Among the Splendors

A few weeks ago I found a letter from Adonis in which he thanked me for translating two short poems by him that appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s most widely distributed English-language newspaper. He also stated that he had no objection to my request to assemble and translate a selection of his more recent work. The letter was sent on April 13, 1992. At the time I contacted Adonis I had translated most of his Celebrating Vague-Clear Things and felt empowered to go on with more work. However, I soon realized that this work, with the particularity of its Arabic references, could not stand on its own in English without much of the poet’s other work providing context. I also realized that to assemble a volume of more recent works I needed to work through at least 20 years of poetry. And, further, I had a ways to go before making any claims to being a poet myself. I could not bring myself to write the poet about my disappointing realizations, perhaps aware that he is accustomed to my kind of exuberant enthusiasm.

As I read more of Adonis’s work over the years, in the original and in translation, I felt repeatedly that only a large of selection of work could give a sense of the myriad stylistic transformations that he had brought to modern poetry at large, through his esthetic renderings of the cultural dilemmas confronting Arab societies in particular. Thirteen years after receiving his letter, and after completing several translation projects, I picked up Adonis’s collected poems and began to translate, this time beginning with the earlier poems. I did not tell the poet that I was working on his poems, as I was still unsure that I’d do him justice. I vowed to contact him only when I had a substantial selection to offer. In 2006, when I was about to begin translating ‘‘This Is My Name,’’ I was contacted by editors at Yale University Press who were interested in assembling the volume that I’d dreamed up way back in 1992. Furthermore, the editors said, Adonis had suggested that they contact me for the task. This was a chance that I did not want to miss.

Many questions arose as I began to contemplate the selection of work. Since a sizable representation of Adonis’s early work had been translated lucidly and lyrically by Samuel Hazo and Abdullah al-Udhari, I intended to minimize retranslation, if only to increase the total availability of the poet’s work in English. Shawkat Toorwa’s translation of A Time Between Ashes and Roses and Adnan Haydar’s and Michael Beard’s translation Mihyar of Damascus: His Songs—both from Adonis’s early to middle period—necessitated that I forgo all anxieties about repeat translation and forge ahead, selecting what I perceived to be the best of the poet’s work.

While keeping in mind a balance between his most critically acclaimed poetry with work that would show the continuum of his evolution as a poet, I also focused on what I could translate in a way that satisfied me as a reader of English verse. The matter of choosing was based on the English results, along with the goal of representing the majority of the poet’s books. And so, with only a few exceptions, all of Adonis’s seminal works are represented here. I hope that the arc of his development as a poet, and the continued broadening of that arc, are amply evident.

Avid readers in Arabic, however, will note that this selection includes no poems from Adonis’s second book, Leaves in the Wind (Awraq fi al-reeh), 1960. This book falls between the first selection of poems (First Poems) and Mihyar, the poet’s first significant early work, but does not seem to constitute a discernable development in the poet’s unique voice. Readers also may question the absence of Al-Kitab, Adonis’s three-volume, fifteen-hundred-page late work. Al-Kitab, as Adonis himself recently noted, ‘‘is very difficult to understand for someone without a very good grasp of Arab history.’’ How to excerpt such a work in a decidedly limited space was, at first, a beguiling challenge. Eventually, however, I became convinced that no small sample of Al-Kitab would offer an adequate sense of the work’s scope, and that the absence of the work is a better indicator of its magnitude than any reductive sampling of it would be.

The other gap is the exclusion of two of Adonis’s books published in this decade. Here my choices were more decisive. None of the five books that Adonis had published between 2003 and 2008 can be seen as a separate development in his sixty years of poetry, despite the range of subject matter. Each of these books can be seen as a deliberate recalibration of the poet’s voice, but to include them all would have overloaded the book and perhaps presented a lopsided image of the poet’s development. I have chosen three books that demonstrate the breadth of Adonis’s work and his voracious appetite for experimentation. Printer of the Planets’ Books, firmly reminding us of the poet’s roots and his continued attachment to poetry, has an intimacy that helped round out this selection.

In noting the stylistic and thematic variety of these late books combined, the reader will, I hope, see how open-ended and self-regenerative Adonis has been.

The language of modern Arabic poetry, especially when coupled with metrical elements, rings a few notches above middle diction. It can step into poetic or even archaic diction yet not seem to readers archaic or even too obviously allusive or overly self-conscious. Perhaps the last time English could do something akin to what Arabic poetry is doing today was in the hands of T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, a language that believed in its alterity and trusted its formal bearing. But what American poet now can mimic Eliot and Crane and not sound derivative? American readers reading Adonis, especially in ‘‘This Is My Name,’’ perhaps should try to imagine that his poetry has that formal high-modernist lilt.

As a translator and as a poet who only occasionally steps into formal diction, I felt that my own style and inclinations needed to be the base from which I would begin this project. I felt sure that as I translated more of Adonis’s poetry I would grow with the poet and develop a harmonious accommodation of style, listening to the words I’d chosen and comparing them with the literal meaning of the originals and trying to weigh them emotionally to find the appropriate tone and cadence. In this process I was aided by recalling a conversation I had with Adonis in which we briefly talked about his own translation process. I had asked him about the critics who attacked his work. ‘‘These critics claimed that I erred in the literal sense,’’ Adonis explained, ‘‘but I did not, I believe, make any poetic errors. That I could not allow myself to do.’’ I took this advice as a vision for this translation project, the most difficult one of the nine I have undertaken.

I have been asked often about translation approaches and strategies but have become increasingly mystified about how to answer. In essence, I am not capable of describing the methodology of this translation project or any before it, as I believe it is impossible to determine a method of translating a work, particularly one of poetry. As my old teacher Willis Barnstone astutely notes, deciding on one approach to translating a work will only prove frustrating. Sooner rather than later, the translator will end up breaking any promises he has made about his method or process. And determining what one’s approach had been after the project is complete is like trying to describe a long journey with a single episode in it. In this regard I take it for granted that these translations of Adonis’s poetry are neither literal nor so flexible as to stray from the literal content of the poem. The methods I have used to match fidelity with artistry are basically all the means I could muster.

Much of Adonis’s early poetry makes frequent use of rhyme, but I have not tried to replicate his rhyming. The same can be said for meter. Given that Arabic metrical feet are quite different from Western ones, I have not stuck to any metrical pattern, even when the poems are metrically composed. All the poems as rendered in English are free verse but with an attention to rhythm, musicality, and compression that I hope will please both the eyes and ears of English-language poetry readers.

This project could not have taken place without the help and encouragement of several friends and fellow poets. I am grateful to Larry Goldstein, Elisa McCool, Jessica Young, Alana Di Riggi, Tung-Hui Hu, Catherine Calabro, Rasheeda Plenty, Sarah Schaff, Elizabeth Gramm, Lauren Proux, and Charlotte Boulay for their incisive feedback on several sections of the book. Thanks also to Suhail Eshdoud for his assistance with especially difficult phrases. I am grateful to Shawkat Toorwa, Adnan Haydar, Michael Beard, and Alan Hibbard for the suggestiveness of their translations, which have informed mine. Finally, I would like to thank Adonis for entrusting me with this task, for making his time available to me, and for granting me the freedom to rove among the splendors of his work to choose among them. I hope that he and those familiar with his work find this volume a fair and judicious representation of his work.