Out this month is a mini-anthology of modern Iraqi poetry assembled by ND Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail. This introduction appears in the book as a prefatory note.
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As I was putting together this mini-anthology, I learned something very exciting about the history of Iraqi poetry. But before I share my little discovery, I want to emphasize that what I learned relates not only to these fifteen poems but to the many other poems I read in making this slim selection. It was a nearly impossible task trying to pick only fifteen grains of sand from a shimmering desert. There is a saying in my country that if you throw a stone in Iraq, it will likely fall onto the head of a poet! In his poem “Nothing but Iraq,” Mahmoud Darwish writes, “For poetry is always being born in Iraq, so become Iraqi to become a poet, my friend.” Beginning in the 1940s, when the free-verse movement started in my homeland and gradually spread to other Arab countries, a major topic of discussion in the Arab literary world has been the “legality” or “illegality” of breaking the rules of classical poetry known as a’muudi. The metrical rules of a’muudi were set by Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad al-Farahidi in the eighth century. Al-Farahidi established sixteen meters of verse for poets to follow, each rhythmic pattern — called bahr or “sea” — included a hemistich in each line as well as end rhymes. Today, the free verse of Arabic poetry still makes use of rhyme, while the poetic line is open to more rhythmic flexibility without the hemistich and varies in length. The prose poem in Arabic has completely broken with classical forms. Writers of prose poetry have defended their work against accusations that “this is not poetry,” saying their poems contain a more organic “inner rhythm.”
What I discovered as I read more and more poems is that modern Iraqi poetry is a natural continuation of Sumerian poetry, and that classical a’muudi verse is in fact a tradition that branched from the river of Iraqi poetry. The words from Sumer in southern Iraq were our first cries of poetry, etched in a cuneiform script onto clay tablets, the lines unfolding in one long prose poem without rhymes but with an “inner rhythm.” The texts are shaped by a narrative, but the repetition of lines and the intensity of images are unmistakably lyrical. Most of the narratives are broken into fragments, though it is often impossible to discern if the fragmentation is intentional or due to missing or crumbling tablets. Sumerian poetry is inherently metaphorical, its metaphors naturally surfacing from primitive images and symbols used to convey complex ideas. The language lost some of its original metaphorical vividness as it evolved into Akkadian and other Semitic equivalents. In modern times the rediscovery of the writings of Sumer only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Features of Sumerian poetry reappear in the DNA of modern and contemporary Iraqi poetry. Its myths and symbols apparent in the writings of the pioneering poets Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, and these codes became indicators of modernity. Living in a state of continuous wars and massacres, Iraqi poets have often lamented the destruction of their country with a common opening plea: “O Iraq.” This longing directed to ruined cities was very common in Sumerian poetry. For instance, such pleas in one text titled “Lamentation on the Destruction of Ur” is directed sometimes to the place without naming it (“O my city,” “O my house”) and other times to named cities (“O Nippur,” “O Isin,” “O Eridu,” “O Uruk”). The “Lamentation” consists of eleven songs totaling 436 lines, the fifth and sixth songs describing the destruction of Ur as a “devastating storm.” Delving into our recent collective memory, one recalls that the First Gulf War was code-named Operation Desert Storm by the U.S. government. Both usages of “storm” were figurative as war was the real cause of destruction in both cases. The eleventh song is a prayer to Nanna to restore the Sumerian people to their homeland, Ur.
To feel threatened by the new forms of modern poetry was easier than bringing the dead back to life. The oral culture of Arab society contributed to the popularity of a’muudi poetry, which spread through recitation (ilqa’) rather than through reading. Many of the poets were illiterate and the strict meters carried their verses along. Some a’muudi lyrics are filled with playful rhythms and powerful images that, when chanted or sung, make listeners’ heads sway with the feeling of tarab (“pleasing to the ear”). The phenomenal singer Um Kalthoum popularized many of these tunes, as well as the poets of her generation who penned them. A’muudi poetry is also closer to the Quran musically, making it more familiar to Arab ears. The codes of the Sumerian poetic tradition were totally unfamiliar to modern-day Iraqis, even after they became readable. The pioneers and innovators of our new poetry were perhaps more influenced by the poetry of the Americas than by Sumerian poetry, but their fruits have the unmistakable taste of the Sumerian tree.