, a feature with its roots in the earliest extant corpus; Abbasid poets could toy deliberately with this elusive facet of gender.
A Digest of Idealized Love
Even in poems where there is an underlying physical sensuality, the description often forms a tissue of sublime imagery. A “gazelle” might thus be
Created not of clay, like mankind, but rather of musk and other assorted perfumes, brought up in Paradise (Jannat al- Khuld) in the company of black-eyed Houris. (FP, 109)
The beloved is other-worldly and somehow literally angelic, or a statue fashioned to be worshiped in the mihrab (“prayer niche”).
And when not quite angelic the poet’s object of affection may yet be of a preternatural sensibility, physically injured by the merest glance or menacing pointing of a finger
… which almost drew blood from a cheek, exquisitely formed from silver (D. iv, 381)
The beloved has the powers of Solomon to call upon birds that approach him submissively. Powers of enchantment are conveyed otherwise through a paradox peculiar to music: the singer-lover, imbued with a balanced sense of dunya and din (the material and spiritual worlds, respectively), has complementary powers both to move and to still: to sway the body of the rapt listener with song and, by the same token, to instill an inner quiet and calm.
Within this realm of the ethereal is the assimilation of language, and even a certain kind of spiritual experience, from religion – a feature of love poetry with roots in the ‘udhri tradition. The darling described in the following poem is barely of this world; he is a gazelle whose
… Eyes deal out among the people their allotted time
… Even [the mystic prophet] Khidr would answer his prayer And ransom himself for him;
… His place in the next world Must resemble his place in this;
If we were ever to deny God
We would worship him instead;
It suffices for me that the darkness of night Envelops both him and me. (D. iv, 150–51)
Assimilated from religious language in a distinct way is any one of numerous adaptations of the Muslim testimony to God’s unity – variants of an erotic tahlil.4 The following example (the final tercet of a poem) is burlesque and warps the idealistic tone of the preceding lyricism:
… When he appeared I thought him to be like the crescent moon5 And called out, “My Lord (and your Lord), O God!”
He asked, “Do you then see a crescent moon?” I replied,
“If you are not [physically] that, then you are its very sense.” Beauty had inscribed upon his forehead,
“I testify that there is no comely one other than him” (D. iv, 370)
One must read vigilantly to gauge fully the poet’s tone. Even from a setting that is awkward for the poet, as on one occasion when accused of seducing his sweetheart’s messenger, he manages in fulsome denial to salvage sentiment worthy of true love:
… If I flirted with your messenger, the fingers of the Grim Reaper will never clinch my soul!
Sweet one! Love for you possesses me; I cannot have
Two hearts – One preoccupied, the other one blithe. (FP, 33)
Yet one can spot a mote in the eye of pure affection. Observe the ending of the next poem (which develops the pre-Islamic motif of
the beloved’s apparition before the poet in his sleep – the captivating notion of the “Tayf al-Khayal”):
Our two night-spirits meet up when we sleep And union is established as before.
Sweet balm of my eyes! Why are we wretched While our spirits experience rapture?
Kind to me in sleep, if you wished
You could complete the kindness when awake; We are two lovers who enjoy narcotic bliss
Yet who are always angry come morning!
Dreams are deceptive in this way
… But they do sometimes tell the truth. (D. iv, 347)
There is a discreet change in tone, a twist even, in the final hemistich: a possible turn (away from suffering) is implied that has both earnest and playful potential. In this respect it is typical of Abu Nuwas; he could derail complacency in ways that were either scandalously graphic or almost, as here, imperceptibly slight.
And the expression of profound feeling, although alluring, can be enigmatic; no more so than when Abu Nuwas steals a look into his sweetheart’s face and glimpses his own. Is it the beauty of a burnished complexion that is suggested?
Or the threat of violence, a prying glance being caught and returned at the poet’s expense? Or, less menacingly, the promise and dawning of reciprocated affection? Our failure to grasp perfectly, despite being captivated by an image, is fitting. In Abu Nuwas’s poetry inability to understand is only ever imputed to others.
However, this is distinct from lacking powers of description which he contrived intermittently to admit to: “I’ll let my imagination describe him since my tongue is flagging.” He adds with a frivolous lack of precision, “Only So-And-So and Joe Average (fulan al-fulani) could fail to love him.” In the most arresting formulation of this kind he wrote: “When it comes to describing him tongues trace their lineage to impotence and failure”. Here the inability to delineate is meant to evoke not human failing but a quasi- numinous ineffability: the poet contemplates a sacred darling produced from ethereal light.
Inching Towards Frivolity and Lust
Abu Nuwas once praised the divine hand that fashioned a youth from silver. The hyperbole is at first strained, for the argentine aspect of beauty is not original in this kind of lyric verse.
However, what marks the poet’s creativity is the way the first line engenders the third (of a three-line fragment): the agent shifts from God as divine silver-smith to the leering poet who is now cast in the role of dyer: for it as if his amorous speech tints with color the cheeks of this youth.
In the implied chronology of the fragment (from creation to youthful blush), and within the genre of the poetry, this is an exquisite finishing touch.
There is, of course, frivolity in the intensity of the image. Often the threshold which separates (or merges) the two poetic tempers is reified in a kiss: “I do not wish to take you to bed, or any of that, // All I desire is to speak with you, and to sip and kiss.” The most original conceit in this respect is that of a kiss as the outward manifestation of an inner meaning:
I saw the boy in the darkness and embraced him – O would that this kissing could last!
I kissed him while asleep, if only the true interpretation (ta’wil) Of this had emerged when I was awake! … (D. iv, 240)
The loaded Arabic word ta’wil (used for early scriptural interpretation) renders the consummation of physical desire equivalent, effectively, to the inner meaning of Quranic verses. True love, or sex, becomes apparent with exegesis. Typically, the final line (here the last of only four) sheds most of the affected coyness about what the poet is after: “How lucky the one who can land a kiss upon him; – or garner that which his trousers hold.”
When refused a kiss by a young man on another occasion, the poet berates him for begrudging him so little yet spraying his honeyed spittle so generously upon the walls (sic); the youth replies that he would grant the poet a kiss if he could be satisfied with just that, but he adds: “We know what you want”.
His ghazal could be chaste, decorous, loving, sincere, and intensely emotional (– and mockingly intense: weeping upon the banks of the river Tigris watching a loved one depart by boat he once claims to have raised the water level!).
But to be convinced of this solemnity one has to turn a blind eye to the way he could simultaneously undermine this tone. Abu Nuwas often tried to break down the decorum of others in poems braced by chastity but bursting with physical desire. The extreme end of the scale was that of unmitigated obscenity (and profanity).
In this respect Abu Nuwas was part of a school of poets with origins in some pre-Islamic verse and elaborated into a veritable sub-genre among poets of Kufa in the mid-ninth century. This is the third genre of love poetry. We already know that Abu Nuwas was apprentice in Kufa to Waliba ibn al-Hubab, one of the arch figures of this group. Risqué elements of poetry are often wrapped within a larger narrative that cushions the shock effect, or even accentuates it as some structural punch-line but shows it in this way at least to be part of a considered craft. Extravagant sexual obscenity for its own sake tends to be a feature of biting satire (where it is indeed common), but there are some examples that are also quite gratuitous in the poetry of mujun, for example the occasion, “celebrated” in verse, when the poet met up with four prostitutes who each in turn sung the qualities of her own pudenda: “My vagina is like a split pomegranate and smells of ground amber. How lucky the one who gets me when I’ve shaved!”
His relationship with ‘Inan, the renowned “singing-girl” (qayna) and one of the women he was infatuated with in Baghdad, was often both acerbic and crude without any hint of complex; he once appealed to her:
Have you yet to find pity for a man yearning,
Who would be satisfied with just “a small drop” from you?
Is it you that you mean by this?!
Be off with you! Go and masturbate!
At which he quipped:
If I do this I fear
You’ll be jealous of my hand! (FP, 29)
The Psychology of Master and Servant
fast at your anger and
Breakfast at your pleasure” (D. iv, 152)
The poet-lover as servant or slave is the predominant image conveying the power relations in this poetry (Abu Nuwas could go as far as saying: “I am to him always like soles are to the shoe!”). Accumulatively this general idea provides the background for, and helps to set up, a game of seduction whereby the tables are sometimes turned.
Abu Nuwas’s poetry is replete with kaleidoscopic contrasts. It gives a sense of apparently endless variety with limited elements: moods and themes coil around each other in diverse, sometimes antithetical configurations, managed with either abrupt or discreet transitions. Such toying can engender a taut psychological dynamic or cohesion, as illustrated in the relationship between the two halves of a six line poem about attitudes to people and the psychology between two men: (Note. The abrupt change of grammatical person, “him” “you”, is known in Arabic as iltifat and is a feature of the syntactical independence of the single verse.)
I wanted to rebuke him for his meanness
But then, seeing him and seeing the people [around us], I no longer consider it fitting;
There is not even a valid point of comparison!
When I compare you with people
I see they are nothing but pigmies and apes.
* * *
So be proud, my prince, full of arrogance and conceit, Scowl and wear a frown upon your face;
Pay no attention to people and spare them no thought, Do not even raise your head to them
And treat me exclusively any way you will;
Give me your spurning drink, shun me with every breath! (D. iv, 242)
The poet constructs a special place for himself with his darling, importuning him for a monopoly on his scorn. Only in this sardonic way does he feel a cut above the rest while yet a plaything to his princely sweetheart.
Acoustically this is a poem that jeers with snarling sibilants at society at large (al-naSa, Sa’ighan, qiStu miqyaSa, qiStu-ka wa-l-naSa, naSnaSa, wa-Stakbiran, ‘abbaSa, al-naSa, raSa, khuSS-ani, bi-ma Shi’tahu wa-Saqqini hajraka anfaSa). Such sustained use of onomatopoeia, in which sound and semantics coalesce, is a characteristic effect of the poet.
One of the most original and eccentric of Abu Nuwas’s poems elaborates the theme of poet maltreate a brutal narrative. It is preserved variously in the chapters of homoerotic and heterosexual ghazal by al-Isfahani
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