The Art of Self-Defense: The Poetics of the Boast (fakhr) in al-Ma'arri’s Saqt al-Zand # 16

By Suzanne Stetkevych
Submitted to Session P5335 (Poetics & Poet Biographies, 2018 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
7th-13th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Recent studies of the classical Arabic ode (qa??dah) have moved beyond the traditional categorization of poems as texts repeating established formulae of praise, boast or satire (mad?, fakhr, hij??) to employ performance theory and performative (speech act) theory to interpret individual qa??dah’s as works of art carefully configured and minutely calibrated to engage in competition for rank and status in politically charged, often courtly, settings. What was once seen as the blind repetition of conventions, has now come to be analyzed as the subtle manipulation of tradition-validated diction, motifs, themes and structures to achieve particular literary and political goals. While the bulk of recent studies have dealt with the courtly panegyric (qa??dat al-mad?), the present study proposes to examine a poem traditionally categorized as fakhr (boast, self-boast), Ab? al-?Al?? al-Ma?arr?’s (d. 1057 CE) a-l? f? sab?li al-madji m? f??ilu (Is not all that I do in the path of glory?). It aims to demonstrate that quite contrary to previous understandings of this poetic genre of the poet as an immodest braggadocio, a careful performative reading of the poem demonstrates that the poet is rather engaged in a verbal self-defense.
The poem can be divided into two movements: Movement I: a passive nas?b-like protest of the wronged poet, in which the continuous shifts between excessive boast and complaint about the depravity of his times reveal the poet’s shaky sense of self-confidence. And Movement II: in which the poet calls on the tradition of the heroic hunt, quite uniquely linking into a ra??l-like night journey, to reclaim, through the exquisite lines of poetry themselves, his moral and poetic status, and to emerge with a renewed sense of confidence and self-worth. The paper will explore the poetic means by which the poet achieves this pychological transformation—particularly through his original and often unprecedented employ of motifs from the traditional themes of the qa??dah--from the ??dhilah (censuress) of the na??b; the use of amth?l (proverbs) and ?ikam (aphorisms); motifs of the heroic or lyrical hunt and of the liminal desert journey (ra??l). The paper concludes that, like the panegyric, the boast-poem is not an empty repetition of conventions, but rather an intricately constructed verbal expression of moral and emotional transition that performs the function of the poet’s self-defense in the highly competitive—both poetically and politically—world of the classical qa??dah.