Ambiguity

From Adonis, Zaman al-Shi‘r, 6th Edition (London: Dar al-Saqi, 2005)

1.

"Modern poetry, and most especially your poetry, is opaque." So says a reader who might stand in for many others, including some who write poetry. It is a common sentiment, even a cliché. Accordingly, there must be something that allows for this phenomenon. How do we explain it? What does it signify?



2.

First, the statement implies a condemnation of ambiguity. That is, it privileges clarity. But anyone who considers poetry to be one of his primary concerns knows this: in poetry ambiguity is not in itself a fault; nor is clarity in itself a virtue. On the contrary, ambiguity is a rich and profound signifier. A classical Arab critic alert to this fact once said, "The best poetry is that which is opaque." If ambiguity were a fault, then humankind would lose much of the best poetry it has produced.

Second, this way of speaking combines the particular oeuvre of an individual poet with modern poetry writ large. If we wish to be precise in our critique and judgment, we should not speak sloppily about modern poetry. Rather, we should speak about particulars, defining the poets and works in question. The term "modern poetry" includes levels and experiments and modes that diverge from one another so much that they sometimes contradict one another. In other words, it is a mistake to try to place all modern poetry in a single basket.

Third, this way of speaking points to something of which the speaker is seldom conscious. When we describe the work of a poet as modern what we mean is that there is a separation between it and older works of poetry. Each evaluation of the modern that does not proceed from a realization of this division is a mistaken one. What is at stake then, before all else, is to understand this distinction. What is it?



3.

The classical Arab poet lived in a clear, composed world. Everything in it is explicit, spelled out—from how to wash one's hands and feet to what will happen to a person in the afterlife. This world was founded on absolute, conclusive truths and on a faith founded on these truths. That world's poetic core was more of an intellectual-mental kind than of a psychological-emotional kind. Instead, the intimate emotional world was repressed, restrained. For this reason, the poet would proceed on the whole from ready-made thoughts and concepts. In other words, he would relate concepts that were already there before him, elaborating on them, revising them. Following this, the reader would see in the work what he already knew, or what was already familiar. His criticism began from this question, "To what degree do this poet's concepts correspond with the concepts and things I know?" To the extent that the correspondence would be strong or valid, his judgment on the poetry would be positive, and so too the opposite.

In this way, classical Arab criticism took delight in the composition and crafting of poetry. Concepts and ideas, as al-Jahiz put it, were there on the market for the taking. And the work of the poet, following this logic, was not to grapple with ideas. Instead, it was confined to the shaping of ideas, or more correctly, to re-produce and re-shape ideas.

Thus the world of the classical Arab poet was prefabricated and certain. On the whole, his work was an image of (and for) order and certainty.



4.

But the developments that have occurred since then shook the image of the old world in the consciousness of the modern Arab poet. They also shook his ideas and modes of expression. There were no longer any absolute truths, nor fixed forms. Following this, the modern poet could no longer proceed from received ideas, nor from ready-made concepts. Instead, the poet began to question and to research, trying to create a new concept for his new world. In this way, the new poem no longer presented the reader with ideas and concepts—that was the stuff of the classical poem—but rather presented him with a situation or a space of imagination and pictures, of emotions and their associations. Poetry no longer proceeds from a clear and prepared intellectual stance, but it starts to emanate from an emotional ethos we might call experience or vision.

Because of all this, the modern Arabic poet begins from a view of poetry that departs from the classical one, and practices writing modes that diverge radically from the classical ones.

Here the modern poetic experiment forms a kind of break from the classical. That is, it created possibilities and potentialities for building a new image, a new theory for understanding humans and the world, and also new modes for expressing these things. For Arab society, this break began with Abu Tammam. His poetry caused a revolution which transformed the order of sign and concept, and with it, so changed the systems of expression and understanding. Classical critics referred to this transformative revolution as "the ruin of poetry." Moreover, it was said of Abu Tammam's poetry: "If this is poetry, then the speech of the Arabs has come to nothing." Criticism even went so far as to describe his poetry as being "antithetical to how the Arabs speak." According to this criticism, what Abu Tammam wrote was not Arabic poetry because it was not clear like traditional poetry.

Abu Tammam did not manage to bring about the kind of total revolution that was produced by the modern poetic experiment. Still, if he was accused of ruining the Arabic language because of his innovations, then what was said about him must also be said about modern Arabic poetry of this century: it amounts to nothing. But those who today embrace the sentiment that ambiguity corrupts poetry, should remember that Abu Tammam—the obscure, the corruptor—ranks among the very few who established the grandeur of Arabic poetry, and who created our poetic glory.

We should point here to the fact that this sort of break has happened, and will happen, in every community, in every age, whenever there is a transition from the dominant modes of expression to other, divergent modes. In the face of this break, readers always accuse the poet and the text of ambiguity.

Every creative genius appears opaque to most of his contemporaries. This is true not just now, but throughout history, among every people. And not just in art alone, but also in philosophy. In this way, we might call contemporaneity a veil that comes between creative geniuses and readers. But this veil is rent before the eyes of those who come after. Insofar as the text remains as it is, unchanging, the charge of ambiguity becomes a baseless accusation, a mask behind which hides the reader whose culture—whose palaces of culture—have become feeble. Behind it he hides his insistence on using an unchanging mentality to understand things that have changed.



5.

Ambiguous is how a reader describes a text that he cannot grasp, or that he cannot master in a way that turns it into a part of what he knows. Modernity here is the place of ambiguity. Modernity is a break in the chain of given assumptions whose inheritors insist must persist in their same form and parts. This rupture loses the reader who possesses no stock but the memory of what he has memorized along with blind imitation and rote habit.

This sentiment about ambiguity is a failure, the product of the reader's loss. It stems from his inability to grasp the difference between classical modes of expression and modern ones. It derives from his inability to comprehend the temporality of poetry. It stems also from judging the present moment by way of another moment that goes back approximately twenty centuries. It stems as well from a change in perspective, and being conscious of the dynamism of transformation.



6.

When, for example, you speak of sunsets, there will always be those who criticize you for being anti-sunrise. For this reason, I stress that I am not trying to propagate the idea of ambiguity. Apropos of this, I note that in our poetic life, there are charlatans who use ambiguity as a cover to hide the fact that they are incapable of creating anything. By the same token, I am not proselytizing for clarity. And here it's useful to note that there are hucksters who use clarity as cover to hide the fact they are unable to create anything. I am not concerned here with ambiguity or clarity in themselves. Rather, it is creativity that interests me most.

I repeat, at the same time, that what is called, without critical justification, an aesthetic of the ambiguity of modern poetry is on the contrary, historically, a natural phenomenon. This goes back to the contrast in the structures in Arab society and the constant advancements of poetry, that engender a split between memory, custom and audience.

Here I take the side of the view that the question of clarity and ambiguity does not originate so much from a difficult poem or difficult work of art as it does from a stance that is poetic and ideological.



7.

This issue has deep roots in Arab society, for there clarity is a fundamental ideological principle. I will briefly summarize it in the following points.

First, among the ancients, there were no ontological truths that religious tradition had not already revealed. To this religious dimension, there is a literary counterpart: there were no artistic truths that the poetic tradition had not already uncovered.

Just as the religious source understands everything, so too does the poetic original comprehend all. How then could it be right for an Arab, coming later, to understand something that was not known from before? To write an ambiguous poem is to break with the known customary practices for writing poetry. When a poet does this, it means, according to the traditional view, that the poet is committing a heresy. He is going astray because he is claiming to discover something unknown. This is something that shocks the dominant consciousness because it contradicts tradition. How can a poet coming after Imru' al-Qays claim to know more in the way of art than the first source of that art? Contained in this claim is a skepticism about whether pre-Islamic poetry is an original that must be copied. It is also skeptical about whether that poetry is the standard for all.

Ambiguity, then, suggests that there are things the first poets did not know. Hence, it must be rejected. That a later Arab poet might realize things his forebears did not is a dangerous matter, one that could lead to imputing other sources to poetry, sources other than those that have been received. In other words, it could lead to a judgment against classical poetry, or a judgment that classical poetry has come to an end.

Second, since Islam, Arab society has lived in a world of complete certainty. And certainty on the theoretical plane brings about certainty in the practical realm. Thus it is necessary to transform everything into an instrument. It is for this reason that clarity became a first principle for asserting instrumentality with regard to the world of theory and speech.
The point of an instrument is to serve or benefit. This is because the instrument-tool is the closest thing, in terms of practice, to human beings. In this manner, poetry, the verbal weapon of the Bedouins, was transformed into an instrument serving the mind, not unlike how a spoon serves the mouth. The value of a tool-instrument lies in our trust and ability to rely upon it. It lies in the confidence we place in it: we lift the spoon to our mouth everyday without thought or effort. We wear shoes everyday without thought or effort. So too are we supposed to read and understand a poem: without thought or effort.

Third, the emphasis on instrumentality led the poet to become a savant, a composer of ideas, and an orator. Oration is a form of articulation that imposes on the speaker a distinctive rhythm, a directness, simple words and clear ideas. The art of attentive listening imposes these things. In order to persuade the listener, oration is stylistically and ideationally based on clarity. Oration can be propagandistic in nature (panegyric, boasting, invective, etc.), or it can be ceremonial (encouraging, goading, etc.). However, no matter which, oration is clarity. Insofar as oration affects, directs, and persuades, clarity realizes the illusion of controlling, or intoxicating an audience.

As for poetry's scientific character, it has to do with how Arabic poetry began, like every science, to describe reality in terms of minute detail and adequation, and its primary value became tied to its use and benefit. In this way poetry began to move within an intellectual-rational framework, that is, it became a kind of reiteration, a mold, a subject to study and apply, something concerned with presenting "the truth" more than something concerned with innovation and invention. Even the aesthetics of Arabic poetry became scientific—how to arrive at the best results with the fewest of means. This is what poetry's literary counterpart, prose, calls: "Brevity is eloquence."



8.

Ambiguity is therefore an ideological, not textual, issue. In this way, it is, on the one hand, a question of understanding creativity, and on the other, a stance vis-à-vis the inherited tradition. The modern poet is modern only on one basic condition: that he transcend the classical ideological-artistic position and all that it contains—the theory of poetry, the theory of creativity, and the critical standards that spring from them.

And then, the poet is a poet only on one condition: only insofar as he sees what others do not and that he discover and push forward. On the level of inner music and expression, there is a natural contrast between the poet and the reader. But that difference does not mean that each is cut off from the other in isolation. Nor does it mean that it's impossible for them to understand each another. Rather, it means they play very different roles. The difference between them is a form of complementarity that compels the reader to become another creative genius, another poet.

Here, we can understand how the reader who proceeds from memory, custom and received tradition, far from the spirit of constant advance and discovery, carries on in his thinking when faced with a poem as his body carries on when faced with a substance to consume: he does not consider himself the owner of the thing until he has consumed it. This kind of reader is good for everything but poetry.

From this angle, there is nothing that warrants the critical-aesthetic sentiment about the ambiguity of poetry, by which I mean real poetry. The person who attacks this poetry by calling it ambiguous attacks depth in order to hold onto the surface. He attacks the sea so as to stay on the water wheel. He attacks the forest, thunder and rain in order to remain in the desert.

Picture humankind or the world clearly. At that moment you will find nothing more than a horrible superficiality. In them, you will find no place for poetry.

translated from the Arabic by Elliott Colla



Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said, b. 1930) is one of the leading literary figures of the Arab world. The Syrian poet-critic is the author of multiple diwans of poetry. In the 1950s, Adonis cofounded the influential journal al-Shi'r, which called for experimentation in form and a fundamental, though negotiated, break with the 1,500-year-old Arabic poetic tradition. Adonis is arguably as important as a critic and essayist—and his writings have sparked wide and fiery debate among intellectuals. This is the lead essay of one of Adonis's most important essay collections, Time of Poetry, originally published in 1982. While Adonis's place in the field of Arabic letters is hotly contested—he has many detractors—no one would doubt the brilliance and originality of his thought and the impact it has had on the modern period. Much of his poetry, seminal to the emergence of modernism in Arabic, has now been translated. His criticism, which is arguably more important, deserves more attention and presence in English.

Elliott Colla teaches Arabic literature at Georgetown University. He is the translator of numerous works of fiction, including Ibrahim Aslan's The Heron, Ibrahim al-Koni's Gold Dust, and Rabai al-Madhoun's The Lady from Tel Aviv. He coedits the cultural page at Jadaliyya.