Awkward Saturday morning moments! I’m at the café, researching for this prompt, and there is a couple on a date next to me… the guy just got up to use the bathroom (I think), and the girl immediately called her friend on the phone to giggle about the way he talked. I don’t envision sparks flying.
Catching up on the world poetry prompt business again. I need to go to the NYU library and see if I can find a physical copy of the book on hainteny I want to use, because it is ever elusive online, and I really want to build a prompt around that form. For now, we’re skipping back over to the Middle East to talk about one of the most ancient forms of Arabic poetry; so I hope that will suffice!
(He’s back, and she quickly got off the phone. Oof.)
This week: “don’t give up the search”
The title of this prompt might seem a bit odd, but it stems from the meaning of the verb qaSada in Arabic, “to seek” or “to intend”. (Apologies in advance for only using some homebrew transliteration; I don’t have the patience to figure out all the embedded Arabic text coding right now.) Among the Arabic poetry forms, the qasida is one of the oldest, predating Islam and carrying a cultural tradition that has been uninterrupted for nearly 2000 years. The form’s influence reverberates through all the Arabic poetry that has come after it (most notably, perhaps, in the ruba’i), and also in the forms of other cultures (such as the ghazal). In the Arab world, the character of the form has changed several times, and while Persian qasaa’id* have been somewhat more prevalent in the historical record, we’re going to stick with the original concepts of the form.
* Note on terms here: under the assumption that most of the people reading this don’t read or speak Arabic, I’m hodgepodge-ing a lot of the terminology here. To be brief: qasida is pluralized qasaa’id, with the “q” like a “k” that’s deeper in the throat, an “s” that is deeper and “hollower” than usual, and the stress on that long “i”. And as always, a disclaimer: I am not a native speaker, so take this with a grain of salt. (Though I have studied the language, wrote my MA thesis on it, and I’m considering applying for a PhD on the subject. We’ll see!)
As with so many of these world forms, I need to start with a cultural note and a metrical note. Early Arab society strikes me as very similar to the Irish in the role filled by poets and their work: a combination of praise and satire, both supportive and critical of the tribe, with a healthy dose of mysticism and a higher level of acceptable bawdiness than would be appropriate in modern times. The poets kept the oral history of the family and tribe alive, and poetry slams (to borrow the modern term) were common. There is a common idea that all Arabic poetry must be rigid, religious, and uninspired, but nothing could be further from the truth. While the envelope may have been more difficult to push once Islam arrived on the scene, there is still a great deal of freedom in verse through the history of the region.
Bearing in mind the social weight of the position and the significant orality of the tradition, the structural complexities of these poems become doubly impressive. There are sixteen poetic metres (called biHaar, meaning “seas” or “rivers”) that are standard in the classical tradition, but we’re only going to cover four here, as I’m feeling merciful. “-” represents a long syllable, “u” represents a short one, “x” can be either, and “o” contains either one long syllable or two shorts:
aT-Tawiil: u-x u-x- u-x u-u-
al-kaamil: o-u- o-u- o-u-
al-hajaz: u–x u–x
as-sarii`: xxu- xxu- -u-
Important linguistic note: the phonology of Arabic is such that we are considering a “short” to be an open syllable (one that ends with a short vowel, and no consonant), and a “long” to be closed (ending with a consonant) or with a diphthong. English is a bit more flexible with these definitions, so use your judgment: in, be, and say might be short for your purposes, while songs, brow, and fear might be long. Arabic very clearly delineates short/long vowels, which makes it easier to follow the metre precisely. But let’s try a line of each type:
The night birds are stealing days away, with their crops and claws… (aT-Tawiil)
and the world’s forgotten her golden veil. In the eagles’ craws… (al-kaamil)
the moon plucked from the drowned deeps draws… (al-hajaz)
her memories close. Worries, frets– grasps at straws… (as-sarii`)
There are “feet” in the different metres above, but you’re not obligated to follow them rigidly. And you may also notice that the lines of the examples I gave all end with the same sound: because the qasida is indeed monorhymed. This, again, is easier in Arabic, and in English you might be forgiven for a bit of near-rhyme, but go for one of those easy to use sounds like “ay” or “ee” with hundreds of words that have the ending. Also, Arabic poetry doesn’t enjamb as much as English, but as we’re working in translation with a language that isn’t well-suited to the form, I think you’ll be forgiven for a bit of line breaking. One thing you shouldn’t do is mix metres in one poem, which I did just to show the different forms; you should pick one and carry it through the poem.
And how long is the poem, you may ask? Well. The usual qasida is over fifty lines, but if you want to take it easy the first time, try for thirty. What will help is that there are always three broad themes that categorize the form. First comes the nasib, a nostalgia-heavy telling of what has brought the poet to this time/place; the rahil, which uses the motif of travel and place to illustrate the poet’s feelings; and finally the message, which could take one of several forms. (According to one list, there are seven themes for a qasida writer to pick from: praise, lampoon, love, lament, simple description, self-glorification, or proverbial.) So, I might write something like this (in aT-Tawiil metre, samples from the three chunks):
The town grows no older: still, its body reminds me now
of mine. Hollowed-out, all skin and bones, hanging things. Its brow
is bending with sycamores in flames; it cannot allow
some prodigal, feet rubbed raw, to strive for a single bough…
…but turn back. The same gate waits: unlock it, remember how
outside seemed so clear, unmapped. A sloped star impels you now…
They told me, you can’t go home again. But the creeping house
awaits with a winking window. Hush, heart: and open now.
Three more notions to close this prompt with. You’ll notice I did some repetition and near-rhymes. This is okay, although it’s best not to wiggle out of the constraints you’ve set yourself too much. And if you want to spin the prompt further, check out this qasida that appeared in Goblin Fruit, which shows a pretty idiosyncratic approach to the form that works beautifully. (If you need more thoughts on meter, check out this essay by Hazel Scott.) Second, unlike a lot of forms we’ve looked at, please please please use metaphor, alliteration, assonance, personification, and all the other tricks you learned in English but then got immediately dissuaded from using. Language is an adventurous romp in Arabic poetry: there’s so much wordplay, innuendo, and imagery that it’s like a piñata of verbal jewelry. And lastly, do go exploring for some of the classical poets. While it’s true that a lot of what you’ll find will be religious poetry (at least on the surface) like the Qasida of the Mantle, and poems that can’t be understood outside of the cultural context, you can also ask the kids to leave the room and look up “Abu Nuwas”. Maybe your explorations themselves can even form the thematic basis of a poem?
However you slice it, do come back and share. These poems were meant to be bounced off each other, so let’s honor that tradition and see what happens.