Al-Ittijah al-Mu`akis: Al-Ma`arri's Luzumiyyat and the Poetics of Constriction

By Suzanne Stetkevych
Submitted to Session P4794 (Form and Language in Arabic Poetics, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Time Periods;
Al-Ittij?h al-Mu??kis (The Opposite Direction) is a study of comparative poetics that takes the major innovations in Arabic poetic praxis and theory of 20th century—al-shi?r al-?urr /qa??dat al-taf??lah and qa??dat al-nathr—as a starting point for the interrogation and conceptualization of the opposite phenomenon—the self-imposed prosodic restrictions in Al-Luz?miyy?t (Compulsories) of the celebrated blind skeptic Syrian poet, Ab? al-?Al?? al-Ma?arr? (d. 449/1058).

20th century Arabic poetry exhibits an ever-intensifying rebellion against classical political and cultural norms through the progressive loosening or rejection of classical poetic conventions. The early-mid 20th century Romantics retained the monorhyme and mono-meter of the classical qasida, but called for a radical simplification of poetic diction and abandonment of conventional motifs and thematic structures. The Arab al-shi?r al-?urr poets allowed for varied length of the metrical line and of rhyme, thereby creating a distinctively Arabic form of Modern verse, prosodically different from Western Free Verse. The Post-Modernists disavowed even the loosened rhyme and meter of al-shi?r al-?urr/qa??dat al-taf??lah form to call for the qa??dat al-nathr (in effect largely like Western Free Verse) with no sustained or required rhyme or meter, printed either en vers or, less often, en bloc. In the 21st century, Arab poets have all but erased the boundaries between poetry and prose.

The present paper intends to examine the political and aesthetic dimensions of this “liberation” of Modern Arabic poetry from the constraints of classical Arabic prosody and on that basis to explore the opposite phenomenon in al-Ma?arr?’s poetry. Al-Ma?arr? observed the prosodic requirements of monorhyme and mono-meter in the qasidas of his youthful and worldly first diwan, Saq? al-Zand. However, in his mature second collection, which is the product of the period of his ascetic seclusion, he expresses his rejection of tradition—and of society--by intensifying the prosodic requirements, specifically by creating a diwan of about 1600 alphabetically ordered short pieces, double-rhymed in all the letters of the alphabet and with all four possible vowel endings. What might al-Ma?arr?’s radical withdrawal INTO an intensified prosody tell us about Modernist and Post-Modernist Arab poets’ increasingly radical withdrawal FROM classical Arabic prosody?