Metaphor and Mythopoesis as Metapoetry in al-Ma'arri's Saqt al-Zand

By Suzanne Stetkevych
Submitted to Session P5983 (Metapoesis in Pre-Modern Arabic Poetry, 2020 Annual Meeting
Arab States;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Arabic literary critical studies over the past thirty years have approached the subject of metapoetry, that is, poetry about poetry, in a number of ways. Several scholars have taken Western Modernist literary criticism as the point of departure for exploring metapoetry in Modern, and then Classical Arabic poetry. Others, particular in studying the Abbasid period, have interpreted the self-conscious and self-reflective bad?? (innovative) poetry of the Mu?dath?n (Abbasid Modernists) as a ‘metapoetry’ that serves to decode the J?hil? Bedouin tradition for their contemporary urban audience. For others, all poetry is essentially metapoetic, that is, the true ‘subject’ of the poem is always ultimately the poet, poetry and the poem.
My approach to metapoetry in the poetic diwan Saq? al-Zand of the celebrated blind Syrian poet and litterateur Ab? al-?Al?? al-Ma?arr? (d. 1057 CE) reflects all of the above approaches. The essential topics of metapoesis have to do with the nature of poetry, poetic inspiration, the poet his/herself and his art, and the role and status of the poet and his poem vis-à-vis his rivals and tradition. These concerns are not, for the most part, expressed directly, but rather largely through metaphor. For Saq? al-Zand, a collection from al-Ma?arr?’s youth, the title itself (approx.‘the sparks of the flint’) is a metaphor for poetic inspiration, the first ‘sparks’ of his poetic ‘flint’. Within the poems themselves, images such as the night journey, the camel-caravan, the cooing of the dove and the cawing of the crow function as metaphors for poetic inspiration, composition, and form. Further, I argue, al-Ma?arr? insinuates himself and his poetry into the Arab mythic-folkloric tradition, as he draws upon it for imagery to express his poetic concerns. Thus, for example, he employs the mythical Had?l, a slain dove-chick for whom doves have mourned since the time of Noah, and hence the etion of the cooing of the doves and metaphor for elegy, to project al-Ma?arr?’s elegiac production back onto its mythic origins. Similarly, uses the motif of the ?Aghribat al-?Arab (‘crows’, i.e., black poets, of the J?hiliyyah) not merely as metaphor, but as a means to identify himself through his own ‘blackness’ (that is, his blindness) with the early practitioners of the Arabic poetic art. Thus, in al-Ma?arr?’s Saq? al-Zand, both metaphor and mythopoesis perform metapoetic functions.