Robyn Creswell on City of Beginnings

City of Beginnings is an exploration of modernism in Arabic poetry, a movement that emerged in Beirut during the 1950s and became the most influential and controversial Arabic literary development of the twentieth century. Robyn Creswell introduces English-language readers to a poetic movement that will be uncannily familiar—and unsettlingly strange. He also provides an intellectual history of Lebanon during the early Cold War, when Beirut became both a battleground for rival ideologies and the most vital artistic site in the Middle East.

In what sense is Beirut a ‘city of beginnings’?

The three decades after World War II were Lebanon’s version of France’s trente glorieuses. The country enjoyed an astonishing period of economic growth, and Beirut was the chief beneficiary: it became the most vibrant and intellectually alive city in the region. This was also a time when regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were becoming less tolerant of dissent, and so intellectuals from all over the region—including Palestinian thinkers fleeing the Nakba of 1948—emigrated to Beirut. The state was relatively weak, meaning there was minimal censorship, and every intellectual and political tendency had its own base of operations (oftentimes a café). There were nationalists, Marxists, Baathists, pan-Arabists, existentialists, and modernists—the group I write about in the book. My title is taken from the Syrian poet Adonis, who was one of these immigrants to Beirut. He fled Damascus in 1956 and began a new life in Lebanon.

Who were the central figures of this modernist group?

I focus on three figures: Yusuf al-Khal, Adonis, and Unsi al-Hajj. Al-Khal was the editor-in-chief of Shi‘r [Poetry] magazine, the house organ of the Beiruti modernists, which published its first issue in 1957 and closed in 1970, after 44 issues. Al-Khal was also a poet, a critic, and a translator of English-language poetry, but I emphasize his work as an editor, which I think was crucial to the movement. It was al-Khal who defined the group’s mission and fixed its place in Beirut’s intellectual landscape. Adonis is probably the most significant figure of the group—the greatest poet and most prolific critic, as well as a discerning translator of French poetry (particularly Saint-John Perse and Yves Bonnefoy). My book looks closely at his signature collection of poetry, The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), as well as his work as an editor of the classical tradition, and his lifelong engagement with the genre of elegy—the Arabic marthiya as well as the French tombeau. The book’s epilogue juxtaposes his reaction to the 1979 revolution in Iran with the 2011 Arab Spring. Finally, I devote a chapter to Unsi al-Hajj’s collection of prose poems, Lan [Will Not] (1960), the most difficult—and to my mind the most exciting—of all the modernists’ books: a delirious evocation of adolescent sexuality and a work of radical religious skepticism. The book is one of those literary landmarks that we have hardly begun to read and absorb.

What did modernism mean to poets and intellectuals in Beirut at that time?

In a sense, it meant the same thing to them as it did to artists and critics all over the world. The post-war moment is one in which modernism goes global—I’d even argue that post-war modernism is the first truly global style of art. The various art movements of the early twentieth century—Futurism, Vorticism, Simultaneism, Suprematism, etc.—were local styles with significant but limited international circulations. You could argue that postwar modernism is essentially an American phenomenon, which, by virtue of the United States’ suddenly expanded reach, goes everywhere including Lebanon (a staunch US ally at the time). But I think that modernism after the war has two elements that distinguish it from earlier movements: first, a commitment to artistic autonomy, which typically meant freedom from political interference, especially by the state. This is a moment when writers all over the Arab world took for granted the virtue of combining literature and politics—Sartre’s notion of the engagé intellectual was a commonplace—and so the modernists’ insistence on trying to separate poetry from politics cut strongly against the zeitgeist. The second is a commitment to internationalism, not as an accident of circulation but as a fundamental constituent of artistic work—which, perhaps as a consequence, tended to favor abstract aesthetics (this is as true of the Beiruti modernists as it is of their contemporary, Clement Greenberg). This internationalist commitment also explains the group’s deep interest in translation. Shi‘r magazine published Arabic translations of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, Henri Michaux, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke—and many other European and American modernists.

You suggest that the American CIA played a role in disseminating this new idea of modernism. How so?

In 1950, the CIA set up the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) as a front group for its work of wooing European intellectuals away from Communism. Basically, the CCF was the cultural arm of the Marshal Plan, and it employed a familiar rhetoric of artistic freedom and international solidarity. Before it was exposed in 1967, the CCF set up a network of high-brow magazines—Encounter, Preuves, Der Monat, and others—and it sponsored dozens of conferences around the world, on topics like “The Future of Freedom,” “State Aid to the Arts,” and “Constitutionalism in Asia.” The story of the CCF in Europe is now well known, thanks to the efforts of historians like Frances Stonor Saunders, but its activities outside Europe are much less well understood (even though the so-called Third World was the focus of the Congress’s work after 1955). In 1961, the CCF held a conference in Rome, “The Arab Writer and the Modern World,” and all the Beiruti modernists participated, along with Ignazio Silone and Stephen Spender. My book tells the story of that conference in some detail—using the CCF’s extensive archives, housed at the University of Chicago—in an effort to understand what the American spies and Arab poets wanted from each other, what they had in common, and what ultimately divided them. It turns out to be an interesting story, with all kinds of unexpected ironies, and one that speaks to the history of Cold War liberalism in the Arab world more generally.

What was the effect of this movement on Arabic poetry?

I think the Shi‘r group contributed to a radical transformation of Arabic poetry. Some of this change was effected by their translation of foreign models of poetry into Arabic. Probably their most influential import was the prose poem (in Arabic qasidat al-nathr), which Adonis and Unsi al-Hajj began to write in the early 1960s, at the same time they were beginning to translate the poèmes en prose of Perse and Antonin Artaud. Many Arab critics at the time rejected the form as a French affectation, but lot of young poets took to it and by now it has become almost an orthodoxy. The modernists also undertook a thoroughgoing revision of the classical literary heritage (in Arabic al-turath). If you look at the 1400-year history of Arabic poetry with the modernist idea that poetry and politics are separate and even incompatible activities, then you arrive at a very different idea of that tradition from the standard one. This is what Adonis did over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, when he turned toward the Arabic turath to uncover buried or marginalized “modernist” counter-traditions within the classical past. Like many modernists, the Arab modernists were also archaeologists.

What can readers who aren’t familiar with Arabic literature learn from your book?

I wrote my book with just that audience in mind, though of course I intend it to be of interest to experts as well. I think the tradition of Arabic poetry is one the world’s great literary traditions, and hope my book can suggest some of the ways that it lives on, sometimes very powerfully, in the present. The story of the Shi‘r group is a fascinating one, which wends its way through so many of the highways and byways of twentieth-century thought, both political and artistic—nationalism, liberalism, philosophical personalism, aesthetic abstraction, Islamism, and others. I also hope that for those who are familiar with modernist movements in Europe, America, and elsewhere, my book will help them to read and examine those traditions with new eyes.

Robyn Creswell is assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a former poetry editor at the Paris Review. His writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s Magazine, among many other publications. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Tongue of Adam and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell” and “Notes from Prison.”