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  • Welcome to ALT Magazine & Press: Hazawi Prize Announces 2023 Shortlist: (Sana'a, Yemen) - The shortlist for the 2023 Hazawi Prize for Yemeni Literature has been revealed, announcing the ten writers who have been selected as finalists for this prestigious award.
  • Now in its second yearly round, the Hazawi Prize recognizes exceptional contributions to fiction in Yemeni literature. Organized by the Hazawi Cultural Foundation, this annual prize aims to promote Yemeni literature and support creative writers.
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  • - Abdullah Faisal shortlisted for his novel, Spirits and Secrets.
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Navigating the Poetic Landscape: A Critical Examination of Access to Meaning, Preference, and the Question of Genre

Navigating the Poetic Landscape: A Critical Examination of Access to Meaning, Preference, and the Question of Genre

by Hatem Al-Shamea




The realm of Arabic poetry is a rich and diverse tapestry, woven from threads of classical forms and modern innovations. Among these, two prominent genres stand out: the classical Arabic poem (qasidah) and the Arabic free-verse prose poem (qasidat al-nathr). While both share the common ground of poetic expression, their differences in form, theme, and philosophical underpinnings have sparked ongoing debate and critical discourse. This article aims to explore the complexities and nuances of these two poetic forms, analyzing their accessibility, preference, and the broader question of genre within the context of Arabic poetry.


The Question of Accessibility


A central issue in the discussion surrounding classical Arabic poetry and free verse is the accessibility of their meaning. Classical poetry, with its adherence to strict metrical and rhyme schemes, often employs intricate imagery and allusions drawn from a deep well of shared cultural knowledge. This can make its meaning less immediately accessible to a wider audience, particularly those unfamiliar with the underlying conventions and references.


Classical Poetry and Its Cultural Context


Classical Arabic poetry, exemplified by poets such as Al-Mutanabbi and Imru’ al-Qais, is deeply rooted in the cultural and historical milieu of the Arab world. Its reliance on traditional forms, such as the qasidah, means that understanding these poems often requires a knowledge of pre-Islamic and early Islamic history, mythology, and literary conventions. This intertextuality can create barriers for modern readers, especially those who are not well-versed in classical Arabic language and its rich literary heritage.


The qasidah, typically composed of a series of stanzas following a strict metrical pattern, often delves into themes such as heroism, love, and the natural world. The use of elaborate metaphors and similes, alongside references to historical events and figures, demands a certain level of erudition from the reader. For instance, Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry is renowned for its complex syntax and profound philosophical reflections, making it a challenging yet rewarding experience for those who can decode its layers of meaning.


Free Verse and Modern Accessibility


In contrast, the Arabic free-verse prose poem, championed by poets like Mahmoud Darwish and Adonis, offers a more flexible and accessible approach to poetic expression. Free verse breaks away from the constraints of traditional meter and rhyme, allowing poets to explore contemporary themes and employ a more direct and conversational language. This form of poetry often resonates with a broader audience, as it can reflect the realities and sensibilities of modern life more immediately and intimately.


Mahmoud Darwish’s work, for example, often addresses themes of exile, identity, and resistance, using a language that is both lyrical and accessible. His poetry speaks to the collective experiences of displacement and longing, making it relatable to readers across different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The simplicity and clarity of free verse can thus democratize poetry, making it more inclusive and engaging for diverse audiences.


The Dialectic of Preference


The debate between classical Arabic poetry and free verse often extends to the question of preference, with proponents of each genre advocating for its superiority. Some argue that classical poetry, with its established traditions and adherence to form, represents the pinnacle of poetic achievement. Others champion free verse for its liberating potential and its ability to capture the nuances of modern experiences.


The Appeal of Classical Poetry


Proponents of classical poetry often emphasize its artistic rigor and cultural significance. The meticulous craftsmanship involved in composing a qasidah, with its precise meter and rhyme, is seen as a testament to the poet’s skill and creativity. The enduring appeal of classical poetry lies in its ability to convey profound emotions and philosophical insights through a highly structured and aesthetically pleasing form.


Moreover, classical poetry serves as a repository of cultural memory, preserving the values, beliefs, and historical narratives of the Arab world. By engaging with classical poetry, readers can gain a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage and the intellectual traditions that have shaped it. The qasidah’s focus on themes such as honor, bravery, and the sublime beauty of nature continues to resonate with readers who appreciate its timeless elegance and moral depth.


The Liberation of Free Verse


In contrast, free verse offers a more fluid and dynamic approach to poetic expression. By eschewing the constraints of traditional forms, free verse allows poets to experiment with language, imagery, and structure in innovative ways. This flexibility enables poets to address contemporary issues and explore new aesthetic possibilities, making free verse a powerful vehicle for personal and political expression.


Adonis, a leading figure in modern Arabic poetry, has been instrumental in championing free verse as a means of transcending the limitations of classical forms. His work often challenges conventional notions of identity, authority, and tradition, inviting readers to question and reinterpret their own cultural assumptions. The liberating potential of free verse lies in its capacity to capture the fluidity and complexity of modern life, offering a space for diverse voices and perspectives to be heard.


The Question of Genre


The emergence of free verse has challenged traditional notions of genre and categorization. Some argue that free verse is not a true form of poetry, lacking the structure and conventions that define the genre. Others view it as a legitimate evolution of poetic expression, reflecting the changing dynamics of language and society.


Defining Poetry


The debate over what constitutes poetry is as old as the art form itself. Aristotle’s Poetics, one of the earliest works of literary theory, defines poetry as a form of mimesis, or imitation, that uses rhythm, language, and harmony to evoke emotions and convey meaning. This classical definition emphasizes the formal elements of poetry, suggesting that adherence to meter and rhyme is essential to its identity.


However, modern literary theory has expanded the definition of poetry to encompass a wider range of forms and styles. The Russian formalists, for example, argued that the essence of poetry lies in its use of language to create defamiliarization, making the familiar strange and provoking new perceptions in the reader. This emphasis on the aesthetic and cognitive effects of poetic language opens the door to free verse as a valid and innovative form of poetry.


Free Verse as Evolution


From this perspective, free verse can be seen as an evolution of poetic expression, reflecting the shifting cultural and linguistic landscape of the modern world. Just as the classical qasidah emerged from the oral traditions of pre-Islamic Arabia, free verse has arisen in response to the demands and sensibilities of contemporary life. By breaking away from traditional forms, free verse allows poets to engage with new themes, voices, and experiences, enriching the literary canon with its diversity and dynamism.


The legitimacy of free verse as a form of poetry is further supported by its widespread adoption and acclaim within the literary community. Poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Walt Whitman have all contributed to the development and recognition of free verse as a powerful and expressive medium. In the Arabic literary tradition, the works of Darwish, Adonis, and others have demonstrated the potential of free verse to capture the complexities and contradictions of modern existence, making it an integral part of the poetic landscape.


The Illusion of Exclusivity


The assertion that free verse is “poetry for the elite” or that classical poetry is “inaccessible to the masses” is an oversimplification that overlooks the diverse experiences and preferences of readers. Both forms of poetry have the potential to resonate with individuals on a personal level, regardless of their cultural background or literary expertise.


The Inclusivity of Classical Poetry


While classical poetry is often perceived as elitist due to its reliance on formal conventions and cultural allusions, it also possesses an inherent inclusivity that transcends these barriers. The universal themes of love, loss, and heroism that permeate classical poetry can speak to the shared human experience, offering readers a sense of connection and continuity with the past.


Moreover, the oral tradition of classical poetry ensures that it remains accessible to a wide audience. In many Arab cultures, poetry is recited and performed in public spaces, making it a communal and participatory art form. The rhythmic and melodic qualities of classical poetry lend themselves to oral performance, creating an immersive and engaging experience for listeners. This oral dimension of classical poetry helps to bridge the gap between the text and the audience, making it accessible and relevant to diverse communities.


The Democratization of Free Verse


Conversely, free verse is often celebrated for its accessibility and inclusivity. By using contemporary language and addressing modern themes, free verse can resonate with readers from various backgrounds and experiences. Its flexible structure allows poets to experiment with different voices and perspectives, making it a versatile and dynamic form of expression.


Free verse also democratizes the act of writing poetry, making it more accessible to aspiring poets who may feel constrained by the formal requirements of classical poetry. The freedom to explore different styles and techniques empowers poets to find their unique voice and contribute to the literary conversation. This democratization of poetic expression helps to ensure that diverse voices and stories are represented within the literary canon, enriching the cultural landscape with their plurality and depth.

The debate between classical Arabic poetry and free verse is not a zero-sum game. Both forms hold significant value within the literary canon, offering distinct and enriching experiences for readers. Rather than engaging in a rigid hierarchy of preference, the literary landscape benefits from a more nuanced understanding of the strengths and contributions of each form.


Bridging the Gap


The challenge lies in bridging the gap between the poet’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, fostering a critical engagement with the text that allows for the appreciation of both the established traditions and the innovative expressions that shape the ever-evolving realm of Arabic poetry. This requires a willingness to engage with poetry on its own terms, to delve into its unique language and imagery, and to seek out interpretations and explanations that can bridge the gap between the text and the reader.


Embracing Diversity


By embracing the diversity of poetic forms and expressions, readers and critics can gain a deeper appreciation of the rich and multifaceted nature of Arabic poetry. Whether through the formal elegance of the classical qasidah or the dynamic innovation of free verse, poetry has the power to evoke emotion, provoke thought, and foster a sense of connection and understanding. The true value of poetry lies not in its adherence to specific forms or conventions, but in its ability to capture the complexities and contradictions of the human experience, offering a window into the soul of the poet and the world they inhabit.


The Role of Criticism


Literary criticism plays a crucial role in this process, providing the tools and frameworks necessary to engage with poetry in a meaningful and insightful way. By examining the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of different poetic forms, critics can help to illuminate the diverse ways in which poetry communicates meaning and evokes emotion. This critical engagement can foster a deeper appreciation of the rich and evolving tradition of Arabic poetry, highlighting the contributions of both classical and contemporary poets to the literary canon.




The ongoing dialogue between classical Arabic poetry and free verse reflects the dynamic and ever-changing nature of poetic expression. By recognizing and valuing the unique contributions of each form, readers and critics can foster a more inclusive and enriched literary landscape, one that celebrates the diversity and complexity of the poetic voice. The exploration of the poetic landscape, with its myriad forms and expressions, offers a profound and rewarding journey into the heart of human creativity and imagination.


The night, a café of memories – Asma’a Al-Shaibani – trans. Hatem Al-Shamea

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