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How Poetry Revolts: Islamicate Traditions of Poetic Revolution

Panel XI-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Revolution often conjures images of bodies pouring into the streets that converge in public squares as slogans of dissent and discontent rise above the crowds. However, the prevailing scene of revolution conceals other spaces of revolt, often more recondite than in rallies and protests. Poets are also known to stage revolutions, co-opting, reclaiming, rewriting, or rebelling against conventions. Traditions are reimagined as emergent poetic projects that endeavor to rewrite their own genealogies or establish new literary categories and regimes. Poetry’s rebellions are sometimes loud, overtly political stances which engage with current events of history as they unfold, and sometimes quiet, profound subversions of linguistic, critical and rhetorical institutions. This panel puts into conversation diverse Islamicate literary traditions across language, periodization, and geography to discuss revolution in poetic forms. Poets against committed literature are relocated to the center of revolution in a reprisal of modernist poet Yadollah Royai (1932-2022). Through close reading of formal and linguistic breaks from the Persian poetic tradition, and their political analogues, we arrive at the question: is poetry intrinsically revolutionary? Then, pausing over the word “revolution,” a philological inquiry into inqilab (Arabic, Persian, Urdu) reveals an epistemology of the heart that mediates between poetry as a form of knowledge and revolution as a mode of action. A theory of poetry and revolution emerges in the works of two modern Persianate poets, Khalilullah Khalili (d.1987) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (d.1984). Expanding on the phenomenology of revolution, the intergenerational poets between the pre-Islamic and early Islamic eras show how formal innovation drives epochal transitions. In the work of Tamim Ibn Muqbil (d. 689), poetry is the vehicle of religious conversion and the site of transition where identity and poetic form are negotiated. The final paper explores revolution as poetic practice in the compositional work of Umm Kulthum (d. 1975) who expertly draws from Abbasid poetry using highly selective curation. Here, revolutionary is the defiant act of creative rereading and conscious performance, rendering past traditions urgent and reviving their relevance in new mediums. By engaging multiple literary traditions this panel launches inquiry into revolution as a critical and analytic lens. What does the creation and sabotage of literary traditions teach us about poetry and the political? What is revolution across different poetic epistemologies? How are revolutions inscribed affectively in poetic form?
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Early Islamic poetry is a site of revolt and revolution. The period between the Prophet’s migration and the foundation of the Umayyad caliphate ushered in a new Islamic era that transformed the world of the past. The poets who survived this epochal transition or revolution respond to Islam as an object of orientation differently through various affective valances. Whether their response was compliance, hostility, or somewhere in between, poets negotiate their own positions and stage smaller, more intimate revolutions through the innovation of traditional poetic forms. This paper explains the poetic innovations of Tamīm Ibn Muqbil (d. 689) as the consequence of the felt experience of revolution. Ibn Muqbil is one of the Mukhaḍramūn: a poet who lived in both the pre-Islamic and early Islamic eras. For Ibn Muqbil, revolution produces anxieties and fears about a future of uncertainty as the world he once knew recedes in the distance. I argue that anxiety is reproduced at the level of form in Ibn Muqbil’s poem. Traditional motifs are repurposed to mourn an immediate past, not a mythical distant one but the present foreclosure of a potential future. Governing metaphors are dressed in the robes of Ibn Muqbil’s personal and intimate dilemmas that betray his own conflicted position toward the new Islamic ethos. Through poetic retrokinesis, the poem reorients itself toward the past, repeatedly ignoring formal dictates that conventionally guide the poem out of disorientation and into resolution. By studying Ibn Muqbil’s poem, this paper explores the space Arabic poetry produces to negotiate feelings, affects, emotions, and orientations during moments of revolutionary upheaval. Ibn Muqbil’s poem delivers a starting point of understanding the liminal plight of the Mukhaḍramūn and perhaps other iterations of incessant reorientations toward the point of separation across Arabic literary history.
  • What makes a poem ‘revolutionary’? On the surface, it seems simple: a poem that responds to political events such as revolts, movements, and revolutions. But, as this presentation will demonstrate, a poem can simmer with revolutionary without delivering an overtly political message through a poet’s deliberately radical deployment of technical features, such as structure, style, and syntax. Yadollah Royai (1932-2022), the founder of “Espacementalist Poetry” (She’r-e Hajmgerā), is one such poet who revolutionized medieval tropes of Persian mysticism through the subversion of Persian poetic forms. In his brilliantly evocative style, playing with linguistic ruptures, we see how a poem can become a multidimensional space where the poet both exists within - and moves beyond - multivalent representations of reality, inviting us to ask: Can poetry in itself be revolutionary? Reading between the lines in this way is essential to understanding the inextricable links between poetry and revolution as both an internalized, and externalized, process.
  • Umm Kulthūm is associated in the minds of her audience with something that is much more than song and entertainment. Her voice evokes the Arabic literary tradition, the Qurān, the homeland as a concept, and ideas about identity and history. For many people she represents that which is “authentic” (asīl). However, the motor force behind her project, its wide reach and deep impact, I argue, is her skill in making that tradition relevant and urgent. Umm Kulthūm was known for her extensive involvement in the selection and composition of the poetry and music she performed. Her repertoire is viewed as her own more than it is viewed as others’ texts and music which she merely sings or performs. She very often replaced words or phrases in a way that better fit her audience’s expectations. This paper is a close reading of the qasīdah-turned song Arāk 'asiyy al-dam' by the Abbasid poet Abū Firās al-Ḥamadānī’s (d. 968). Umm Kulthum sang this poem in three different renditions, accompanied by three different musical compositions, two of which have survived in recordings. The song is a cornerstone of her repertoire and continues to be performed today by young emergent singers. The discussion of this song will also touch upon other selections Umm Kulthūm made from the pre-modern tradition. These were often short compositions (maqtū'āt). One example is a playful and experimental short piece titled Qulī li-tayfik yanthanī, sometimes attributed to the Abbasid poets Abū Nuwās (d.814), sometimes to Dīk al-Jinn (d. 850), and sometimes to the later al-Sharīf al-Radī (d. 1015). As a critical and creative reader and interpreter of the Arabic qasīdah, Umm Kulthūm brought the high classical structure into the popular culture of the early twentieth century. By studying a sample of her selections from pre-modern qasīdahs, this paper showcases Umm Kulthūm’s understanding of the Arabic qasīdah’s structure and ethos, and her ability to activate this archetypal structure on a popular level through selection, abridgment, framing, and performance.
  • Taking the works of two modern Persianate poets, Khalilullah Khalili (d.1987) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (d.1984), both known for their participation in and support for various revolutionary struggles of the twentieth century, I explore their theorization of the heart (“qalb” or “dil”) as, at once, the seat of poetry and the seat of revolution. I argue that the central place of the heart in Faiz and Khalili’s poems manifests differently, but both displace an interior/exterior binary. Far from being a private, interior “organ of audition and comprehension,” “a cleansed heart” is for everyone to see and emulate. Heart is a shared space inhabited by poetry and revolution, a conjoining they achieve by improvising classical sufistic approaches to the heart’s place in revelation, pious action, and mystical ascension. How does ‘the heart’ facilitate an interaction between poetry as a form of knowledge, and revolution as a mode of action? How, as per Faiz and Khalili, do they come to constitute each other?