An essay in the current Harper's talks about the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died last summer. (Registration possibly required for that link.) Here are a few comments from the essay about his well-known poem "Identity Card":

The poem’s refrain is typical of the straightforward, conscientiously unpoetic diction of Darwish’s early work. ... Each stanza of “Identity Card” fills out the quarrier’s unhappy biography: his occupation and physical traits (“hands hard as stones”), his family history and village of birth (“Remote, forgotten,/ its streets without names”). The monologue ends with a warning directed at the Israeli official and his government: “Beware my hunger/ and my anger!”

Critics have puzzled over this small poem’s enormous popularity. At the time it was published, poets in Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo were writing verse of great sophistication, combining an avant-garde fondness for obscurity and metrical experimentation with themes drawn from Greek and Near Eastern myth. By comparison, Darwish’s poem seems crude. Many fellow intellectuals, and even Darwish himself in retrospect, wondered if “Identity Card” wasn’t a collection of sound bites rather than a poem. Its assertion of Arab identity, thrown in the face of a hostile authority, was admired as a political gesture, yet the poem seemed to lack the necessary complication of literature.

The complications of “Identity Card,” as with so much of Darwish’s early poetry, are found not in its verbal texture but in the ironies of its imagined situation.
I'm not interested in declaring whether "Identity Card" is good or bad. Nor am I necessarily all that interested in saying whether it is "a poem" or not. It's some text written in the context of poetry, by someone who called himself a poet, and called the work a poem. But the text is "unpoetic"; its intricacies "are found not in its verbal texture", but in its "situation", its "political gesture", told through its "assertion of Arab identity". Its features, the reasons people give for liking the poem (even, apparently, the poet himself) are prose features, features built around the content (the signifieds) of the text and the (narrative, historical) context of it being said; it functions no differently than a short story.

This doesn't say anything about how worthwhile the poem is, how effective or meaningful a piece of political rhetoric it was, or whether it can legitimately be called "a poem". But when we read the poem, we appreciate it using the same facilities, so to speak, that we do when we read prose; we do not get as much out of it by paying attention to the "verbal texture" or any of the other features that seem particular to poetry. Or, at least, I don't. When I read that poem, I feel the poetry-reading parts of my brain failing to light up. And, again, it is being described as "unpoetic", so perhaps I am not completely idiosyncratic for thinking that. At the same time, I'm always stressing that that part of the brain lights up when dealing with things that aren't typically considered poetic. But there are many ways that people seem to mean "poetic" or "poem" or "poetry" or "poet". I just want to point out the one I'm talking about when I use such terms. It is, perhaps, limiting in some senses, but it also invigorates the term in other ways; it aligns the sense of what poetry is and where it lies in a way that has almost nothing to do with what appears in books called "poetry books" but which draws parallels across huge swathes of experience, and encourages us to take poetic delight where we can find it. That seems far more interesting and productive, to me, than the hustle and bustle of whatever these hastily-appointed people called "poets" happen to do (or forget to do).

Also, as it happens, "Identity Card" appears to be a reasonably translatable poem. (But then, the article later suggests that the refrain of the poem is a translation itself, of actual words spoken by Darwish in Hebrew, translated into Arabic...)


  1. khrushchevinlove said...

    As a quick note, to say that "the text is 'unpoetic'; its intricacies 'are found not in its verbal texture', but in its 'situation', its 'political gesture', told through its 'assertion of Arab identity'" seems to me as problematic as insisting that The Internationale is "unanthemic" because it does not involve a nationalistic political gesture, because it (may) involve(s) a rejection of national identity rather than its assertion, etc., etc.; to suggest that a text may be unpoetic because "I feel the poetry-reading parts of my brain failing to light up" looks to me like asserting The Internationale is unanthemic because one's heart doesn't fill with national patriotism when one sings it. (Or, which, maybe you're fine with! But it seems to me like an odd set of lines to draw.)

    Or, that's how it strikes me. But this seems a liminal case - our mileage with one-another's borders may vary.  

  2. Chris said...

    If you're asking "How do national anthems go about promoting the nations in question?" then "The Internationale" at first seems irrelevant because, although it has been asserted to be an anthem, it isn't about a nation, whereas that old Dr. Pepper song ("I'm a Pepper, she's a Pepper.... Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too?") is suddenly revealed to be a national anthem of sorts. Although I would that "The Internationale" does offer a nationalistic gesture -- it promotes union between a set of people against another set of people (namely, tyrants). But is "The Star-Spangled Banner" an anthem? Well, barely, and it takes a couple of verses to really get to the anthemic bits, to stop being "just a lot of questions written during a fire", as Laurie Anderson put it. And The Star-Spangled Banner's use of the "unanthemic" as an anthem might be telling in interesting ways, just as Darwish's use of the "unpoetic" might achieve certain "poetic" effects in context (akin to "bringing up the house lights" in the middle of a play?).

    But yes, this is a liminal case, and I'm trying to trace out the borders I'm using, so that you know whether anything I say applies to how you're thinking about the world, or not. I'm not saying people who disagree with me are wrong, just different.  


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