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date: 01 July 2022

Form and History in Modern Arabic Poeticsfree

Form and History in Modern Arabic Poeticsfree

  • Huda FakhreddineHuda FakhreddineDepartment of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania


Modern Arabic poetic forms developed in conversation with the rich Arabic poetic tradition, on one hand, and the Western literary traditions, primarily English and French, on the other. In light of the drastic social and political changes that swept the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century, Western influences often appear in the scholarship on the period to be more prevalent and operative in the rise of the modernist movement. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental forces that drove the movement from its early phases is its urgent preoccupation with the Arabic poetic heritage and its investment in forging a new relationship with the literary past. The history of poetic forms in the first half of the 20th century reveals much about the dynamics between margin and center, old and new, commitment and escapism, autochthonous and outside imperatives. Arabic poetry in the 20th century reflects the political and social upheavals in Arab life. The poetic forms which emerged between the late 1940s and early 1960s presented themselves as aesthetically and ideologically revolutionary. The modernist poets were committed to a project of change in the poem and beyond. Developments from the qas̩īdah of the late 19th century to the prose poem of the 1960s and the notion of writing (kitābah) after that suggest an increased loosening or abandoning of formal restrictions. However, the contending poetic proposals, from the most formal to the most experimental, all continue to coexist in the Arabic poetic landscape in the 21st century. The tensions and negotiations between them are what often lead to the most creative poetic breakthroughs.


  • African Literatures
  • West Asian Literatures, including Middle East
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Poetry

For centuries, the qas̩īdah, a monometered, monorhymed poetic form defined by its tripartite thematic progression and rooted in the oral culture of pre-Islamic Bedouin Arabia, dominated the Arabic poetic landscape.1 Along with the Qurʾān, it “forms the literary and cultural foundation of Arab-Islamic civilizations.”2 The qas̩īdah persisted and adapted to the changing circumstances of Arab life, remaining relevant and effective in expressing its poets’ urgent concerns as well as connecting these concerns to the Arabic tradition and the Arabic language’s poetic memory. Until the early 20th century, the qas̩īdah remained the Arabic master poetic form, having proliferated subforms that developed into discrete genres such as the wine poem, the hunt poem, and the ghazal.3 Despite the dramatic rhetorical and linguistic innovations that took place in the qas̩īdah and especially at the hands of the Abbasid modernizers (muḥdathūn) of the 8th through 10th century such as Abū Nuwās, Abū Tammām, and al-Mutanabbī, the towering form of the two-hemistich line, monorhyme, and monometer, was never seriously challenged. Poetry in Arabic was ostensibly synonymous with the rules of prosody deduced from the long qas̩īdah tradition. The science of prosody (ʿilm al-ʿarūd̩) which was formulated in retrospect by the 8th-century philologist and grammarian al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad (d. 791) validated and established a definition of poetry based on meter, which was consecrated as the mark of poetry and the fence dividing it from all that was not poetry. This division was especially important due to the unique status of the Qurʾān which critics sought to preserve as neither poetry nor prose.

To preserve the status of the Qurʾān as a miracle and sui generis, sharp lines of distinction had to be drawn between poetry and prose, with the Qurʾān outside both categories. Thus, the intervention of the Qurʾānic text launched Arabic literary criticism and the ongoing meditations on what makes poetry and what makes its opposites or its others. This produced the established definition of poetry, succinctly and decisively phrased by the 9th-century critic Qudāmah b. Jaʿfar (d. 948) in his book Naqd al-shiʿr as “metered and rhymed speech.”4 This definition was adopted as an exclusionary prescriptive formula that persisted, although critiqued and challenged by every generation of poets that followed.

When the modernist movement in Arabic poetry was launched in the 1940s, it was seen as one of the most blatant and direct breaks with the continuity that makes Arabs who they are. And what most immediately and visibly announced this break was the tearing down of the towering qas̩īdah structure. However, it is important to note that the modernist movement is in fact multiple movements and trends that intersect and diverge.5 This view serves to upset the illusion of a monolithic “Arabic modernism” by breaking it down into modernist positions, varied intellectual and ideological motivations, and multiple visions and proposals for what the modern Arabic poem can be.

The Arabic modernist experimentations produced two main poetic forms or two proposals for the Arabic poem: the free verse poem (qas̩īdat al-tafʿīlah) and the prose poem (qas̩īdat al-nathr) which are best understood in contrast to each other. While formal issues and especially meter appear to be the main point of distinction between these two forms, they are in fact two distinct positions on issues that begin with the form of the poem on the page but reach far beyond that to broader political and ideological issues of identity, otherness, inclusion/exclusion, and relationship with tradition and its inherited cultural and literary institutions.

Most literary histories mark 1947 as the launch of modernism in Arabic poetry with the publication of the first two free verse poems by two pioneers of the movement, the Iraqis, Nāzik Malāʾikah (1923–2007) and Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb (1926–1964). However, the path to these two poems was paved by ongoing formal and structural experimentations which only came to a head in the first half of the 20th century.

Conversations with the qas̩īdah

As early as the Abbasid age, poets expressed frustration with the inherited poetic stipulations and challenged them in their works. A prime example of this in terms of motifs or themes is Abū Nuwās’s (d. 814) critical stance towards the motif of ruined abodes (wuqūf ‘alā al-at̩lāl). Abbasid poets sought to reformulate the motifs of the qas̩īdah to suit their times and poetic concerns. And thus, their poems offer a significant critical engagement with the qas̩īdah. Although there are no significant departures from classical prosody on the formal level of meter and rhyme, we can trace instances of frustration. One is the Abbasid poet Abū al-ʿAtāhiya’s (d. 826) famous statement, in response to critics who pointed out metrical errors in some of his verses, “I am above prosody (anā akbar min al-ʿarūḍ).”6 Abū al-ʿAtāhiya’s statement might not have been a call for abandoning meter altogether but an invitation to consider new meters or possible variations or amendments to the established one.

A decisive early phase of metrical experimentation occurs in Andalusia at the hands of the poets of the muwashshaḥ. The muwashshaḥ is a form of stanzaic poetry thought to have developed in Islamic Spain towards the end of the 9th century. The term muwashshaḥ refers to poetry composed on an expanded and varied system of metrics and rhyme based on the classical Arabic science of metrics founded by al-Khalīl b. Aḥmad. The muwashshaḥ form breaks the two metrical rules that govern the classical qaṣīdah: one meter and one rhyme. Composers of the muwashshaḥ shifted from one meter to another, employing variations on the classical meters (majzūʾ, mukhallaʿ . . .) or introduced new meters that did not exist before the Andalusian period. However, the most prominent feature of the muwashshaḥ is the multiplicity of rhymes. For the sake of rhyming, the composers allowed themselves license to deviate from the rules of meter and even grammar as well as use dialect and non-Arabic words.7

The muwashshaḥ offers an instance of experimentation in metrics relevant to modern poetic forms such as the free verse poem and the prose poem and their relationship to the Arabic tradition. Arab poets of the early 20th century, the Dīwān group and the Mahjar poets (diasporic poets, residing in the Americas), and the Apūllū group, composed muwashshaḥāt as, more or less, exercises in metrics and rhymes. The muwashshaḥ offered these pioneering poets a fitting space to think about the definition of poetry and its limits, about the sound and echo of Arabic poetry in a changing world, allowing them to anticipate or foreshadow the break which will later be brought about by the Free Verse movement in the 1940s.

More immediate and directly influential is the phase of experimentation and intense debate about the trajectory of Arabic poetry that took place in the first half of the 20th century. Against the neoclassical revival of the qas̩īdah at the hands of poets like Aḥmad Shawqī (1870–1932) and Ḥāfiz Ibrāhīm (1872–1932), several groups and poetry collectives appeared with new proposals for the relationship with the tradition and the path forward, both in the Arab world (the Dīwān School and Apūllū) and abroad (the Mahjar poets).

Neoclassicists or Shuʿarāʾ al-nahd̩a are a group of poets who returned to the model of Abbasid poetry in the golden age of Arabic poetry, writing imitations of poets such as Abū Tammām (d. 845), al-Buḥturī (d. 897), al-Mutanabbī (d. 965), Abū Firās (d. 968), and others. Most prominent among them is Aḥmad Shawqī who made the qas̩īdah and its language relevant to the concerns of modern life in Egypt and, later in his life, a platform for his anti-colonial stance. Shawqī succeeded in translating the qas̩īdah form for his times, invigorating it, and making it urgent and timely. The celebrated Egyptian singer Umm Kulthūm sang many of his poems which remain resonant and popular to this day. Shawqī also wrote several plays in verse and one play in prose titled Amīrat al-Andalus (The Princess of Andalus). His plays offer examples of his conversations with the history of the region and the Arabic literary tradition as is evident in Mas̩raʿ Kīlūbatrā (The Death of Cleopatra), Manjūn Laylā, and ʿAntarah, for example.8

Shawqī’s oeuvre is diverse and reflects not only his changing political views but also his experimentation in genre and form. Nevertheless, he was attacked by some of his contemporaries and accused of being a mere imitator or accomplished craftsman. One of the most scathing attacks came from the journalist, critic, and litterateur, ʿAbbās Maḥmūd al-ʿAqqād (1889–1964). Along with Ibrāhīm al-Māzinī (1889–1949), al-ʿAqqād coauthored a two-volume work of criticism titled al-Dīwān in which they bluntly criticized the literary scene of their time and rejected the conventions of the neoclassical school. The two were henceforth referred to as the founders of the Dīwān school. Al-ʿAqqād’s critical contributions were partisan and sometimes extreme.9 Nevertheless, he and his school paved the way for younger poets to challenge established forms and poetic taste.

Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān (1883–1931), the most prominent figure among the Mahjar poets, played an influential role as well.10 Although as a poet in Arabic he did not occupy a very high rank, his contributions display important experimentations especially in breaking away from the monorhyme and meter of the poem and the introduction of philosophical meditations influenced by Nietzsche and William Blake. His simple language, in poetry and in prose, had the most resonant effect in the works of later writers and poets in Arabic.11

The Jubrānic style was one of the seminal influences on the Apūllū group, a collective of poets in Egypt, otherwise referred to as the Arab Romantics. Aḥmad Zakī Abū Shādī (1892–1955), the founder of the Apūllū society and its journal Apūllū (1932–1934), encouraged the experimentations and initiatives of younger poets.12 He was interested in foreign literary influences as well as a larger Near Eastern and Mediterranean past in which the ancient Egyptian and the Hellenistic played as central a role as the Arab.13 The group was especially interested in English Romantic poetry and translated many examples of it in the periodical.14

The Apūllū group declared their belief in art for art’s sake; a very significant and ironically political stance in the turbulent historical moment of Egypt in the 1930s. Seen by their contemporaries as escapists, the Arab Romantics declared a return to the self, loyalty to one’s art, a refuge in nature, and a recoil from the world of men.15 They found in the English Romantics, and especially in Percy Shelley’s multifaceted persona, justification for that position and thus fashioned or perhaps distorted Shelley and other foreign influences in a manner appropriate for their project.16

Another important experimentalist was Lūwīs ʿAwad̩ (1915–1990). His seminal yet often overlooked avant-garde project Plutoland and Other Poems for the Elite showcases the wide range of innovation and experimentation which characterize the first half of the 20th century.17 The collection includes poems in meter, poems in prose, ballads, and sonnets. ʿAwad̩ writes in fus̩ḥa, Egyptian dialect, and English. Plutoland is the culmination of the interrogations of form and the meditations on the meaning of poetry and its limits that had taken place up to the point of its publication in 1947. However, ʿAwad̩’s experiments were harshly criticized by his contemporaries, such as members of the Dīwān School, and generally disregarded by the “pioneers” of the Free Verse movement such as al-Malāʾikah, al-Sayyāb, and Adūnīs (b. 1930). The later organized effort of the Free Verse movement overshadowed ʿAwad̩ and marginalized his contributions.

The poets and theorists of the first half of the 20th century consciously squeezed their experiences into an imposed timeline or narrative of development following the development of modernist movements in other more dominant traditions, particularly English and French. Thus, most literary histories identify

a compact Neo-classical period preceding a cramped pre-Romantic and Romantic periods, with a rushed Symbolism on the side, followed by a hurried, albeit deliberate and effortful theoretical phase that led to the first “modern” Arabic poems, the first Free Verse poems in 1947.18

While this timeline might be a useful academic tool, it exaggerates the Western influence and obscures the fact that these experiments and proposals for the Arabic poem were simultaneous and in conversation with each other and with the Arabic literary tradition. Moreover, this development narrative builds up the Free Verse movement as a dramatic break and a sudden arrival of Arabic poetry on the scene of world literature. A more realistic perspective is one that recognizes a long history of challenges and conversations with the poetic status quo resulting in the movement referred to as the Free Verse movement (ḥarakat al-shiʿr al-ḥurr) and its many proliferations in the late 1940s.

The two major modern poetic forms, the free verse poem and the prose poem, emerged in conversation with non-Arabic influences, primarily English and French. However, they developed in response to each other and with the Arabic poetic tradition more than their engagement with foreign influences. And even though the issue of meter might have been the initial point of distinction, the two forms later developed into much more than that, into distinct positions on language, political engagement, and the relationship with tradition and the non-Arab other, among other issues.

The Free Verse Poem: qas̩īdat al-tafʿīlah

The beginning of free verse in Arabic is marked by the publication of two poems in 1947, Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb’s “hal Kāna ḥubban?” (Was It Love?) and Nāzik al-Malāʾikah’s “Al-Kūlirā” (Cholera).19 In its early phases, all the poets of the movement were preoccupied with theorizing the movement to the extent that their poems often seem like exercises or applications of abstract ideas about modern Arabic poetry. In many ways, the theoretical dimension of this movement was established through the translation and import of ideas prior to the actual poetry. However, in their individual experiences, several of the major poets creatively and crucially engaged with the Arabic literary heritage, and much of their later poetry is much more subtle and complex. Several poets of the first generation of the movement, “al-rūwwād” (the pioneers), have written extensively about their views on poetry and their personal poetic experiences.20 These critical prose writings provide the theoretical backdrop which contextualizes much of the poetic output of the movement.

The two major critical works that summarize the tenets of the movement are al-Malāʾikah’s Qaḍayā al-shiʿr al-muʿās̩ir and the introduction to her collection Shaẓāyā wa ramād.21 In these two works, she formulates the theory of free verse poem in Arabic which is more accurately referred to as the tafʿīlah poem. The tafʿīlah is the single foot or metrical unit with which the different patterns of the classical meters are created.

Thus, free verse in Arabic does not correspond to the English term “free verse” or the French vers libre. Arabic free verse, as stipulated by Nāzik al-Malāʾikah, is poetry written on a variation of al-Khalīl’s prosodic system, which adopts the foot (al-tafʿīlah) instead of the two-hemistich verse (al-bayt) as its metric unit. A modernist poet has the license to use as many feet in a line as she chooses and to employ multiple rhymes. Many poets also chose to mix meters and composed their poems on feet from different classical patterns. Al-Malāʾikah finds the homogeneous meters that repeat the same foot more appropriate for the modernist poem. While she stresses the importance of rhyme, it is not as strict or uniform as it is in the qas̩īdah but rather becomes an organizational tool more closely related to meaning.22 The metrical freedom this system allows is relative. And thus, it is more accurate to use the term qaṣīdat al-tafʿīlah to refer to the works of these poets than it is to use the term free verse, especially since the term free verse, al-shiʿr al-ḥurr, is sometimes used to refer to the entire modernist movement and all the poetic forms it produced.23

Some of the most prominent poets who adopted, developed, and experimented with qas̩īdat al-tafʿīlah are Nāzik al-Malāʾikah, Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī (1926–1999), Adūnīs, Amal Dunqul (1943–1980), Saʿdī Yūsuf (b. 1934), Ṣalāh ʿAbd al-Ṣabūr (1931–1981), Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Muʿt̩ī Ḥijāzī (b. 1935), Khalīl Ḥāwī (1919–1982). The term Tammūzī (in reference to Tammūz, the Mesopotamian version of the Greek god Adonis) is often used to refer to a trend among the Arabic free verse poets who extensively employed mythological and religious symbols. They drew on three main sources: The Ancient Middle Eastern mythologies, Judeo-Christian and Qurʾānic narratives, and English-language poetry, particularly the works of T. S. Eliot.24 The myth of the dying god (Tammūz or Adonis or Christ) was central to their works and through it they expressed the desire to resurrect the Arab society from its stagnant condition. They saw in it an expression of their desire to revitalize Arab culture and society’s failing energies.25 Some poems which exemplify this Tammūzī trend are al-Sayyāb’s “Unshūdat al-mat̩ar” and “al-Masīḥ baʿd al-Ṣalb,” ʿAbd al-Ṣabūr’s “Mudhakkarāt al-Ṣūfī Bishr al-Hāfī” and “al-Dhill wa al-Ṣalīb,” al-Bayātī’s cycle of ʿĀishah poem, the works of Khalīl Ḥāwī, and much of Adūnīs’s early work, especially his collection Aghānī Mihyār al-Dimashqī.26

The term iltizām (political commitment) is also associated with the Free Verse movement, reflecting its engagement with social and political issues. The Arab world witnessed huge political and social changes in the first half of the 20th century. Ideas of Arab nationalism, Syrian nationalism, Marxism, and socialism were circulating among writers and intellectuals. The independence movements in different Arab countries had occurred and the new Arab states were trying to establish relationships with each other and with the still influential colonial powers. Two major events further enhanced a more socially and politically engaged approach to poetry: the Nakbah (the tragedy of Palestine) in 1948 and the Gamal Nasser revolution in 1952.27 And thus, in the early 1950s, the term iltizām became part of the idiom of Arab intellectuals, under the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of the engaged writer which gained traction in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The urgency of the political and social situation imposed itself with great force on the poetry of the period which was preoccupied with issues of social struggle, class struggle, and independence.28 The Lebanese journal Al-Ādāb founded by Suhayl Idrīs (1925–2008) in 1952, announced itself as the Nasserite platform for “committed literature” (al-adab al-multazim).

A major extension of committed poets are the Palestinian poets who are also known as “poets of resistance” (shuʿrāʾ al-muqāwamah), most prominent among them are Maḥmūd Darwīsh (1941–2008) and Samīḥ al-Qāsim (1939–2014). In the 1970s, the term “poets of resistance” was extended to include Lebanese poets who addressed the struggle against Israel in southern Lebanon. They are sometimes referred to as the poets of the South (shuʿrāʾ al-janūb); this group includes poets such as Muḥammad ʿAli Shams al-dīn (b. 1942), Ilyās Laḥḥūd (b. 1942), Ḥasan al-ʿAbdallāh (b. 1945), Shawqī Bazīʿ (b. 1951), Jawdat Fakhr al-dīn (b. 1953), among others.29 The majority are tafʿīlah poets. Most poets included under the banner of iltizām object to the reduction of their poetic careers to just that. Most notable here is Darwīsh who, in later works, expressed frustration with labels such as poetry of resistance or commitment as well as qas̩īdat al-tafʿīlah and qas̩īdat al-nathr. His metapoetic concerns came to the foreground in later works, such as in his collection Lā taʿtadhir ʿammā faʿalt and the collections after it.30

Many poets found the stipulations of the Arabic free verse as formulated by the pioneers of the movement, and particularly Nāzik al-Malāʾika, restricting and arbitrary. For example, the Egyptian critic Muḥammad al-Nuwayhī (1917–1980) criticized her ideas on prosody, calling for a shift in Arabic poetry from the quantitative tafʿīlah system to an accentual system like English poetry.31 However, the most obvious and lasting response to the free verse poem and its perceived restrictions came in the form of the Arabic prose poem (qas̩īdat al-nathr) and the collective of poets who were members or affiliates of the Shiʿr journal, founded in Beirut in 1957 by Adūnīs and Yūsuf al-Khāl (1917–1987).

The Prose Poem: qas̩īdat al-nathr

The Arabic prose poem is more comparable to the French and English free verse poem than it is to the French and English prose poem. Prose poets in Arabic often write lineated, lyrical, short or long pieces as well as block texts which might contain elements of narrative or not. Arabic prose poems vary in length, some are short and contained while others are long, sometimes divided into sections or sub-poems. What they all have in common is their abandonment of all metrical requirements. The prose poem is the first poetic form in Arabic which insists on being a poem outside the purview of meter.

Meter in this context has ideological significance. When Nāzik al-Malā’ikah insists: “there is no poetry without the meter,” she is announcing it as a maker of an Arab nationalist or pan-Arabist stance.32 Meter here becomes the banner of nonnegotiable and violently exclusive identities, as Robyn Creswell puts it.33 And, the insistence on the possibility of poetry in Arabic outside meter becomes a rejection of that stance and a clear signaling of a liberal, internationalist, cosmopolitan, and anti-nationalist posture, such as that adopted by the proponents of the prose poem in its early phases.34

In 1960, two manifestos announced the Arabic prose poem and theorized it: Adūnīs’s “fī qaṣīdat al-nathr” and Unsī al-Ḥājj’s (1937–2014) introduction to his collection Lan.35 These two formulations of the Arabic prose poem take cues from Suzanne Bernard’s 1959 book Le poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu’à nos jours (The Prose Poem from Baudelaire until the Present), and from translations of French and English poetry into Arabic, notable among them is Adūnīs’s translation of Saint-John Perse’s long prose poem Amers.36

Although incidents of blurring verse and prose appear in Arabic literature in pre-Islamic prose, the Qurʾān, and Sufi writings to the experimental writings of the first half of the 20th century, these instances did not constitute a distinct genre until the introduction of the term prose poem (qaṣīdat al-nathr) by Adūnīs as a translation of Baudelaire’s poème en prose.37 The term itself created a critical dilemma and launched an alternate trend in the Arabic modernist movement in opposition to or in dialogue with the free verse poem. The Arabic term qaṣīdat al-nathr is contradictory and announces an impossible reconciliation of categories traditionally defined against each other in the Arabic tradition. What adds to the complication is that the only term for “poem” in Arabic is qaṣīdah. It refers to the genre-specific archetypal qaṣīdah, indicating the formal requirements of meter and rhyme on one hand, and the general poem, indicating any text that claims to be poetry on the other. It was not enough for the practitioners of the prose poem in Arabic to call their work texts or writings. They insisted on the term poem (qas̩īdah), thus deliberately, if not forcefully, placing themselves in the tradition of poem making in Arabic. By that, they were intentionally expanding the limits of what a poem (qas̩īdah) in Arabic can be.38

The emergence of the prose poem in Arabic led to heated debates among poets and critics. Some poets staunchly rejected any proposal for poetry without meter. Among the opponents of the prose poem are Nāzik al-Malāʾika who rejected the possibility of unmetered poetry and the Egyptian poet Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Muʿṭī Ḥijāzī (b. 1935) who called it the “dumb or mute poem.”39

Maḥmūd Darwīsh flirted with the notion of the prose poem but never admitted to writing it. Although he wrote several texts that can easily be labeled as prose poems, he deliberately chose to call them texts (nas̩ūs̩) or diaries (yawmīyāt).40 He was an active participant in debates about the prose poem although everything he presented as poetry is metered and fits into the model of qas̩īdat al-tafʿīlah. His deliberate creation of generically evasive writings points to a search for the poetic that transcends these ready-made prescriptions. In Athar al-farāshah, Darwīsh states that poetry is that which once read or heard drives us to say, “This is poetry and there is no need for proof.”41 His contributions to the debate on the prose poem expose the limits of genre categories.

Adūnīs, who is one of the pioneers of the free verse poem, is, at the same time, one of the founders and theorizers of the prose poem. He is also one of the first to criticize the prose poem in Arabic practice.42 His prose poems are some of the most daring and experimental. His seminal contribution is Mufrad bi-s̩īghat al-jamʿ (Singular in Plural Form), a book-long poem that he continued to revise and edit until 1988.43

The Arabic prose poem in practice is as varied and as diverse as its practitioners and their social, political, and ethnic backgrounds. And, while it has been associated with marginal and underrepresented voices in Arab societies, it is difficult to see its poets as constituting a coherent trend or school. The first generation of prose poets in Arabic includes Adūnīs, Unsī al-Ḥajj, Fuʾād Rifqah (Lebanon, 1930–2011), Muḥammad al-Māghūt (Syria, 1934–2006), Shawqī Abī Shaqrā (Lebanon, b. 1937), among others. The later generation includes names such as Paul Chāwūl (Lebanon, b. 1942), Sargūn Būlūs̩ (Iraq, 1944–2007), ʿAbbās Bayd̩ūn (Lebanon, b. 1945), Qāsim Ḥaddād (Bahrain, b. 1948), Muḥammad Bannīs (Morocco, b. 1948), Wadīʿ Saʿādah (b. 1948), Mus̩if al-Wahāyibī (Tunisia, b. 1949), Salīm Barakāt (Syria, b. 1951), ʿAbd al-Munʿim Ramad̩ān (Egypt, b. 1951), Bassām Ḥajjār (Lebanon, 1955–2009), and ʿAbdū Wāzin (b. 1957).

Not all poets included under the banner of the Arabic prose poem are exclusively committed to it. Many alternate between prose (nathr) and verse (tafʿīlah) in their poetic oeuvres. Poetry at the intersection of the prose poem and verse poem invites examination of the meaning and poetic function of meter in this context and the consequences of deliberately abandoning or employing it.

Al-Bayānāt, a volume containing three manifestos by Adūnīs, Muḥammad Bannīs, and Qāsim Ḥaddād with his coauthor, the novelist and short story writer Amīn Ṣāliḥ (b. 1950), was published in 1993.44 In it, Adūnīs revises his earlier influential modernist manifesto (“Bayān al-ḥadāthah”) which was first published in 1979 and offers an important review of the movement in retrospect. Moreover, the three manifestos collectively conceptualize the notion of poetry as writing (kitābah), beyond any formal or structural deliberation. The manifestos build on the prose poem project’s failures and successes and introduce kitābah as a kind of poetic writing that surpasses qaṣīdat al-tafʿīlah and qaṣīdat al-nathr in its liberation from the prescriptive approach to poetic form. Here, note a return to the notion of poetry as a linguistic event; a harkening back to views voiced by premodern critics such as Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (d. 1023) and ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 1078) who understood the poetic as an effect of language regardless of form.45

Further Reading

  • ʿAbbās, Iḥsān. Ittijahāt al-shiʿr al-muʿāsir. Kuwait City, Kuwait: al-Majlis al-waṭanī lil-thaqāfa, 1978.
  • ʿAbdul-Hai, Muhammad. Tradition and English and American Influence in Arabic Romantic Poetry: A Study in Comparative Literature. London: Ithaca Press, 1982.
  • Adūnīs. Dīwān al-nathr al-ʿArabī. 4 vols. Jablah, Syria: Dār Bidāyāt, 2012.
  • Adūnīs. Diwān al-shiʿr al-ʿArabī. 3 vols. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Fikr, 1986.
  • Adūnīs. Siyāsat al-shiʿr: dirāsah fī al-shiʿrīyah al-ʿarabīyah al-muʿāṣirah. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Ādāb, 1985.
  • Adūnīs. Al-Thābit wa-al-mutaḥawwil. 10th ed. 4 vols. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Sāqī, 2011.
  • Allen, Roger. The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Developments of Its Genres and Criticism. London: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • ʿAṣfūr, Jābir. Rūʾà al-ʿālam: ʿan taʾsīs al-h̩adāthah al-ʿarabīyah. Casablanca, Morocco: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 2008.
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  • 1. The qaṣīdah is often described as a tripartite form consisting of an amatory or elegiac prelude (nasīb), a desert journey (raḥīl), and a purpose (gharaḍ). This model originates from Ibn Qutaybah’s (d. 889) famous and often-quoted definition of the qaṣīdah. SeeʿAbd Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutaybah, Al-shiʿr wa al-shuʿarā’, ed. Aḥmad Muḥammad Shākir (Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1966), 20. Scholars have challenged this definition and have noted that it is better suited for the panegyric of the Umayyad age. Jacobi states that the tripartite form described in Ibn Qutaybah does not fit the pre-Islamic ode and “can only be applied to one of several types developed by Umayyad poets.” See Renate Jacobi, “The Camel Section of the Panegyrical Ode,” Journal of Arabic Literature 13, no. 1 (1982): 2. The dominant structure in the Abbasid age was bipartite consisting of nasīb and gharaḍ only. Stefan Sperl uses the terms “strophe” and “anti-strophe” to describe the bipartite Abbasid qaṣīdah. See Stefan Sperl, “Islamic Kingship and Arabic Panegyric Poetry in the Early Ninth Century,” Journal of Arabic Literature 8, no. 1 (1977): 31. Suzanne Stetkevych points to the specific uses of the journey section (raḥīl) when introduced in the Abbasid qaṣīdah. See Suzanne Stetkevych, The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender, and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 25.

  • 2. Suzanne Stetkevych, “Solomon and Mythic Kingship in the Arab-Islamic Tradition: Qaṣīdah, Qurʾān and Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ,” Journal of Arabic Literature 48, no. 1 (2017): 2.

  • 3. Jaroslav Stetkevych, The Hunt in Arabic Poetry (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2015), 144.

  • 4. “kalām mawzūn muqaffā.” See Qudamah b. Jaʿfar, Naqd al-shiʿr, ed. Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Munʿim Khafājī (Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat al-kulliyyāt al-Azharīyah, 1979), 64.

  • 5. See, for example, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, 2 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1977).

  • 6. Shukrī Fayṣal, ed., “Editor’s Introduction,” in Abū al-ʿAtāhiyah: akhbāruhu wa-shiʿruhu, ed. Shukrī Fayṣal (Damascus, Syria: Maṭbaʽat Jāmiʽat Dimashq, 1965), 34.

  • 7. See G. Shoeler, “Muwashshaḥ,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd ed.), ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs (Brill Online, 2016).

  • 8. Aḥmad Shawqī, Al-aʿmāl al-kāmila: al-masrahiyyāt (The Collected Works: Plays) (Cairo, Egypt: Al-Hay’a al-ʿāmma lil-Kitāb, 1984).

  • 9. Roger Allen, “al-ʿAkkād,” in Bearman et al., Encyclopaedia of Islam.

  • 10. The Mahjar poets are Arab poets in the Americas. The group in South America called themselves al-ʿUs̩bah al-andalusīyah (Ilyas Farhat, Rashid Salim al-Khuri, and Fawzī Maʿlūf). They were less extreme in their views than the more prominent group in North America who called themselves al-Rābit̩ah al-Qalamīyah. Some of the major figures of al-Rābit̩ah were Nasīb ʿArīdah, Mikhāʾīl Nuʿaymah, Iliyyā Abū Mād̩ī, and Jubrān Khalīl Jubrān. The Mahjaris were influenced by Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. Al-Rābit̩ah al-Qalamīyah announced its aims in the writings of Jubrān and more specifically in the manifesto of the group, Mikhāʾīl Nuʿaymah’s Al-Ghirbāl (The Sieve) which was published in 1923. For more on the Mahjar poets, see Paul Starkey, Modern Arabic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 61–64.

  • 11. Adūnīs, Al-Thābit wa-l-mutaḥawwil: baḥth fī-l-ittibāʿ wa-l-ibdāʿ ʿinda al-‛Arab, 4 vols. (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-ʿAwdah, 1974–1978), 4:188–191.

  • 12. Muḥammad Muṣṭafá Badawi, A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 202.

  • 13. Badawi, A Critical Introduction, 5.

  • 14. It is worth noting that most poets of this generation were initially introduced to the English Romantics through Francis T. Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury (New York: Macmillan, 1861). The anthology was widely circulated among the poets of the time. The Apūllū group were comprised of Arab poets who were inspired by the Western Romantics, mainly the English, and who published the journal Apūllū between 1932 and 1934. For more, see R. C. Ostle, “The Romantic Poet,” in Badawi, A Critical Introduction, 82–131.

  • 15. Starkey, Modern Arabic Literature, 75.

  • 16. See Mohammad Abdel-Hai, “Shelley and the Arabs: An Essay in Comparative Literature,” Journal of Arabic Literature 3, no. 1 (1972): 72–89.

  • 17. Lūwīs ʿAwaḍ, Blūtūlānd wa qas̩āʾid min shiʿr al-khās̩s̩a, 1st ed. (Cairo, Egypt: Mat̩baʿat al-Karnak, 1947). For more on Lūwīs ʿAwaḍ, see Mounah A. Khouri, “Lewis ʿAwaḍ: A Forgotten Pioneer of the Arabic Free Verse Movement,” Journal of Arabic Literature 1, no. 1 (1970): 137–144.

  • 18. Huda Fakhreddine, “The Aesthetic Imperative,” in Manifestos for World Thought, ed. Lucian Stone and Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2017), 148.

  • 19. Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, Dīwān, 2 vols. (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār ʿAwdah, 1971), 1:101; and Nāzik al-Malāʾika, Al-ʿamal al-shiʿrīyah al-kāmilah, 2 vols. (Cairo, Egypt: Al-Majlis al-aʿlā lil-thaqāfah, 2002), 1:498–500.

  • 20. For more on this generation, their biographies, and narratives of literary formation, see Ṣalaḥ ʿAbd al-Ṣabūr, Ḥayātī fī al-shiʿr (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-ʿAwdah, 1969); ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Bayātī, Tajribatī al-shiʿrīyah (Beirut, Lebanon: Manshūrāt Nizār Qabbānī, 1968); and Adūnīs, Hā anta ayuhā al-waqt: sīra shiʿrīyah thaqāfīyah (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Ādāb, 1993).

  • 21. Nāzik al-Malāʾika, Qaḍāyā al-shiʿr al-muʿāṣir, 1st ed. (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Ādāb, 1962); and Nāzik al-Malāʾika, Shaẓāyā wa ramād (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār ʿAwdah, [1949] 1971).

  • 22. Nāzik al-Malāʾika, Shaẓāyā wa ramād (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār ʿAwdah, [1949] 1971), 18–22.

  • 23. For more on the term al-shiʿr al-ḥurr, its various indications, its problems, and objections to it, see Ahmed al-Tami, “Arabic Free Verse: The Problems of Terminology,” Journal of Arabic Literature 24, no. 2 (1993): 185–198.

  • 24. Nazeer al-Azma, “The Tammūzī Movement and the Influence of T. S. Eliot on Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb,” Journal of American Oriental Society 88, no. 4 (1968): 627. Also see Adūnīs and Yusūf al-Khāl, trans., Al-Ard̩ al-kharāb (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Majallat Shiʿr, 1958).

  • 25. al-Azma, “The Tammūzī Movement,” 671.

  • 26. Adūnīs, Aghānī Mihyār al-Dimashqī (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Majallat Shiʿr, 1961).

  • 27. Badawi, A Critical Introduction, 207–208.

  • 28. For more on the political backdrop of the modernist movement, see chapters 1 and 2 of Robyn Creswell, City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

  • 29. See Yasmine Khayyat, “Southern Counterpublics: The Poetics and Politics of South Lebanon’s Ruinscapes,” Journal of Arabic Literature 45, no. 2–3 (2014): 169–217. The term “poets of the south” is still operative although many of the poets it includes do not subscribe to it. The label only reflects a thematic dimension of an early phase in their careers. Their poetic projects have developed in varied ways which challenge this grouping.

  • 30. Maḥmūd Darwīsh, Lā taʿtadhir ʿammā faʿalt (Beirut, Lebanon: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2004).

  • 31. See Muḥammad al-Nuwayhī, Qad̩iyyat al-shiʿr al-jadīd (Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-fikr, 1964).

  • 32. al-Malāʾika, Qaḍāyā al-shiʿr, 191.

  • 33. Robyn Creswell, “Nazik al-Malā’ika and the Poetics of Pan-Arabism,” Critical Inquiry 46, no. 1 (2019): 92–93.

  • 34. Creswell, City of Beginnings, 9–11.

  • 35. Adūnīs, “Fī qaṣīdat al-nathr (On the Prose Poem),” Shiʿr 14 (1960): 75–83; and Unsī al-Ḥājj, ed., “Introduction,” in Lan, ed. Unsī al-Ḥājj (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Majallat Shiʿr, 1960).

  • 36. Suzanne Bernard, Le poème en prose de Baudelaire jusqu’à nos jours (Paris: Librarie Lizette, 1959). Parts of the book were translated into Arabic and published in Shiʿr magazine soon after the publication of the book in French. For more on the relationship between Shiʿr group and Shiʿr magazine and the rise of the prose poem, see Otared Haidar, The Prose Poem and the Journal Shiʿr: A Comparative Study of Literature, Literary Study, and Journalism (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2008); and Saint-John Perse, Manārāt, trans. Adūnīs (Damascus, Syria: Dār al-Madā, 1999).

  • 37. Adūnīs, “Fī qaṣīdat al-nathr,” 75.

  • 38. Huda Fakhreddine, “The Prose Poem and the Arabic Literary Tradition,” Middle Eastern Literatures 19, no. 3 (2016): 243–259.

  • 39. al-Malāʾika, Qaḍāyā al-shiʿr, 219; and Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Muʿṭi Hijazi, Qaṣīdat al-nathr aw al-qaṣīdah al-kharsāʾ (Dubai: Majallat Dubay al-Thaqāfīyah, 2008).

  • 40. Maḥmūd Darwīsh, Dhākira lil-nisyān (Casablanca, Morocco: Dār Ṭūbqāl, 1987); Maḥmūd Darwīsh, Fī ḥad̩rat al-ghiyāb (Beirut, Lebanon: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2006); and Maḥmūd Darwīsh, Athar al-farāshah (Beirut, Lebanon: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 2008).

  • 41. Mahmūd Darwīsh, Athar al-farāshah, 226. This echoes al-Jurjani’s statement on poetry in Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz: “If recited, you sense in it something and you say: this is it.” See al-Jurjani, Kitāb Dalāʾil iʿjāz, ed. Maḥmūd Shākir (Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat al-Khānjī, 1984), 88.

  • 42. Adūnīs, “Bayān al-ḥadāthah,” in Al-Bayānāt, 2nd ed., ed. Adūnīs, Qāsim Ḥaddād, Muḥammad Bannīs, and Amīn Ṣāliḥ (Tunis, Tunisia: Sarās lil-Nashr, 1995), 55; and his article “Al-Irtidād,” Al-Ḥayāt [newspaper], April 7, 1994.

  • 43. Adūnīs, Mufrad bi-s̩īghat al-jamʿ: s̩īyāghah nihā’īyah (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Ādāb, 1988).

  • 44. Adūnīs et al., Al-Bayānāt.

  • 45. Al-Tawḥīdī states: “The best speech is one that combines subtle expression (lafẓ), delicate meaning (maʿnā), and shining beauty, and whose form (ṣūra) takes a middle position between poetry that is like prose and prose that is like poetry.” See Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī, Kitāb al-Imtāʿ wa al-muʾānasah, ed. Aḥmad Amīn and Aḥmad al-Zayn, 3 vols. (Beirut, Lebanon: Dār Maktabat al-Ḥayāt, n.d.), 2:145. Al-Jurjānī places the secret of the poetic in linguistic formulation (naẓm). He also states: “Meter has nothing to do with eloquence . . . It is not by meter that speech becomes superior.” See al-Jurjānī, Kitāb Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz, 474. For more on al-Jurjānī, see Lara Harb, “Form, Content, and the Inimitability of the Qurʾān in ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī’s Works,” Middle Eastern Literatures 18, no. 3 (2016): 310–312; and Lara Harb, Arabic Poetics: Aesthetic Experience in Classical Arabic Poetry (London: Cambridge University Press, 2020).