Al-Mutanabbi : voice of the ‘Abbasid poetic ideal

AL-MUTANABBI
  • Book Title:
 Al Mutanabbi
  • Book Author:
Margaret Larkin
  • Total Pages
157
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AL-MUTANABBI – Book Sample

CONTENTS – AL-MUTANABBI

  • Preface xi
  • OUT OF ARABIA 1 Arabian origins 1
  • Poetic forms – the ode 2 Invective and elegy 3 Poets on the fringe 4 Islam’s effect on poetry 5
  • Centralization under the Umayyads 7 Diversity under the‘Abbasids 8 Conservatism in poetic taste 10
  • Late ‘Abbasid disintegration 11
  • GROWING PAINS 15
  • Origins and early formation 15 Al-Mutanabbi goes to Baghdad 17 Early career in Syria 20
  • Rebellion and its aftermath 23 After the fall 25
  • At Kharshani’s court 26
  • Death of the poet’s grandmother 27 The Ikhshidid connection 30
  • Eye on the Hamdanid prize 31
  • GLORY DAYS IN ALEPPO 33 The Hamdanids of Aleppo 33
  • Al-Mutanabbi’s first ode to Sayf al-Dawlah 35 Occasional poems for the would-be patron 41
  • Death of Sayf al-Dawlah’s mother 43 Elegy on Abu’l-Hayja’ 46
  • The poet–patron relationship 50 Demands on the poet 52
  • Epic occasions 54 Trouble in paradise 57
  • Al-Mutanabbi bites back 60 All good things … 61
  • PARADISE LOST 63
  • From Aleppo to Egypt 63 Reluctant praise 66
  • Al-Mutanabbi demands his due 69 Saving face at Aleppo 72
  • Kafur’s final refusal 73 Angry satire 75
  • Out of Egypt 76 Home again 78
  • Sayf al-Dawlah in the wings 80 The poet in Persia 84
  • The Gap of Bavvan 87 To the hunt 93
  • Final call 95
  • CONTEMPORARY CRITICS 97 After the fall 97
  • Linguistic correctness 98 Diction and lexical choice 99 Construction of the poem 101 Philosophizing in poetry 103 The limits of imagination 105 Borrowing versus plagiarism 107 Summing up 109
  • 6 THE HIGHEST FORM OF PRAISE 113
  • Andalusian admirer 114
  • Kindred spirits 116
  • The classical as innovation 117 Neoclassical voice 121
  • Modern echoes 122
  • Conclusion 127
  • Suggestions for further reading 131
  • Index 135

PREFACE

Even al-Mutanabbi, renowned for his pride, ambition, and inflated aspirations, would have to acknowledge that time has given himhis due.

Few, if any, Arab poets’ work has survived to be celebrated so long and by so many as the work of this tenth-century poet, generally acknowledged to be the last of the great poets in the classical Arabic tradition, and considered by some to be the greatest Arab poet.

Born too late to participate in the grand literary efflorescence of imperial Baghdad during the eighth and ninth centuries, Abu’l-Tayyib al- Mutanabbi (d. 965 ce) assimilated the prevailing strains of the Arabic poetic corpus and distilled them in an oeuvre that would, for centuries, remain the model for Arab poets composing in the classical style.

Among them were scores of poets in Islamic Spain from the tenth to the fourteenth centuries, who strove, Arabs and Jews alike, to emu- late what they saw as the culmination of classical Arabic poetic cul- ture.Those among them who excelled at their craft became known as the “Mutanabbi of the West.” Modern poets writing in Arabic have continually invoked not only al-Mutanabbi’s poetry but  also his person as inspiration for their own verse and sense of identity as poets and have continued to refer to him, in the fashion of his eleventh- century successors, simply as “the poet.”

 For them, his irrepressible personality and defiant individuality, which reshaped a poetry hemmed in by the constraints of convention would become the seed of artistic and psychological liberation that helped prepare the way for modernist Arabic poetry.

 More intriguing still, given the cavernous split between high Arabic and its elite literature on the one hand, and the vernacular dialects with their popular expression on the other, is the fact that al-Mutanabbi’s verses have become woven into the fabric of everyday Arab life and are regularly quoted not only by aficionados, but also by more modestly educated people.

An anecdote related by one of my former teachers, the late Professor Jeanette Wakin, in a graduate seminar at Columbia University, helps to convey the kind of power al-Mutanabbi’s poetry holds in Arab culture, even today.

Jeanette (RIP) was an American-born child of Lebanese immi- grants to the U.S. Like most immigrants, Jeanette’s parents were keen to see their children prosper in their new country, and so when they found their daughter spending all her time on Arabic and Islamic studies, they were a little concerned about her future prospects, and her father did his best to re-direct his daughter’s interests toward a more obviously promising career.

 He repeatedly asked her what she was going to do with all this Arabic, where it was going to get her, what kind of a job it would equip her for, and, try though she might, she was unable to convince him of the worth of her interests until one day she decided to memorize a few verses of al-Mutanabbi’s poetry.

The next time her father questioned her choice of studies, Jeanette did not try to reason with him or explain her choice, she simply recited the poetry for him, and watched as her father’s eyes welled up with tears.The pragmatic immigrant, who had never been at a loss for arguments against the study of Arabic, fell silent and never again questioned his daughter’s career path or her dedication to Arabic studies.

That is the emotional power that al-Mutanabbi’s poetry has always had over speakers of Arabic. Both for privileged members of the educational and cultural elite, and for ordinary citizens with a more modest mastery of the Arab cultural tradition, the many gnomic verses sprinkled throughout the poet’s oeuvre punctuate the events of their daily lives and seem eloquently to sum up the essence of life’s struggles and emotions.

Considered by many to represent the quintessence of Arab culture, al-Mutanabbi and his poetry have been the focus of numerous popular modern plays, and the poet even became the subject of an Iraqi television series in 1984.

 In 2001, the Baalbek International Festival in Lebanon (a world-renowned music festival, featuring Arab as well as western music and dance), which attracted over 40,000 people that year, opened with a musical – Abu Tayeb al-Mutanabbi – by Mansour Rahbani, one of Lebanon’s best- known musical artists, which featured some hundred dancers and performers.

Al-Mutanabbi and his poetry have been extensively studied, espe- cially by Arab scholars. Kurkis and Mikha’il‘Awwad’s extensive bib- liography of editions, translations, and studies of al-Mutanabbi’s poetry, Guide to the Study of al-Mutanabbi, covers over four hundred printed pages.

Works such as Taha Husayn’s With al-Mutanabbi and Mahmud Shakir’s Al-Mutanabbi (by two of the leading literary scholars in the Arab world) are works of seminal importance for under- standing not only al-Mutanabbi’s poetry, but also the rich operations of intertextuality in the Arabic literary tradition. Among studies in western languages, Régis Blachère’s 1935 Un Poète arabe du IV e siècle de l’Hégire (X e siècle de J.-C): Abou t-Tayyib al-Motanabbi stands out as a masterful combination of biography and literary history. 

More recent works, which are listed at the end of the book in “Suggestions for Further Reading,” have built on Blachère’s foundation to add more in-depth historical and textual analysis to the communal stock of al-Mutanabbi studies.This work is the offspring of this communal legacy, on which it gratefully relies. More commentaries exist on al-Mutanabbi’s Diwan (Collected Poetry) than on probably any other poet in the Arabic poetic tradition.

 Citations in the present text are to the commentary by al-Wahidi (abbreviated as “W.”) (d. 1075 ce), which presents the poetry in chronological order.The poems them- selves, which in Arabic do not carry actual titles, are referred to, as they are in theArabic, by the initial phrase of the first line.

Since space limitations preclude the inclusion of entire odes in this work, poetry citations are usually limited to brief sections of much longer works that serve to illustrate the stylistic features under discussion.

A num- ber of modern scholars, including A.J. Arberry, Régis Blachère, Andras Hamori, Geert Jan van Gelder, James Montgomery, Suzanne Stetkevych, Julia [Ashtiany] Bray, and others, have translated poems by al-Mutanabbi, most in the context of studies of his work.

I have made use of these in producing my own translations, sometimes adopting them almost verbatim. These sources are all listed in the “Suggestions for Further Reading” at the end of the book, and readers seeking lengthier poems in their entirety are urged to consult them.

In this book, I will analyze the main features of al-Mutanabbi’s poetic style in the context of the diverse stages of his life and career, in the hope of explaining to some extent the generations-long mystique the poet has enjoyed. Some orientalist scholars unable to fathom the appeal of al-Mutanabbi’s verse have peevishly ques- tioned the taste of generations of Arabic speakers.

The starting point for this book, in contrast, is my own unabashed admiration of his poetry. It would be impossible to appreciate al-Mutanabbi’s poetry with- out an understanding of the rich tradition of poetry that he inherited and the state of Arab culture and letters that he was born into.

This, therefore, will be provided in chapter one. After a presentation in chapter two of al-Mutanabbi’s family and educational background, as well as the early formative stage of his life and political activities, we will focus in chapter three on the heyday of his career as the court poet of the Hamdanid prince, Sayf al-Dawlah.

 The poetry al-Mutanabbi composed after he fled the intrigue-laden Hamdanid court, for patrons he deemed less desirable than Sayf al-Dawlah, forms the focus of chapter four.

Chapter five discusses the intense critical debates concerning the merits and faults of his style among contemporary Arab critics.

Before a brief conclusion, chapter six discusses the legacy of al-Mutanabbi’s poetry in the centuries immediately following his death and in modern times, and suggests some reasons why it became such powerful intertextual currency for so many poet successors….

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